Paradise for the People

Camping in communal bliss in Moorea

Jan 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

The real thing: Moorea's volcanic hills    Photo: Corel

Access + Resources

Four ferries, the Aremiti II, the Aremiti, the Moorea Ferry, and the Ono Ono, make five to seven round-trips per day between Papeete, Tahiti, and Moorea's solitary ferry terminal ($9 each way). Air Moorea flies between Tahiti and Moorea every hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; the fare is $25 one-way (011-689-86-4141). A campsite and access to toilet facilities and a common kitchen cost $8.50 per night at Chez Nelsonet Josiane. Traditional bungalows and beach cabins run $25-$33 per person per night (011-689-56-1518, Rent scuba gear from TOPdive-MUST in Cook's Bay, ten miles from the campground ($50 per person per dive; 011-689-56-1732, For...

SURE, THERE WAS THE OBLIGATORY ROW OF COCONUT TREES casting shade upon my shelter. And 15 feet from my tent flap was a white beach that faced the perennially pink-and-purple sunset. A lazy tropical wind lollygagged in over the waves every evening, and it was always exactly as warm as I was. There was even an honest-to-God lagoon, and I'll be damned if it wasn't blue. But still, the whole setup was suspicious.

Everybody knows that paradise comes equipped with precisely these same features. It all seemed, well, too perfectly quintessential to be the real thing. Then, on the third day, Evelise arrived and extinguished all my doubts. In the morning she emerged from her silver tent, walked a straight line to the sea, dove headlong into the water, then whipped her hair out of the waves, sending a spray of tiny droplets arcing backward through the air. If there was any question about Moorea being an island paradise, it was eliminated by the fact that a Tahitian had chosen to come here for her vacation.

Cropping up out of the Sea of the Moon like tongues of flame turned to stone, Moorea's sharp mountain spires are a dumbfounding sight. The most refreshing aspect of the 53-square-mile island, which is just a hassle-free 12-mile, 45-minute ferry ride from Tahiti, is that more than half of Moorea's 12,000 residents are normal working folks: pearl farmers, teachers at the Agricultural School of Opu-nohu, and managers of the Moorea Distillery and Fruit Juice Factory. It's an island with self-respect—paradise for people who know better than to believe in paradise.

I started my tour at Club Med Moorea, which operates a tastefully understated resort on the edge of a lagoon on the northwest corner of the island. From there I hitchhiked around Moorea's 37-mile-long ring road, until I completed the circle at a campground called Chez Nelson et Josiane, a spread that offers campsites adjacent to the three-mile-long beach for a mere $8.50 a day. Forgoing overrated luxuries like walls and a roof is a small sacrifice when you can join a ready community of easygoing wanderers from Britain, South Africa, and Australia. Besides, being outside was much better, what with Pacific trade winds conditioning our air.

The real question was figuring out how our little expat clique could stay right here—forever. In the mornings we snorkeled at Hauru Point, just off the beach, surfed in eight-foot swells on the southwest coast, or swam out to one of the uninhabited islets where spinner dolphins and scorpion fish hold sway. The afternoons were spent hiking through the rainforests of Opunohu Valley to the 3,389-foot Belvedere lookout, with views of the sun-spangled water far below. The hand-me-down bus making loops around the island—complete with a sign saying THE SAN DIEGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY THANKS YOU!—came in handy for beer runs to the grocery store in the evening, after which we would collect around the common kitchen and cook up financial schemes designed to keep us in Moorea.

"You know, there's a surgery school in London that will pay you 10,000 quid to saw your big toe off and sew it on again."

"Well, that place in the Netherlands gives you almost as much for your little toe, only they don't give it back."

Until the wee hours of the morning we would debate the risks and benefits of money-making plans while Evelise poured rounds of a drink she said was a secret, but which tasted to me like rum. Sadly, after a week, I had to leave. But I'm planning to go back next fall to watch the humpback whales on their migration across the Pacific.

I'll tell you all about it as soon as they reattach my toe.


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