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French Polynesia: Road trip around Moorea

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Mt Rotui, Moorea. Photo / Jill Worrall
Mt Rotui, Moorea. Photo / Jill Worrall

It's Day Two on Moorea and I can hear the surf still pounding angrily on the reef across the lagoon. It has stopped raining though and the sea around our bungalow, although still murky, looks to be clearing.

I move aside the hibiscus flowers on the coffee table and through the glass floor can just make out the shape of a bright yellow fish swimming past. The air is warm and soft.

French Polynesia claims to be the inventor of the overwater bungalow and for me the thought of staying in one has always seemed the quintessential tropical island experience.

Sure at the moment the view from our deck doesn't look like the photos in the brochures but lying back in bed with only the sea and the sky in view I feel like I'm sailing.

More than anything I want to climb down the steps on our lower deck and swim but the water's still too full of flotsam and jetsam washed down from the forest-clad hills behind us. Instead we decide to venture out again in our rental car.

Yesterday's short drive from the ferry terminal to the hotel had been my first at the wheel of a left-hand drive vehicle for decades. I'd been dreading the prospect and that initial drive had proved testing to say the least.

The rental had been parked in the depot's sole access onto the main road that circles the driveway so there was no time to fluff around as I was blocking everyone's entry and exit. The road was busy too, as well as being several centimetres deep in still rapidly rising water, and even though it was mid-morning the thick cloud meant everyone had their headlights on to pierce the gloom.

I pulled out into what until the day before was the "wrong" side of the road, and turned off my indicators.

Unfortunately on this car, the wand I tweaked was the windscreen wipers. Brief visibility, already down to a few metres, was reduced to zero. But thankfully the island has a 60km/h speed limit and all motorists, given the deluge, were going a lot slower than that.

With everyone battling the conditions, the fact that another idiot tourist driver was on the road seemed to pass unnoticed.

But that was yesterday and today the sun was starting to fight its way through the cloud as we set off to circle the island. If you don't stop, this takes only about two hours but we planned to take most of the day.

Moorea, along with ultra-expensive Bora Bora, is one French Polynesia's most popular islands with visitors. But remarkably, the impact of tourism, visually at least, is relatively low-key.

The few large resorts are low rise and hidden among luxuriant gardens and the small villages are a mix of supermarkets and other facilities frequented by locals as well as shops festooned with pareus (sarongs) and those advertising the ubiquitous black pearls.

We made our first stop at Cook's Bay, a long inlet that pierces Moorea's improbably spectacular volcanic interior. Despite its name, Captain Cook, the third European to visit here (after Wallis and Bougainville), actually laid anchor first in the neighbour bay of Opunohu.

At the head of both valleys, razor-toothed volcanic peaks rear up from the surrounding forest and grey-green plantations of pineapples. We stop beneath coconut palms fringing the coral sand beach. The sea is still muddy from run-off but a few metres out it is starting to revert to its customary turquoise.

Turning inland at Opunohu Bay I coax the little Fiesta up the hairpin bends to the Belvedere lookout, swerving around strutting roosters and stopping briefly to pick a lolly pink hibiscus for my hair.

From this vantage point we can see both bays and in between them, Moorea's sacred Mount Rotui, its summit still swathed in cloud.

Down the western coast of the island, we slow down to near walking pace behind local cyclists pedalling at leisurely speed. It's the tourists on bikes who seem hell bent on going fast; consequently it's they who are gleaming with sweat.

It's also Sunday morning, so cars line the road beside the churches and worshippers in white stand in clusters, the women with extravagant circlets of flowers in their hair.

We pull off the road and bump along a track to a concrete jetty. There's a good view of the island's highest peaks from here, but we're distracted by the marine life around us. A stingray glides past and two black and white angel fish cruise like stately miniature galleons among the coral outcrops.

As we swing up the eastern coast, Tahiti comes into view. The lagoon here is now crystal clear, sunlight bouncing up from the blinding white of the coral sand beneath. We park the car and clamber down the bank to wade in the water, tiny fish darting ahead of us. Two small boys on bikes call out "bonjour" as they pedal past.

Our second-to-last stop is another detour inland, to see the Afareaitu waterfalls. Sheltered from sea breezes, the valley air is hot and humid. We amble at island pace past private homes nestled amongst breadfruit and papaya, banana palms and hedges of wild ginger flowering pink and red.

We don't make it to the base of the falls... it's too hot. Maybe this is what is known locally as fiu, what my guide book describes rather quaintly (and in rather un-pc language) as "a frequent feeling caused by the heat and a natural nonchalance".

Personally, it seems a trait to be encouraged. What's more the lagoon is calling me.

There's one last stop though... the supermarket to buy blue cheese from the Auvergne in France, croissants, pottles of chocolate cream and fresh pineapples (which strangely are cheaper here than at the roadside stall near our hotel). We peruse the French wine but will have to wait until the next day to buy as there are no alcohol sales on Sundays.

Back at the bungalow we set out picnic on the deck - but first things first.

I don my mask and snorkel and fulfil a long-held ambition - to go swimming just a few metres from my bed.

Waiting below are tiny schools of cobalt, turquoise and sapphire fish, a pair of chocolate-brown and white striped angel fish and three pink and peach fish with pouting lips.

* Jill Worrall travelled to French Polynesia courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui and stayed at the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa.

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