Bora Bora in ancient times was known as "Pora pora mai te pora", meaning "created by the gods" in the local Tahitian dialect. However, in more recent times it has also been dubbed Bora Boring or Pora Poorer, in reference to beliefs that 1 - there's nothing to do on the island beyond lying on the beach sipping cocktails and 2 - the exorbitant cost of everything.
Whilst there is a bit of truth to both of those labels, Best Travel Books provides you with a collection of tips and tricks (alternatively, our pearls of wisdom, get it?) in order to help you get the most out of your time in "paradise" based on our experiences on the islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti in beautiful French Polynesia.
For those of you who simply want to see a summary of the tips and tricks without working your way through this post, feel free to click here.
Arriving and getting away
In days gone by (I'm talking a long time ago here), there were direct flights to Bora Bora, but now all international flights come and go from Fa'a'ā International Airport in Papeete. As this also doubles up as the domestic airport, its worth knowing what's available in this reasonably clean and orderly airport.
Firstly, there are money changers and ATMs available, so changing foreign currency is relatively straight forward. Just don't do what I did and get 100,000 CFP/XPF (Change Franc Pacifique or French Pacific Franc) out. French Polynesia is expensive but there's no need for US$1,000 of "walking around" money!
There's also the usual souvenir shops and eateries where you can grab a cold drink while you're waiting, in addition to a McDonalds Cafe. No burgers, but they do a reasonable Latte and Cappuccino, or at least the closest you'll get to how we have them back home in New Zealand.
The airport also has car rental agencies onsite, which I'll describe in more detail below (in Getting around).
Flight to Bora Bora and the Airport
The flight to Bora Bora from Papeete takes about 50 minutes and has unallocated seating. What this means is that if you want a prime viewing spot, then be prepared to get up and stand in the queue well before the plane boards. All the action takes place on the left hand side of the plane (when you're heading to Bora Bora), so make sure you have your camera ready and that you've positioned yourself away from the wings of the plane in order to get some great views and shots.
Bora Bora's airport has a whole lot less options available when it comes to both food and transport. Given there are no roads from the airport and you have to transfer by boat to your accommodation, this is completely understandable of course! The paucity of food options, however, means that you should come prepared unless you've got no problem tucking into what are some rather unappetizing baguettes or overpriced crisps.
But what the airport lacks for in food options, it sure makes up for in vistas. The views just outside the "airport terminal" where your boat pulls up to whisk you away are some of the best on the whole island.
Onward options from French Polynesia
If, like me, you've a hankering to see the Moai statues on Easter Island, you might want to consider making this part of your French Polynesia journey. Apart from Chile, the only place that has flights to Easter Island is Tahiti. Weekly flights go out and return every Tuesday on LANTAM. Visiting Easter Island and Bora Bora, now that's some trip with definite bragging rights! Looking at historical weather figures, October looks like a pretty good time to travel to these special places if contemplating visiting on the same trip.
Bora Bora and Tahiti are well serviced by taxis. Generally these have set fares which sometimes are displayed on the back of the seats but expect to "Western prices". For example, it cost us 2,500 XPF to travel from Sofitel on the main island to the main town of Vaitape (US$25), which is a one way trip of 8km. Your resort might also run a shuttle bus, but ours was only a bit cheaper as you have to pay per person. As there are no buses on Bora Bora, if you're wanting to go anywhere and don't have your own transport then, you're pretty stuck with using taxis.
Tahiti's taxis also use set fares and prices are probably a bit cheaper, but still quite expensive.
In Tahiti, located at the airport, you get a choice between the car rental majors AVIS, Hertz and Europcar in addition to the more reasonably priced Eco Car, which has cars available for as low as 4,200 XPF per day (US$41 per day). Of course, you can also arrange rental cars from your hotel once you arrive but having the option to pick one up at the airport is actually quite useful, so long as you don't mind driving a manual shift on the right hand side of the road.
Make sure you keep an eye out for petrol stations when you're out and about as you'll need to return the car full of gas.
