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.
There's a word in the Tahitian language: fiu.
It's not an easy word to translate, but loosely speaking, it means feeling blah, worn out, fed up. You might be fiu at the end of a grinding workweek or the morning after a massive party. Above all, fiu (pronounced "few") means you want to do nothing but relax—in which case you're fortunate if you find yourself in French Polynesia. For decades, travelers here have renewed their spirits with the beautiful beaches, laid-back vibe, and soothing breezes of these South Pacific islands. Spend a little time on a strip of white sand, sipping Hinano beer and staring at an endless expanse of impossibly blue water, and you quickly understand how the place could inspire you to flee your regularly scheduled life.
Like so many before us, my wife and I, nursing our own nagging case of fiu (history will show there was a lot going around in 2009), took our two young daughters to French Polynesia for a course of tropical treatment. We'd gone to Maui for our honeymoon exactly 10 years earlier, but Tahiti and her sister island, Moorea, promised a remote exoticism unlike anything we—let alone our kids—had ever experienced. To heighten the off-the-grid feeling, rather than opt for the traditional resort hotel, we planned to rent a couple of houses on Moorea, a half-hour ferry ride from Tahiti. No room service or concierge or pillow mints. No mindless checking of e-mail or surfing of Facebook. To the extent we could, we'd go native.
It's easier than ever before to make this kind of trip. In light of its romantic-getaway reputation, French Polynesia has been striving to broaden its reach and make inroads with families. I'd heard that, in addition to an ongoing promotion on national airline Air Tahiti Nui—which throws in two free tickets for children under the age of 11 with the purchase of two adult ones—gorgeous houses were increasingly up for rent through websites like vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and homeaway.com. Families who have left behind a life in the States for greener (and bluer) pastures have discovered just how valuable their real estate is and have begun opening up their bungalows to people like us—for under $200 a night, private beach included.
We'd never imagined bringing our kids—3-year-old Julia and 7-year-old Rebecca—to a newlywed destination like French Polynesia. But the prospect of getting a direct, unfiltered experience of the islands, without fear of our darling daughters embarrassing us by doing cannonballs into a hotel swimming pool, couldn't have been more appealing. As we sat on the plane from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti, surrounded by all those fresh-faced honeymooners, we felt secure in the knowledge that paradise would have room enough for all of us.
Gazing at Moorea from a peak on Tahiti in 1835, Charles Darwin described the island as "a picture in a frame" thanks to the barrier reef that perfectly encircles it. Bora-Bora may carry greater mystique for most Americans, going back to the U.S. military presence there in World War II. But despite its proximity to Tahiti, Moorea remains more undeveloped—and, some would argue, more beautiful. The entire 80-square-mile isle, which takes about an hour to circumnavigate and doesn't have a single streetlight, claims less than 800 hotel rooms, fewer than the number of rooms in a single large resort on Oahu's Waikiki Beach. And although the population has more than tripled in the past 25 years, it's still only 16,000.
Arriving at the Bali Hai Boys Beach House outside the tiny village of Maharepa on Moorea's northeastern coast, we were greeted with hugs and fragrant leis by Therese Rio, who more than compensated for her limited English with her kind, Gauguin smile and effusive warmth. Therese's late partner, Hugh Kelley, was one of the original "Bali Hai Boys," a trio of enterprising California friends who came to Moorea in the early 1960s and founded the Club Bali Hai, the first in a string of successful hotels. In 1962, Life magazine ran a profile of the Bali Hai Boys that helped introduce Americans to French Polynesia. "Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the Bali Hai Boys on Moorea," Kelley's son Hiro told me. Kelley—who is credited with coming up with the idea for overwater bungalows, now ubiquitous at island resorts—died in 1998, leaving behind his fellow Bali Hai Boys—Don "Muk" McCallum and Jay Carlisle—as well as 12 children and a two-bedroom, two-bathroom beach house, where we planned to spend our first three nights.
Bali Hai Boys Beach House is redolent with Kelley family history and blurs the line between indoors and out. Old books, board games, and shells collected over the years by the Kelleys populate the living room; the two bathrooms each have their own indoor gardens; and the patio, right off the large living room, looks out over the Pacific Ocean. Behind the house, a picture-postcard white-sand beach with its own weather-beaten private dock would be exclusively ours for the next few days. Poema Kelley, one of Hugh's daughters, suggested the kids might enjoy feeding bread crumbs to fish off the end of our dock. Julia and Rebecca scampered out immediately with a baguette, and sure enough, swarms of colorful tropical creatures quickly gathered.
