Shark encounters highlight of Hilton Moorea stay

Overwater bungalows at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa allow for close encounters of the fishy kind

“Look babe, there’s a shark.”

Standing on the private terrace of our overwater bungalow at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa in French Polynesia, I turned towards where a woman on the boardwalk just above me, was gesturing wildly to her husband.

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And sure enough, meandering its way from underneath our bungalow — where my husband and I had been snorkelling just minutes before — was a blacktip reef shark.

We had been told the area’s sharks don’t typically move into the reefs surrounding our hotel, located on the island of Moorea, until the sun begins to set so as I glanced at my watch I was surprised to see it wasn’t quite 4 p.m.

“You’re a little early,” I yelled nervously towards the shark, which obviously had its own agenda and was sticking to it.

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Just one of the many black tip reef sharks that frequent the reef below Toatea Crêperie and Bar and the overwater bungalows at Hilton Moorea. Photo Sandra Thomas

Truth be told, watching sharks and stingrays swim under and around our bungalow was one of the highlights of our three-night stay at the Hilton in December. But, despite the fact blacktip reef sharks have a reputation for being non-aggressive and “inquisitive,” I was still a little freaked out watching the four-foot shark glide past where I had been snorkelling not 15-minutes before. (Honestly, magnified by the water it looked a lot longer.)

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Our Windstar 'Dreams of Tahiti' cruise stops in Moorea as part of its regular itinerary. Photo Windstar Cruises

Prior to visiting the Hilton Moorea we had been on a seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti” cruise on Windstar Cruise’s Wind Spirit, a four-masted, luxury sailing yacht that stops in ports on Moorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora, Huahine and Taha’a. And due to its small-ish size (140 passengers), the Wind Spirit can moor in ports large cruise ships can’t, which meant we didn’t encounter crowds during any trips to shore or on excursions.

The excursions offered on Moorea from the Wind Spirit include everything from scuba diving to dolphin eco tours and photography tours to snorkelling and jet-ski adventure. You can read more about our Windstar cruise here.

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We cruised the Society Islands in French Polynesia on the Wind Spirit. Photo Sandra Thomas

Home to two major research institutions, including UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, Moorea is considered one the most studied islands in the world and one Wind Spirit excursion takes advantage of that rich knowledge and includes a tour created to introduce guests to how the island came to be as it is today. All of those tours and more are also available to book through the Hilton Moorea.

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The island of Moorea in French Polynesia. Photo Sandra Thomas

Besides its approximate two million year history, another reason we chose Moorea as the island on which we would extend our stay in French Polynesia, is its proximity to Papeete, Tahiti, where the Wind Spirit docked following our cruise.

Once we disembarked the Wind Spirit, we simply wheeled our luggage down the pier and across a parking lot to the ferry terminal where we caught one of the Aremiti fast ferries at a cost of under $20FPF each. The trip took about 45 minutes and as we eased into the port on Moorea, I caught my first glimpse of this tropical oasis.

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My husband sitting on the deck of our overwater bungalow at Hilton Moorea at dusk. Photo Sandra Thomas

It’s long been speculated the island was the inspiration for the mythical Bali Hai from James Michener's classic Tales of the South Pacific and even at first glance I could see why. From overhead the island is aptly shaped like a heart, giving honeymooners even more reason to seek out the island, which includes eight lusciously green mountain peaks that rise up from Moorea’s translucent reef-rimmed lagoon. Moorea is one of the top honeymoon destinations in Tahiti — second only to Bora Bora. Dividing the north shore are two almost identical bays, Cook's (Paopao) and Opunohu.

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A manta ray floating towards our overwater bungalow at Hilton Moorea in the exact same spot we saw a black tip reef shark about 15 minutes before. Photo Sandra Thomas

Back at the Hilton we made the decision to make the most of our overwater, Polynesian-style bungalow and during the day spent a lot of time sitting on our deck and snorkelling underneath it — even after the shark sighting. The hotel lets you borrow snorkel gear for the duration of your visit, so we put it to good use.

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Our nighttime view from our overwater bungalow at Hilton Moorea. Photo Sandra Thomas

And in the evenings we enjoyed drinks on our terrace while waiting for the sun to set. The Hilton has a very popular happy hour, but considering our time at the resort was limited we really did want to make the most of our bungalow, which sat on stilts directly over the water.

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The coffee table in our overwater bungalow at Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa allowed us to see the ocean floor even from inside. Photo Sandra Thomas

Part of our floor was made of glass so even when we were inside, we could still see the reef and fish below us. At night, the water under our bungalow was lit by up by a single light so we could still catch the action even in the dark.

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Sharks and a stingray look for snacks under the Toatea Crêperie and Bar at Hilton Moorea, just steps from our overwater bungalow. Photo Sandra Thomas

We also checked out the overwater Toatea Crêperie and Bar, which was 50 steps from our bungalow. And just like with our bungalow, the area below the bar has lights shining down onto the water so curious sharks and manta rays and eagle rays gather there each night.

There was a time staff used to feed the sharks as a way to draw them in, but that practise has stopped. Though I suspect there’s more than the odd piece of shrimp and fish “accidently” dropped by diners into the water, because the sharks and stingrays continue to show up after sunset each night — hear that, 4 p.m. reef shark?  

When it comes to dining the Hilton focuses on French and Polynesian specialities, which means the best of both worlds — think freshly baked French pastries everywhere, all the time. Guests can enjoy dinner and a sunset at Arii Vahine Restaurant by the lagoon or a relaxed lunch at the beach-side Rotui Grill & Bar.

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The million dollar view from the Moorea Beach Cafe. Photo Sandra Thomas

There are also local restaurants that allow you to make reservations through the Hilton and which will send a driver to pick you up. One afternoon we ate lunch at the Moorea Beach Café, which we hoped might be more casual (less expensive) than the majority of restaurants we’d eaten at. But as we walked into this waterfront café with the million dollar views, we realized that while it was casual, it was by no means inexpensive.

My husband and I shared a beet and goat cheese salad, a chicken sandwich — no fries, and two beers and our bill worked out to just over $100FPF or about $130CAN. But that’s pretty standard for most restaurants, unless you rent a car and head to villages off the beaten tourist path.

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Chef Rudy of Rudy's Fine Steaks and Seafood on the island of Moorea (l) with his father (r), who was so charming he made our evening one to remember. Photo Sandra Thomas

For dinner we checked out Rudy’s Fine Steaks and Seafood — which had really great reviews online — and enjoyed a martini each, shared a salad, ordered beautiful seafood entrees and sipped on a bottle of nice wine, all for $140 FPF, which we thought was a bargain. Tip: the stuffed parrot fish at Rudy's is just as good as everyone on TripAdvisor.com says it is.

At the time of our visit the French Polynesian franc was worth about 10-cents more than the U.S. dollar, so we got slammed on everything we bought. But deciding this might be our one and only trip to French Polynesia, I forced myself to stop doing the conversions in my head. 

And despite the fact French Polynesia is definitely the most expensive place we’ve visited to date, we also decided it was worth every penny.

Sandra Thomas was a guest of the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa for one night of a three-night stay. The Hilton did not read or approved this article in advance.

sthomas@vancourier.com

@sthomas10

 

 

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