On Bora Bora, there are a couple of rental agencies on the island, including Europcar and Avis. There are also a range of hire times depending on car hire company from 2 hours upwards. There are other options available such as snazzy electric cars and mopeds if those are preferable. The car rental agency will likely pick you up from your hotel to set you up with your car and pick up the car from your hotel/resort once you're finished. We used AVIS and weren't required to fill the car up with gas.
On Tahiti, if you're keen on deciphering the bus timetable and have plenty of time on your hands, then this is tan option, otherwise leg power is about your only other option, unless you fancy honing up your skills in an outrigger canoe.
I'll cover off bike rental and whether its worth hiring a car under the Circumnavigating the island section of Experiences below.
1. Lagoon/snorkelling tour
The best thing we did on Bora Bora was the "snorkelling" tour. We took the half day Eco Tour which was arranged through the hotel where we were staying and which cost about US$105 per person.
In a nutshell, this massively exceeded my expectations. Captain Steve who ran the tour spoke great English, entertained us throughout with his own special brand of humour and was especially good at providing assistance throughout for those who needed it. All equipment such as snorkelling gear, towels and drinks were provided on the boat although you should check this out before you book. The motorboat was a large outrigger-type design and in addition to ourselves, the boat had two sets of honeymooners and a family of four - all up 12 people on the boat which it easily accommodated.
Our first stop was in a patch of shallow water where 10 or so stingrays and a couple of black tip reef sharks surrounded us.
While Captain Steve explained that the stingrays were like pets "just like a dog", having them brush up against you is still unnerving. These are, after all, wild animals even if they are extremely used to people and accustomed to being feed.
The most dangerous part of the stingray is its barb and you'll notice from the photos that all of the sting rays we encountered had their barbs removed. I did feel a bit guilty about this as it was obvious that these were removed for the safety of tourists but I'd also be lying if I didn't say that it made me feel a lot more secure in the water.
Following on from the stingrays, the tour headed over to the Coral Gardens which are situated on the other side of Sofitel's Private Island. Here there were a multitude of fish and live coral and Captain Steve quickly located a big moray eel for us all to mentally oooohhh and ahhhhh over. The moray eel was well hidden in a coral crevice but was coaxed out of hiding by Captain Steve and a bit of food. She was a bit quick for me to take a photo but a magnificent creature all the same.
A short 15 minute trip took us to a spot where we were hoping to see a manta ray. When booking the trip there was no mention of being able to see one of these majestic creatures, so seeing one live in all is graceful beauty was an added bonus. The manta ray swims much deeper than the stingrays, so the picture quality wasn't as good but in the flesh it was clear as day.
Having gained our breath back from the beauty of the manta ray, we moved onto our last spot in the water to witness the sharks. This time we were surrounded by 20-30 blacktip reef sharks circling around us. Whilst initially unnerving, you pretty quickly get used to them but at this point we then sighted some lemon sharks. Being larger than the blacktip reef sharks (the largest we saw was about 8 foot), they added another dimension to the nervousness!
Unfortunately, at this point my camera ran out of batteries, which gives you some idea of how many photos I'd been taking (and how unorganised I was by not having a fully charged camera!).
Thankfully it wasn't us on the lunch menu, so instead we motored round to the far side of Bora Bora to have a light lunch of coconut, grapefruit and coconut bread washed down with a cold beer. Bliss. The boat then took us round the island dropping off other folk on board until we'd circumnavigated the island back to our own accommodation. Completely circling the island was another bonus as we got to see from all water vantage points the spectacular Mt Otemanu that dominates Bora Bora.
Back at home I had cause to reflect on just how good this experience was and decided it was of such good quality to rank in my top 10 experiences ever. I'm not quite sure whether I would've opted for a full day tour either. The half day tour was packed with things to do and passed really quickly, whereas I think there might have been a bit more of downtime with a full day tour.
2. Chasing the sun
I'm a self confessed sucker for chasing sunsets and sunrises. My first sunrise experience was in Tahiti where due to the time difference from New Zealand on the first morning we'd arrived, I got up at 5am-ish to go for a run. Thinking this was roughly 7am back home it wasn't until later that day that I realised New Zealand was a day ahead but 2 hours behind! So what, if the views and tranquility always looked this good at 4am (by the time I'd finished my run), I'd probably do it more often!
