Viewed from the northern coast of Tahiti, Moorea lies across the near horizon, its face mostly in shadow, its serrated silhouette resembling, say, a line graph of the year's world oil prices.

Moorea, which means "Island of the Yellow Lizard", is 25km over the Sea of the Moon from big sister island, Tahiti, only seven minutes by plane - surely one of the shortest scheduled flights in the world - or 30 minutes by ferry.

Shaped like a flint arrowhead with its pointed end aimed at Tahiti, Moorea is a world away from the hectic traffic and teeming streets of Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. Arriving on Moorea by ferry, the pace of life is immediately wound back, so there is the feeling that you've stepped back several decades.


This languor is apparent everywhere. On the island there are no towns, only the occasional straggling village to hinder the already-slow flow of cars, trucks and bikes on the 60-km coastal road which encircles the island.

Multicoloured pareu for sale are pegged to lines outside the village boutiques, flapping like bunting in the trade wind. The island's population of 15,000 - the great majority Polynesian or "demis" (mixed race), with an overlay of French culture and sophistication - is dispersed around the island's perimeter, so that crowds are non-existent. This is so even on the golden sand strip of the Hauru district, on the island's north-western shoulder, where most of the resorts are clustered.

My hotel, a score of thatched bungalows spread out under palms and pandanus beside the lagoon, is in Hauru. It does not have phones, radios or TV sets in its rooms. The manager, a tubby, affable Frenchman of about 40 called Philipe, explains that this is deliberate house policy.

"When people first come, they complain," he tells me as he pours me a glass of Hinano, the local lager. "'But how do we know what is happening in the world?' they ask me'. I tell them, 'On Moorea, it doesn't matter what is happening in the world'." And he's right. Over the next few days I lose all desire to read a newspaper, watch TV or listen to any news. It's an unexpectedly pleasurable feeling.

If there is an island more beautiful than Moorea in the South Pacific, then I've yet to find it. Sitting on the upper deck of the ferry, watching its serrated peaks looming from the Sea of the Moon, reminds me of that unforgettable scene from the 1958 Rogers and Hammerstein movie, South Pacific, when scheming old Bloody Mary gestures towards a jagged-peaked, mystical island on the horizon and sings to the young American sailor, Lieutenant Cable, in a voice husky with sexual promise, "Bali Ha'i, it calls you".

Moorea, the authorities assure me, was not the model for Bali Ha'i in the James A. Michener story which South Pacific was based on, however much it resembles it.

The real model was an island in Vanuatu. But Moorea was certainly the location for the most recent (and the best) of the five movies based on the 1789 mutiny on William Bligh's Bounty, the 1984 Roger Donaldson-Mel Gibson-Anthony Hopkins version, The Bounty.

That movie was shot mainly in and around Baie de Cook, one of two deep indentations in Moorea's northern coastline. You can see why. The landscape here is amazingly dramatic. The two parallel bays - the other is Baie de Opunohu - are like fiords, surrounded by towering mountains.

The bays are part of a sea-flooded caldera, the remains of the crater of an enormous volcano which blew to pieces millions of years ago. Baie de Cook, though, is something of a misnomer, as in 1777 James Cook's Resolution actually moored in Opunohu Bay, which affords a deeper anchorage.

Separating the two great bays is a sheer-sided monolith, Mt Rotui (899m). As soon as I see this mountain, I have an urge to climb it, as it's obvious that the views from its summit would be breathtaking. Then, I read in a guide book: "Climbing Rotui, a machete is often necessary to cut through the dense vegetation, there are dangerous drops where you need to hang on to the bushes, on both sides of the ridge there are vertical drops of several hundred metres." Always a physical coward, I quickly abandon the climbing plan.

There are compensations, though. When I drive up to Belvedere, a viewing platform smack in the middle of Moorea and several hundred metres above Baie de Opunohu and Baie de Cook, the views are sublime in all directions.

