It is dark when we finally arrive in Bora Bora. We spent the previous night in the sky, flying from LAX to Papeete, and then the entire morning and afternoon shaking off the jet lag on one of Archipels Croisières’ luxurious catamarans, sailing and snorkeling in the lagoon off the island of Raiatea, just a short commuter flight from the airport in Tahiti. Not a bad way to jump start our trip to French Polynesia.
Once on the catamaran, we are refreshed with ice-cold Tahitian beer and a delicious lunch of exotic fruits and freshly prepared Poisson Cru, French Polynesia’s national dish, a tasty concoction of fresh raw tuna, marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk and tossed with diced vegetables—usually cucumber tossed with a variation of scallions, peppers and tomatoes, depending on the chef. Lunch is followed by a leisurely nap, a welcome reprieve from a long night and day of traveling. We are awestruck by the luminous turquoise water and the views of the surrounding atoll—it would be a shame to miss a second of the breathtaking view—but sated from the delicious meal and lulled by the gentle waves, an hour nap on the boat’s bow is irresistible. We awake for another quick snorkel with the sting rays and then a tour of a small vanilla farm on nearby Taha’a where we buy jumbo-sized vanilla pods to take home, visions of homemade vanilla vodka brewing in our heads.
So, by the time we fly into Bora Bora from Raiatea, it is the dead of night. The only way to get to our hotel, and almost anywhere, is by boat—usually humble and efficient water taxis. But as guests of the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, we are transported on board the hotel’s yacht where we are greeted with leis, refreshed with cold drinks, and then checked in and handed our room keys so that when we arrive at the hotel’s dock twenty minutes later, there is no need to fuss at the lobby desk.
We sleep soundly in the luxurious bed in our well-appointed garden villa, situated on a hillside surrounded by exotic flowers and trees. In the morning we wake up to the faint sound of roosters (which, we later learn, roam freely throughout the property). We have yet to see where we are, now that the sun is up.
We open the drapes and behold a sight that leaves us breathless. From our room on the hillside we overlook a stunning view of the (sapphire, cerulean, azure?) blue waters of the Pacific. (There is no name for this kind of blue, a hue we’ve not seen elsewhere—we decide to call it Bora Bora Blue, unique only to this place.) There is no better way to start any day than to be surprised by such a spectacular vision.
There are many activities to enjoy at the resort. The lagoon is perfect for swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkeling. There are inviting hammocks along the beach and a refreshing pool as well. But nothing tops “A Day in Paradise” on the hotel’s unspoiled private island, Motu Tapu. The resort offers excursions to Motu Tapu exclusively to its guests, and the staff can arrange picnics, barbecues, weddings or romantic dinners for anyone who wants to be secluded on their own private island for the day. We pick up our snorkeling gear at the pool before boarding the boat that will take us on the five-minute ride to Motu Tapu.
Motu Tapu, the “forbidden island,” is a tiny beach island where Polynesian Queen Pomare IV, who reigned over the Kingdom of Tahiti between 1827 and 1877, held private receptions and parties that were “tapu,” or forbidden, to all but to those who were especially invited by the queen. Today, the island is exclusively for guests of the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa. The small island is surrounded by a coral reef and shallow waters where colorful fish are abundant and the snorkeling is ideal. It’s tempting to spend the entire afternoon under water admiring the dazzling array of sea life, but when we emerge, a delicious lunch of grilled shrimp, lobster and fish, along with bottles of wine and cold champagne awaits us at a table on the edge of the shore. We dine with our feet in the water, the fish below swimming around our toes, hoping for dropped morsels. Afterwards, a quick nap under the trees and one last trip into the water to say good-bye to the fish. They don’t call it “A Day in Paradise” for nothing.
Today, we spend another exciting day in the water. We are going on a guided tour of Bora Bora’s magnificent lagoon with Raanui Tours (visit the activities desk in the lobby to arrange this tour). They pick us up on their boat and we make our way to the edge of the lagoon to the coral gardens. Soon enough, Leo, our guide, brings out his ukulele and serenades us with native love songs; presumably, Leo is singing to us to calm our nerves since we are on our way to swim with sharks and stingrays. Yes, on this exciting three-and-a-half-hour excursion, adventurers can jump off the boat and swim with sharks and stingrays! As it turns out, Leo is not only an accomplished ukulele player and singer, he is also the Pied Piper of all creatures of the sea.