Replicating Maui and catching the sun(set) is a much easier affair not requiring an early exit from bed (you'll have to excuse my mixing of Polynesian legends here!). The process simply requires grabbing your camera and beverage of choice and then killing time waiting for the golden glow.
Where we stayed on the western side of the island, the setting sun was hidden by Moorea. Further north was better and if I had to hazard a guess, I'd reckon that Point Venus would be a pretty good spot for sunset on Tahiti.
On the face of it Bora Bora lends itself to beautiful sunsets, although positioning of your accommodation will determine whether or not you will be able to view the sun dipping into the sea for that "perfect" shot. Our view of sunset from Sofitel Private Island was obscured by To'opua, which looked like it would have great views. That said, the views we did get were certainly not anything to complain about.
Thinking we could do better we were given two suggestions by locals. The first was Matira Beach, which is a beautiful white sand public beach that I'd suggest is the best on Bora Bora.
As you're not supposed to bring alcohol to the beach, we grabbed a beer from the little Snack place in the photo above and took in the last of the sun with all of about six people within 500 metres of us.
The other place suggested to us, was up a little track directly opposite "The Farm". After a short 10 minute scramble up a well defined but reasonably steep track to the TV Tower, you get a great view over Pofai Bay out towards Vaitape. Again, the final setting sun view is obstructed but still it is a nice place to soak up the final rays with no one around.
Sunrise in Bora Bora is definitely worth getting up for too. Obviously the east side of the island is the place to be and from our vantage point at Sofitel, we got beautiful sunrises each day. Even better, given most of the people were on honeymoon on our island and probably had other things to do in the morning, we had the sunrise completely to ourselves.
3. Circumnavigating the island
There are a number of ways in which you can circumnavigate Bora Bora given it is only a 32km round trip. I'll preface this by saying whilst we hired a car to go around the island there wasn't really that much to see and what might've been worth seeing wasn't well sign-posted. Personally, I wouldn't bother circumnavigating Bora Bora, most especially if you get the opportunity to go round the island by boat.
For most people walking or running around the island might be a bit too far, although given the flat terrain it is possible. Given the excesses of pastries I was consuming each morning I got out most days for runs of varying lengths and the views at this much slower pace were awesome.
There were quite a few dogs to contend with but I found the usual trick of bending down to pick up a rock to throw at them generally dispersed them pretty quickly. I also tended to carry a rock with me in order to throw as a last resort so they could also see I had something in my hand to put them off, which also did the trick. There is also a surprising amount of traffic which you'll need to put up with.
More achievable, under your own steam, is to hire some bikes and cycle round the island, giving yourself 4 hours or so. There are plenty of places to hire bikes, although if it were me I'd try and opt for an electric bike as the bikes aren't quite what most of us would be used to.
Supposedly, you can hire electric bikes at Maitai Electric Bicycle and Moped Rentals which is either part of or besides Maitai Polynesia Bora Bora close to Matira Beach.
Having my time again, I probably wouldn't bother going around the island (we did it by car), although if I did feel compelled I'd do it on my first day scoping out what else there is to see, including a quick visit to Vaitape.
Tahiti, however, offers a lot more to see and do if you hire a car. It is 114km around Tahiti Nui, with the isthmus of Taravao (from where you can turn off to Tahiti Iti) roughly being half way. There are are red-topped concrete markers which tell you the distance every kilometer between Papeete and the Isthmus of Taravao which, along with reasonably good signage, makes finding places of interest a whole lot easier.
Make sure you stop off to at least one of the Marae's around the island. We walked around Marae Arahurahu on the west side of Tahiti, which was interesting which descriptions of the Marae written in English, French and Tahitian.
The Grottes de Maraa, also free, are also worth a visit with some lovely gardens to amble around.
As you head around the island there is a range of different beaches where you can get out of the car for a swim. Tahiti's black sand beaches aren't nearly as nice as Bora Bora's, but it compensates with some pretty good surf, so make sure you pack your swimsuit and towel.
Next to the waves also makes a great place to have some lunch. We visited the supermarche and grabbed some bagguettes, butter, brie and beer for a b-themed and very affordable lunch.
