Before I went to Bora Bora, I always thought aqua and teal were fake colors, like chartreuse or fuchsia. You know, artificial pigments dreamed up by the Crayola Corporation to pad the number of crayons in a box. Who knew they really existed in the world? Besides the people of Bora Bora, I mean.
Bora Bora is a short hop from the island of Tahiti.
After spending a few days enjoying Tahiti—already a pretty small landmass—we boarded a prop-jet and flew to an even tinier speck of dirt known as Bora Bora (aka, Pora Pora and Bola Bola, depending on your native language).
From the air, the island looked to be comprised of nothing but small mountains and jungle, crucially without any flat place upon which to land our plane (and I didn’t remember seeing any pontoons when we boarded).
Soon enough, however, we saw Motu Mute Airport located a bit off the mainland on an outer “matou,” a narrow strip of flat land around the island’s perimeter that’s not actually land, but an overgrown barrier reef. The Motu Mute “Airport” is less of an airport and more of a landing strip with a few vending machines. Motu Mute barely looks wide enough to land a model airplane but, thankfully, our turbo-prop fit without a problem.
Built in 1943, the airport was part of an Allied military base—along with a bunch of bunkers and cannon turrets in Faanui Bay—intended to defend the US against Japanese attacks during WWII. When the expected Japanese attacks never materialized, the French annexed the airport in 1945 to bring tourism and much-needed wine, cheese, and baguettes to the island.
Bora Bora is easy to miss, so don’t blink.
Once on the ground—if you can call an overgrown barrier reef “ground”—we disembarked and scanned the airport for a sign bearing our hotel’s name. A nice person holding our hotel’s sign soon ushered us over to a dock alongside water so vibrantly and absurdly teal that I asked if it was a radioactive remnant of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests done by the US military after WWII (it wasn’t).
Rocking gently in the calm water, a 24′ cuddy cabin boat sat waiting for our arrival. Its captain stood smiling like a shit-eating grinner who lived in a goddamn tropical nirvana.
After we stepped aboard, our still-smiling captain casually piloted the craft through the magically green waters around the main island without ever blinking, at which point, we began to think that he might’ve been high on more than tropical beauty.
Bora Bora too bustling for you? Try Pitiuu Uta.
The captain eventually pulled our boat alongside another dock and tied off, announcing our arrival at the island of Pitiuu Uta.
We assumed it was the local name for Bora Bora and started to stand. The captain suddenly stopped smiling. He motioned us to sit back down, then helped a younger, and more attractive, couple disembark from the boat to what we later learned was the Sofitel® Private Island Hotel.
This private island lies about a half-mile south of the coast of Bora Bora, and was arguably more romantic than our more humble accommodations—assuming your idea of romance is being virtually alone together on a fancy private island (which now that I say it out loud does sound a lot more romantic, dammit).
In the minus column, however, staying on Pitiuu Uta was pretty isolating and required a boat ride back to the mainland of Bora Bora for almost anything the guests wanted to do (other than the nasty).
In fact, it appeared that most of the private island’s well-heeled guests spent little actual time at that resort, as they kept showing up on Bora Bora to do different activities, eat at different restaurants, and generally avoid going all “The Shining” on each other.
Our beach bungalow on Bora Bora.
The captain soon returned and shoved off for Bora Bora, eyeballing us with contempt for our hubris. Minutes later, he dropped us at Sofitel’s decidedly-not-private sister property, the Marara Beach Resort Hotel.
One of only 9 functioning hotels on Bora Bora, the Marara was no Four Seasons, certainly, but who comes to the Society Islands for customer service? We came for the beach and this resort sat right on it.
The unreal, hyper-saturated beauty of Bora Bora.
There’s a certain fakeness to French Polynesia in general, and Bora Bora in particular. There’s an impossible vibrancy and shimmer to everything that anyone from a snowy region of the world will struggle to comprehend.
The sunlight is different there, everything glows as if it has an internal form of illumination. The air feels thicker and denser, wrapping you in a warm blanket of “Hey, let’s spend the night on these lounge chairs.” And the wind cools and refreshes you, wicking away the rum-soaked sweat continually excreting from your pores.
The island’s vivid vistas and pulchritudinous panoramas must be fabricated somehow, you tell yourself—like a Hollywood movie set, or Pamela Anderson’s boobs—they’re simply not real.
The colors in Bora Bora, your rational mind rationalizes, are some kind of optical illusion or trick of the light. There’s simply no way a place as beautiful as this island can exist in reality without studio lighting, computer graphics, or hallucinogenics. Yet somehow, incredibly, it does.
Bora Bora barely survives this hurricane disaster.
Back in 1978, Bora Bora wasn’t the tourist mecca that it is today, and that’s why Dino De Laurentiis chose it as his shooting location for “Hurricane,” a big-budget $15M ($60M today) remake starring Jason Robards and Mia Farrow, two people who tried to appear watchable.
