All islands have a certain mythic mystique. Isolated, enigmatic, they beg to be explored, or to be mined for storytelling — see Fantasy Island, The Blue Lagoon, Cast Away and countless other shows and movies for proof. The fascination with tropical paradise knows no bounds, and there’s no better synonym for said paradise than Bora Bora.
Called Pora pora mai te pora (“created by the gods”) in ancient times, Bora Bora is northwest of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Actually, the letter B doesn’t exist in the Tahitian language: when Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen landed on the isle in 1722 he misheard the two words. The island was a Polynesian kingdom until the French took over in 1888. In World War II the United States used it as a supply and seaplane base, storing upwards of 20,000 tons of equipment and housing some 7,000 men; the base was closed in 1946. In the 1960s the overwater bungalow concept was born here, and a great way to experience that form of heaven is at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui hotel, where the bungalows were refurbished in 2017.
A nine-hour flight from SFO lands you in a turquoise aquatic playground featuring every imaginable toy. Guests at the Conrad, considered the crown jewel of the Hilton brand, have access to guided jet-skiing, sailing, paddleboarding, snorkeling and sight- seeing tours. Other adventures include glass-bottom-boat trips, fishing and South Pacific scuba diving. While the abundant ocean life includes over 150 species of coral, 1,000 species of fish, and even sharks, none of these are considered dangerous to humans. That peace of mind continues on shore: the insects and snakes here are not poisonous, and the Conrad’s private white sand beach is the island’s longest, stretching over half a mile. For those more interested in having muscles moved for them than in doing it themselves, there’s the Hina Spa: seven bungalows and an open-air treatment space atop a verdant slope with a lagoon view called, appropriately, the Hina View.
In spite of it’s small size, the Conrad Bora Bora Nui boasts six dining options spanning all corners of the globe. A casual choice, the Upa Upa Lounge opens with mid-afternoon tea service and French pastries, offers a selection of a wide selection of sushi, live music in the evenings, plus glass floors to view schools of fish swimming underneath. For a romantic evening, the open air Iriatai (meaning “horizon”) features innovative French cuisine. Of course, no utopia is complete without a swim-up bar. Tarava flanks the property’s vast infinity pool and doesn’t disappoint.
NOT TO MISS
A five-minute boat ride away is Motu Tapu, the most photographed islet in the South Pacific and home to what was once the private beach of Polynesian Queen Pomare IV. Today it’s exclusively for Conrad guests. You can book trips to explore the beaches, have private lunches, or launch from here to go snorkeling or stingray viewing.
Unlike the other resorts that are located on the main island in Bora Bora, the Conrad rests on a private cove off the coast on Motu To’opua. This position yields many benefits, like Mount Otemanu as stunning scenery and sweeping sunset views from all the rooms. Additionally, every villa has a wall-to-wall sliding door, large deck, customizable pillow menu and bluetooth capabilities that allow you to play music both inside the main living area, the bathroom and outside. The two Presidential villas onsite are among the only two-story overwater bungalows found in Tahiti.
It’s not often that an idyllic getaway begins with a traffic jam in the airport parking lot. But in the case of Ahe — one of nearly 80 coral atolls (lagoons surrounded by reefs) and isles in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu archipelago — the hourlong flight from Tahiti lands you near a handful of boats jockeying for position at the edge of a 53-square- mile turquoise lagoon. After the exhilarating ride to Cocoperle Lodge, on one of many motu (islets) that form the atoll, willing castaways will find a welcoming committee of silvery fish, the occasional black-tip reef shark and southern stingrays.
Claimed by France since the mid-19th century, the Tuamotus include Ahe’s neighbor of Manihi and Rangiroa, whose 558-square-mile lagoon makes it one of the largest atolls in the world. Ahe’s 550 residents, scattered across the motus, account for only 3 percent of the Tuamotu population. Some 4,000 Tuamotuans still speak the native Polynesian language, Paumotu, similar to the more widely spoken Tahitian. French is the language of education, though, so brush up on your français, or bring a pocket dictionary (remember those?); any translation apps will need to work offline.
Guests staying in one of Cocoperle Lodge’s six open-air bungalows have free use of paddleboards, kayaks and snorkel gear; for an additional fee, go fishing or snorkeling in the atoll’s lone ocean pass, teeming with marine life, or try wakeboarding or waterskiing. Owner Franck Testud Faatau prides himself on a Survivor-inspired beach barbecue called Cocolanta, which broadens the definition of finger food to include fire-charred reef fish and fluffy sprouted coconut. Guests can also arrange a visit to Kamoka, an environmentally sustainable operation run by a couple with Marin roots. Joshua Humbert and Celeste Brash met in the late 1980s at Redwood High School in Corte Madera; after reconnecting in their college years, they eventually began raising lustrous black pearls in Ahe’s lagoon and designing jewelry with it. Although the farm isn’t licensed as a hotel, Brash notes, guests are welcome to stay on a casual basis, with advance notice. “We ask that people pay for food and gas, and lend a hand, and that’s it,” she says.
