Magic Mountain is one of the highest points on the island providing stunning views of Ōpūnohu Bay, a mix of fresh and salt water. The steep, winding road up the mountain side is privately owned, requiring permission to access, and is reachable only by 4WD or ATV.
Ruins of a Polynesian Temple
We visit a small Polynesian village on the Northern side of the island with a pearl shop, ruins of an ancient Polynesian temple, and cooking pit where traditional Polynesian meals are prepared each weekend. The pits are lined with a wood fire below a layer of volcanic rocks. Food wrapped in banana leaves is placed onto the hot stones. The pit is then filled with another layer of volcanic stones, dirt, and sand. The food cooks for several hours until it is time for the feast.
These Polynesian open air, stone temples, marae, were used to communicate with the gods. Only here could a priest ask for a bountiful harvest, fertility, and health. Sacrifices of fish and occasionally humans were made in return for the god’s generosity.
Lycée Agricultural School
Before reaching the school, we stop at a freshwater river to feed the sacred Blue Eyed Eels. These eels reach 3-6 feet in length. At one time, the sacred eels were eaten by royalty, but are now protected by locals. The eels are friendly and come close enough for us to touch their jelly-like bodies.
Traveling Gingerbread Note: ananas is pineapple in French. Knowing very little French we incorrectly assumed it translated to bananas. Later, we learned why all our “banana” juices didn’t taste like banana.
Unlike Bora Bora, Mo’orea has a college on the island, Lycée Agricultural School. Fields of Queen Victoria Pineapples brought to Mo’orea from Brazil, lime, grapefruit, and banana trees can be seen along the entrance to the school. These pineapples, the main production of Mo’orea, turn from red, to green, and finally yellow when the pineapples are ripe and ready to be picked. The fields are replanted every 7-8 years.
After a tour of the fields, we sample fresh pineapple, fruit juices, and jams the school has for sale. The unique flavors are made from ingredients grown by the school, pineapple, vanilla papaya, sour sop, and hibiscus.
Both Cook’s Bay and Ōpūnohu Bay can be seen from Belvedere Lookout. On a clear day it’s possible to see as far as Tahiti. There any many ATV, 4WD, and bike tours that visit the lookout. We arrive and capture a photo just before the mountain disappears into the fog.
Manutea Tahiti Juice Factory & Distillery
Manutea Tahiti Juice Factory & Distillery offers free samples of juices (pineapple, vanilla banana, lychee, guava, mango) and fruit liquors (coco creme, pineapple, grapefruit, pineapple coconut, ginger, Tahiti Drink, and various proofs of Manutea Rum). Pineapple rum was the first alcohol produced on the island. Hours: Monday – Friday 8:30am – 4:30pm and Saturday 8:30am – 12:30pm. Tours are available of the manufacturing plant.
Snorkeling with Stingrays, Black Tip Reef Sharks, and Humpback Whales
A WHALE OF A TALE
Told by Mitch
Relaxing on the dock of our overwater bungalow we spot 2 boats just beyond the reef, separating the calm lagoon water from the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Watching the boats, we see a spray of water followed by a whale tail, our first whale sighting! We are even more excited for our snorkeling excursion with these majestic animals.
It’s overcast when we are picked up at the dock of the Hilton Moorea Lagoon and Spa by Mo’orea Moana Tours for the Small Group 4 Hour Swim with Whales, Sharks, and Rays. It’s a small boat with 3 other couples from Ireland, Singapore, and Chicago in addition to 2 instructors and a local Polynesian captain, who we are assured by the team is tremendous at finding whales.
Only a short distance beyond the reef we see a group of 6 boats, a promising sign a Humpback Whale is nearby. As we prepare to jump in, our guide reviews proper placement while snorkeling for both our and the whale’s safety. Masks, snorkels, and fins are handed out as everyone zips up their wetsuits. We never thought to bring wet suits to French Polynesia, but the air is cooler and it’s windier since leaving shore. We hope for the best in our swim shorts and bikini.
Suddenly, we see a huge spray of water followed by a tail in the distance. Our determined captain speeds ahead through the choppy waters to get in front of the whale. The team looks for a blow spout or tail about 20 minutes after the whale surfaces. This indicates the whale is sleeping and will stay in the area, perfect for snorkeling. Whales can hold their breath up to 30 minutes requiring them to resurface as they sleep.
