Inside: Trying to decide between Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora? Here are 3 reasons Moorea is without a doubt the best choice in French Polynesia.
Covid-19 Travel Update: As of February 3, 2021, French Polynesia is closed to tourism. Currently, the closure is expected to last through April with a re-opening date in May 2021. No official reopening date has been set, check the latest updates here.
Note: This post was originally written in 2011 during my 6th annual Round-the-World trip. But fear not island lovers! It is updated regularly with all the latest pertinent information.
Yes, Round the World #6 is nearing its inevitable end.
Luckily, there’s still another tropical paradise or two left to go. Today, I say goodbye to the incredible Cook Islands and head back to one of my favorite places in the world.
The jaw-dropping island of Moorea!
It’s worth noting that up until last week, I thought Moorea was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. And then I arrived in the Cook Islands, specifically the island of Aitutaki. Now, I admit I’m conflicted (first-world problems).
Thanks to careful planning and an inexplicable desire to explore every dreamy South Pacific outpost within my logistical reach, today I fly from the paradise of the Cook Islands to the Eden of Moorea.
Does it get any better than a direct flight between bliss and nirvana?
I think not.
My return trip to the French Polynesian island of Moorea is an intentional do-over for my ill-fated trip to Bora Bora last year. That particular Tahitian adventure included a brush with Tropical Cyclone Oli and 17 hours’ worth of quality evacuation time in a gym.
Paradise, it was not.
But before I move on to exactly why Moorea is so incredible, a quick overview of the islands is in order.
Where is French Polynesia?
An overseas collectivity of France, the 118 islands and atolls of French Polynesia stretch lazily across the South Pacific Ocean covering more than 1,200 miles.
The islands are divided into 5 island groups, the most famous of which are the Society Islands which includes Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea.
What’s the best time of year to visit French Polynesia?
The weather in the islands is sub-tropical year-round. So, technically, it’s possible to visit any time of year (and I have). April to November is considered the drier (high) season. During those months you’ll find higher rates, more crowded hotels, and beautiful, sunny weather.
Conversely, November to April is the rainy (low) season. If you visit during these months you’ll find lower hotel rates, fewer tourists, and likely still pretty great weather. However, the rainy season is also cyclone season, so proceed with caution.
Is Tahiti the same as French Polynesia?
Though “Tahiti” is sometimes used interchangeably to refer to all the islands (as I did in the title of this post for the sake of brevity), it’s actually just one island in the French Polynesian group.
Tahiti is, however, home to the only international airport in the islands (Papeete – PPT). Meaning all trips to French Polynesia begin and end there.
Note: Depending on the logistics for onward travel to the other islands, an overnight stay on Tahiti after arrival or prior to departure is likely for most visitors.
Tahiti sounds like paradise…right?
Before my first visit to Tahiti on Round the World #4 I received some unsolicited advice from a friend. He visited the islands a few years ago on his honeymoon and offered the following helpful nugget:
“Don’t waste your time on Tahiti. Go straight to Moorea.”
But wait, I’ve seen beautiful pictures of Tahiti all my life. It looks like paradise! Overwater bungalows, blue lagoons, how could the island not be worth a visit?
Is it possible I have friends who are too good for Tahiti? Surely not.
But I took his advice and booked a few days on Moorea in addition to two nights on Tahiti (because trust but verify).
Read More: Blowing the Budget in Tahiti
As it turns out, he was mostly right. Tahiti is a fine island…until you compare it to Moorea.
While Tahiti and Bora Bora are likely more familiar names to most people, I would argue that Moorea is the lesser-known superstar of French Polynesia.
3 Reasons Moorea is Better than Bora Bora
With visits to all 3 islands now under my belt, I feel sufficiently qualified to make the case for Moorea as the best island to visit in French Polynesia.
1. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to get to Moorea
Getting to Bora Bora requires an additional flight from Papeete.
The flight is relatively expensive and, due to the small planes used on the route, luggage size is severely restricted. I travel with just a carry-on and even I had to leave some things behind at my Tahiti hotel to avoid additional fees.
Conversely, getting to Moorea is as easy as a 30-minute inexpensive (and gorgeous) ferry ride on the Aremiti Ferry. No luggage limit required.
More importantly, as I learned during the cyclone, once they cut flights to Bora Bora ahead of an approaching storm, you’re stuck.
In my case, this happened with little to no warning. Had I been on Moorea, I could have easily returned by ferry to the relative safety of larger Papeete to ride out the storm.
2. Moorea has the same great resorts, but cheaper
Cheap is, of course, relative in French Polynesia. Nothing (and I mean nothing) is actually cheap. Food, taxis, hotels, you’ll spend more on all of those things than nearly anywhere else in the world.
However, compared to Bora Bora, Moorea is a bargain. A coveted overwater bungalow can still be had for less than $1,000 a night on Moorea. That’s an impossible feat on Bora Bora where you’ll likely pay $1,500+ per night (ouch!) for similar accommodation.
