The island of Moorea, Tahiti’s little sister, conjures up images of white sand beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze, warm turquoise seas – and expensive, out-of-reach luxury hotels that only the rich and honeymooners can afford. True, this small island in expensive French Polynesia does largely cater to the luxury market, but there are ways to go about visiting Moorea on a budget and still enjoy what it has to offer.
Tiny Moorea may only have a circumference of 37 miles, but there’s a lot packed into this petite piece of paradise. This heart-shaped volcanic island has been described by many as the most beautiful place on earth, with its atmospheric jagged peaks, two sweeping bays – Cook’s Bay and Opunohu – and stunning lagoon with its own three small coral islands or motis. Crystal-clear aquamarine waters border sandy beaches where hotels can be found. The lush interior is home to waterfalls, mountains, coconut groves, ancient ruins, and spectacular viewpoints.
Getting there on the cheap
First of all, you need to get to Tahiti’s capital, Papeete. Six international airlines fly there including Air France, Air New Zealand and Lan Chile.
From Tahiti there are two ways to reach Moorea – by air or boat. Travelling by boat is a great way to reach the island, 12 miles away, and it is particularly atmospheric when you when you approach the harbour and see its jagged mountains rising up from the water. The cheapest ferry is the slow, large Aremiti ferry, which takes 50 minutes; a return trip costs around 2,320 CFP ($25). There are also high-speed catamaran ferries which take 25 minutes and charge around 3,000 CFP ($32) – take the Terevau or the Aremiti V. Ferries can be found at Papeete’s main dock.
Travelling by air is perhaps even more magical, but it’s obviously not as cheap. Small Air Tahiti planes depart from Tahiti’s Faa’a airport and the 10 minute flight offers breathtaking views over the clear waters of the lagoon and its motis. A return journey costs 10,000-12,000 CFP ($100-130). For the best of both worlds, take the ferry one way and the plane back.
The next step is reaching your accommodation. If you take the plane to Moorea, you can purchase transfer vouchers from Papeete airport before you board (600 CFP ($7). However, if you have arrived by ferry the cheapest way is to take Le Truck, the local bus that circles the island to shuttle visitors to their accommodation for a couple of dollars – just flag it down when you see it. Avoid the expensive taxis.
You could, alternatively, hire out a car or scooter from the port either when you arrive or later on during your stay – some of the larger resorts offer hire car, bike hire, or even funky ‘fun’ buggies. Roads are mostly paved and safe (with the interior roads a bit more rugged and steep) – but be aware that cycling can be hot work in the scorching tropical heat.
If you don’t fancy hiring out transport to get around the island there are tours you can take, local buses, and Le Truck, although they are not always as frequent and timely as you might expect. Just slow yourself down to the relaxed pace of the French Polynesian way of life!
Where to stay?
Moorea can be notoriously expensive, with luxury resorts dotted around the island such as the stunning Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort and the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, whose overwater bungalows can cost between $650 and $1000 dollars per night. However, don’t panic – there are also budget options with beach access, including no-frills pensions (boarding houses), independent guesthouses, and campsites.
If you want to go as low as you can on accommodation costs, join the backpackers and go camping. Camping Chez Nelson in Haapiti, in the south west, is next to a stretch of white sand beach where you share the same views as those in the luxury resort next door (which is quite satisfying considering that you have paid next to nothing). The grassy campsite is surrounded by coconut trees and camping costs around 1,500 CFP ($16) per night. They also have basic dorm rooms (2,200 CFP ($24)) or more expensive Polynesian-style rooms closer to the beach at 4,800-6,400 CFP ($52-70). There is also a kitchen, snack bar and Chinese/Polynesian restaurant and it’s close to a shopping village. Moorea Camping just down the road offers similar style accommodation and is also on the beach.
Pensions or Residences can be good value mid-range accommodation. Pension Motu Iti, located in the north between Cook and Opunohu bays offers 20-bed dorm rooms (1,650 CFP, $18), garden bungalows (10,500 CFP, $115) and more expensive beach bungalows (12,000 CFP, $132). It also has a restaurant and free use of their kayaks. Fare AUTE guesthouse is set in lush gardens in Atiha in the south and offers a free private beach, free Wi-Fi, and has garden and beach bungalows – two-person bungalows cost 11,000-13,000 CFP ($120-$142).
What to do?