Cocoperle Lodge bungalows with private bathrooms cost $134 per person per day, including breakfast and dinner; bungalows with external bathrooms run $111 per person. It’s about half off for children ages 3 to 12. Add another $18 per adult for lunch, and plan to pay for most beverages, too.
Imagine slowing down time and inhabiting an intimate island where your only neighbors are your traveling companions, exotic birds and attentive caretakers who prepare your meal, pour your wine or chop a fresh coconut. Sheltered behind the world-famous Belize Barrier Reef, Coral Caye is a completely private island that can be yours alone for a romantic, restorative or adventurous getaway. The two-acre isolated, private island is a 25-minute boat ride from Turtle Inn, both of which are part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Hideaways collection. The island features a coral sand beach and fascinating mangrove ecology. Once used as a commercial fishing camp, it has now been enhanced for travelers who want a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a place with lovingly preserved natural local flavor.
In this Caribbean Sea setting, with panoramic views of the sunrise, stars and a few smaller cayes, guests feel a million miles away, though they are only 25 minutes away from the shoreline of Placencia, Belize. The island was acquired by the Coppola family in fall 2016 and feels like an extension of the charming, barefoot elegant experience of Turtle Inn.
Fishing rods, canoes, snorkeling equipment and musical instruments are just a few of the on-island amenities provided on Coral Caye. Guests can do as much or as little as they please in complete privacy and solitude with customized experiences (at extra charge) such as alfresco massages or a guided fishing tour.
Prices start from $1,899 per night for two guests and $200 additional per person for more than two guests. Rates include all meals and the round-trip boat transfer between Coral Caye and Turtle Inn.
Dipping so low it appears to ruffle the hair of bystanders below, the Tradewinds Air 12-seater slips onto St. Barth’s tiny airstrip, confirming descriptions of this landing as one of the “most exhilarating” and “scariest” in the world. But from that point forward all worry vanishes, as this tiny Caribbean island proves its status as one of the chillest island hideaways around.
Named by “discoverer” Columbus for his brother Bartolomeo, St. Barth (officially St. Barthélemy) was passed back and forth between French, British and Swedish colonists for 300 years, all the while providing a hospitable hangout for pirates plundering Spanish galleons. Today, with the official status of a French state, it retains a decidedly Old World vibe despite making headlines for celebrity high jinks during the holiday high season.
St. Barth doesn’t overwhelm with places to go or things to do. In fact, your biggest decision will be choosing among the island’s more than 10 powdery sand beaches. Rebuilt from the ground up to embody its historical role in St. Barth’s early bohemianism, Hotel Manapany opened in March 2018 celebrating a return “back to the roots of St. Barth.” From its open-air spa and bleached-wood yoga pavilion to the 43 color-splashed suites that stairstep up the hill, every aspect of Manapany’s decor and service reflects je-ne-sais-quoi simple and understated sophistication.
Manapany’s Ocean Deluxe Suites start at $600 weekday and $710 weekend with seasonal discounts and packages available, while the five- person Villa Creole will set you back $2,300 a night. Breakfast included.
Beloved for the string of right-hand point breaks that stud the craggy shore, the area known as the Balsalmo Coast boasts two world-class waves, Punta Mango and Punta Roca, and 300 days a year of excellent surfing conditions. But if you’re coming in search of a less adventuresome beach vacation, El Salvador has that on offer as well, with secluded coves, warm water and a tropical climate all year long. One of the prettiest and most private beaches is El Zonte, where two-year-old boutique hotel Palo Verde scales the bluff just steps from the sand.
Since the end of its brutal 12-year civil war in 1992, El Salvador has struggled with poverty and violence, its economy so devastated that currently 17 percent of the country’s GDP comes via remittances from Salvadorans living abroad — including many here in Marin. In addition, the country’s international image has been tarnished by scenes of migrant caravans heading for the U.S. border. But when it comes to visiting, such headlines can be misleading; with the current government taking significant steps to boost and enhance tourism, the areas popular with visitors such as the volcano parks and coastal hot spots feel safe, well-maintained and well-supervised.
The bustling fishing port of La Libertad is well worth a visit for its sunny, strollable Malécon promenade, craft market, and pier where fishing boats are winched up to unload glittering cascades of squid, lobster, fish and shrimp. Sea turtle conservationists are active in El Salvador, working to tag, study and protect the endangered leatherbacks and hawksbills and vulnerable green sea turtles that feed in the mangrove marshes of Jiquilisco Bay. Sign up for a day trip with highly rated tour company GreenBlueRed and help wrangle and tag the majestic creatures, thereby supporting the work of ProCosta and other groups.
El Salvador is a traveler’s bargain; rooms at Palo Verde start at $125 with weekday and seasonal discounts, while rooms at nearby hotel Acantilados start at $150.
Travel and features writer Jeanne Cooper fell in love with Marin and the Bay Area as a graduate student at Stanford University. After 20 years as an editor and writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, she began a freelance career that has taken her from the Austral Islands to Zimbabwe, with many visits to Hawaii in between. Her stories have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines, including Hemispheres, Sunset, San Francisco and Nob Hill Gazette, as well as Marin and Local Getaways. The author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, she now lives on the Big Island, where she’s active in animal rescue. She still enjoys exploring Northern California with her husband and friends.