The Vaipahi Water Gardens which we didn't visit are located at the Isthmus of Taravao and worth visiting if you have time.
We did make a brief excursion onto Tahiti Iti where the rental car is allowed to go onto the paved roads, but apart from a reasonably nice looking beach at La Plage de Maui, there wasn't that much to see. Surfers will, however, definitely want to go and pay their respects to Teahupoo right at the end of the paved road.
Nor is there much to see on the east side of the Tahiti Nui, so you can make pretty good time up to the north where you can stop off at the blowholes called Le Trou Du Souffleur. This along with the Faarumai Waterfalls (Les Trois Cascades de Faarumai) we were keen to see, but unfortunately there was a sign up saying that access had been restricted. The waterfalls are off the main ring road, with a 5 minute drive up a narrow road to a car park and from here 15 minutes walk to view the furthermost waterfall.
The drive along the northern coast is very pretty as you go through the wonderfully named Papenoo towards Venus Point. Located on the tip of the northern peninsula and surrounded with black-sand beaches, Venus Point is home to a picturesque Victorian-era lighthouse and where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus in 1769.
As the most recent transit of Venus occurred in 2012 and the next transit isn't due until 2117, we thought we'd call it a day. You should note that only slightly harder than mapping the transit of Venus was finding a car park, although this might've been because it was on the weekend. Outside of the car park there is little in the way of parking so probably best waiting until a week day to visit or be be prepared to park a distance away before making your way to Venus Point.
To the south and west is Matavai Bay, which is where Captain Bligh and his men landed in Tahiti. You can check out Best Travel Books Review on Mutiny on the Bounty by clicking the hyperlink.
You can fit all of the above in on one very full day. It makes for a good day trip and definitely beats simply sitting around the resort pool.
4. Visiting town
There is only one town of note on Bora Bora, which is Vaitape. As we'd yet to hire a car we ended up hiring a taxi into town to check out what was around, which unfortunately I can report was not much. We grabbed a bite to eat at the reasonably priced Aloe Cafe which had pretty good food and also did probably the best Flat White on the island. Outside of that there was very little to see in Vaitape and certainly I didn't see any reason to make a special trip here at all.
On Tahiti, there are a couple of towns of half decent size, but Papeete is likely to be the only one worth thinking about making an effort to go and see.
If I had a couple of days to kill on the island of Tahiti I'd consider jumping on the super touristy Papeete Discovery Tours Tourist Train. For about US$15 you'll get to see the Tahua Autonomy gardens on the seafront, gardens of the Bishopric and the Chinese Temple as well as discovering the historic districts of Papeete as the neighborhood Paofai, the Pouvana'a Oopaa Avenue, the Catholic Mission area, Mama'o and Taunoa. Whilst it's probably aimed at the cruise ship market, it is likely to be a better alternative to slogging it on foot.
One thing worth checking out is the Notre-Dame Cathedral for its Polynesian-themed interior and glass windows.
But the real (and some would argue only) highlight of Papeete is its market which opens from 4am and is full of fish, fruit, veges, flowers and heaps of other craft items worth investigating.
Be aware that Papeete is dead on Sunday, apart from the market and churches. In addition to that, there are also a lot of homeless people hanging around giving it a very derelict feel, so it'd be wise to plan something else to do on this particular day. Unless you like hanging out with hobo's, in which case I suppose there is some merit in coming into town on Sunday.
5. Pearl diving
I need to confess that we didn't actually go pearl diving, but we were wandering around The Farm and sort of gatecrashed a couple who had just been and who were in the midst of opening up the oyster to see what pearl they were about to receive. We started walking away to give them some privacy but were encouraged to stay and have a look and it was pretty cool. Less cool was the price, although supposedly the value of the pearl (in this instance at least) ended up being pretty close to the price which they paid for the experience. At any rate, if money's not an option, and you're into black pearls, I'm guessing it would be a fun thing to do and your jewellery would definitely have a memorable story. For us, just checking out the compact "Farm" on the main road was pretty neat in any case. There's a link here if you're interested in more.
