Tahiti, as French Polynesia is commonly called (after its capital island) may consist of 118 islands and atolls spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of South Pacific ocean, but at the very mention of the word, even the most casual armchair traveler will sigh: “Bora Bora… Mo’orea…”
Ever since English explorer Captain James Cook first landed on their shores in 1769, these two beauties of the Society Islands Archipelago have attracted the notice of visitors for their spectacular volcanic peaks and their lagoon in infinite shades of blues, But it is cinema, and especially the various remakes of “Mutiny on the Bounty” that has made them a destination every romance seeker in the world yearns to experience.
Bora Bora the Diva
Captain Cook coined her the “Pearl of the Pacific,” and 20th century American author James Michener, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the Pacific, anointed her “the most beautiful island in the world.” These do not seem overstatements as I catch, from the tiny nearby island of Taha’a, my first hint of Bora Bora’s iconic Mount Otenamu rising across the vast aquamarine expanse of the lagoon. When I finally set foot on this most celebrated of islands, however, I am saddened to find that it has fallen victim of its popularity.
Many cruise ships on their way across the South Pacific make it their “Tahiti stop.” And since the Hotel Bora Bora opened it first bungalows standing on stilts over the lagoon in the late 1960’s, the island has developed into an environment based mainly on tourism. With ten luxury hotels now thrusting their tentacular rows of bungalow over the most secluded parts of the lagoon, the leading industry on the island is the “honeymoon package.” It’s undeniable that the romantic quotient of these secluded properties, with their eye-popping views of the lagoon and the mountains, is as stratospheric as their prices. But for those who seek pursuits beyond enjoying a special moment of marital bliss, Bora Bora can quickly become Bora boring.
Friends beneath the Sea
Like a majority of visitors, I come ashore in Vaitape, the main population center of the island. What must once have been a charming Polynesian village is now a typical tropical tourist place, a main street lined with strip malls offering every imaginable flavor of local souvenirs. Makeshift stands touting bottled water and cups of local of fruit to go share the sidewalk with stories-high signs and banners advertizing “quality South Seas black pearl jewelry by international designers” and resort fashion. Mercifully, my plans for the day lay beneath the lagoon. I am off to experience what underwater exploration was like before Jean-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (respectively French navy diver and engineer) brought diving into the mainstream when they invented their “Aqua-lung” in the late 1940’
Seen from a dive boat speeding toward the destination our underwater walk, the island regains its ethereal beauty, even seen through the row of heavy metal diving helmets that line the center of boat. I eye the contraptions with eager anticipation tinged with a fair amount of wariness, as our dive instructor goes through the logistics and safety instructions. Then I am on the stairs with water to my shoulders. The staff settles the helmet firmly in place over my head. A tap tells me the oxygen valve is connected. That’s my cue to let go.
I land a few meters lower on velvet sand, and for a magical half-hour, I wander past exotic coral formations, inches away from colorful clown fish in their anemone shelters. I make friends with a manta ray who is as interested in me as I am in it, repeatedly brushing my ankles with its silky wings. Seen from the bottom of the lagoon, Bora Bora is still magical.
Mo’orea the Magnificent
Just when I think the Society Islands cannot get any more spectacular, Mo’orea rises out of sea the like a fairytale land. Sharp volcanic spears pierce the puffy white clouds above. Silvery waterfalls streak down the fern-draped cliffs. Pinnacles of emerald forests frame serene meadows sprinkled with small villages of pastel-painted house surrounded with a jumble hibiscus and birds of paradise. Despite being just a short ferry ride away from Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the main island of Tahiti, Mo’orea retains a bucolic atmosphere.
What better way to explore this magnificent island believed to have inspired Michener’s mythical Bali Hai than a tour with local professional photographer Renaud Fayada? His off-road vehicle takes us first into the interior, past pineapple fields and sub-tropical forests. to a mountainside vanilla plantation and a dreamy water garden. After a stop at the Belvedere lookout for stunning views of Mou’a Rotui (altitude 899 meters, or 2950 feet), the peak that separates Cook’s Bay from Opunohu Bay, things get serious.
We start onto an impossibly steep rocky trail that earns itself a place high on my list of off-road rides I am thrilled to have taken but never will again! However, from the very top of Magic Mountain, the 360-degree panorama of the northern part of the island and the dazzling aerial views of the barrier reef are worth the stomach-churning experience. Afterward, in spite of multiple switchbacks, the drive down the verdant slope that is all that remains from a giant two-million-year old caldera to the small fishing village of Papetoai on the western side of Opunohu Bay is anticlimactic.
I wistfully re-board the ship’s tender for one last night on the Paul Gauguin. The next morning finds us already docked in Tahiti harbor. After two unforgettable weeks of exploring the farthest reaches of the storied South Seas, it is time to reluctantly re-enter the “real world.”
Good to Know
- Getting to Bora Bora – by air: Air Tahiti offers several daily flights between Tahiti and Bora Bora as well connections with other major Society Islands. Bora Bora airport is located on a small motu (islet) north of the main island, with boat transfer to it. The major luxury resorts have counters at the airport. For accommodations on the main island, Air Tahiti provides a free shuttle transfer from the airport to Vaitape. By sea: Two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora (with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a). A number of South Pacific cruise ships make frequent stops on the island. The Paul Gauguin, the only cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, makes over 30 stops a year on the island.Contact: tel. (US) 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
- Getting to Mo’orea – by air: Air Tahiti flights between Papeete and Mo’orea are about 15-minute long, and run back and forth several times a day. For latest schedule, check Air Tahiti. By sea: the high-speed Aremiti ferry runs throughout the day. For latest schedule, check Aremiti Arimiti.
- Activities –Bora Bora ocean floor walk, Bora Bora Diving and Reef Discovery. Mo’orea photography tour, Eyes of Moorea Photography.