|Papenoo Valley, 1971
Once upon a time, when I was young and unencumbered and lucky enough to be in French Polynesia, I hopped an open-air jitney from Tahiti’s bustling capital Papeete to the bucolic Papenoo River valley on the north shore. I walked miles up the dirt road along the river and swam below a flower-draped waterfall. Freshwater eels swam harmlessly between my legs.
That day was a wonder and I have wanted to revisit the Papenoo Valley ever since. I was fortunate to return to French Polynesia recently, but revisiting the Papenoo Valley was disappointing. The lower valley today is pockmarked with rock quarries. Heavy trucks run back and forth. At a bend in the river near where I swam so many years ago, a track hoe excavator was digging river rock and loading it into heavy trucks. No wonder the lower Papenoo runs brown.
The Upper Papenoo is purportedly still pristine, but is best reached by 4WD. Tourist agencies take groups up for a taste of unspoiled Tahiti.
A better way to turn back the clock is to take the 12-mile, 45 minute ferry from Papeete across the tropical blue sea to nearby Moorea. Protected by a reef and surrounded by a lagoon, volcanic peaks soar to the sky. Deep valleys hide impossibly tall waterfalls. Tropical flowers perfume the air. Pineapple fields stretch forever.
|Opunohu Bay, Mt. Rotui and Cook Bay viewed from the Belvedere, Moorea
There is hardly any traffic on Moorea’s two-lane circle road. Tourist accommodations cluster on the lagoons and bays; the accommodations are neither large nor fancy, just comfortable. Moorea today resembles my memories of Tahiti fifty years ago.
If you visit Moorea, you are already off the beaten track. Most visitors stay in thatch cabanas built on stilts over the lagoon. They lounge and snorkel and eat well. My accommodations were more modest, but still lagoon-side and open to the tropical breeze. I went for the world-class island hiking. I day-hiked to waterfalls, ancient ceremonial sites and marvelous tropical views, always surrounded by lush vegetation and gorgeous flowers. Two of my hikes were loops. All were easily accessible by car.
I woke up a few dogs as I drove around the south shore to the village of Afareaitu. My map showed walks to waterfalls, one named and one not. Each looked to be an hour or less one-way.
|Road to the first waterfall
The road to Afareaitu waterfall is unmarked. Going counter-clockwise around the island, it is the first turn-off after you pass the small village hospital on the left. Another way to locate the turnoff—there are three small bridges in town; the correct turnoff is just before the second bridge (going counter-clockwise). Drive as far as you dare, as the unpaved road is rough on rental cars. When you park, if someone is around do them the kindness of asking permission. The first woman I asked said parking near her house was not a good idea, because they operate an open-air auto repair shop right there. She suggested I drive to the next wide place in the road and there everything was fine.
The road walk winds past modest cabins and groves of bananas and taro. The last house is surrounded by exotic chickens and ducks. A small outdoor aviary houses parakeets and other exotic birds. A goat kept watch over the fowl. Almost every house was guarded by a sleepy dog. I elicited only two barks on my 20 minute road walk.
|Glimpse of the waterfall above the ginger flowers
The road segues into a trail and the grade steepens. From here, it is a short half hour up to the falls. The plant life is amazing. I wish I knew the names, red flowers, white flowers, smells of vanilla—could I have passed wild vanilla plants? Moorea used to be called the vanilla island. Watch your footing, especially during the rainy season (November-March). The tree roots can be slippery and the underlying clay can be slick as a bowling alley—and you’re the bowling ball!
The falls, a hundred meters high, peeks through the foliage. You hear it gush as you grow closer. Finally you step out into the falling spray. The cool pool at the base beckons. I ditched my shoes, crawled over the rocks to reach the water, then swam until my back was against the wall and the cooling spray doused my head, neck and shoulders.
The map showed an unnamed waterfall one valley over. I walked out and drove around. This access road proved a little easier to find. Look for a turnoff just on the far side (now driving clockwise) of the hospital. A paved road takes you in about 200 yards to the local school and soccer field. The pavement stops here, but you keep going, again just as far as you are comfortable. I found good parking beyond a small bridge about 1km from the highway.
|Turn-off to the second waterfall
The two hikes are so similar I call them identical twins. Leaving the car, I walked up the road about 20 minutes until it became a trail. Then I followed the trail to the waterfall. Here again, water fell like a bridal train, forming a swimmable pool at the base. I jumped in. The water was cooler than the first fall. Thank goodness, as the day was tropical steamy.
A trick to help find this waterfall is to look for a right turn, just across from the very final electrical pole on the road. The right fork, lined briefly with low stone walls, looks like a driveway but it leads in about 20 minutes up to the falls. There are a couple of slippery boulder moves right at the end of the walk, but something so delicious as a cool waterfall swim deserves to be earned.
The Belvedere is a popular viewpoint easily reached by car on Moorea’s north shore. The view from the Belvedere over Cook Bay and Opunohu Bay, with Moorea’s tallest peak, Mt. Rotui separating them, is about as perfect a tropical view as you can imagine. The bays glint in the sun while the surf shines prominently a mile out on the edge of the lagoon’s reef. Below the Belvedere, the lush terrain segues from tropical forest to pineapple fields.
