Tropical, dramatic, lush, peaceful—and just one flight from California.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
Heading for the “Lagoonarium” on Moorea’s west side, we ogled the endless fringe of palms and sparkling lagoons as we cruised around the island. And then we hit the ferry terminal – we had missed it!
My friend Terrie had insisted we visit. Even though she’s been around the world at least ten times, she and her Swedish husband and kids keep coming back to French Polynesia, specifically, Moorea—and the Lagoonarium was one of her boys’ favorite spots when they were young. (Click here to read her guide to French Polynesia for families.)
In my head, I had pictured an aquarium like the ones we’ve got in California – okay, maybe not as grand as the one in Monterey Bay but a small version. But as we drove past the spot on the map a second time, nothing.
Then I saw it: A simple building, a dirt pullout, a small skiff roped to a palm. The Lagoonarium is basically just a boat trip that shuttles beginner snorkelers into an island the center of the lagoon—a real-life aquarium!—and one that surrounds the entire island of Moorea.
People like to say the islands of French Polynesia are like those of Hawaii fifty years ago, but they’re far smaller and less developed. Tahiti bustles like Oahu, for sure, and Bora Bora is packed with honeymooners, but aside from these two isles, the rest of French Polynesia is still quite simple. Moorea makes Kauai look like Waikiki.
Nonstop to the South Seas
Since discount carrier French Bee—and then United— launched non-stop flights from SFO to Papeete in French Polynesia, we’d been lucky to visit several small islands but hadn’t opted for a stay in the more popular spots like Tahiti, Moorea, or Bora Bora. But we’d overnighted in transit in Papeete and seen sunset through the jagged teeth of Moorea, just a ferry ride away.
When we saw an opportunity to travel during winter break in February 2020, we decided to give Moorea a try. The ferry meant it would be cheaper to take the kids than flying to an island farther out. And it would be a great option compared to Hawaii which has become so expensive and crowded.
To save a bit more, we teamed up with friends and rented an Airbnb right on the water in Tiahura. The spot had two cottages and a larger house with a crystal cove right on the water, kayaks included.
Into the Blue
But we came for the diving. Christian and Natalie at Moorea Fun Dive did not disappoint. On Dive No. 1, we dropped into the blue right atop a 10-foot lemon shark. (The lemon sharks in Moorea are different than those of the Caribbean, less yellow, more large. Wow.)
As we regrouped on the bottom and began to follow the lady lemon, her friend appeared, possibly a daughter. We spent the entire dive following these pretty girls, and they spent the entire dive swirling around us. Incredible!
Of course, you can’t ask your divemaster questions underwater. So I figured this is how diving in Moorea goes! But after surfacing, Christian told us these lemons are pretty reliably territorial. And though it was common to see one large lady, it was rare to see two, let alone have them spend the whole dive with us. We saw it as a sign of an excellent trip to come. We were right.
The Best of Moorea for Families
Dive Christian and Natalie’s Moorea Fun Dive is exactly the type of dive shop we love: smaller, personal, and all-pro. Its beachfront spot is convenient for folks staying in Tiahura and Hauru. The team works with divers to ensure you can hit the sites you are interested in and doesn’t just load you onto whatever boat is going out. Our daughter and her friend were able to get their advanced certification while on the island, too, with top-notch instruction and an emphasis on safety.
Snorkel You can really snorkel anywhere, of course, but the reef right offshore can be extremely shallow. Head to the reefs around the motus off Tiahura to see the best snorkeling of the isle. Confident swimmers/snorkelers can simply park at the Hauru Beach park, walk north along the beach, and cross the channel, and make a figure eight around the motus. Or you can head out from the beach at Les Tipaniers where you can rent gear and kayaks, too. Many tour boats also offer trips to this area.
Beach Rays Walking north from Hauru beach, you might run into “mama ray” feeding the giant rays on the sand. She’ll kindly help you meet her friends and offer treats to these big guys without getting your fingers vacuumed up. Petting a ray just never gets old—and it is even more fun when they sit on your lap while you do it.
Shark/Ray Encounters Another popular boat trip is to a spot just off where boats of snorkelers feed big rays and reef sharks. You can buy a spot on one of the trips or avoid the crowds by renting a small boat or kayak at Les Tipaniers and heading out at the beginning or end of the day toward this spot on Google Maps. Take some small chunks of leftover fish if you want to be popular. It goes without saying that you cannot directly walk or paddle out over the reef; it is very shallow and easily damaged.
The “Aquarium” The Lagoonarium is a popular spot that provides snorkelers a trip to the center of the lagoon. Fish flock to feed on the treats offered twice a day.
Road Trip Driving around the island is stunning. Around every turn, bays, strands, coves, and peaks appear and then get replaced by an even prettier sight.
Vista Point The drive up to the Belvedere Lookout is a must-go, with panoramic vistas at the top and forest walks to ruins of marae to visit on the way, as well.
Beach Day There are many spots to pull off and hop in the water as you round the island but Temae Beach is the largest and prettiest. The locals and families provide a happy vibe as they splash in the swimming pool-colored water.
Reef Reforestation In Cook’s Bay, Coral Gardeners allows visitors to experience planting coral on the reef. Visit www.coralgardeners.org for more information.
Surf Surfing on Moorea is best left to locals and experts visitors. It’s tough to avoid the reef and holddowns. Seasoned veterans can contact Moorea Surf for board rentals and rides out to the break.
Maryann Jones Thompson – February 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist, and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat, and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
Fun in Florence, Newport & Cannon Beach
How to get RVs, resort pools, chef dinners, and more
Granada, Seville, and Córdoba—and much more
Art! Architecture! Parks! Garlic fries!
A day-by-day recap of one family's Alpine trek
Get a taste of the REAL Provence
Beach bliss, leaf-peeping & Zoomcations
90 miles of coastline. 1 stunner of a weekend.
Discovering San Francisco's incredible street art
A weekend of adventures near Oakhurst