How do you formulate words adequate enough to describe the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?

It’s a challenge not unique to me, and is one that frequent travelers know well. It's a feeling I haven’t had for the past few years, after spending countless hours stuck at home. However, I was recently invited to check in to the stunning Sofitel Kia Ora resort in Mo’orea, Tahiti, and it quite literally took my breath away.

An aerial view of Mo'orea, a volcanic island in French Polynesia
An aerial view of Mo’orea, a volcanic island in French Polynesia filled with natural wonder © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The island of Mo’orea is situated in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, just a 40-minute ferry ride from the main island of Tahiti and its capital city Pape’ete. Here, the streets are lined with speed limit signs reading “60 km/hour,” equaling roughly 37 miles per hour. I inquired about this to our local ATV tour guide while driving around one of the most scenic stretches through Opunohu Bay, asking if this was the limit around the entire island, to which he replied, “Of course. Why would you want to go any faster? You’d miss these beautiful views.” I smiled and nodded, realizing his response summed up my feelings and emotions so adequately – feelings I was struggling to put into words myself. Whether at Sofitel Kia Ora on Mo’orea, or exploring the island, it felt like a place to slow down and soak it all in so you don’t miss a single minute of the natural beauty around you. 

When I hopped aboard my Air Tahiti Nui direct flight from LAX to PPT, I had assumptions about what this destination might be like, having never been to French Polynesia before. The brightly colored seatbacks on the plane evoked the fictional island of “Te Fiti,” the Pixar version of French Polynesia that I’ve seen in countless rewatches of Moana (I admit I had the soundtrack stuck in my head during my entire trip). And the traditional Polynesian music that began playing as soon as the plane touched down in Pape’ete signaled an easy, breezy island getaway to escape your worries and fears, throw on a flower lei, stick a hibiscus flower in your hair and forget life’s worries.

The stunning beaches of Mo'orea
The stunning beaches of Mo’orea © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The beaches are absurd in Mo’orea and the scuba diving is truly unmatched. The mountains, looking like something straight out of Jurassic Park, made me question why I’d ever want to go back to my tiny shoebox apartment in New York City. But I think the thing that stood out to me the most about my time on this little island is this: while this is a traveler's paradise, it's also home to real people and a rich cultural history I never previously knew. 

A date with the ocean in Mo'orea, French Polynesia

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The pool at Sofitel Kia Ora Mo’orea
The pool at Sofitel Kia Ora Mo’orea © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

Each day at Sofitel Kia Ora brought new opportunities to learn from and engage with the people who call this island home; the ones who’ve carried on the local traditions and culture for generations, who’ve preserved this beautiful land so people like me can experience its beauty. These people and their overwhelmingly generous hospitality are what truly made this getaway so unforgettable. And after 2 years of lockdown without any travel, the connections with those people are what I had longed for most. 

Yvette Leon, the endlessly enthusiastic and passionate owner of Mo’orea VIP Tours, seems to hold the island’s entire history inside her brain. Leon, a former restaurant owner and the unofficial "hype woman" of Mo’orea (my words, not hers), showed us the true Tahitian way to make marinated fish, a dish so savory and fresh that I basically ate it at every meal. (The key is lots of lime and coconut milk!) As we wandered the island together, she identified every type of flower, coconut and tree and had personal stories and anecdotes to share along the way. She was also kind enough to teach us how to make a traditional Tahitian flower crown on our final night and explained the "language of the flower" that’s essential to embracing the culture of Tahiti.

Flowers to adorn your hair - though be mindful of which ear you place your flower
Flowers to adorn your hair – though be mindful of which ear you place your flower © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

From the traditional stories about Mo’orea's most significant mountain peaks, to the history of Tahitian coins, Yvette offered a wealth of knowledge on all the beauty, culture and history Mo’orea has to offer. "If you wear a flower on your right ear," Yvette explained, "that means you are single. And if you put your flower on the left ear, the side of your heart, that means you are married. And if you see somebody with two flowers, a flower on each side, that means married and still looking… for trouble."

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Taking a boat ride outside the resort's reef to explore the vibrant ocean life of French Polynesia
Taking a boat ride outside the resort's reef to explore the ocean life of French Polynesia © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

Johanna Berard, founder of Te Moana Tours, took us on a boat tour from the hotel, venturing outside the reef and giving us time to swim with sharks and sting rays while teaching us how to interact with them responsibly. She then hosted us on her private motu, a small private island of reef, where she and her husband host music festivals throughout the year. She shared stories with us about growing up in Tahiti and raising her children there, while her husband cooked us a beach-side lunch and her dog entertained us. The hospitality at the hotel and off the property felt just as inviting as those crystal-clear blue waters. 

Arriving into Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui
Arriving into Pape’ete on Air Tahiti Nui © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

How to get to Tahiti

I arrived in Tahiti via a direct, 8-hour flight from LAX on Air Tahiti Nui to Pape’ete. From there, the easiest and most convenient way to get to Mo’orea is by ferry, a scenic journey that takes about 45 minutes. Two ferry companies operate daily schedules, leaving from the port in Pape’ete and arriving in Moorea’s Vaiare marina. Prices start at 1500XPF ($15 US) per person, each way.

