Part 12: MAGNIFICENT MOOREA
The Garden of Earthly Delights
After a delicious, filling beachside breakfast at Moorea Island Beach Hotel I’m promptly picked up at by Pierre Gitton, Enjoy Moorea’s owner and guide extraordinaire. I board Pierre’s 4X4 pickup truck and he states: “I show Moorea where no other tour goes,” and I’m off on one of the most fabulous expeditions of my life. As we’re on terra firma and not out at sea, now it’s “Let’s buckle up and move ’em out, Polynesians!” as Pierre proceeds to reveal to me the island of his birth and which he knows like the proverbial back of his hand.
It’s a cloudy but dry morning as we round Moorea’s northwestern coast, driving to exquisite Opunohu Bay, a pristine vision of ecological elegance. Riding shotgun I have perfect views of Opunohu Bay, which is about 240-feet deep, two-miles long and of such unsurpassed scenic beauty that much of The Bounty’s Tahiti-set scenes were actually lensed on location here, instead of at Matavai Bay, where HMAV Bounty had actually anchored in 1788 at Tahiti. Pierre drives off the main road uphill to Magic Mountain, with a vantage point that bestows majestic vistas of resplendent Opunohu, which translates as the belly of the stonefish.
We return to the bay and at Opunohu’s eastern edge Pierre turns inland and cruises uphill to Tropical Garden, a modest family-owned open-air restaurant perched upon a plateau, presenting a panoramic view of the bay and a panoply of Polynesian fruits for eating and drinking. I sit outdoors at a picnic table beneath a coconut frond covering atop a balcony and enjoy a feast for the eyes and tastebuds as I’m served South Sea samples of the bounty grown and made in the islands. Tropical Garden offers vanilla, soursop, guava, passionfruit, banana, pumpkin, noni and pure honey from beehives at a Moorea plantation. A frothy tropical juice concoction composed primarily of pineapple is whipped up and delivered to me in a tiki mug. Suck ’em up! This Oceanic ambrosia so delectable and refreshing I pour the leftover juice into a cup for imbibing later.
Pierre drives towards Cook’s Bay (aka Paopao), turns inland again, then heads towards the Belvedere. Crossing on paved and dirt roads we pass by row upon row of pineapples growing at French Polynesia’s premiere plantation of the tangy, spikey fruit. Unmarred by high rises and other accoutrements of civilization, the virgin expanse is more spellbinding than Oahu’s Kualoa Valley, where Jurassic Park was shot. We are inside of a caldera and the distant mountains look like jagged peaks of jade thrust upwards. My favorite mountain, the almost 3,000-foot high Mou’a Roa, seems perpetually betrothed to cotton candy clouds.
Unbroken serene stretches of scenery unfold as Pierre drives back to Cook’s Bay, one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the Earth. He continues along the coastal route through Maharepa, Moorea’s town center. Soon the guide offroads down a dirt path to his “secret spot,” a hideaway beach at Temae on northeastern Moorea, where there’s an open air fare (hut) and shower behind shell curtains. Pierre prepares a Tahitian-style luncheon, squeezing grated coconut meat through a porous cloth to make milk. I wander down a white sand snorkeling beach enjoying the solitude, as the combers play their eternal melody pounding on the nearby reef. Upon returning, a luau of delectable poisson cru, papaya and bakery goodies awaits me, spread out on a palm leaf atop a picnic table.
After the repast we drive back to the main road heading south along the shore until we reach Afareaitu, where Pierre offroads again then parks. Under the overcast sky we hike through the forest primeval towards Afareaitu Waterfall, but due to recent rains the stony, muddy road is too slippery for me to negotiate. So I have to settle for a view of the cascade from afar, and trek back through the sylvan glade to Pierre’s 4X4 and after an exhilarating expedition into the heart of Moorea return to Moorea Island Beach Hotel.
Since my first trip to French Polynesia in the 1970s, I’ve visited Moorea about 10 times. But in my day tour with intrepid Pierre’s Enjoy Moorea, I’ve literally seen more of Moorea than I have on all those prior trips to Tahiti’s neighbor island combined.
