Grounded in Paradise: A Review of the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea
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My wife and I were in French Polynesia on the island of Moorea recently, so I used the occasion to check out properties I'd been keeping an eye on. One was the four-star InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea.
The hotel was a stone's throw from the five-star Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa (review coming soon!), but the difference was stark. While the Hilton managed to make guests forget that there was a real world outside its perimeter, the InterContinental felt more like a beautiful oasis a few tweaks away from the perfection one expects when traveling to Moorea.
That said, a number of its rooms are undergoing renovations in 2019, and the more affordable price tag could make its flaws forgivable to those who don’t plan to spend the bulk of their time on the property.
In early 2018, IHG announced sweeping changes for booking award stays at its properties. Most of those changes involved price hikes, and the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea saw its base award balloon from 40,000 points per night to 50,000 — a staggering 25% uptick.
That 50,000-point award only got you a Lanai Room wall-to-wall with other units in something like a small apartment complex.
If you wanted a room more exquisite, it was cash only. While the nearby Hilton could offer laughable per-night award rates for its premium overwater bungalows (often climbing as high as 350,000 Honors points per night), at least it’s possible. Here, award stays weren’t available at any price for higher-tier rooms.
I booked both a junior-suite beach bungalow and a junior-suite overwater bungalow for successive nights. Given that IHG only allowed awards bookings at this property on base-level Lanai Rooms, we confirmed our booking via Hotels.com/Venture. The beach bungalow priced out at $618.18 with all taxes included, while the overwater bungalow commanded not much more at $681.98. Note that neither of my bookings included meals, though half-board and full-board rates are available at this property.
I noticed right away that the nightly rate on the beach bungalow was quite high compared to nearby beach bungalows, but conversely the nightly rate for the overwater bungalow was lower than average. I'd soon find out why.
We’re big fans of booking nonalliance hotels via hotels.com, and if you aren't reaching for a certain number of stays to reach status, it often makes sense even for chain properties. In doing so, you receive 10% back on hotels booked at Hotels.com, since Capital One points are worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed for a statement credit against travel. Plus, purchases made through that portal are eligible for Hotels.com Rewards when booking and paying with your Venture Rewards card. For every 10 nights you stay, you get one free night that you can redeem at any property in the world.
With the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card, you get Platinum elite status, and my status was recognized at check-in even though I didn't book directly. I had to email the property in advance to add my IHG number to the reservations, which proved to be valuable.
Situated on the northwest corner of Moorea, roughly 35 minutes via car from the ferry dock, the InterContinental fell short of having the ideal location. (That, I’d argue, is a crown held by the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa, 10 minutes away.) The problem? There was really no ideal place here to view the sunset. The best place to watch was at the resort’s pier, which was littered with vessels of all types. Because of that, it was impossible to enjoy a Moorea sunset without being reminded that you were at a working marina: not exactly romantic.
That said, the backdrop here was world-class. It sat against a range of lush, sky-scraping mountains and essentially had a jungle on site. The sound of palm trees rustling in the wind provided a serene, 24/7 soundtrack.
We arrived via taxi at a grand lobby. InterContinental did an excellent job of seeing that native Tahitians were there to welcome you, grab your bags and point you to the check-in desk, all to a hearty cacophony of “Ia Orana!”
I spotted a total of three multilingual staffers assisting with check-in and checkout, all with smiling faces and pleasant tones. Despite arriving alongside a bus full of guests, I was served within 10 minutes. I was welcomed as an IHG Platinum elite guest and was asked if I’d prefer a drink voucher or my welcome points. (Naturally, I opted for the points.) All the while, my wife and I were sipping on delicious orange juice.
Because we were changing rooms after the first day, we had to check out the following morning by 11am. A porter would be sent to grab my bags and store them until my next room was ready. Additionally, I was told that my first room, a beach bungalow, was ready early (around 12:30pm) and that my second night included an upgrade from the standard overwater bungalow I booked to a premium overwater bungalow, the top-tier room at the property.
They told us we could check out snorkeling and kayak gear, and the concierge desk could book off-property activities like horseback riding and excursions. With that, we were whisked away to Room 406 via golf cart.
A unique feature of this property was the canal that cut through the middle. There was one row of beach bungalows (like the one I stayed in) that offered a porch, a beach and access to great snorkeling and swimming. Across that canal was yet another row of bungalows that faced out toward the ocean. This ensured that even walks around the property’s interior had water in sight.
There's no beating around the bush: The water here just wasn’t as colorful as it was at the Hilton Moorea. It wasn't the kind of mesmerizing blue that we witnessed at the St. Regis Bora Bora or the Park Hyatt Maldives, but if you showed up to this property never having visited the Hilton’s lagoon, you’d still be blown away. For the most part, the water was clear, allowing guests to peer down and see fish, turtles and plenty of other marine life. But it wasn't the vibrant aquamarine that made you wonder if it were a mirage.
There was also a lot more trash and netting at the InterContinental. During my stay in a premium overwater bungalow, there was a net just off of my back porch that collected all manner of trash, from palm branches to water bottles.
There was a decently sized beach right beside the aforementioned marina, but the water wasn’t swimmable. It was a lounge-only beach.
The public beach backed up to two pools, a bar and a restaurant, and there seemed to always be some sort of music happening. But it all felt manufactured, like the inside-a-bubble feeling of an all-inclusive resort.
Indeed, many guests arrived on a half-board or full-board itinerary and never had to leave.
On the plus side, the grounds were enormous and fun to get lost in, and unlike at the Hilton, we found several huge swaths of grass ideal for football and other family romp sessions.
My first room was the junior-suite beach bungalow, measuring about 645 square feet.
There were 17 of these gems on the property, with a rear deck that extended onto a beach and into a canal.
With a white-sand beach, our own personal palm tree, loungers on the rear deck and plenty of privacy between units, I was in heaven. It looked as if this unit had recently been refurbished with upscale tiling throughout, Tahitian-inspired woodwork, huge sliding-glass panes onto the rear deck and a new tub in the bathroom.
Space wasn’t an issue. There was ample room to scoot around the comfy king bed, which could be separated from the living area via a pocket door. The living room had a chair that I’m now obsessed with buying for our home, as well as a couch that sat atop a slide-out twin-bed mattress. There was a work desk as well, though the scenery from the rear deck made it a real challenge to actually use.
Speaking of, views from the rear decks were majestic. Huge mountains filled the background, while a never-ending sea swallowed the foreground. Silhouettes of thatched-roof huts in sunset photos went a long way in justifying the effort in getting here.
My second room was a junior-suite premium overwater bungalow, measuring 704 square feet, which was deceptively named. InterContinental claims to have a staggering 276 overwater bungalows at this property. If true, it would likely win all sorts of awards for the most elaborately planned overwater resort in the world. Instead, these were actually partially overwater bungalows. In other words, 50% to 80% of the suite was actually built on land, with just a pinch of it hanging off over the water.
Some will scream, “Semantics!” but I see it differently. The term “overwater bungalow” is hallowed. People save up for years and years — decades, even — for once-in-a-lifetime trips to stay in a hut suspended over the water.
This matters for a few reasons. The most notable one is water quality. The further you are from shore, the clearer a lagoon typically becomes. This is why the three partially overwater bungalows at the Hilton Moorea down the street were classified as “lagoon bungalows." Indeed, all of the “overwater” bungalows at the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea were perched atop clear ocean water, but it was still the open ocean: It was choppy, trash floated in, and it was not the screaming blue one expects when dropping $600-plus per night for a room with “overwater” in the name.
The second is privacy. When compared to actual overwater bungalows built on pontoons that extend from shore, rooms like mine just weren’t as private. On several occasions, Jet Skiers, parasailers and catamarans cruised by within 30 feet of my rear deck. Not something to entice a backyard swim.
This bungalow was also a bit worse for wear, and the tub was also noticeably older than the one in our prior room. Sure, a refurbishment program is slated for 2019, but determining whether your overwater bungalow will be rocking a fresh coat of paint in the new year is going to be difficult.
