Moorea is called the "sister island" of Tahiti and its proximity-just 19 km (12 mi) away across the Sea of Moon-has assured a steady stream of both international and local visitors. Many Tahitians have holiday homes on Moorea and hop over in their boats or take the 30-minute ferry. The draw is South Seas island charm and a relatively slow-paced life. Moorea is an eighth of the size of Tahiti but packs all the classic island features into its triangular shape. Cutting into the northern side of the island are the dramatic Opunohu Bay and Cook's Bay, the latter backed by the shark-toothed Mt. Mouaroa and home to many resorts and restaurants. Between the two bays majestic Mt. Rotui rises 2,020 feet (616 meters) and steep, jagged mountain ridges run across the island. From the Belvedere lookout there are awesome views of these bays and mountains, including the tallest peak-the thumb-shaped Mt. Tohiea reaching 3,960 feet (1,207 meters) into the clouds.
Moorea is ringed by a coral reef enclosing a beautiful and quite narrow lagoon. Unlike other islands in the Society group, Moorea has only a couple of motu (islets) and they are located off the northwest corner. The island's rugged peaks and deep bays are said to be the inspiration for James A. Michener's mythical isle of Bali Hai, although historians dispute this claim. It's also believed to be the "birthplace" of the legendary overwater bungalow: a trio of Californian guys who came to Moorea in the 1950s and became known as the Bali Hai boys reportedly dreamt up this unique style of hotel room. Today there are seven resorts and about 24 smaller hotels and pensions, acres of pineapple plantations, and one of only two golf courses in French Polynesia.
Afareaitu. This village a few miles south of the port of Vaiare is the administrative center and contains the island's mairie (town hall) and a small, early 20th-century church. The village was headquarters of the South Seas Academy in the early 19th century, whose mission was to spread the Protestant faith. Nearby is Marae Umarea, the oldest on the island, dating back to AD 900. The two Afareaitu waterfalls, often just called waterfall 1 and 2, are inland from the village via different dirt roads. You can drive to car parks and take a 20- to 30-minute walk to each of them. Pack a swimsuit as there are rockpools ideal for swimming. Afareaitu also has the island's only hospital.
Cook's Bay. This lovely bay, also known as Paopao Bay, has the most dramatic setting and is best appreciated by standing at its eastern or western shore, or better still, from a boat out in the lagoon. The much-photographed shark-toothed mountain of Mouaroa rises steeply behind it, and Mt. Rotui stands at its western side. There's no real township, just a smattering of shops, restaurants, and small hotels along the northeast corner.