If you're craving a sun-and-sand getaway on a remote island of rolling green mountains, Mo’orea can be a good alternative to Hawaii, especially if you're up for an international getaway. With some smart planning, it can also be much more accessible and affordable than the Maldives. Although I only had time to see the island of Mo’orea on my trip, visitors are encouraged to check out a few different destinations within the Society Islands and do a bit of island-hopping. You’ll find that Mo’orea is the lushest among them and is far bigger than the others, captivating travelers (and locals alike) with its panoramic views. Be sure to check out Magic Mountain, which was another experience during my trip that took my breath away – partly because of the beautiful views, and partly because of the steep climb and high altitudes. 

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Caitlin on an ATV tour in Mo'orea
Caitlin on an ATV tour in Mo’orea © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

I would have been perfectly content to lie on the beach or lounge on the deck of my bungalow – and saw many visitors who did just that – but Mo’orea offers so many opportunities for adventure and exploration as well, both at the Sofitel and outside its walls. ATV tours allow travelers to rumble through the island’s lush wilderness and through fields of fresh pineapples. Boat tours leave daily from Sofitel Kia Ora and provide a unique perspective of the entire perimeter of Mo’orea from those clear blue waters outside the reef. The property also offers other aquatic activities guests can experience during their stay like scuba diving, kayaking, snorkeling and more. 

I find myself looking back on my pictures and videos from the Sofitel Kia Ora often, whenever I need to distract myself from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan or want a reminder of just how beautiful that little piece of paradise is. Between the unmatched hospitality, the most gorgeous waters I’ve ever seen and the beauty of a land that can only be seen to be believed, I will not soon forget my time in Mo’orea.

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The interior of an overwater bungalow, complete with a view of the ocean below
The interior of an overwater bungalow, complete with a view of the ocean below © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The rooms

Two words: overwater bungalow. This was my first time experiencing an overwater bungalow, and I must say, being able to plop my feet in the water each morning while enjoying my fresh Tahitian pineapple juice and coffee was a game changer. With spacious bathrooms, coffeemakers and a free minibar refilled daily, the accommodations were right on par with the rest of the property. I especially enjoyed the glass panel in the floor to view the lagoon below. Note that one of the overwater bungalows on the property is wheelchair accessible.

Pro tip: BYO pool float to lounge in the lagoon and admire the incredible sea life. I saw a few guests taking part in this throughout my stay and it seemed like such a smart hack. 

There are also beachfront villas and bungalows located throughout the property, providing a more budget-friendly option for guests not wanting to splurge on the overwater retreats. 

@lonelyplanet Wait til you see how Polynesian women use this beautiful (and functional) flower! If only TikTok had smellevision. #tahiti #moorea #ylangylang #flower ♬ original sound - gonzalo

The food

I already mentioned my immediate and overwhelming obsession with the marinated fish on property. I resisted the urge to order it at every meal (though I still had it at least once a day) and was able to try a lot of different dishes, both in the daily American-style, Tahitian-influenced breakfast buffet, as well as the lunch and dinner options at the two restaurants on property. 

Pure is the main restaurant on the property, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. It offers a little bit of everything – from burgers and sandwiches to the freshest seafood and veggie options. 

When dining at Pure, the traditional Tahitian dance show, performed twice weekly, is not to be missed. The dancers begin the show by explaining a bit about the history of Polynesian dance and the 3 main types, and how stories are passed on from generation to generation. The hour-long show had no less than 10 costume changes and provided a captivating look at Tahiti’s culture and history. 

Beach Bar is situated right on the private beach and serves up drinks like piña coladas, margaritas and fresh coconuts when it’s time to rehydrate. Vue Bar, located right next to Pure, with more incredible views of that signature crystal clear water, is the perfect spot to grab a nightcap before heading back to your bungalow for the evening. 

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Getting a lay of the land on a guided bike tour
Getting a lay of the land on a guided bike tour © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The area

Mo’orea is set apart from all the other islands of French Polynesia thanks to its unique mountain range. The barrier reef surrounding the island sets the scene for one of the most unique natural wonders I’ve ever seen. The reef has 11 “gates” throughout that allow for boats to pass through, and the waves off the reef offer some of the best surfing around. 

Learning to surf in the Land of Giants

A treatment room at the Le Jardin Spa and Beauty
A treatment room at the Le Jardin Spa and Beauty © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The amenities

Le Jardin Spa and Beauty, the indoor/outdoor spa on property offers a menu of relaxing and rejuvenating treatments, many of which include natural ingredients found right on the property like the tiare (a type of gardenia), vanilla and aloe vera plants. If you forget to reapply the SPF and get a gnarly sunburn on day one like yours truly, head on down to the spa and the team will take care of you.

The Sofitel Kia Ora is the only property with its own private beach on the island, and the on-property aquatic center is where guests can borrow snorkeling gear, kayaks, paddle boards and more. Head there to talk to their guides and pick out the activities that are best for you. If the beach isn’t your thing, the infinity pool offers a welcoming and relaxing escape. 

Sofitel also offers a list of other curated experiences, like a personal dock-side canoe breakfast, romantic dinner for two on the deck, a private dinner in the sand and more. The team is dedicated to ensuring your time at the resort is unforgettable and they’re more than happy to pull out all the stops to do so. 

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The walk out to the resort's overwater bungalows
The walk out to the resort's overwater bungalows © Caitlin Riddell / Lonely Planet

The price

The luxury overwater bungalows start around $800 USD/night, and the garden-view villas and bungalows start around $500 USD/night. These are definitely among the more affordable ways to stay in this spendy destination. 

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