We swim with dozens of sharks and perhaps nine or ten very big stingrays. Leo brings them thisclose, using whatever charms he has, along with plenty of treats for the sharks and other sea critters. With his experience and expertise, we are able to see an excellent variety of fish, along with more sharks, rays and even a reclusive eel!
A day later, we are on a short flight from Bora Bora to the island of Moorea. Though we are so sad and so sorry to leave unforgettable Bora Bora behind, we look forward to the next leg of our trip on Moorea, a mountainous emerald green island which rises majestically from the brilliant blue sea. We check into the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa which is nestled between two bays on this heart-shaped island. We are thrilled to be staying in an overwater bungalow, complete with a wooden deck that leads directly into the water below. Plans to snorkel off the deck are quickly made. We can already see the fish we will soon be swimming with through the glass panel built into the floor just beneath the coffee table in our room. (If you’re not able to procure one of the coveted overwater bungalows, the garden bungalows with private plunge pools are very nice, as well.)
Besides snorkeling from the deck in our overwater villa, there is nothing to do but relax at the resort—a massage at the spa, cocktails and poisson cru at the hotel’s Arii Vahine Restaurant and then back to the villa to watch the amazing sunset from our favorite spot—the deck.
On our second day on Moorea, we are whisked away in a rugged jeep for a 4-wheel-drive safari excursion with Mahana Tours (visit the activities desk in the lobby to arrange this tour). The four-hour guided tour takes us all around the island and up and down its mountainous terrain. We stop at a pineapple farm, the local distillery, an agricultural school, temple ruins, and to vista points that offer eye-popping panoramic views.
A stop at the Jus De Fruits De Moorea, offers an opportunity to purchase tasty and potent liquors distilled from vanilla, coconut and exotic fruits. On arrival, we enjoy a complimentary tasting of the various juices and spirits. The famous Tahiti Punch is quite tasty. The shop also sells pineapple wine, honey, chocolate and souvenirs.
At the Lycée Agricole (agricultural school), a tasting of fresh fruit and jams and other preserved produce is offered. Refreshing juices, smoothies, and sorbets are also available for purchase, along with the jams and preserves made from local fruits and flowers which make nice gifts to take home.
A highlight of the tour is a visit to Belvedere Lookout which overlooks the bay below and the surrounding mountains. From this vantage point, you can see both Cooks Bay and Opunohu Bay. A photo op here should not be missed.
Tahiti is often overlooked as a quick drop-off point—where travelers are delivered and then rushed away to their true destinations—away from the hustle and bustle of busy Papeete. In our case, we had the day to spend before heading to the airport for a late night flight back home.
Though Papeete is a busy city and may not deliver the more tranquil charms of the surrounding islands, it does have points of interest worth seeing.
Le Marché de Papeete
For shopping, a visit to Le Marché de Papeete is a must. Located in the heart of the city, vendors from all over the island come to sell their traditional wares at this authentic market. From flowers to fruit, sarongs and souvenirs, and, of course, Tahitian black pearls, this market is the place to find a bargain and to purchase handcrafted items to take home. There are also several food stalls selling snacks from sandwiches to slushies, should hunger strike.
James Norman Hall Museum
Literary fans, cinemaphiles, and history buffs should visit the home of James Norman Hall, located in Arue, Tahiti. James Norman Hall is the American author of the famed novel Mutiny on the Bounty, the quintessential story that takes place on the South Pacific Sea, which was subsequently made into a film starring Clark Gable. This quaint museum gives a glimpse into the Hall family’s idyllic life in Tahiti through paintings, photographs, and artifacts.
Les Roulottes (food trucks)
Les Roulottes is a fun way to enjoy a meal in French Polynesia. It’s a well-organized food truck scene in the center of Papeete, near the ferry terminal, where many locals, as well as tourists, mill about looking for a good bite to eat. There are trucks serving crepes, steak frites, chow mein and egg rolls, burgers, sashimi and, of course, poisson cru.
Air Tahiti Nui
The Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa
BP 502 Vaitape, Bora Bora, 98730, French Polynesia
Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa
BP 1005, Moorea 98728, French Polynesia
+689 40 55 1112