Bora Bora

Step onto your private deck in the hours before dawn, when layers upon layers of stars illuminate the sky and whispers of clouds breeze underneath like mist against the dim blue. Off the horizon, a lightning storm rumbles along the dark jagged landscape and silhouettes of mountain peaks rise starkly from the tranquil sea. It’s then, in the silence broken only by the gentle surf, that it hits you: there’s a reason they call Bora Bora paradise, a name that conjures images of the idyllic, the exotic, the serene.

If you’re a travel photographer, there’s only one thing to do in that moment. You stumble around in the dark to find a tripod and camera to capture the miraculous beauty, knowing you’ll never do it justice.

Across these islands are stilted bungalows built over the water that provide sweeping views of iconic Mount Otemanu—towering sharply more than 2,400 feet above Bora Bora’s six miles—and of a barrier reef with many surrounding islets, called motu.

Bora-Bora, 160 miles northwest of Tahiti, is one of the most beautiful of the Society Islands, French Polynesia’s main archipelago.

No high-rises, no malls, no fast food places mar Bora’s natural beauty. There’s only the quiet rhythm of the water lapping against the docks, and the rustle of palms caressed by south Pacific winds.

If you stay in one of the many luxury resorts, there seems to be little reason to leave your bungalow. With your own deck perched over clear coral waters, marine life swims all around you. You can feed the fish through an opening in a glass coffee table or join them by clambering down the deck’s ladder into the lagoon. But if you can pull yourself away, you’ll find adventures around the islands that are not to be missed. 

I met my Tahitian guide at the main dock of the Pearl Beach Resort, and we boarded a small skiff draped with strings of tropical flowers. We cruised through water colored amazing shades of electric blue, from pale turquoise to deep cobalt, and dropped anchor in a series of lagoons to snorkel with lemon sharks, graceful manta rays, parrotfish, eels and angelfish.

At a secluded motu called Tenanamu, we stopped for a Polynesian picnic lunch of breadfruit, poisson cru—a specialty of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk—and barbecued pork prepared over an open fire by a local Tahitian family.

On the main island, we made the obligatory stop at Bloody Mary’s, a tourist haunt that serves fresh catch of the day. The Bloody Marys are so-so, and reviews are mixed on the food. The place’s main claim to fame seems to be a list of celebrity diners—Willie Nelson, Drew Barrymore and 140 famous (and not so famous) others whose names are painted on a wooden entrance sign.

Jeep safaris and hiking tours take visitors off the island’s main roads, snaking through lush valleys of tropical flowers and plants such as native hibiscus and island ginger. Azdine Oualid, a University of France archaeology professor, leads a hike through the ancient Valley of the Kings in the shadow of Mount Otemanu and tells historic tales of Bora Bora. The highlight of the tour is a massive banyan tree with a 40-foot trunk. Legend has it that mummified bodies of former island kings were placed upright within the roots of the tree, which over centuries grew to engulf the bodies. (Oualid says a scan revealed at least five bodies inside.)

On the sister islands of Taha’a and Raiatea are quaint villages, botanical gardens and vanilla plantations to explore. A visit to a working black pearl farm is more interesting than merely shopping for them. You see how oysters are grown and watch workers carefully graft a pearl in each pouch. When mature, the pearls are exquisite, in hues of green, gold, taupe and deep blue, and go for $50 to upwards of $5,000 for those large and well-formed. 

Many resorts offer traditional massages and body treatments. The Manea Spa on Taha’a features open-air shower massages, a famous four-hand massage and other exotic treatments in calm surroundings of tropical foliage. Look for a bottle of tamanu nut oil, worth buying for its purported rare healing properties.

A highlight on Raiatea is the archeological site Marae Taputapuatea, the ruins of an ancient religious center where priests and navigators from all over Polynesia would gather to share their knowledge of the universe.   

The night sky in Bora Bora is awash with clusters of stars. Swaying in a hammock at the water’s edge, I thought about the Polynesian tradition of observing the heavens. The ancients used constellations as map, calendar and compass, to navigate, to plant, to harvest and even to marry. Without having a clue about how they did that, I had the experience of seeing those same stars and knowing the map still exists.

Somehow it had brought me to one of the most beautiful places on earth.

If You Go

From Los Angeles, Air Tahiti Nui flies direct to Papeete, Tahiti.

From there, Bora Bora is a 50-minute flight on Air Tahiti Nui.

Helicopters are available to transfer from Bora Bora to Le Taha’a.

Air Tahiti Nui flies to other islands.

Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort, a Tahitian-owned property on Motu Tevairoa, Bora Bora. Has 80 over-water bungalows, 10 beach suites and 20 garden suites.

Le Taha’a Island Resort. Open since July 2002, this exclusive resort is located on Motu Tautau on the coral reef, facing views of Bora Bora. Offers bungalows and luxury private villas.

Motu Picnic Tour, snorkeling excursions with shark and manta ray feedings, offered by Maohi Nui Excursions,

Four-wheel-drive safari excursions and helicopter tours over Bora Bora,

Azdine Oualid archaeology tour can be arranged through

Tour a working vanilla plantation, Tahiti Vanille, Raiatea,

Visit a black pearl farm,