There are plenty of things to keep you entertained on this island paradise that don’t cost the earth:
– Visit the beach. Although all beaches are technically ‘public’, many belong to hotels and are hard to access – but if you ask around you may find a way in. But the best way is to try to stay somewhere that offers beach access, and as you know, even some of the budget accommodation comes with this. There are however a couple of public lovely white-sand beaches: Opunoho, between the two bays, and Temae, between the airport and harbour.
– Viewpoints and waterfalls. In your car, buggy or bike, take time to explore the lush interior of the island. The Belvedere lookout offers views of the island’s bays and Mount Rotui. This is a popular spot and the road can be dangerous due to the amount of cars and tour buses – and cyclists beware; it’s steep!
There are also several waterfalls to see on the island such as Afareaitu – you will you need a 4X4 to reach it, or alternatively it’s a half hour hike up a steep track. There is a lovely rock pool at the bottom which is a popular swimming spot.
– Ancient sites. Close to the Belvedere lookout there are a number of marae, or religious sites, dating back to 900AD – they can be found on the roadside and also in the forest. These ancient moss-covered stones were sacred temples, and although many are ruins there are a few in good condition such as Titiroa, and the Ahu-o-Mahine, with a three tiered altar.
– Take a tour. If you don’t want to do the driving, get someone else to. Moorea Half Circle and Belvedere Lookout Morning Half-Day Tour ($58) will take you past pineapple fields and coffee plantations and to some fantastic viewpoints such as the Belvedere lookout. You will also visit some villages during this morning tour and have a chance to go shopping.
– Go snorkelling or diving. Moorea has some of the best snorkelling and diving and in the world. The warm lagoon is a great spot for snorkelling, and it’s free – if you have your own gear. If you prefer an organised trip, the Moorea Snorkelling Safari ($67) is a great way to spend two hours – you’ll snorkel in the lagoon and see sting rays being fed. Popular dive spots can be found in the deep sea just outside the lagoon – you may come across turtles, rays, moray eels, and, between August and October, migrating humpback whales.
– Go shopping. Shops and shopping villages are dotted around the main road around the island, with the famous French Polynesian black pearls available in most locations – Ron Hall’s Island Fashion Black Pearls at Cook’s Bay is a good choice. You’ll also come across local arts and crafts such as carved tiki figures, tifaifai (patchwork), carved shells, and mother of pearl jewellery.
– See a show. If you have any budget spare then spend it on an evening’s entertainment, Polynesian style. The Tiki Village itself is a Tahitian village where craftspeople live and work and run workshops. However, the spectacular evening dinner-shows on Tuesdays to Saturdays are what it’s all about –60 dancers and musicians perform in the atmospheric open air theatre. It’s a feast of colour and sound (dinner-show is 8,700 XFP ($95); show only is 4,300 XPF ($47)).
What to eat and drink?
It is possible to eat on Moorea without spending a fortune. Of course, there are top restaurants that serve fine French and Tahitian cuisine such as La Plantation, but there are also snack bars/cafes, ‘roulottes’ (food trucks), and grocery stores.
– Go for a picnic. You won’t have any trouble finding a baguette. Bakeries and grocery stores are dotted around the island – stock up on bread, cheese, ham, fresh fruit, veg and local Hinano beer, and you have a cheap picnic to enjoy on the beach.
– Fruit juice on Moorea is excellent – you can find pineapple, orange, banana, mango, and guava at Fruit Juices of Moorea at Pihaena – and they offer free tastings too.
– Snack bars/cafes, known as ‘snacks’, offer good quality food at reasonable prices. Snack Mahana serves lunch only and is by the water near the Hilton; the grilled Mahi Mahi is popular as is the poisson cru. Be warned: it gets busy and food sells out quickly so get there early!
– Roulottes (food trucks) are a popular choice for those on a budget or just want good reasonably-priced food with local character – there are several on the island. In Maherapa, Roulotte Tavairai and Roulotte Chez Mariana sell great fast food including poisson cru and tasty sandwiches.
– Pizza is also available on Moorea. Friendly Pizza Daniel near Haapiti serves fantastic thin-crust pizza cooked in a wood oven; prices start from 1,300 CFP ($14).
– Ma’ a Tahiti is a traditional meal cooked in an underground oven for several hours and consists of vegetables, raw or cooked fish, pork, and coconut milk. You will come across several restaurants and snack bars serving it (particularly at weekends) such as the Painapo Beach Restaurant at their Sunday BBQ, but if you want to try it be prepared to pay around 3,500 CFP ($38) for the privilege. This Tahitian feast may not be that cheap, but everyone has to splash out once in a while – even those travelling on a shoestring!