Travelogues: Discreet Luxury in the South Seas

Caribbean & Oceania — By Josh Steinitz on February 24, 2009 at 10:40 am

The manta ray’s milky white underside just scratched the surface of the water as it performed a graceful somersault in front of the underwater spotlight. Our eyes widened and we stood dumbstruck at nature’s magnificence revealed so easily, standing on the dock under the moonlight. The creature made several passes by the dock, with its mouth agape as it fed on plankton attracted to the light. Sublime moments such as this are supposed to be possible only after much effort, but at the Hotel Bora Bora, they seem to be a common occurrence.

A short 45-minute flight from Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia, Bora Bora is surrounded by perhaps the world’s most cinematic lagoon. As our turboprop banked low through puffy clouds, we gazed down on the volcanic Mt. Otemanu rising abruptly from the turquoise waters. We were picked up promptly at the airstrip, which lies on an islet, or motu, fringing the lagoon, and were whisked to the southern end of the island, directly to the pier of Hotel Bora Bora. Manager Martial Thevenaz, a friendly Swiss expat, met my companion Sylvia and I there with a cocktail and a welcoming smile. Instantly we felt the stress of the last twenty-four hours of travel evaporate, and we allowed ourselves to be swept up in the romance of the place.

The hotel, part of the Aman Resorts group, has been extensively remodeled since its establishment in the mid-sixties, and Aman’s legendary Midas touch is evident everywhere, from the stylish teak furniture to the privacy and discretion afforded to all guests. We spent the first few nights in a luxurious pool far—basically a small villa complete with our own private plunge pool. Our air-conditioned far offered an adjoining living room, a large bathroom with a stand-alone tub, a bedroom with a four-poster bed, and a separate den—more than enough space for two.

The resort occupies perhaps the most prime piece of “real” estate on the island, with stunning views of the mountains, easy access to the main town of Vaitape and Matira Point and environs, site of most tourist accommodations, yet removed enough to feel completely private. The meticulously landscaped grounds evoke the lushness of the environment, while the architecture incorporates traditional Polynesia motifs in a way that manages to be luxurious without being gaudy. It sounds silly, but we felt like “smart travelers” compared to other couples we met staying at different resorts on the island—with a great location, five-star accommodations and facilities, and a friendly and welcoming nature, the Hotel Bora Bora seemed the best place from which to experience the island’s many charms.

While the resort’s white sand beaches and fantastic food could support any dedicated couch potato for weeks, we had a more active vacation experience in mind. We spent some time snorkeling off the resort, but soon we were ready to venture further afield and dive the islands famous reef’s. The adjacent Bora Bora Dive Center offered easy access to the best of the island’s diving, and we were soon speeding our way to Teavanui Pass, the only break in the lagoon’s circumference, dynamited by the U.S. Navy during World War II. I was a relatively experienced diver, but Sylvia was completing her certification, and on her very first open water dive she was immediately surrounded by a dozen or more gray reefs sharks and lemon sharks. The surge of the current flushed new water through, keeping the visibility up to 80 feet, and we floated across a huge garden of beautiful hard coral as sharks and many species of brightly-colored fish surrounded us.

Later that week, we dove some of the shallower sites inside the lagoon, as well as one site off the north end of the island in the rough water outside the lagoon, where I saw dozens of blacktip sharks and more spectacular coral gardens. The divemasters at the Bora Bora Dive Center were extremely helpful and safety-conscious and successfully negotiated Sylvia through her certification process.

Other recommended activities include biking around the island (it’s only 32 km all the way around) and having a lunch feast of traditional Polynesia fare on an outer motu. Both are great ways to experience some of the real Bora Bora on a one-to-one level, interacting with locals and the island environment. I tried several times, unsuccessfully, to find out how to climb Mt. Otemanu or its neighbor Mt. Pahia, having read about the hike in several guidebooks. However, unfortunately no one seemed to know whether this was still possible. We also decided that the lagoon tour, complete with shark feeding and stingray petting, is best avoided. While they may be a brief thrill, it’s far more interesting to interact with these animals while diving or snorkeling when they are truly wild, rather than in a contrived “feeding” environment in which some rays are literally picked up out of the water. Plus, if you’re used to traveling independently, the “group tour” aspect of the experience is quite a turn off.

The list of additional activity options at Hotel Bora Bora is long, and includes tennis, massage, jet skiing, sailing, heli-tours, horseback riding, deep sea fishing, sunset cruises, parasailing, and the use of a game room (who wants to watch movies in such a place?). Most are available for additional charges at typically insane Bora Bora prices, though the resort’s prices are comparable to those elsewhere on the island. Remember, in a place so far removed from most of global commerce, even a hamburger can cost $30 so just be prepared.

Despite the island’s relative isolation however, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, both at the resort’s Matira Terrace Restaurant (a mix of Asian, Polynesian, and French influences), as well as area restaurants like the famous Bloody Mary’s (where the food outshone their signature cocktail) and several places along the Matira strip. The food was uniformly excellent, and we found that with a cheap beachside lunch at a local joint and a nice dinner, our meals were comparable to what we’d spend at home.

On our last night, we moved into an overwater bungalow, something that has become an emblem of Polynesia luxury accommodation. Ours was no disappointment, and those at the Hotel Bora Bora offer the paragon of privacy, luxury, and exoticism. With our own private deck and swim ladder, paradise was certainly the word most readily on our lips. As we watched the sunset from our deck and sipped the complimentary champagne as the tropical breeze cooled our faces, we felt like the luckiest couple on the face of the earth.

Additional Notes

Bora Bora is reached via a short flight from Tahiti on Air Tahiti, while Tahiti is serviced by Air Tahiti Nui direct from Los Angeles. The flight is a pleasant one, with a friendly staff, good food, and new Airbus planes. From the West Coast of the USA, it’s a much easier trip than the Caribbean.

The Hotel Bora Bora is part of the Aman Resorts group, and details have not been overlooked. More information can be found on their website, by calling (65) 6887 3337 or by emailing

Additional information on the island can be found on the official tourism website at

Tags: Bora Bora, Hotel Bora Bora, South Seas, travelogue

    1 Comment

  • Adviser Luxury travel says:

    White sand beaches and whale watching always has been the travelers prime charm. Personally I feel that people destinations have become so much crowdie that one can hardly enjoy his privacy.


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