Moorea Island Is Drawing Its Own Fans

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

This island is no longer just an excursion from Papeete, the capital city of French Polynesia on the main island of Tahiti, a dozen miles by ferry across the Sea of the Moon.

Moorea has long had its own devoted contingent of travelers from around the world.

Now, many others, who have just made day trips in the past, are booking themselves into the resort hotels, guest houses and the renovated Club Med of Moorea--and are taking the 45-minute ferry ride for a day visit to Tahiti.

Tahiti and Moorea will always be sister islands, but Moorea is no longer the little sister, even with a population of 7,000 compared to Tahiti, which has more than half of French Polynesia's 170,000 inhabitants.

Flourishing Crafts

Newly constructed Tiki Village on the white sand beach of a Moorea lagoon near Club Med has re-created the thatched roof pandanus houses of old Tahiti. Tahitian women demonstrate mat weaving and the making of floral crowns. Men carve wooden tikis, make fishing gear and prepare coconut products.

Dugout canoes pick up visitors at their hotels and bring them to the village. Guitarists are playing as guests arrive, and lovely vahines present them with flowers. There are lessons in tie-dying, and you can leave with a hand-painted pareo . There is also instruction in net fishing, and you can cook your fish as part of a traditional lunch served on coconut leaves and shells.

In the village is the first outdoor theater in the Tahitian islands. A cast of 50 dancers and singers presents a folkloric show, "The Pageant of Legends," on Monday and Friday evenings. A Tahitian dance performance is presented at 11:30 a.m. daily.

Honeymooners who wish to repeat their wedding vows on a Polynesian island can have a Tahitian wedding ceremony performed for them by a high priest and the chief of the village. The bride and groom dress in Tahitian costumes.

Floating Restaurant

South of the village, in the district of Haapiti, the six Residence Linareva waterfront bungalows now look out at Le Bateau, a floating restaurant fashioned out of a former interisland boat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily in the wood-paneled, pub-style dining area. French and Polynesian cuisines are featured at moderate prices.

This is in line with the government-led effort to counteract Tahiti's high-price image by reducing restaurant prices 20% to 50% with the stimulus of eliminating import duties on all food and beverages.

L'Oasis is another new restaurant in the Haapiti district, about five minutes from both Club Med and the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea hotel.

Tahitian and southern French decors blend into a bistro-meets-the-beach atmosphere.

On the Pao Pao bay and mountain side of the island, Fare Manana is a new restaurant offering Chinese, Tahitian and continental specialties. Prices at both places are in the $20 range for complete dinners.

Moorea Safari Tours is adding to the primary-destination image of Moorea with four-wheel-drive Land Rover tours to inland mountains, rivers, bamboo forests, tropical fruit gardens and vanilla, coffee and pineapple plantations.

Tour price is about $40 per person. A full-day excursion combines lagoon sailing and Land-Rover trekking with a beach barbecue lunch, at about $95 U.S. per person.

Range of Activities

These excursions supplement a broad base of activities that include scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing and deep-sea fishing.

Rupe Rupe Ranch offers horseback riding. Bruno Excursions features mountain hikes from easy climbs to the cliffs tapering down from the rim of Moua Puta. Legend has it that the godlike warrior Pai threw his spear from Moua Puta to drive off thieves planning to steal a Moorea mountain.

Most hotels and many small lodgings have bicycles for guests. Along the coast are beaches including some where clothing is optional.

One fantasy bike trip or rental- car drive winds through pineapple fields and up the mountainside to Belvedere, a lookout point, and its memorable view of both Opunohu Bay and Cook's Bay. Beside the road is an ancient Polynesian site of a Marae open air temple, with an archery platform and a meeting area where tribal chiefs held conferences.

The accommodations base for visitors on Moorea has grown quietly to include 1,065 units, or about one-third of the total lodging capacity in French Polynesia. The majority are in small bungalows and guest houses. Of the 855 bungalows, 622 are in gardens, 151 on the beaches and 72 over the water on lagoons. Rates are as low as $35 a day.

Moorea has nearly a dozen hotels today, including the Bali Hai, which has been part of a 20th-Century legend this past quarter of a century. The Ibis as well as the Sofitel properties are represented here.

Serendipitous Sighting

The Hotel Bali Hai story is still retold for guests. It began in 1960, when Newport Beach lawyer Hugh Kelley arrived from Southern California to be part of a crew on a yacht race. He saw a 420-acre vanilla plantation that was for sale on Moorea, and talked two Newport Beach business friends, Jay Carlisle and "Muk" McCallum, into forming a partnership to buy the plantation.

Next they bought a small, six-unit hotel and named it the Bali Hai after the hit song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific."

Kelley, Carlisle and McCallum became known as the Happiness Boys. Their Bali Hai expanded to 63 luxury units and suites. They added Bali Hai hotels on the Tahitian isles of Raiatea and Huahine. They also bought Hotel Aimeo on Moorea, near their first Bali Hai, and transformed it into a vacation club with units for sale.

We were on Huahine when their hotel was being built there, and Kelley cooked a spaghetti dinner for us in a small thatched-roof hut. He kept throwing forkfuls of spaghetti at the ceiling; when some finally stuck, he knew it was ready to be served.

Kelley continues to direct the hotels, and Carlisle and McCallum are also still involved.

Rates for 1988 at the Bali Hai underline the fact that Moorea can be affordable even at today's U.S. dollar exchange rates. Doubles start at about $100. The Bali Hai has a Southern California office in Anaheim, and a toll-free phone number for dialing from within California: (800) 282-1402. From outside California the number is (800) 282-1401.

The Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea is the island's largest hotel, with doubles at around $240. The Ibis, with 76 units, begins double rates at around $115.

Artist and Legend

In Pao Pao, near the Bali Hai, we visited the studio of another living legend who has added to the mystique of Moorea as a destination island in the South Pacific.

It was 27 years ago that Aad Van Der Heyde came to Papeete as a young seaman on a Dutch freighter and left his ship. He met and married a lovely vahine, became one of the best-known artists of the South Pacific and settled in a home and studio here in Pao Pao on Cook's Bay.

Such sights as the Moorea Pearls Center, the Galerie Api with paintings by local artists, Claudine's Vai Miti crafts workshop, Botanical Garden, Fruit Juice Distillery and Le Petit Village colonial shopping center, plus the hand-painted fabrics displayed and sold by artists in the front yards of their homes make it difficult to bicycle or drive around the island without many stops.

Four ferries operate daily with frequent departures between Papeete and Moorea. One-way rates are between $5 and $8 for the crossing of about 40 minutes. The seven-minute flight by air taxi is around $25.

Seven days at the Club Med on Moorea is a total vacation package of meals, recreation, entertainment and bungalow accommodations. It's priced at $1,400 per person, including round-trip airfare from Los Angeles.

For help in travel to Moorea, contact the Tahiti Tourist Board, 12233 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 110, Los Angeles 90064, phone (213) 207-1919.

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