Moorea – Circling a Beautiful Island
In the last post on this Adventures Abroad tour of French Polynesia we got out on the waters off Moorea with internationally renowned dolphin researcher Dr. Michael Poole. Aside from watching spinner dolphins we got to see what an incredibly beautiful island Moorea is, particularly with views like this of Mount Rotui, the razor sharper peak that is Polynesia’s answer to the Matterhorn.
In this post we’ll take a different perspective, touring Moorea by bus on the highway that completely encircles the island.
This is a road map of Moorea and you can see the road in red that closely hugs the coast. There are only a couple of side roads that make any effort to penetrate the interior of the island.
Our bus arrives at the Manava Beach Resort promptly on time with our guide Tohivea (Tohi) Haring, a handsome young man whose family has been providing services for tourists to Moorea for generations – that’s not Tohi in the picture.
Although on the map it looks like it’s a long way around Moorea, the total distance is only 60 kms. (36 miles), but we will have a side trip on one of the few roads leading into the interior. We begin our journey in Maharepa on the northeast coast of the island and will travel in a clockwise direction. So let’s hop on board and get going.
Our first stop is at Toatea Belvedere, one of the few places where the highway veers away from the coast and rises a hundred feet or so providing great views of the clear and shallow aqua waters that lie between the coral reef that surrounds the island and the shoreline. The darker blue waters where the sailboats are moored indicates greater depth. The over water cottages are part of the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort which is one of those places that if you have to ask how much it costs to stay there, you can’t afford it.
Just as I loved the views of Moorea from Tahiti so they are reciprocated here, albeit with a little too much cloud cover this morning.
There is this plaster model of Moorea at the Toatea stop with a yellowish creature clinging to it. The name Moorea means yellow lizard in Tahitian based on this legend and this is clearly one of the yellow geckos that are common to the island. And yes, geckos are lizards and not just insurance salesmen.
Not far past the Toatea Belvedere Tohi points out the Sleeping Woman formation complete with a hole in the rock below her nose.
Our next stop is at the Church of the Holy Family, the oldest Catholic church on Moorea, built in 1897. I cannot help but notice that the twin spires mirror the two natural ones behind it.
Beside the church is a great example of syncretism which is the mixing of traditional religious beliefs i.e. so-called ‘pagan’ and those imposed by later more powerful conquerors, usually Christian but also Muslim in some cases. I have always been fascinated with this process whereby the multiple gods of the Indigenous people are not quite replaced by the ‘One True God’. Here we have the Christian cross lording over a moia of the traditional Polynesian religion. Whether this is intentional or not, I am unable to determine.
Not to far from this church in Haapiti we stop at another one which has a beautiful setting on the shores of a sheltered cove. This one has, to me at least, a much more sinister past. This is the Papetoia Protestant Temple which has its origins in Protestant missionaries who arrived here in 1822 to convert the ‘heathens’. It is the oldest continuous Christian church in all of Polynesia although the admittedly very pretty octagonal church dates from the late 1800’s.
The reason I say this church has a sinister past is that the missionaries built it right on top of the the largest and most important marae in Moorea. Their intentions were to literally and figuratively stamp out the old gods and replace them withe the new one. This is a practice almost as old as religion itself.
This is a shot of the interior.
Beside the church there was a small area where a few native craftsmen had their wares on display, but there were no other customers than us. Apparently the cruise ships send people ashore in zodiacs when they are in the neighbourhood, but since Covid the numbers of potential customers has declined drastically. This didn’t seem to bother the locals, most of whom had their instruments and were enjoying a singalong, something that we would see time and again in French Polynesia. They were singing when we arrived and singing when we left so this was not a performance put on just for our benefit.
Our circle tour of Moorea then took a dramatic turn as our bus left the main road and headed into the rugged interior of the island passing a number of fertile pineapple plantations before climbing and climbing before reaching a dead end at the Mount Rotui Belvedere. From here we got this view of the mountain as Tohi explained the legend of how the two beautiful bays we saw yesterday on Moorea’s north side came into existence. Follow the link to get the details. And sorry Tohi for catching you in mid-blink.
The views up here are truly world class, although the cloud cover did detract just a bit. Luckily we saw Mount Rotui in its fully glory from the sea yesterday.
For the masochists who visit Moorea there is the option of biking up to the belvedere and there was a group who had just made it up as we arrived. They looked totally exhausted and not a few clearly had wobbly legs. Other options involve being bused to the belvedere and then heading down to access one of the many trails that branch off from the road, as shown on this map. There was another group that had been let off for this purpose and not a few of them looked terrified at the prospect of biking down at high speeds around hairpin curves where they might meet a bus like ours coming up on a road not much wider than the bus.
Looking at the bikers I was more than happy to set foot on our bus for the journey back down.
While many people come to Moorea just to relax at one of the resorts like Manava Beach or the Sofitel, it would be a serious mistake to come to Moorea and not go to the Mount Rotui belvedere. My photos do not do it justice.
Tohi soon gave us another reason to make this side trip from the main circle highway. On the way up I had noticed signs of many small maraes. As I had learned on our tour of Tahiti, maraes were/are sacred religious centres for the pre-Christian religions of Polynesia. Most of these were destroyed by the Europeans. but a few have been reconstructed such as Titiroa which was our next stop.
This is a map of the site and Tohi led us to the largest temple on the site which has two huge banyan trees growing out of it surrounding by rock walls.
Tourists are not permitted to enter the inside of these sacred sites so our group stood on the outside accompanied by a few red junglefowl.
Tohi, standing under one of the banyan trees explained the significance of Titiroa Marae from inside its walls.
I did a little looking around the outside of the walls and got this photo of a beautiful white flower I have been unable to identify. If anyone reading this knows please let me know so I can rectify its anonymous status.
We returned to the main road and saw this small cruise ship in Opunohu Bay which I have been able to identify as the Wind Spirit, one of Windstar Cruises super luxury (and expensive) vessels.
My final photo from this tour of Moorea is of a pineapple plantation across the waters of, I believe, Cook’s Bay. It’s an important secondary source if income for some of the islanders, but you wouldn’t want to see too many of these replacing the tropical forests.
We did have one more stop at the obligatory tourist shop, this one owned by the Haring family. Adventures Abroad does not encourage these type of stops, but every service of this type on Moorea includes one so no big deal.
The view of the Windstar ship reminded me than in just about 24 hours our group will be stepping aboard the Aranui 5 to begin our cruise to the Marquesas. I hope you’ll join us on board.