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Slow Mo In The South Seas

On the French Polynesian island of Moorea, doing nothing and loving it.


MOOREA, French Polynesia — One afternoon not long ago, my wife and I were coming out of the Caprice des Iles, a pleasant, casual island restaurant, after lunch on the veranda. The blue South Pacific was twinkling under a gentle breeze. The sun was so bright, the air so humid, the hills so green and overgrown that photosynthesis threatened to become audible.

Amid this seeming paradise, our waiter sidled over to me like a racetrack tout and said in suave, French-accented English: "We have live music tonight. American girl. Autoharp. Interesting."

As the waiter reached the last word of his autoharp suggestion, one of his eyebrows arched like a furry little Arc de Triomphe, suggesting, I think, that as long as I remained on this island, I was unlikely to encounter another entertainment option of this magnitude.

Later, when friends asked exactly what we did in Moorea, Mary Frances and I tried to give the flavor of the place by describing this moment. But when we finished jointly recounting this snippet, they were still waiting, the same unspoken word spelled out on each face. And . . ?

And nothing, OK? Narratives just don't hold up too well on Moorea because you're always making plans and forgetting to follow through, or hearing things and neglecting to act on them. We didn't go back to hear the autoharp. (Does anyone anywhere ever go back to hear an autoharp?) We lazed in the lagoon, on the sand, in lagoon, on sand, in restaurant, in room, on sand, in bar, on sand, in lagoon. . . . So when, in the middle of this blue-green blur of non-achievement, that waiter offered his little tip, we each knew, given the pace and tenor of the place, that this odd but modest moment would have to stand as our Vacation Anecdote.

But a great vacation need not produce a great anecdote. And though some worldly types may view Moorea as a sort of Polynesian second banana--the tiny sidekick to Tahiti or the perennial beauty-pageant runner-up to its other famous French Polynesian neighbor, Bora-Bora--Moorea remains a world-class producer of languor. And a great vacation does need languor.


So, Moorea. It lies about 15 miles west of Tahiti (the capital of the Society Islands, still under French control), about 100 miles southeast of Bora-Bora. Its shapely volcanic contours are clad in lush greenery. Deep blue lagoon waters lick at its beaches. A single, 39-mile-long ring road carries virtually all of its traffic. Air and water temperatures hover about 80 degrees year-round, although there's more rain from December through April.

I don't really understand why, but daylight seems brighter here, and night darker, than anywhere else. Most Californians arrive via an eight-hour flight from LAX to the Papeete airport on Tahiti, then a 10-minute hop from the big island to its tiny neighbor. So far, French visitors outnumber Americans.

There are 15 hotels and about 11,000 permanent residents, many of whom take ferries each day to jobs on Tahiti. The highest volcanic peak reaches about 4,000 feet, a fine sight, I'm sure, from the yachts that congregate in Moorea's twin bays, Cook's and Opunohu. (Those names notwithstanding, it was in Opunohu that Capt. Cook anchored in the 1760s.)

Unlike its Caribbean counterparts, Moorea is not heavily trafficked by cruise ships. Only one--the new, smallish and quite pricey M.S. Paul Gauguin--has a long-term French Polynesian assignment. So instead of large gaggles of cruisers on shopping missions with tight schedules, Moorea sees twosomes and foursomes who have no appointments. They walk and bike around the ring road, sharing the shoulder with stray dogs, chickens and children (half the island's population is said to be under age 20), stopping to eat when the aroma of seafood or pizza and French fries becomes too much for them.

One day Mary Frances and I did bestir ourselves to plunk down $20 and paddle a pair of kayaks out in the lagoon, but less than halfway through our allotted two hours, we got hungry and paddled back in. Another day we meant to rent bicycles . . . but never got around to it. We did sign on for a daylong circle cruise around the island (about $40 a head, lunch on an outlying islet and snorkeling included). Out on the water, we spotted a pod of cavorting dolphins and then beheld, beneath the fine mist of a blowhole blast, two very large humpback whales, perhaps 15 yards from our boat. Which was invigorating, but required no actual effort on our part.

We could have hiked, taken four-wheel-drive excursions, ridden horses, signed up for diving instruction. But we didn't get around to it. As several Moorean waiters can attest, we also made no advances on the French language. Aside from Mary Frances' attainment of her deepest tan in years, we basically achieved nothing. It was great.

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