“When you arrive in Tahiti you’re younger than when you left New Zealand!” Jean-Marc happily tells us as we get into his taxi to head to the Papeete ferry terminal. What a great way to start a holiday!

A relaxing 45-minute ferry trip later we disembark at Moorea, the idyllic yet lively and colourful island just off the main island of Tahiti. Here, relaxed tropical island life is entwined with more than just a soupçon (a little touch) of French language and cuisine.

Vaiare, the main dock of Moorea, is bustling with cars, bikes, tourists and locals, backdropped by the sparkling lagoon and sheer, craggy, volcanic hills that stretch to the vivid blue sky. Trundling our bags behind us we cross the road to the car rental office, signing up for our petite red Peugeot for a few days of self-drive exploring. Remembering to keep to the right we gingerly set off, the main road fringing the lagoon offering stunning views at every turn. After a short trip over a hill we cruise into one of the island’s most picturesque and secluded spots, the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort.

Nestled in a sheltered bay along Temae Beach – the longest on the island – the resort has an extensive offshore reef protecting the lagoon and is a snorkelling haven. Nurtured over many years and painstakingly transplanted with coral spores to grow and rejuvenate it, the reef is an underwater safe haven, food source and breeding ground for its many marine inhabitants.

In our overwater bungalow we find that the poles anchoring our dreamy haven to the lagoon floor are covered in coral and algae that attract tropical fish of all sizes and colours. At night, an underfloor light illuminates the reef life that is visible through a sturdy glass window set in the floor. We are treated to glimpses of a spotted stingray gliding below us and a moray eel scooting between coral patches on the lagoon floor in search of a place out of sight of the light and human eyes.

The next morning, recharged and ready to go, we set off in the petite Peugeot for a big day out. It’s a leisurely and easy drive north along the main road that circumnavigates the heart-shaped island but it’s hard to stay focused on the road as there is so much to see on top of focusing on driving French-style on the opposite side of the road. There are wonderful sea views, dramatic cliff faces that plunge down to white sandy beaches, and all the colour of island life which is relaxed and happy as it drifts by.

We pass dogs asleep in the sun, laughing and chattering kids piled onto push-bikes, roadside stalls selling coconut and fresh fruit and watermelon and fish, and locals heading home with freshly baked crusty baguettes piled in their arms and in the basket carriers of their bikes. It’s a wonderful tapestry of life.

And at every turn there are glistening black pearls. These stunning, locally harvested jewels adorn shop windows in a range of hues and jewellery designs for every whim: rings, bracelets, necklaces. Another colourful burst of island life is the brightly coloured local wraps, or pareos, adorning shopfronts and blowing gently in the island breeze. A staple part of any island wardrobe, the pareo is a wrap of many moods and occasions, a must for wearing over togs or as a skirt, dress, shorts or colourful top.

Back on the road we pass pineapple plantations spilling down the hillsides and flourishing in the rich organic soil and warm sunshine. At Cook’s Bay on the northern coast of the island we discover Brut d’Ananas, a locally produced bubbly that is a unique taste of Moorea: it’s like fruity pineapple sunshine captured in a bottle and corked. The Manutea Tahiti Rotui Juice Factory, home of the local pineapple tipple, is also brimming with local juice delights sans alcohol, very welcome on a hot drive.

self-drive holiday on the idyllic Tahitian island of Moorea

Next on the itinerary is a highlight of any holiday in Moorea: swimming with reef sharks and stingrays on the northwest coast of the island. It isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Captain Taina from her tour company of the same name eases her boat into the beach and we head off to the outer reaches of the lagoon in search of the “locals”. An aquarium drifts below us as we skim the waves, visible through the glass bottom of the boat. There is colourful fish life of all sizes and shapes including the sight of the day, turtles. They are furtive and hard to spot, popping their heads up and then darting quickly back under the safety of the water.

Totally skilled up on the fish population we arrive at the stingray greeting spot. Well used to Taina’s daily visits and attracted by the sound of her boat, plus the lilting Tahitian music and the everpopular fish mouthfuls she gently feeds them, the boat is quickly surrounded by these incredible gliding creatures. When the tour passengers plop off the side of the boat, the rays gently nuzzle them in search of morsels of fish. Finding the cupboard bare they glide off to Taina, their reliable food source, for their daily treat. The reef sharks are a little more cautious. Keeping their distance they dart between us and the rays, snapping up the scraps but not lingering for a pat. It’s an experience like no other.

Enjoying a glass of wine by the oceans of Moorea

Swimming with the locals ticked off the list, it’s time to be homeward bound, or at least back to the luxury of the Sofitel Moorea for the night before another day’s adventures. As a way to see this beautiful island, with time to stop and savour the full colour of local life, a selfdrive holiday on Moorea is highly recommended.