From Here to Gastronomy: A Taste of Paradise
The following morning, Tahiti Food Tours does for the palate what Enjoy Moorea has done primarily for my orbs. Heimata Hall promptly picks me up at Moorea Island Beach Hotel to reveal his Native Island to me through its cuisine, combining gastronomy with patrimony. “Food has always been my passion,” the amiable, Hawaii-educated Heimata – which means “crown of eyes” – says. “I always wanted to be a chef. But the food tour came up and another way tourists can learn our culture and history is through food,” which here is a Polynesian-Tahitian-Chinese mélange that melts in your mouth.
Heimata’s culinary cavalcade avoids swanky restaurants at major restaurants like Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. Instead, he focuses on revealing more mom & pop shop type eateries where locals dine, but which visitors may overlook, although they offer delicious, healthy food at prices that can save travelers hundreds of dollars. Since I ate at Tropical Garden yesterday, first stop is Snack Rotui at idyllic Cook’s Bay, long one of my favorite places in the world and where lucky Heimata grew up. Here, at the water’s edge, a Chinese-Tahitian family serves up fast but fresh food plus unobstructed views of optical opulence. Diners can grab and go or grind on the premises, and we enjoy chicken dumplings beneath the snack bar’s overhanging tin roof on plastic chairs.
Next stop is Moz Café, where we mosey upstairs in a two-story structure at Maharepa, Moorea’s downtown hub. Overlooking Cook’s Bay I feast my eyes on crème brûlée and mousse on display and dine on po’e with banana in coconut milk, fresh poisson cru with lime juice and tuna tartar on crispy wanton, accompanied by pineapple juice freshly made in the café’s blender. MOZ are the call letters for Moorea’s airport, and the eponymous eatery makes my tastebuds take flight.
Jus de Fruit de Moorea operates a distillery and factory with a spacious souvenir shop for sampling Moorea’s nectars, located at Pihaena. There imbibers can sample comp glasses of mango, passionfruit, breadfruit, grapefruit, etc., juices as well as Oceanic alcoholic elixirs, such as coco liquer. Bottles of these Rotui brand concoctions are for sale, along with various Tahitian-style tchotchkes. Suck ’em up!
Next stop is in Temae at Golden Lake, a local to da max Chinese restaurant and snack bar with a tempting display case where, at an adjacent openair patio, we chow down on Polynesie’s penultimate fusion dish, a sandwich combining Asian and French ingredients: Chow Mein on a baguette!
By now it’s dessert time, and at Vaiare we park on the sand beside Kai-Tahi, a humble roulette or food truck by the water’s edge. This take-out joint serves beef heart skewers, fish burgers, cheeseburgers and mouthwatering savory sweets. At a nearby picnic table I relish Tahiti Food Tours’ piece de resistance, a hot crepe filled with chocolate sauce topped by ice cold scoops of vanilla ice cream, made with the extraordinary vanilla beans grown in the islands. This is hands down the best crepe I’ve ever devoured and Kai-Tahi’s delightful delicacy gives me a mouth-gasm.
Heimata has timed our culinary excursion perfectly and after greedily gobbling my crepe – and before I’m too supersized to fit aboard the Aremiti – he drives me to the ferry to cross back to Tahiti. En route, I realize that my magical mystery Moorea tours have been so superb because, like Mana Tang’s Tiurai Tours excursion at Tahiti, these sensational excursions were conducted by Polynesians born and raised in the islands who know their homelands inside out in ways that outsiders never could. In addition to being enhanced and enriched with authentic experiences, by venturing forth with local guides, travelers also support businesses owned by Natives, so that islanders, and not just foreign multi-national corporations, benefit from the hospitality industry.
When you go:
Enjoy Moorea: enjoymoorea.com/en (689)87 38 45 65
Tel/WhatsAPP: (689)87 77 66 23.
TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222 Vanessa@tiuraitours.com
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377 email@example.com.
Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: www.beacongrand.com (866)377-9412.
Written by: Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.
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