The soaring pinnacle of Mt Tautuapae (769m) is particularly spectacular from up here. From Belvedere I take a hike down a well-formed track - part of the Opunohu Valley Loop - through the cloud zone, then deep into the rainforest.

The track, alternatively cobbled with black basalt stones and carpeted with soggy leaves, crosses mountain streams, climbs ridges and winds through stands of buttress-rooted mape, Tahitian chestnut trees. Their scapula-shaped buttresses used to be thumped by the Mooreans, the resulting booming reverberating across the valleys and comprising a kind of prehistoric email system.

After two hours of tramping the track emerges from the forest at plantations of pineapples and pine trees, part of Moorea's School of Agriculture. Pineapples - which sell at roadside stalls for about $3 each - are Moorea's principal plantation crop. By the school there's a kiosk selling welcome fruit drinks and icecream, in flavours of coconut, mango and vanilla.

The early Mooreans lived mostly in the interior valleys of the island, until the Christian missionaries came in the 19th century and built the churches of the new religion down on the coast.

The Mooreans' traditional places of worship and ceremony - ancient stone marae and paepae - were abandoned, then reclaimed by the rainforest. Today many have been restored, and the Opunohu Valley contains a large number of these archeological sites.

Just below the Belvedere you can see the reconstructed Marae Titiiroa, which lies on the edge of the mape forest, and nearby Marae Afareaito and its archery platform. (The pre-European Moorean and Tahitian nobility were keen archers, and contests to see who could fire arrows the greatest distance constituted important rituals.)

There were a few marae on the coast of Moorea, too, but the missionaries deliberately built their churches directly on their stone bases, as part of their campaign to extirpate traditional religious practices. In the village of Papetoai, on the western side of Baie de Opunohu, there's a pretty, octagonal church dating from the 1870s, and alongside it a single surviving menhir from the Marae Taputapuatea, dedicated to a principal Tahitian deity,'Oro.

Because of its tranquillity and physical beauty, Moorea has long seduced European artists and writers. Today there are several art studios on the island. One prominent artist is Dutchman Aad van der Heyde, who has worked as a painter, sculptor and writer on Moorea for more than 40 years.

Chatting to 70-year-old Aad at his art gallery near the village of Paopao, by the shore of Baie de Cook, I appreciate that he is one of the survivors of a select group of men who came to French Polynesia from the Northern Hemisphere in the 1960s, married local women and so added their bloodlines to the islands.

Aad, who bears a startling resemblance to Ronald Reagan, laments the passing of the days when he and other old Tahiti hands like English writers Roger Gowan and Jack Rowley, and Americans like E. Buzz Miller and Homer Morgan, would congregate in long-since-demolished Quinns Bar on the Papeete waterfront.

"Tahiti was very different then," Aad sighs. He shows me a booklet he published, photographs and quotations from artists and writers, extolling the beauty of naked young Tahitian women. E. Buzz Miller's quote reads, "A Polynesian vahine is a woman before her time and a child forever". The world may have moved on since then, but not in the memories of men like Aad. After all, female allure is something else which has drawn European men to Tahiti and Moorea. And it's done so for more than 200 years.

Mountains, valleys, forests, villages, coconut groves, lagoons and beaches comprise the island of Moorea. That's not an unusual combination in the high islands of the tropical South Pacific. But there is something special about this island. Perhaps it is that pervasive serenity, combined with its dramatic physical beauty, which makes it so enticing. Moorea may not be the real Bali Ha'i of South Pacific legend, but it's near enough for me.

* Graeme Lay travelled to Tahiti and Moorea as a guest of Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourisme.

How to get there

Air Tahiti Nui flies from Auckland to Tahiti on Sundays, Wednesday and Fridays, departing at 2.05pm.

Air Moorea flies between Fa'a Airport, Tahiti, and Moorea 40 times a day.

Two ferry companies from Papeete serve the island, Aremeti and Moorea Express. There are 12 sailings, departing throughout the day.