There are Sunday drives… and then there are Sunday drives. As a kid I’d endure them… sulkily, bottom lip pouting in the backseat as we drove round and round looking at God knows what. “Are we there yet?” Sure, it’s the child refrain cliche, but I swear it was me who said it first.
But today is Sunday and this time I could drive all day without need for a destination: I’m barely 30 centimetres from the road surface, in a custom-made European Roadster road buggy with a 1600 CC engine that’s as strong as a Porsche. When I change gear (there’s five), or steer suddenly to avoid a plethora of potholes I feel just like a slowed down version of an F1 racer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not that guy, the one whose idea of fun revolves around gasoline fumes and the smell of burning rubber. But today my race-track (though the speed limit is 60km/h and most times I won’t get beyond 50) is a circumnavigation of one of the world’s most dramatic island landscapes. What’s more, locals slip into tropical comas on Sundays – barely gathering the strength to attend church (it’s big here, the Missionaries did their work) or picnic by lagoons, and certainly not venturing onto the road - so today I have one of the world’s prettiest coast drives almost entirely to myself (except for the Polynesian grandma on the scooter in her Sunday finest who won’t get past 20km/h… move over mama).
Moorea might be just a 35-minute ferry ride from Tahiti but travelling here is like discovering a remote French Polynesian outer island. Barely 17,000 people live here – all on the coast – Moorea’s dramatic volcanic hinterland is so drastically contoured that development is impossible beyond the coastline. Empty green valleys surrounded by jagged kilometre-high mountains provide the backdrop as I amble past blue lagoons in my Roadster where locals surf beyond the reef or loll about in still lagoons.
Small children wave as I pass, local women sell cheap pineapples and mangoes at temporary stalls by the road, tattooed locals play the civilized French sport of petanque in backyards that fall into the ocean and coconut crabs scurry off the bitumen back into their volley-ball-sized holes under coconut trees that reach out over the roadway.
Taro and arrowroot plantations prosper by the main road, flamboyant trees radiate bright orange under an inky-blue, cloudless sky and entire villages of families gather by the water to eat and sleep, watching with interest as I pass. And I keep myself in fourth gear, ambling down to third when children run beside my car or throw handstands beside the roadway to get my attention.
Moorea is the very epitome of relaxation: don’t come here with a disposition towards ADD. I ask where I can go to party on this island. “Nowhere,” is the response. “Just relax… look at the stars.” There are bars at the island’s resorts and Moorea’s golf course’s bar can be a bona fide people watching hot-spot on Saturday nights – and I do manage to find some atmospheric lagoon-side bar/restaurants (Le Tipanier is my pick), but primarily Moorea is an island to contemplate your navel, the stars and your place in the universe.
But by day there’s plenty to do. On my first day I play 18 holes of golf on French Polynesia’s best golf course, the Green Pearl Golf Course (designed by Jack Nicklaus himself), winding my way up and down the caldera of an ancient volcano to greens positioned between coconut trees, before surfing at sunset on a remote reef pass where perfect waves break with almost monotonous repetition (Moorea is home to some of the Pacific’s best breaks – though all break on reefs so don’t suit beginners).
On another day I take a boat ride to a small island (motu) where I snorkelled with black-tipped reef sharks and huge manta rays, on the way back a pod of five dolphins surf the bow waves of our small boat. From my over-water bungalow I ride a stand-up paddleboard to the nearby reef and swim amongst the coral with fish half the size of my board and no-one around for miles.
Most nights I opt out of eating with other tourists instead dine at road-side roulottes with locals – sampling barbecued mahi mahi fish caught that day for less than $20 AUD, as coconut crabs scurry about and Polynesian dance music fills the humid night air.
Moorea is all about getting intimate with Mother Nature: waking at dawn and swimming as the sun rises over the 2000-metre-high-plus outlines of Tahiti just across the sea, or paddling out in the evening to watch the sun set against huge, jagged-black-and-green-covered mountains. Or, of course, getting your motor running, getting out on the highway (well, what counts as a highway on Moorea) and driving slowly past some of the most picturesque and peaceful villages in the South Pacific.
Air Tahiti Nui fly to Papeete via Auckland three times a week.
Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa has a combination of over-water bungalows and beach and garden bungalows all in one of Moorea’s best locations.