"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.
Laurel and James built Te Nunoa using the wood from local aito trees and furnished it with a king-size canopy bed with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, a twin daybed with a trundle, and handcrafted chairs from Bali. They opened the bungalow to renters in April 2008, and it's been steadily booked ever since. Given the success of this first venture, the Samuelas are planning to unveil two villas and several new bungalows a short drive east on Opunohu Bay.
Bob and Mary Hammar, a retired American couple from University Place, Washington, have had similar luck renting their house, Fare Hamara. The couple, who formerly owned a chain of medical-uniform shops, first came to Moorea more than 30 years ago on vacation. "We'd been 19 years in business without taking a break, and we got talked into going to Moorea by some church friends," Bob remembers. Their two-bedroom, octagonal house, which they built in the 1980s, sleeps six people and has a sweeping view of Opunohu Bay off a deck that encircles the house. Since 1993, they've leased it out to visitors, and once or twice a year they stay there themselves. Bob still can't quite believe their good fortune: "If you'd told us 30 years ago we'd be doing this, I'd have laughed at you."
At the end of the week, we moved to Fare No Tehau, a thatched-roof, two-bedroom house owned by David Gierlach and Ida Teiti, who live in Hawaii. Fare No Tehau, "The House of Peace," is set in a gated community beside a channel feeding into a lagoon. Inside, a staircase made from gnarled wood leads to an airy loft with a canopy bed—our girls got endless enjoyment climbing those stairs.
We wanted to see more islets after our dreamy day on Motu Tiahura with Hiro's Tours. Motu Fareone, next to Motu Tiahura, is close enough that you can kayak out, but we took the easy route, hiring a boat at the InterContinental Moorea Resort & Spa. A five-minute walk put us on an empty beach, where we spent the afternoon like castaways in a New Yorker desert-island cartoon.
Our last night on Moorea, the inky sky was filled with the most awesome display of stars I'd ever seen outside of a Carl Sagan PBS special. Laurel had been talking up Pizza Daniel, a roadside stand with an outdoor brick oven. Coconut-tree stumps serve as tables and chairs in front of the restaurant, but as we had before, we returned to our patio with our thin-crust pizzas—and the sounds of drumming and singing from the Polynesian dance show at the Tiki Village Theatre wafted over the canal.
Faster than I could've imagined, we found ourselves resettled into work and school and buzzing BlackBerries. But somehow, having lifted the fog of fiu at least temporarily, it all seemed to wash over us a little more gently.
MOOREA ADDRESS BOOK
by Nicholas DeRenzo
Traveling to French Polynesia—made up of 118 islands, including Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora-Bora—is more time-consuming than challenging. It's an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from L.A. to Tahiti. From the U.S., Air Tahiti Nui, Air France, Delta, and Qantas all fly direct to Tahiti's Faa'a International Airport (PPT). Air Tahiti Nui is offering its Family Special through the end of the year: Get two free kids' tickets with two adult ones (airtahitinui-usa.com). Moorea, 12 miles west of Tahiti, is a 30-minute ferry ride. The Aremiti 5 is the largest and fastest ferry (aremiti.net, one way $13 adults, $7 kids). Air Moorea runs 40 10-minute flights a day (011-689/86-41-41, one way from $48, round trip from $93).
WHEN TO GO
Dry season (with an average temperature of 78) runs from May through November. The wet season, from December through April, is marked by humidity and storms but also lower prices.
Bali Hai Boys Beach House
balihaiboys.com, two bedrooms from $268
011-689/56-25-33, mooreabungalow.com, one bedroom from $220
253/564-0180, farehamara.com, two bedrooms $250
Fare No Tehau
808/394-5222, vrbo.com/161616, two bedrooms from $250
The Blue Pineapple Restaurant
Club Bali Hai, clubbalihai.com, lunch from $18
Champion Toa Moorea
Roulotte Chez Mariana
Near PK marker 5, 011-689/77-49-56, dishes from $13
011-689/56-39-95, pizzas from $12
011-689/78-70-10, hirotours.com, from $88 per person, including lunch and drinks
Boat rentals through the InterContinental, 011-689/55-19-00, moorea.intercontinental.com, round trip $13 adults, $7 kids
Tiki Village Theatre
011-689/55-02-50, tikivillage.pf, dinner and dance show $84 per person