The paved road to the Belvedere twists inland from Opunohu Bay, climbing about 800’ to the lookout from which you can photograph both bays. On the short drive inland, you pass a scientific field station, a shrimp farm, and an agricultural college that is open to the public. A side road, walkable and bikeable but not suitable for rental cars, winds over to Cook’s Bay. Tiki Village, a local adventure park with a ropes course and zip lines is a short walk from the junction. You can also rent horses at Tiki Village.
|Marae below the Belvedere
Continuing uphill towards the Belvedere, just beyond the road junction, there is a small car park. Here you can take a short walk into the forest to see the stonesof several marae, estimated to be at least 500 years old. (More about the marae below.)
|Hiking map at the Belvedere
The Belvedere is a mecca for Moorea hiking. A signboard provides a helpful map and brief trail descriptions. I walked two different loops on successive days, but you can also do shorter out-and-back hikes.
Trois Pinus Lookout, Valée des Ananas and the route of the ancestors. The most straightforward walk from the Belvedere is a two-hour out-and-back hike to the Trois Pinus lookout. The route descends perhaps 200’ bypassing amazing volcanic cliffs and crossing several small streams. The footpath is rocky and rooty and there is much clay soil, which turns slippery when wet—an almost everyday occurrence in the rainy season. The view from the lookout is similar to the Belvedere, but with even more scenery encompassing the entirety of the Opunohu Valley.
I made a 3 ½-hr, five-mile loop out of the Three Pines hike by continuing on the red-blazed trail right down the nose of the lookout, headed directly for prominent Mt. Rotui. Orchids and other tropical flowers lined the route until after a short half-hour, at the base of Mt. Rotui, I met the “Vallée des Ananas” dirt road and burst out into pineapple fields forever. The pineapple fields rolled down on both sides to the bays below. Most of the pineapples grown on Moorea are processed nearby into juice sold under the “Rotui” label. Others you can buy along the coast road. They are full of flavor when procured this way and cost but a sou.
|Pineapple fields forever
I turned left and walked through the “Vallée des Ananas”. I appreciated the easier walking on the road, which lasted about a mile. At the car park for the Tiki adventure park, I turned left and picked up the forest route again, now marked in green and called the route of the ancestors.
It’s called the route of the ancestors because as it winds its way uphill, the trail passes something like 19 stone marae foundations. The marae predate contacts with Europeans. Some marae were administrative in nature, others were for ceremonies. Chiefs used marae complexes to organize alliances and marriages. Economic activities were also conducted. These included ceremonies to bless the first harvests, and other ceremonies to accept tributes in the form of feathers or tapas (bark) cloth. The marae of the upper Opunohu Valley were used routinely until the time of western contact.
Continuing upward, the trail touched the creek at a near-perfect swimming hole. I dived in and as I did so, I felt the first drops of a tropical rainstorm. Dressing quickly and continuing on my way, the trail soon turned into a torrent with as much as 3” of rainwater rushing over the tread. The nearby creek was now a churning brown flood. I was glad I was on the Belvedere side as I would not want to have crossed the creek during the rainstorm.
Soon enough, I was back at my car. The rainstorm abated. Wisps of cloud lifted as the mist evaporated revealing once again the bays far below.
The Trois Pinus hike can be done as a two-hour out and back or (as I did) a 3 ½-hr loop. A third alternative is to continue contouring east from the overlook towards Opunohu Pass. From there, you can descend to Vaiere, near where the ferry docks. I have read an account of this all-day hike. The trail is said to be in good condition. The Vaiere end-point is near the town soccer field, behind the Bay Market just south of town. To do this through hike, of course you need to arrange transportation.
Trois Cocos Loop. Like its sister, the Trois Cocos viewpoint can be reached beginning at the other side of the Belvedere parking lot in a three-hour out-and-back hike. Trois Cocos is a splendid viewpoint. From the pass you can see both Opunohu and Cook Bays on the northern side of the island and looking south the view extends all the way to the seashore there as well. A five-minute hike above the pass, still on good trail leads to an even better northern overlook atop a cliff.
|The trail crosses the bottom of the abutment
The trail map refers to a more sporting way to achieve “Trois Cocos” by means of a loop trail beginning and ending from marked trailheads in the Opunohu Valley. Being a sucker for loops, I fell for this. The trailheads indeed were marked, and much of the trail where it was obvious was marked, but markings and even the trail disappeared at critical moments. It took me 6 hours to finish the eight-mile-long, 1,600’-ascent loop. I spent an hour bashing through the jungle off trail, wondering whether I was going to spend the night curled in a ball swatting at mosquitoes. Pushing my way through tangled undergrowth and avoiding steep drop-offs at these moments, I took comfort in knowing that there is little in this tropical Eden that can hurt you any worse than a bee or a mosquito. Perhaps miraculously, or perhaps the result of a lifetime of honing skills in somewhat similar circumstances, always when I was at my most desperate, yellow trail markers would resume as if out of nowhere. This happened at least three times. I remain mystified.
I recommend visiting Trois Cocos as an out and back hike. The loop version is much more challenging. For an account of my adventure on the Trois Cocos loop, see
Conditions on Moorea are warm and humid throughout the year. Expect to sweat—a lot. The antidote to the enervating walking conditions is a swim in a nearby stream or waterfall, and the riot of colors and gorgeous views make it all worthwhile. Wear clothing and footwear that you don’t mind getting wet. Don’t worry about bugs, they are rarely if ever a problem. As if the rewards of your hike are not enough, expect to end the day (and ease your sore muscles) with a swim, snorkel or surf in the world’s most beautiful ocean.
If you go:
Free tourist maps of Moorea are readily available, but consider purchasing International Travel Maps' "Tahiti", 1:100,000 for your trip planning. www.itmb.com
When you drive up to the Belvedere, pull into the agricultural college for a glass of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice.