French Polynesia: Bora Bora

Bora Bora

Many consider Bora Bora the “Pearl of the Pacific”and one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Asians arriving by outrigger canoe in about the 9th century originally settled the island. The island endured centuries of periodic tribal wars until finally unified just before the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1769. It was annexed to France in 1888, under whose protection it has remained ever since.

The island is particularly renowned for its huge, beautiful, multi-hued lagoon, which is surrounded by a ring of small palm-shaded islands that are lined with white sand beaches. The main island, in the center of this ring, is dominated by two tall volcanic mountains (2,385 and 2,168 feet) and surrounded by a 32 km ring road. This island is home to the vast majority of Bora Bora’s 9,000 residents, the vast majority of whom are either directly or indirectly supported by the tourism industry.

The treat begins as you fly into the island, an island, which is dominated by two peaks: Mt. Pihia the tallest, and the 2,385 foot-tall Mt. Otemanu, entirely surrounded by an outer ring of smaller islets. Most striking of all, however, is the incredibly vivid turquoise lagoon between the island and the outer ring and the bright-white sand that forms the beaches and the floor beneath the lagoon (which makes for the color.

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When you land at the small airport, which is located on one of the islets, you go to the desk of your resort (in our case, the Four Seasons). After a welcome drink and lei, you head out to the “taxi line”; a dock at which each resort has its own boat and several others are available for hire. Then, after a greeting at the hotel and a conversation with our concierge, we were whisked, by one of the dozens of golf carts that are continually zipping around the resort, out to our beautiful, spacious, overwater bungalow.

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After admiring our unit, the patches of fiberglass floor through which we could track the currents and the occasional fish, we had a casual lunch at the pool bar, donned our snorkeling gear and visited the Lagoonarium one of the island’s premier attractions, which just happens to be at the Four Seasons.

The Lagoonarium is an arm of the Lagoon that runs through the resort’s property that was engineered to create just the right natural water flow, whose sand floor was laced by stacks of rocks that the resort’s marine biologist seeded with coral several years ago, when the resort was built. As the coral took hold, fish began to populate the ecosystem. It is now home to dozens of patches of multiple types of multi-colored coral and more than 100 species of reef fish. Although one would not confuse the Lagoonarium with a natural coral reef, it makes for a lovely afternoon of snorkeling right off the beach, without the need to take a boat to one of the more distant reefs—something we would do on other days of our stays.

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Overall, we visited the Lagoonarium twice during our four day stay, thoroughly enjoying ourselves each time, marveling at the environment that has been created, enjoying the colorful coral and getting up close and personal with many fascinating fish. We also took two boat-based snorkeling trips:

Shark, Ray and Coral Cruise, a wonderful, four-hour, three-stop journey where we began with a stop that relied on the controversial, but effective process of chumming the water to attract sharks, It certainly worked, bringing about a dozen Black-Tipped Reef sharks (roughly four-to-six feet long) and, much less common, four, much larger Lemon sharks (roughly eight-to-12 feet in length). They literally swam within inches of us and one of our guides went so far as to hitch a ride with on one of the Lemon sharks by holding on to his fin. Some of the larger sharks were also accompanied by their frequent Remora companions, which attach to the sharks with suckers and clean parasites from them.

Along with the sharks were huge groups of hundreds other fish, especially the pretty black (with fluorescent blue stripes) triggerfish and the even lovelier black, fluorescent blue and twin-tailed blue trevally.

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Our second stop found dozens of friendly, eagle and non-stinging stingrays that were between two and 2.5 feet in diameter. So friendly, that they swam between your legs and appeared to enjoy being touched, They even calmly accommodated our guide’s holding them out of the water, pointing out their incredibly soft backs and bellies (in contrast to their very rough, bumpy trails). Our guide explained how they could tell she was pregnant and then showed us their mouths—in fact, even kissing the ray and inviting guests to do the same—as Joyce did, although on its back, rather than on its mouth. The rays were accompanied by a school of pretty, yellow butterfish.

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Stop three was a snorkel through one of the lagoon’s largest, most magnificent coral garden. Although we saw no soft coral, we did see hard coral included staghorn, pillar, elkhorn, table and elkhorn. Colors were even more varied, from red, orange, yellow, green, blue to indigo and violet (remember ROYGBIV from high school?). And since coral attracts fish, we saw literally thousands of small and colorful reef fish, including many young babies.

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An even bigger treat of this stop was the sighting of two moray eels: one relatively small (perhaps two feet, whitish, spotted eel. The other, which Tom takes credit for spotting and calling our guide to, was a large (about six feet-long) black eel which, as our guide discovered when he was luring him out of his lair, was quite aggressive. His fin even provoked a demonstration of one of the eel’s two sets of jaws—an outer pair for holding prey and a stronger inner pair that will not only cut and chew fish, but also a stray finger or toe—bone and all.

All three of the stops were phenomenal and very memorable. Then, as a special bonus, our guide hit a jackpot. He sighted a green turtle, something that is rarely seen in the lagoon. While we have seen sea turtles in the wild at least three times before (one while scuba diving in Hawaii), two who were mating off a Great Barrier Reef island beach, and others while laying eggs and dozens of babies who were digging their ways out of nests and finding their way to the water), all such sightings are a treat.

Pure Snorkeling Cruise. This three-hour tour entailed stops at four stops; three inside the lagoon and one outside. The first two stops were pretty disappointing, especially after the fabulous coral garden visit of our previous day’s tour. The first, in the lagoon, did have some nice coral only inches beneath us.

We also saw a handful of interesting fish, a tiny seahorse (albeit one that was stretched flat on a piece of coral, rather than curled in its familiar shape), a huge (over 12-inches in diameter—quill to quill), and a large sea cucumber which had secreted long threads of sticky white mucus to protect itself from predators.

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The second stop, on a reef outside the reef, was in much deeper water (from about 20-to-50 feet), although with perfect visibility. We did see many of the same fish (such as triggerfish, but also a number of beautiful, yellow and blue-striped surgeonfish and emperor angelfish. Also, a few more, relatively small (roughly four-to-five foot) blacktip reef sharks which swam so close to us that Tom could barely fit them in his camera lenses.

The final two stops, both also in 30-to-50 feet of water, yielded much more memorable sightings: The third had us snorkeling over a giant (roughly 20 feet across) manta ray. While it remained more than 20 feet below us, the ultra-clear water still provided great views as we raced to keep up with the graceful flapping of its large wings.

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Our guide then found and placed us atop another extremely memorable sight; a school of about 30 much smaller (about four-to-six feet across) eagle rays which we followed for about 15 minutes, watching them shift directions almost as seamlessly as a school of fish.

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So, what began as a disappointing snorkeling tour, ended up providing some very memorable experiences.

We also took one land-based excursion:

4×4 History Tour of Boora Bora’s main island was stretched to 3 hours. We got a high-level overview of the 3 million year volcanic history of the 12 square mile island (which is now home to 10,000 people) and how the surrounding coral reefs were seeded with mangroves to create the surrounding barrier islands that are home to many of Bora Bora’s luxury resorts. We drove up two impossibly steep and narrow dirt roads to scenic viewpoints, one of which was incongruously topped by a cell tower “hidden” in an artificial pine tree (an curious species for a tropical paradise) and the other by a huge, WWII cannon (see below) and made another stop at Matira, the island’s largest, only public and only natural white sand beach.

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The round-the-island excursion pointed out all island’s hotels/resorts (including the first from 1956), many of its restaurants (especially the 46 year-old Bloody Mary’s), three banks, three schools, three churches Catholic, Protestant and, believe it or not, Mormon) and its single pharmacy. And then, of course there was the electricity generation plant and the cargo ship terminal. (Although we also saw the dump, that was not included in the tour.) But, while the island has but a single pharmacy, this, being Bora Bora, has two yacht clubs, each berthing the types of yachts one would expect at a luxury destination.

We saw, and our guide discussed many of the island’s different fruit trees papaya, mango, banana, breadfruit, coconuts and so forth) and edible plants (taro, tapioca, pineapple and so forth). Then there is the Noni fruit, whose juice is used as a medicine for everything from headaches to gastro-intestinal relief.

We made a stop at a home-based, outdoor shop at which they demonstrate the traditional practice of dying cotton cloth with natural plant-based dyes and sell the blouses, skirts and traditional paseaos (sarongs), along with shell jewelry and coral ornaments. We picked up one of the ubiquitous coconuts from the roadside and our guide demonstrated how to tell if it is edible (by shaking it to hear if there is water inside), how to open the husk with a sharpened stake and the most efficient way of cracking the shell (by striking one of the vertical lines radiating from the “eyes” with a stone). He explained how husks were used to make reef shoes (for fishing), fiber to make sting and rope and how they used this dried fiber and kuro wood to make fires. We drank coconut water from the shell, shredded and hand-crushed some of the meat to make coconut milk and cut and ate slices of the rest of the meat. He selected and picked a few large purao leaves from trees and showed us how to tie them into lures that islanders had used to draw land crabs out of their holes.

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Then of course, were the cannons—two of the eight (two facing in each direction) six and nine-inch guns that the Americans installed and manned, along with associated bunkers and the island’s airport, between 1942 and 1946. (The guns never had to be used.) And on a lighter side, we saw the finish line of a grueling, three-day, 54 km, annual, international outrigger canoe race (French Polynesia’s national sport). Then there was an interesting health care tidbit. Although the island does have a medical clinic, it has no hospital. Women therefore, fly to either Tahiti or Raiatea.

Canon and Joyce

The tour was especially interesting for something we never saw and that the guide never even mentioned—the remnants (some of which are apparently nicely restored) of the island’s 20 ancient stone maraes and petroglyphs.

Overall, not the most compelling of tours we have taken, and hardly worth the $120 per person price.

Bora Bora Sunsets

The Four Seasons’ Sunset Bar (see the Four Seasons Restaurant Section below), is, as would be expected, perfectly situated for sunset views, looking over a tiny sand motu graced with a single palm tree. This, combined with the bar’s view, its wine and sake list and its complementary edamame, it became our mandatory sunset stop.

Our last night, which just happened to added an interesting twist to our evening ritual. One of the hotel’s most romantic offerings is an expensive ($1,000) customized, champagne-fueled, candlelit, three-course dinner for two on this motu which is decorated with flowers and served by a dedicated server. And for an extra fee, you can be serenaded by your own musician. That evening, one couple just happened to take advantage of the offer. This not only provided an interesting addition to our sunset photos, but also a view into one of the reasons that Bora Bora has become a standard destination for weddings and for honeymooners. In fact, of the people we met, about three quarters were on honeymoon. Of those who weren’t, most (including us) were celebrating a special anniversary.

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Bora Four Seasons Restaurants

Our preference is always to explore a wide range of restaurants when we visit a new destination. The logistics of a Bora Bora resort visit makes this quite difficult. First, Vitape, the island’s largest “town”, consists of little more than a few stores and coffee shops. Although there are supposed to be a couple good restaurants on the island, they are not in the town and require special transport. And since most of the premier resorts are on their own islets, they require the taking of occasional water shuttles (two per day to two per day from the island). This becomes an expensive and time consuming proposition. It is (certainly by the resorts’ own choice), expensive and difficult to get from one resort to another. We, therefore, ended up eating all our meals at each of the Four Seasons’ five restaurants:

Arii Moana, the resort’s French-inspired fine dining restaurant, where we shared two dishes. Pan-seared scallops with leeks in coconut milk, shrimp and crustacean sauce was pleasant, if not especially complex. We then, at our server’s recommendation, tried the fillet of Pralia Peve, a white, mild, local lagoon fish that he claims is especially prized by locals. It was served with baby spinach with crab meat and vanilla butter. While it sounded wonderful, we found the fish to be brownish with an earthy taste and somewhat mushy texture. We were less than impressed, as we were with the amuse bouche of crab cake with too much (for our tastes) coriander. We finished with an interesting desert that is suitably named Milky Way. It contained milky spheres with caramel and pecans on a biscuit, with whipped cream and salted caramel ice cream. It was followed with lychee macaroon and mango gel. These with a nice, crisp 2014 Montee de Tonnarre premier cru Chablis from William Fevre.

Fare Hoa South Pacific Grill, where we shared two grilled fish dishes and a side. The fish dishes were Jackfish flambe with thyme and hickory-flavored smoked salt and banana leaf-wrapped opah, both of which were dry, but somewhat improved by the vanilla sauce with which they were served. We also ordered a side order of sautéed banana, bacon, bok choy and roasted garlic, which was okay, but less interesting than it sounded. With it, we had two glasses of Burgundy wine: a 2015 Chateau Maligny French Chablis and a 2014 Aloxe-Corton pinot.

Fare Hoa Pool Bar, a casual lunch menu where we chose two of the sandwiches. The Ahi burger, with housemade sauce was good, but was outshone by the delicious mahi mahi sandwich with lettuce, tomato and ginger tartar sauce on grilled sourdough bread. Nor did it hurt that the each meal comes with what seems to be a bottomless bowl of Terra taro chips. We each had our dishes with a glass of wine: Joyce an Italian pinot grigio, and me a French Chablis—not to speak of excellent, friendly service. Running out of hotel dining options, we returned for a raw ahi “Poisson Cru” with coconut milk and lime juice, another mahi mahi sandwich and more taro chips and Chateau Maligny white burgundy. Service, however, was much, much less engaged—in fact, the least satisfying of our stay.

Sunset Bar, an Asian-themed bar with, as one would expect, a wonderful sunset view and a menu from which virtually all seafood is fresh from local seas. We began with a wonderful sashimi plate (yellowfin, albacore, marlin, octopus, Atlantic salmon and ahi tataki), followed by a nigiri plate (white tuna, marlin, salmon, octopus, grilled eel and flying fish eggs), followed by cilantro-glazed, marinated white tuna with stir-fried cucumber and shitake and shimeji mushrooms, all of which we enjoyed with a bottle of Nigori Cream Sake. And since we were on such a roll with the food, we decided on a caloric spluge with desert—a spring roll filled with chocolate cream, chocolate chips and pecans, with a caramel dipping sauce. The food—and especially the service (from our soon-to-be departing server, Noho), was wonderful. Our only tiny qualm is that some the nigiri rice did not hold together.

Terre Nui, which is open only for breakfast, has a huge, buffet (fruit, cold cuts, cheese, cereal, yogurt, eggs, bacon, etc.) plus a choice of several custom prepared breakfast dishes, from eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, to pancakes, and crepes. We sampled a wide range of both buffet and specially ordered dishes.

Bora Four Seasons Hotel

The Four Seasons hotel is known as one of the best places on Bora Bora. We admit to being initially put off by this resort. Although we were paying top dollar to stay here, nothing prepared us for the mandated $120 per person fee to take a 15 minute boat ride from the airport to the resort. While the resort offered the transportation in advance, normally one has other options. We did not. It was even more distressing when the #2 resort, the Saint Regis which was 2 minutes from our hotel, offered complimentary transportation. As usual, the more expensive the hotel, the more the nickel and diming.Once Joyce got over this, the rest was smooth sailing. The resort is spectacular. As you walk around, staff is always present to explain things and to memorize your name. Yes, you are held captive at the resort unless you pay $25 per person during the day or $40 per person at night for round trip transport to go elsewhere. But the place is beautiful, the staff is 5 stars and the venue was perfect.

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