Bungalows in Bora Bora
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Bora Bora Overview
Bora Bora is the haute haunt for honeymooners and celebrities, some of which have reportedly stayed in over-the-water villas at a cost of $15,000 per night. And a meal or drink at the island's famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant & Bar, which has hosted stars from Willie Nelson to Nelson Rockefeller, is as much a part of the Bora Bora experience as swimming in the gorgeous blue-green lagoon three times the size of the island's actual landmass. What's good news for cruise passengers is that it's cheaper to visit Bora Bora by sea than on a land-based vacation -- and you generally get a two-day call.
The island is a high-end playground dependent on tourism (i.e. you'll find more resorts than old fishing villages and simple lifestyles here), but it's still not as slick and Hollywood-chic as you might expect. Internationally acclaimed novelist James A. Michener once wrote that Bora Bora was the world's most beautiful island, and we have to think he was in the right ballpark with that one. Within the warm turquoise waters and snow white ring of sand is a mountainous interior dominated by two majestic peaks -- Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, the remnants of an extinct volcano.
You can make a day of it in Bora Bora simply lounging on the beach or floating in the lagoon. But if you find it surprisingly difficult to do nothing, as so many of us do, there are active pursuits to enjoy. Bora Bora is much more geared to outdoor excursionists than shoppers or culture vultures; snorkeling and scuba diving are world class, with surprisingly friendly sharks and rays. Bicycles are the recommended method of transport; you can easily circle the whole island, stopping for sightseeing and shopping along the way, in a couple of hours.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Isle of Pines (New Caledonia) • Madang • Moorea • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Port Denarau • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti (Papeete)
Although mai tais -- cocktails made of light and dark rum, curacao, simple syrup, and lime juice -- were invented in California, the name is the Tahitian word for "good." You can enjoy this refreshing Polynesian-named drink at Bloody Mary's, one of the most famous and funky restaurants in all of French Polynesia. Or, opt for the beverage for which the restaurant is named -- a bloody mary.
Pareos (silk wraps), whether mass-produced or hand-painted, are available in infinite varieties, as are the region's ubiquitous black pearls.
French and Tahitian are the official languages and both are commonly used, but English is spoken and understood in most restaurants and tourism establishments.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the French Pacific franc. A good rule of thumb is that 100 francs equal $1 -- but you'll want to check XE.com for the latest exchange rates. You can find ATMs at the bank branches of Banque Socredo and Banque de Polynesie in Vaitape.
Where You're Docked
Ships typically anchor in Pofai Bay near Vaitape, the island's main settlement; you'll tender to Vaitape.
In Vaitape you'll find a few shops selling souvenirs and jewelry, plus a handful of restaurants (all closed on our Sunday evening troll for dinner, sadly) -- but most folks get out of town, whether on a ship-sponsored tour or independently. You can find an ATM, Internet cafe and a post office within easy walk of the tender pier.
By Car: Avis and Europcar have offices across from the Vaitape pier; expect to pay about $100 for the day for a compact car or $45 for a four-hour "buggy" rental. (These are two-seater automatic "mini" cars.) You can also rent bicycles (about $15 a day) and scooters (about $65 a day) in Vaitape.
By Bus: Le Truck is the island's bus service but its service is highly irregular and not recommended.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at the pier and operate a $5 shuttle between the pier and Bloody Mary's or the beach.
Watch Out For
Much of Vaitape is closed on Sunday evenings and on national holidays. It's also expensive -- even compared to typically high island prices. Expect to pay about $20 more for a rental car here than in Moorea, for example.
Take in the island's highlights -- on and off road -- on a four-wheel drive adventure. The open-air, six-passenger safari vehicle circles the island and ascends several hills for views of the harbor, Faanui Bay and Matira Beach. Stops include a WWII naval gun site. Devout shoppers will want to visit the studio of a local artist who hand-paints pareos; make sure you request a stop there.
Editor's Note: The ride is very bumpy and may not be suitable for those with back problems. Pregnant travelers should not take this tour.
Shark and ray feeding is an exhilarating way to experience a snorkel trip. Passengers don snorkeling equipment (minus flippers) and swim among affectionate stingrays (you are encouraged to kiss them -- that's how sweet they are) and black-tipped sharks (not threatening, and they don't come very close). The tour also includes a snorkeling stint in the golden coral banks that surround Bora Bora -- the best snorkeling on the island. Raanui Tours operates three-hour trips.