There's a ton of other stuff you can do while you're on the island, such as jet skiing, diving, romantic sail cruising, paragliding, kayaking, SUPing and parasailing. If it's a water related activity it's likely to be on the island but given we didn't do any of this other stuff, there's nothing further I can pass on.
Also, there's a lot to be said for simply whiling the time away, soaking up some rays, sipping on coconut water and reading one of the books recommended by Best Travel Books!
Eating and drinking
As you'd expect from a place so closely associated with France, French Polynesia does eating well. From the pastries directly out of the hot ovens of the patisserie's in the morning to the humble baguette at lunch and French-inspired cuisine at night, the problem is more one of making sure you don't over indulge!
A few tips to ensure you don't break the bank and gut whilst on Bora Bora is to put together your own light lunch from the supermarket. Seek out a supermarket, of which there are a few scattered around the island. Near to our resort on Bora Bora was the Tiare Market which stocked all the usual groceries you'd need along with other staples like wine and beer.
We didn't investigate too closely as we brought in some duty free (2 litres allowance per person), but wine started from about US$15 a bottle for a French red. You can buy beer by the bottle or can (330ml or 500ml), which from the supermarket cost about US$2.50 for a 500ml bottle. In the resort or restaurant you can expect to pay about $US5 for a 330ml bottle.
Most places also have a happy hour where generally you'll get two cocktails for the price of one, which make these a whole heap more affordable. The happy hours we frequented only included cocktails and didn't extend to other drinks like wine and beer.
Most of the resorts are bound to have pretty good food. Ours certainly was pretty good but you absolutely must, at least once, make sure you head to Bloody Mary's for dinner. This is a real institution on Bora Bora and has been frequented by a load of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. As an added bonus, it's also one of few restaurants that actively encourages you to go barefoot.
The lunch menu is standard burger and chips-type fare, which is reasonably priced, but dinner is what's really worth coming for. On arrival you're given a run down of what's available for starters, mains and side accompaniments. Having ordered what best tickles your fancy, the food will be brought to you once cooked. We opted for the swordfish and marlin as mains and these were sublime. The only downside was that it did feel a bit rushed, although judging by our courtesy van driver's response when we came out for our free lift back to the resort, maybe we weren't supposed to scoff it down so quick! If you're planning to eat outside of your resort make sure you check to see whether the restaurant offers free pick-up and drop-offs.
I've always found picking accommodation to be a bit of a lottery. Plus, different people have different budgets, tastes and expectations, so what might appeal to one person, may be someone else's nightmare.
That all said, the accommodation we had in Bora Bora (Sofitel Bora Bora Private Island) exceeded my expectations. Good service, great food and clean, spacious bungalows with a patio all made for a good experience. Even better was the complimentary water, soft drinks and beers that were stocked daily in our fridge.
The biggest question that needs to be addressed is whether or not you choose to pay for an over-the-water bungalow or not. For honeymooners or bucket list travellers, this probably is a no brainer. We choose not to spend the extra money and instead opted for a garden bungalow which we were very happy with. A better option, might've been to mix up the nights with say a couple of nights in an over-the-water bungalow and the remainder in a garden bungalow as being able to dive directly into the lagoon from your lodging sounds pretty awesome.
The accommodation in Tahiti (Manava Suites) went the other way. Overpriced, small, smelly and run down, we certainly won't be recommending or revisiting this place. Post our holiday I also had a quick look on TripAdvisor and there were some similar comments to ours, although it seems like the "suite" rooms are better. One of the comments made by Manava Suites in response to a TripAdvisor review (not ours) was "You made a mistake in choosing the cheapest room we do have for 2 nights stay. Be informed that those rooms are rented for few hours stay". The only other rooms I know of that you pay for by the hour certainly aren't the sort I'd want to be staying in! At any rate, you pays your money and takes your chances I guess. To me, this attitude suggests trying somewhere else.
Whilst most people who come to French Polynesia shouldn't be overly interested in staying connected to the outside world, knowing the basics of what's available is useful.
Firstly, all the places we stayed at had free wifi connection, even if at times it was restricted to certain areas of the hotel/resort. It was pretty slow and patchy, but good enough to be able to Facetime the kids back home.
