Getaway Guide: Bora Bora
A short hop but a world away from Hawaii, Bora Bora is a Polynesian paradise of delicate coral islands, marine life and massive volcanic craters. that looms over all.
Bora Bora has been synonymous with luxury since the days of Paul Gauguin. Its mix of verdant jungle, soaring rocky peaks and brilliantly green water make it the top of any hedonist’s bucket list.
The water really is that colour. Having seen photographs of Bora Bora, bound by a ring of motus (islets of coral and sand) and a luminous aqua lagoon, I suspected creative retouching. But no. It really is that impossible shade of greenish blue. On cloudy or rainy days, its green deepens and it becomes opaque, like a piece of jade. When the sun comes out the lagoon is transparent and pale, like vintage bits of glass fished from the ocean, faded and turned watery by years at sea.
Once you’ve seen this colour, you never want to take your eyes off it. Fortunately, my hotel obliges, picking me up from the airport dock in a zippy open-backed teak and mahogany boat, a replica of commuter water taxis used by Wall Street barons while inhaling the other thing I can’t get enough of, little white tiare flowers (Tahitian gardenia), so ubiquitous that Air Tahiti Nui hands them out inflight and leis of them greet you at the airport.
When we arrive at the hotel, I see that the design is wisely a slave to the water. There are four long pontoons of over-water wooden cottages joined by wooden decking. Inside, my bungalow has several “lagoon windows” built into the floor and ledges of its rich merbau woodwork. The design is ingenious: a well-crafted box of sliding interior partitions and exterior glass doors easily turns into an open-air pavilion and sundeck, another jumping-off point for that glorious lagoon. My first instinct becomes a ritual I’ll repeat daily in the exquisite privacy of my secluded cottage: strip down, jump in the water, paddle back to the deck and rinse the saltwater off under the outdoor shower. Can there be a more blissful antidote to Canadian winter?
Perhaps French Polynesia seems too far to go, even for immersion in paradise. From Los Angeles the flight was eight hours—not that much further than Hawaii but a world away, like stepping into an exotic Paul Gauguin painting. The air is a thick, delicious soup. (Yet, somehow, every morning there are impossibly crisp croissants on the buffet. “The pastry chef is French,” food and beverage manager Michael Mestraud says, apparently code for “soggy bread is not an option.”) Maybe I’m hardened by the cursory service in much of Mexico and the Caribbean, but Polynesian resort staff seem genuinely happy to host. They greet me with a peppy, singsong “Ia ora na!” (yo-rah-nah) at every chance and even understand my clunky Canadian French. “In the Tahitian language, there is no past or future, you know,” one of the French resort staff tells me. “There is only the present, so they don’t seem to worry and generally, they are very happy.”
That philosophy is even reflected in the signature dish of poisson cru, a rich island ceviche of sorts, with coconut milk and crunchy vegetables accenting lime-juiced raw ahi tuna. (Local fisherman bring their same-day catch right to the chef.) I fret about the caloric impact of the thick, delicious coconut milk until one waiter remarks: “Don’t worry, you are much too thin.” Trust me, this is not true. “Most men here wouldn’t even look at you,” he says even more kindly. It’s true that the women here have a roundness we’ve forgotten how to appreciate. They shake it proudly during the traditional Polynesian dance I watch one evening, a hip-shaking frenzy that reminds me more of passionate salsa moves than the languid hula.
Looming over it all are the twin peaks of Otemanu and Pahia, which form part of the rim of a volcanic crater that rests under the lagoon. Often wrapped in fog and haze, the craggy mountains were once sacred sites for a polytheistic religion that included human sacrifice. Today, locals rarely venture there, explains archaeologist and botanist Azdine Oualid, who leads a group of us on a hike up Otemanu one muddy day. He’s locally famous for discovering, while being filmed for French TV, a rare 2,000-year-old temple statue that will soon be in a museum. In the course of our hike he machetes down some giant, sweet grapefruit to eat and squeezes natural “shampoo” from a ginger flower to clean our hands, then shows us how to source natural iodine from wild hibiscus, to dress bug bites—half Bear Grylls, half Vidal Sassoon.
I experience healing of a more modern kind one day at the hotel’s spa, walking down a cathedral-ceilinged corridor that feels like a church for wellness. My Kahaia Haven Ritual incorporates a gentle scrub made from actual dust of lustrous Tahitian black pearls, and a Polynesian massage, a technique in which the forearms act like rollers to squeeze out tension. The therapist uses the famed monoi oil, made by macerating those addictive tiare flowers in coconut; with the addition of taurumi, it becomes a cure-all that immediately takes the sting out of my mosquito bites and sunburn. It’s as if I entered as a mess of crumpled bedding and came out as a set of freshly pressed sheets.
Bora Bora is basically one big reef, so the snorkelling is spectacular. My snorkel-boat captain is a character who matter-of-factly states that his house floated away in a recent storm. I’m skeptical, so we motor past the small private motu where he lives, and indeed a porcelain loo is the lone, remaining artifact here. His two pit bulls run out to the boat to greet us, and he feeds them with the same nonchalance that he later uses to hand-feed the small sharks and giant manta rays that flock to a popular snorkelling spot.
At the end of my week in paradise, my final parting view of Bora Bora framed in the airplane window, I think about the fact that it’s one of the youngest land masses in the world, its barely formed motus not even full-fledged islands. I think about the tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones that have devastated so many similarly delicate places. How precious it is and how lucky I am to have seen it.
STAY – Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora
Expect a purely luxe experience, but the commitment to the environment is there in the resort’s inner lagoon, where marine biologist Oliver Martin is at work on coral transplants, and in the Pacific Eco-World Initiative water conservation program. The fine-dining Arii Moana has wonderfully fresh seafood, but dine one night in the Sunset Bar, for excellent sushi and pan-Asian dishes like a cashew and chicken oyster-sauced stir-fry. Then again, you have a private over-water bungalow, so room service is a heavenly option. Try the spa’s sunrise yoga on the over-water platform. Snorkelling, hiking and other day trips can be organized through the hotel concierge (Motu Tehotu, 689-60-31-30, fourseasons.com).
If for some unknown reason you want to flee paradise, take the Four Seasons boat into Vaitape on the main island to dine at La Villa Mahana (BP 941 Amanahune, 689-67-50-63, villamahana.com), which has a chef from Corsica and a prix-fixe menu that includes Mediterranean dishes like tuna carpaccio, grilled mahi mahi and prawn risotto. It also features one of the Island’s best wine lists. For cocktails, local institution Bloody Mary’s is the watering hole of choice in Vaitape (PK 4 Paofai Bay, Amanahune, 689-67-72-86, boraboraisland.com/bloodymarys). Its motto is, “On any given night anything can happen.” Enough said.
Shop the Tahiti Pearl Market (Vaitape Bay, 689-67-57-58, tahitipearlmarket.com) for big, exquisitely coloured black Tahitian pearls—which are pricey, but negotiable, at this reputable outpost. There’s also a branch at Papeete.
The Office Polynesien de l’habitat (BP 1705-98713, Papeete, 689-54-28-80, oph.pf) offers prefab house plans if you are thinking of buying your own slice of paradise. Or you can rent cosmetics icon Francois Nars’ private-island retreat Motu (689-75-69-57, motutaneisland.com).