The tiny island was very isolated and undeveloped at the time, which presented some problems. For example, there were only two hotels on the island. The Hotel Bora Bora was already booked solid, and the Club Med wanted $1M ($5M today) to accommodate the over 250 cast- and crew-members during the yearlong filming.
Ever the savvy businessman, De Laurentiis instead built a new hotel from scratch. His Hotel Marara cost roughly $4M to construct in 1978 ($16M today) and was also used again to shoot The Bounty six years later. The hotel was finally sold to a large hotel chain or two and is now the Bora Bora Hotel (I think). Roger Ebert named Hurricane the worst film of 1979, describing it as “a dull 90-minute romance followed by a dull 30-minute rainstorm.”
What to do in paradise.
The most popular activity in Bora Bora is “nothing much.” After all, this isn’t California where you’d go surfing, skiing, or mountain-biking. This is paradise where you go lounging and relaxing. Sure, you could go for a short walk in the morning to tell the bar waitstaff where to bring your first five Mimosas, but otherwise you just wake up, put on a bathing suit, crawl to your lounge chair on the beach, and you’re done for the day.
Of course, Bora Bora is more than just an elaborate chaise lounge rental scheme. For those not content to sit around getting Margaritas and melanoma, there are other things to do. You can snorkel and scuba-dive just by walking into the ocean and sticking your face in the water.
The island’s barrier reef (or motu) tames the Pacific Ocean waves nicely, turning the coast into one big salt-water aquarium, much like Belize. Depending on weather conditions and time of year, you’re likely to spot sea turtles, dolphins, rays, mantas, and even the cellphone you drunkenly dropped while taking #sunsetselfies.
The secret local cuisine of Bora Bora.
After eating several very nice meals at the resort hotel’s restaurant, we ventured beyond the Marara’s property lines to find more authentic Polynesian meals.
A short walk down the road, we found local restaurants offering traditional dishes like “pizza and crêpes” at Matira Pizza, something called “lasagna” at the nearby Blue Coco, and “croque monsieur” at The Lucky House, a not-so-secret hangout for French ex-Pats which we avoided for that reason alone.
We drove around the island; it didn’t take long.
The thing that no one ever tells you about perfection is that it’s kind of, well, boring. So we hired Django, a local guide from Vavou 4×4 Tours, to show us around the entirety of this tiny tropical island. He was strangely knowledgeable about living on the island where he’s spent his whole life.
Driving along the 20-mile-long coastline road, we saw the haunted Cave of Mt. Otemanu, but did not take the 2.5-hour hike up to hear a child’s plaintiff wails because we can hear those any day at a mall back home.
Django pointed out many sights we would’ve otherwise missed seeing, such as the “trees of life” within which the locals allegedly used to bury their chieftains standing up—the dead ones, I assumed.
We stopped at a Tahitian vanilla farm where we watched farmhands corral, wrangle, and hog-tie wild vanillas before herding them off to market. We shopped at a pareo “factory” (aka, someone’s backyard) in the Faanui Valley, where my wife learned to tie up and configure tie-dyed sarongs (called pareos) in ways she’s likely already forgotten.
Django told us that people of Bora Bora grow bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, mangos, taro, and tapioca, but not pot, poppy, or anything else that would’ve made the islanders rich. Bora Borians (I’m pretty sure that’s what they call themselves) have to import everything not on that list, including the essentials like Cheetos® and Slim Jims®.
Worse, it’s all very expensive because it all has to be imported to the literal middle of the Pacific Ocean. Every week, three shipping freighters arrive filled with much-needed provisions for the islanders along with their two-day Amazon® Prime packages.
We learned lots of other stuff, too.
Everywhere you look in French Polynesia, you see thatched-roof huts lining the coasts, and for good reason: the style is rigidly enforced Polynesia-wide for branding and marketing reasons but mostly because of dark-money lobbying efforts by Big Thatch—there’s huge money in thatched hut construction.
We also learned that Bora Bora has its own desalinization plant on the island because no water falls from its mountains (unlike Tahiti), they’re 2,000 miles from Fiji, and they can’t drink saltwater no matter how clear and freakishly teal it is.
Leaving isn’t easy, so Bora Boreans make kinduva big deal out of it.
When guests left our hotel, and presumably the island, they’d walk to the end of the dock near our resort (see photo), and board the boat-taxi back to the airport. Yet before a guest sets off, a guy from the hotel blows a conch shell to announce the departure.
At first blush, it seems like a quaint, traditional island send-off. But more likely, it’s probably just how the Polynesians say, “GTFO.” I mean, if Bora Bora was my home, I’d want the place all to myself, too—tourists are the absolute worst.