Oh, and it appears that the refurbishment may be off to an early start. The room directly beside mine had workers in (and under) it starting at 8:30am and continuing right on through my checkout at 11:30am. Saws, hammers, grinders, vacuums, you name it — all of the above were happening about 20 feet from my rear deck. I’m a pretty chill traveler, though.
However, for honeymooners who just dropped $600-plus for an “overwater” bungalow that’s 80% on land, a nonstop barrage of beating and banging next door might not go over so well.
Management here could stand to learn a thing or two from the folks at the Hilton Moorea when it comes to disturbances. Hilton Moorea’s web portal had an alert that “the resort's main pool will be undergoing maintenance between Jan. 3 and approximately Feb. 7, 2019.” Similarly, IHG was warning prospective travelers of “a renovation program” for its overwater bungalows from Jan. 2, 2019, through Dec. 20, 2019.
The difference? Hilton was giving each guest who books during that period a voucher for 7,000 francs (roughly $70) per day to spend at any of its dining outlets or at the spa. The lack of anything similar at the InterContinental was disappointing.
Food and Beverage
There were three restaurants: The Shell, Fare Nui and Fare Hana. The Shell was the flagship, and Fare Hana was a more laid-back joint, offering a less exotic menu. Fare Nui was where you got an al fresco buffet breakfast. There were also a couple of bars, though the beach bar (replete with a swim-up section) was certainly the most frequented.
I dined once at The Shell and twice at Fare Hana, and neither proved to be entirely worth the inflated prices. For dinner at The Shell, I had the mahi mahi, which rang up at nearly $40. It was satisfactory, but hardly extraordinary. (The concierge happily booked us a reservation at a nearby restaurant with a much better mahi mahi for $30.)
Lunch at Fare Hana was pricey but more tolerable. Food quality was a solid seven out of 10, with the quinoa salad and vegetable curry being particularly impressive. This eatery also boasted an entire page of creative vegetarian options.
Two massive perks were its turtle rehabilitation center and the Moorea Dolphin Center. I took part in a free educational session at the turtle center, where kids and adults alike were schooled on the resort’s efforts in working to rehabilitate vulnerable, injured or handicapped sea turtles.
Quite a few of these turtles were kept within free-flowing cages in the ocean, enabling guests to ooh and ahh over their beauty while they’re being cared for.
On the opposite side of the resort was the Moorea Dolphin Center, home to dolphins trained to interact with humans. Half-hour encounters were 10,500 francs (roughly $100) for children and 16,000 (roughly $160) for adults, while an actual swim with the dolphin was nearly $200.
My favorite excursion was the eight-hour, unguided vehicle rental, which let us to circumnavigate the island, pull off as often as we wanted for jaw-dropping photos of the coast and even cruise up to Belvedere Lookout for a hike and a lesson in why panoramic photography exists.
The sealed road that circled the island was in great shape, and we took astonishing photos. Moorea isn’t just beautiful on resort grounds, it’s beautiful everywhere.
Wi-Fi speeds here were poor, typical on remote ocean islands. Speeds were a bit higher in my beach bungalow than in the overwater bungalow.
When it comes to highfalutin’ resorts on Moorea, you have four options: InterContinental, Hilton, Manava and Sofitel. While the InterContinental charges less for its overwater bungalow, it’s also not the overwater bungalow you’re dreaming of — you know, the one extended out over the ocean on a pontoon with a glass viewing cutout in the floor.
If, however, you’re OK with a huge, refreshed bungalow on a beach with a pretty epic view of the water, the beach bungalows here are worth considering. I can’t say they’re worth $600 per night, but if you’re able to find a solid sale, you’ll enjoy what all Moorea has to offer.
If you’ve stumbled upon a load of IHG points and you’re willing to stay in a fairly small hotel room at an otherwise gigantic resort, 50,000 points per night for a Lanai Room isn’t the world’s greatest redemption but gets you a bed and a shower on Moorea — one of the world’s most outrageously gorgeous islands.
All images by the author unless otherwise noted