3. Moorea is far less touristy
Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but while on Bora Bora I felt like everyone was trying to sell me something. Whether it was the pearl shops offering free rides from the resort or the endless excursion options, it just felt more touristy than I wanted.
To further illustrate my point, I like to compare the three islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea to the Hawaiian Islands.
Tahiti is Oahu. Most visitors arrive there and stay a few nights before moving on to other islands. Sure, there are a few nice things to see and do (I’ve highlighted a few of those in the post below), but it’s crowded and the traffic sucks.
Bora Bora is Maui. There’s no arguing with the fact that it’s beautiful. But it’s also expensive, touristy, and lousy with honeymooners (if you’re one of those honeymooners, you might not mind).
Moorea is Kauai. Fewer tourists, more laid back island vibe, and far less pretentious. I love Kauai, it’s my favorite Hawaiian Island (which is probably why I loved Moorea – to me, it’s the French Polynesian Kauai).
Now that I’ve made my case, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which island appeals most to you.
But for now, let’s dive deeper into magical Moorea…
Arrival in Tahiti
My Air Tahiti flight from Rarotonga to Papeete was a flawless 2 ½ hours. I land in Papeete at 2:15pm, make my way through immigration and customs, and I’m in a cab by 2:30pm.
In town, I have my cab driver wait for me outside a bank so I can change a little money (Moorea may be paradise but it doesn’t come cheap…or with ATM’s). Then he drops me at the Aremiti Ferry terminal.
The Hilton Moorea
I easily catch the 3:00pm ferry to Moorea and by 4:00pm I am settling into my magnificent overwater bungalow at the fabulous Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa.
The weather is decidedly overcast but I don’t care. I am so happy to be back in Moorea and I’m convinced the sun will come out eventually (it does).
As far as Hilton properties go, it doesn’t get any better than the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. It truly is paradise.
Whether you choose one of the incredible overwater bungalows or a garden bungalow you really can’t go wrong.
Overwater Bungalow or Garden Bungalow at the Hilton Moorea?
Well duh. Of course, you came to Tahiti for the overwater bungalow experience.
But if you’re on a budget (or using Hilton points), I recommend spending your first few nights in a Garden Bungalow and then switching to an overwater bungalow for your last few nights. The garden bungalows are a bit larger and also feature a private plunge pool.
Hint to honeymooners: The Garden Bungalows actually offer more privacy. You will inevitably have kayakers paddling by (or God forbid under!) your overwater bungalow.
When using points, you’ll typically be offered the opportunity to upgrade to an overwater bungalow for a reasonable additional fee (that’s how I managed to afford one!). This offer generally comes not long after you make the booking so you’ll be able to confirm it well before you arrive.
What to do on Moorea
On my first trip to Moorea, I rented a car for a day to explore. I drove the ring road around the island, stopped at all the deserted pristine sandy beaches, and ventured up to the Belvedere Lookout for panoramic views of the island’s spectacular lagoon.
Read More: Blue Lagoon Paradise in Moorea
Satisfied that I have already tackled island exploration, this time I feel free to do absolutely nothing – which is exactly what Moorea does best.
I spend my three days jumping into the crystal blue lagoon off my own personal dock and snorkeling for hours. When I’m not in the lagoon, I keep an eye on it from my bungalow through the glass panel in the floor known locally as “Tahitian television.“
The lagoon is the primary form of entertainment in Moorea for good reason – you can spend countless hours in it and never see the same thing twice. It’s simply mesmerizing.
In the evenings, I stroll down the boardwalk to Toatea, the Hilton Moorea’s overwater creperie and bar. Each night black-tip sharks swarm the lagoon at feeding time under the restaurant’s evening lights.
Note to self: Don’t swim in the lagoon at night.
It is truly the most relaxing few days I’ve had in years.
I realize sometime around lunch on day three that I haven’t put on shoes since I arrived. In fact, I’m not even sure where I left them.
Who needs shoes in paradise?
To recap, here’s your perfect 3-step plan to the ideal Tahitian vacation:
#1) Fly to Papeete (because you have to)
#2) Take the ferry to Moorea and don’t look back
#3) See #2
And there you have it! Everything you need to know to plan your Tahitian holiday. And my 3 most persuasive arguments for skipping Bora Bora in favor of lesser-known Moorea.
But don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself!
Sadly, the next morning it’s time to take the ferry back to Papeete to catch my flight back to LA and on to my final stop on RTW #6, Cabo San Lucas.
It’s been an amazing couple of days in my own private paradise. I can’t wait to return someday. (Update: I never would have guessed that I would return just a few years later on my honeymoon!)
Read More: Honeymoon Paradise in Tahiti
As the ferry docks in Papeete, I am greeted with a beautiful rainbow over town. Which just goes to show that even the least attractive part of Tahiti can still take your breath away.
Next up…a full week of whale watching and obligatory poolside margaritas in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Then, sigh, back to the real world (zero stars, do not recommend).