Paradise for All
Honeymooners have long laid claim to the dreamy islands of French Polynesia. But Josh Rottenberg finds that rental bungalows on Moorea and Tahiti are giving families their own sweet taste of paradise.
"Daddy," Julia said, "I wish we could stay here forever."
"Wow," I said to my wife. "That was fast."
The water was a bit shallow for serious swimming, so we unpacked our snorkeling gear and headed to Temae Plage Publique, the island's longest stretch of public beach, down an unmarked bumpy dirt road near the turnoff for the airport. With a backdrop of green mountains and a view of Tahiti in the distance, 1,600-foot-long Temae is widely reputed to be the island's best—a claim we diligently set out to research over the next few days. (Frankly, the competition was stiff. We found plenty of beaches that were just as idyllic, including a gorgeous contender at the head of Opunohu Bay.)
On our way to Bali Hai, we'd stopped at the Champion Toa Moorea, the island's biggest grocery store, to fill our pantry, which only had basic spices. At Temae Plage Publique, we made a picnic of cheddar cheese sandwiches and oranges on the sand before driving through the verdant central valley and up a winding mountain road to Belvedere Overlook, which takes in tranquil Cook's Bay on one side, Opunohu Bay on the other, and jagged Mount Rotui in between. The kids were less interested in the view than in the wild chickens that roamed around the parking lot, a common sight throughout the island (and something you can't help but notice, no matter where you are, when their crowing starts at around 4 a.m.).
The Kelleys had told us that their favorite place for takeout dinner was Roulotte Chez Mariana, a white truck that pulls into the parking lot of the Magasin Remy supermarket on the northern coast every Wednesday through Sunday at dusk. Chinese, French, and Polynesian dishes are always on the menu, but Roulotte Chez Mariana's specialty is ma'a tinito, a beef, red bean, and noodle dish that's only served every other Thursday. (Unfortunately, we were there on a different day.) We arrived at 6 p.m., and a half-dozen locals were already lined up in front of the truck, toting dishware from home. A handful of picnic tables are set up in the parking lot, but we opted to take our Tupperware containers home and spread out on the patio. Gazing at the pastel sunset while enjoying our steak au poivre and shrimp with vegetables over rice, we reveled in the fact that we'd been keyed in to one of the island's best-kept secrets.
As appealing as it is to live like a local, certain tourist activities on Moorea exert an irresistible gravitational pull. The next morning, we met Hiro Kelley down the road in Cook's Bay at the Club Bali Hai and set off on one of the ray-feeding excursions he's been running for 20 years through his Hiro's Tours outfit. An open-air boat shuttled us and a dozen others out to an established feeding spot for stingrays and sharks, and we jumped into the water with our snorkels and masks. The blacktip reef sharks got close but not too close, while the rays came swimming up like hungry pets from some alien world, flapping their leathery bodies against us and opening their crescent-shaped mouths for hunks of raw fish. We then cruised out to Motu Tiahura—one of three small, uninhabited islands off Moorea—for a picnic of grilled chicken, pasta salad, and mai tais.
After lunch, our burly, joke-cracking guide, Bruno, put on a "coconut show," demonstrating how to crack one open using just a stick and then extract the water and meat inside. He stood back with a wry smile as we struggled and sweated trying to repeat the trick. There are some secrets, it seems, only a native can know.
Of all the tourists on the ray-feeding trip, we were the only ones renting a house on Moorea; everyone else, it seemed, was staying in one of the island's hotels. A couple from New Zealand with a toddler was intrigued to hear we'd found an alternative to the full-service hotels and the modest pensions that cater mostly to European backpacker types. "There's a huge gap between the hotels and the pensions," says Laurel Samuela, an American transplant from northern California. She runs Te Nunoa, a thatched-roof, one-bedroom bungalow on the western side of Moorea, with her husband, James, a Tahitian tattoo artist. "The pensions, for the most part, have no style: They're foam mattresses, polyester sheets, threadbare bath towels. We wanted to offer something nice and not have it be $700 a night."
Laurel is a testament to the island's seductive power. In January 2000, she came to Moorea for a scuba-diving trip; her plan was to stay for six months and return to the Napa Valley, where she owned a furniture store. Then she met James and fell in love. "I decided it was worth staying," she told us, sweeping her arm to take in the property that encompasses their house, the rental bungalow, James's tattoo parlor, and the home office out of which they run their travel company, True Tahiti Vacations. Over glasses of Tahiti Drink—a concoction of orange, pineapple, and passion fruit juices and rum that's sold in cartons all over the island—we watched our kids play with the Samuelas' 8-year-old daughter, Fiona, and 6-year-old son, Dushan. Seeing them easily entertain themselves with the dogs and chickens, it wasn't hard to envision how a family could carve out a happily mellow life here.