If your cruise ship hasn't arranged for a private motu (or island beach on the outskirts of the lagoon), head for Matira Beach, a 15-minute trip by car from the pier at Vaitape. Other options include some of the resort beaches (which prefer cruise passengers also eat a meal there); among them are the Hotel Bora Bora and Sofitel Marara Resort.
Been There, Done That
Do-it-yourself travelers can book guided adventure trips. Matira Jet Tours (689-67-62-73) offers two-hour waverunner tours that include a swimming stop. Tupuna Safari (689-67-75-06) conducts three-hour rugged 4x4 tours of the interior.
For scuba diving, check out Bathys/Top Dive (689-60-50-50) and the Bora Bora Diving Center (689-67-71-84); both operate dives during the day and at night. There is generally little to no current, so scuba divers of all levels will enjoy seeing the rays, sharks and nearly 500 different species of fish that live in the Tahitian islands.
Rent a bike and ride around the entire circumference of the island (it takes three hours on flat, well-paved roads). Just make sure to wear sun block! You can rent bikes in Vaitape.
Dining out on Bora Bora is an expensive proposition (think $30 cheeseburgers!), but there are a few don't-miss restaurants that are worth the splurge. Just about every venue offers freshly caught fish and a local specialty called possion cru (raw tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime juice). Delicious tropical fruits and vegetables -- including oddities like breadfruit, noni and taro -- are also on the menu. Most hotels feature at least one restaurant but cheaper alternatives can be found around Vaitape and Matira. Free transportation is often provided by each dining establishment, so give them a call directly before hiring a taxi.
Don't Miss: The can't-miss lunch spot on Bora Bora is Bloody Mary's (689-67-72-86; the restaurant doesn't take reservations for lunch though they are accepted for dinner -- and highly recommended). This is a fun, casual joint with actual sand floors (you can check your shoes at the front!), great water views and numerous claims to celebrity patronage. Freshly caught seafood takes center stage at dinnertime, but lunches are a bit simpler and a lot more affordable with items from cheeseburgers to fish sandwiches. Be sure to check out the funky, open-air restrooms complete with waterfall sinks and phallic toilet flushers. Open for lunch and dinner every day except Sunday.
Local Favorite: Another casual option is La Bounty (689-67-70-43, reservations recommended), in Matira between Hotel Maitai Polynesia and Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort. The restaurant dishes up Italian and French specialties at reasonable prices for this region. Pizza and pasta dishes are offered as well as fish in French sauces. Open for lunch and dinner every day except Monday.
Luxe Lunch: Located in Vaitape, Restaurant le Saint-James serves lunch and dinner daily, except on Sundays. The menu heavily favors local fish and seafood but also serves excellent beef and duck dishes. Desserts are decadent, so don't miss them!
Staying in Touch
To make a long distance call from Bora Bora you must purchase a phone card; they come in a variety of increments. Internet access is available from your ship via a local hotspot when anchored off Vaitape. Restaurant Aloe Cafe in downtown Vaitape also offers several computer workstations -- Mac and PC -- with Internet connections. You'll pay about $4 for a 10-minute session.
Best Overall Tour: Circle the island for 22 miles on the Highlights of Bora Bora excursion; at Taihi Point, you'll have a great view of Mount Otemanu, the 2,400-ft. peak that towers above the island. Other points of interest include the main villages of Vaitape, Faanui and Anau (and their mysterious maraes and open-air temples). About 2 1/2 hours.
Best for Water Lovers: You don't even need to know how to swim to experience Aqua Safari, a helmet dive. After riding out to an area teeming with colorful fish on a boat, walk along the bottom of the ocean without even getting your hair wet in a weighted helmet. Guides provide a chunk of French baguette (for feeding the sea life, not for breakfast!). About 2 hours.
Best for Kicking Back: If your ship overnights in Bora Bora, relax and watch the sun set beyond the sparkling lagoon and emerald landscape on a catamaran. A Champagne Sunset Sail excursion includes Champagne and Polynesian music. About 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
For More Information
On the Web: Tahiti Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Pacific Islands
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Pacific Islands
--Updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor
Images of Tahitian Princess and Aqua Safari helmet drive appear courtesy of Member KruisingKaren.