After resurfacing several times, the whale seems to be staying underwater, possibly sleeping. We think it may be time to get in the water just as the whale breaches! An incredible sight. With no hopes of this whale sleeping soon and concerns for the whale’s stress due to the amount of boats nearby, we sail farther into the ocean in search of other opportunities.
20 minutes farther into the Pacific Ocean the waves are huge, the sky is dark, the wind is stronger, and the temperature continues to drop. August – October Humpback Whales come to French Polynesia to give birth. When storms approach from the South, whales will swim towards the lagoon, breach, and allow the strong winds from Antarctica blow them onto their backs. As our local guide and the team zip up their North Face jackets, we huddle together under our damp towel. We see a tail in the distance then 20 more minutes pass. We are shivering beneath our tank tops, ready to return to shore, satisfied with the number of whales we have seen as chaos erupts from the team. It’s time to snorkel with a Humpback Whale.
In a fit of shivering, panic, and excitement, we quickly grab our gear and jump into the water. Thank goodness it’s warm, but it’s difficult to get composed as the waves crash against us. Stephanie takes in a lot of seawater struggling to fix her mask and snorkel while trying to stay above the waves. I try to switch snorkels, but the waves are too rough, and I can’t hear what is wrong over the ocean. Finally, the instructor makes contact and fixes the disconnected snorkel. She instructs us to swim along the side of the whale, not on top of it. We have no idea where the whale is as she points directly below us.
Surprised by the visibility, we look down and see a 35 foot long Humpback Whale about 45 feet directly below us. We see the white of the whale’s stomach swim by, surface in front of us, and swim away. The experience lasted 5-10 minutes but felt like seconds. Adult Humpback Whales reach a maximum length of 60 feet and visibility can be up to 150 feet in the Pacific Ocean.
Getting back on the boat is just as difficult as being in the ocean with a broken snorkel. With the current and massive waves, the boat hovers 15 feet above us before crashing back down to a reachable level. Back on the boat Stephanie puts on her North Face fleece (an airport purchase on the way to French Polynesia because she left hers on the couch) as I wrap myself in a wet towel. Only hours before, we were laying on our dock drinking some pre-excursion raspberry vodkas and Coke expecting a relaxing afternoon. Being tossed around the ocean, consuming large quantities of ocean water, and a stomach full of vodka and coke is enough to make the strongest of pirates seasick.
Relieved to be heading back to land, our boat is alerted there is a mother and baby whale nearby. Feeling very seasick, shivering with chattering teeth, I grab my gear and jump in. Swimming as fast as I can to catch up to the guide, I look down and see a mother and baby whale about 30 feet away and record the video above as the mother surfaces.
Traveling Gingerbread Note: We recommend bringing a towel per person, jacket, wet suit, your own snorkel (to prevent any malfunctions of unfamiliar equipment), and sunscreen. Going on this excursion at the beginning of September we experienced winds from Antarctica, and it was extremely chilly. Fins, mask, and a snorkel are provided.
French Polynesia is the largest shark sanctuary in the world creating a harmonious relationship between sharks and humans. The last stop on our excursion, swimming in a shallow lagoon with Black Tip Reef Sharks and stingrays, a common excursion throughout the islands. The Black Tipped Reef Sharks swim in a circle around us as we snorkel among the Stingrays.
According to our guide, Stingrays rule the waters in this lagoon. Acting like cats, the Rays rub again our legs and seem to enjoy being touched. As a Sting Ray tail brushes against Stephanie’s leg, our guide explains the tails are harmless. It’s the small barb ejected from the tail when feeling threatened that results in injury.
We board the boat one final time to return home as it begins to pour. The team passes out rum punch to celebrate a successful afternoon. Shaking uncontrollably, we spill most of it all over us. It was an unexpectedly rough ride, but a once in a lifetime experience.
Traveling Gingerbread Tip: Look before placing your feet on the ocean floor and shuffle your feet along the bottom rather than walking to avoid stepping on a Stingray. As they glide and rest along the ocean floor, they can be difficult to see.