Of more importance was making sure that all the electronics remained charged. I made the mistake of having a moderately charged underwater camera with me when we went on the snorkelling trip and given the number of photos I took ran out of batteries! Make sure you bring a multi-adapter that is capable of plugging into European plugs, like the one below.
I must admit to being a bit over the top and brought a multi-USB adapter which allows me to charge up to 4 devices at the same time. Plus two power banks, for when I don't want to leave devices out in the open and therefore can then charge them in the safe (this happens more than you might think)!
Tips and Tricks Summary
With our own Bora Bora and Tahiti experiences outlined above, here's the quick and dirty summary of tips and tricks.
- Papeete has one airport, which is used for both domestic and international flights (although check-in is in different parts of the building). There are a few basic eating options, money changers and ATMs and car rental agencies at the airport.
- The flight over to Bora Bora has unallocated seating and people queue early so that they can get the prime viewing seats on the left hand side of the plane.
- Tahiti is one of two places that does (weekly on a Tuesday) flights to Easter Island (the other is Chile). If Easter Island is on your bucket list consider working this into your itinerary when visiting Tahiti/Bora Bora.
- Some of the best views of Bora Bora are right outside the airport terminal. Don't be afraid to snap away until your heart's content.
- Accommodation is expensively and eye-wateringly so for over-the-water bungalows. If you balk at paying the extra price for over-the-water bungalows consider mixing it up with nights in a garden bungalow to get the overall price down.
- Bora Bora has no public transport and taxi's are likely to be your best best. As in Tahiti, there are set fares across the island. Note also that some restaurants will do free pick-ups and drop-offs.
- There are a number of car rental agencies on both Bora Bora and Tahiti. Hiring a car in Bora Bora isn't really that necessary and there isn't that much to see travelling around the island. Hiring a car on Tahiti to travel around Tahiti Nui is, however, a great way to spend a day.
- There are plenty of on-the-water excursions to do in Bora Bora including jet skiing, diving, romantic sail cruising, paragliding, kayaking, SUPing and parasailing.
- Not to be missed is a snorkelling tour with sting rays and sharks. If you're fortunate you might also get to swim with manta rays and all manner of other sea creatures.
- Given the amount of on and under the water activities you're likely to do, if you don't already have one invest in a waterproof camera. I picked up a reasonably cheap one (Olympus) before we left and was super glad I did. The picture's aren't going to rival anything on National Geographic, but they were plenty fine for what I wanted.
- You can hire bikes while on Bora Bora. Like most things these are expensive for what you get and unless you really have a penchant for some exercise, I'd probably avoid cycling around the island as there isn't a whole heap to see (although it is almost dead flat so should make for easy cycling).
- Tahiti also has some great attractions, including Venus Point and its lighthouse and a whole heap of good surfing beaches. A visit to one of the Marae's is also recommended.
- Vaitape, the main town on Bora Bora doesn't have a whole lot to see. There is more to do in Papeete and the highlight definitely should be the morning market. Sunday's in Papeete are dead and the town has a definitely run down feel to it with a fair amount of homeless people around.
- The best beach on Bora Bora outside of what might be available at your resort is Matira Beach, which is also great for sunsets.
- The food in Bora Bora and Tahiti is great. Make sure you visit the famous Bloody Mary's on Bora Bora for dinner (they also do free pick-up and drop-off from your resort).
- If you want to keep costs down there are a number of small supermarkets on Bora Bora where you can buy all the basics such as bread, cheese, wine, beer etc. Tahiti also has a large number of large supermarkets. There's also a number of basic "Snack" restaurants on Bora Bora which do reasonable food and are a lot more affordable.
- There's no need to buy water as straight from the tap is perfectly safe to drink.
- Most restaurants and resorts have a happy hour. These usually consist solely of two for the price of one cocktails.
- Tahiti has European plug outlets. Make sure you bring an adapter to fit.
- Internet connectivity is reliable if a bit slow and most resorts include this free of charge.
Hopefully there's some useful information in here that you can put into the decision making mix of how best to spend your time while on the amazingly beautiful French Polynesia. Thanks for reading and happy travels!