I had a dream that started well over a decade ago - that I’d spend my 50th birthday in Bora Bora. Not just a birthday trip, but that I’d be sitting in an over-the-water bungalow on the actual day, December 26th. Think big, right?
Other people throw a big bash, or challenge themselves in some way, but I wanted to mark the occasion by enjoying what I believed would be the most beautiful view on earth.
I was not disappointed. Here's a little bit about my trip, including some of my favourite photos.
We flew from Vancouver to San Francisco and then directly to Papeete, Tahiti with United Airlines. The flight from San Fran is almost 9 hours. (While it's about 11.5 hours of total flying time, the good news is there's only a two hour time difference!) We arrived in Tahiti in the evening and were met a representative from Tahiti Nui Travel, the local company that handled all our travel arrangements. They gave us our inter-island travel documents and took us to the hotel.
I usually book all my own travel online, but I decided to go with a travel agent for this one, which I do recommend. Travel Best Bets (thanks Marina!) worked with Tahiti Nui for all the arrangements. Working with a local agency made the travel seamless: At every step of the journey, we had someone awaiting for us, a placard with our name on it in hand, ready to transport us to the next destination. There were no delays and no confusion.
After overnighting in Tahiti, we took a one hour flight to Bora Bora. The views from the plane were incredible and as we landed, the passengers cheered. Not in a, "Yay we landed safely!" kind of way, but in a, “Can you believe we’re in Bora Bora?” ecstatic kind of way!
As soon as we stepped out of the airport, I was speechless. Check out the colour of the water above! This is literally one step outside the airport doors. (Technically there are no doors, it’s all open air.)
A boat was waiting for us to take us to our hotel, the Intercontinental Le Moana, Bora Bora. There aren’t a ton of hotels on the island, and many of them are situated on the atoll - a ring-shaped reef made of coral sand that circles the turquoise blue lagoon. But I liked staying on the island itself, which afforded more opportunities to explore. If you stay on at a hotel on the atoll, it's a bigger ordeal to get to the mainland.
Once we arrived we checked into our overwater bungalow. To backtrack a bit: When booking the vacation, we hummed and hawed whether to stay in one, because they’re more expensive than beach bungalows or regular rooms. (And don't get me wrong, it's all quite expensive.) But after much debate, we decided that this was a special, once in a lifetime, trip so let’s go for it.
I’m very glad we did. Check out the view through our coffee table. You can actually slide it open to get a better view of the coral and fish below. We spent a lot of time feeding our finned friends. There was no need to go somewhere else to snorkel. The best snorkeling was right beneath us.
I’m going to be honest with you… I teared up every day that I was in Bora Bora, sometimes a few times a day. I just could not believe how stunning it was, and how lucky I was to be there. That a place so beautiful exists, one that actually exceeds expectation, was mind blowing. Here are a few more snaps from the island.
We stayed in Bora Bora for three nights, but I could added another night or two, no problem.
People have asked me if there's much to do there. They answer is no, not really. But that to me, that's kind of the point. There are water sports, tons of snorkeling, and we took walks along neighbouring Matira beach. But if you’re looking for a place with lots of activities and action, Bora Bora may not be for you. The resort rolls up the carpet at about 9:30 pm. There is no loud music, no nightclub, just the songs of tropical birds. Paradise!
Our next stop was the island of Moorea, about a 45 minute flight from Bora Bora. We opted for a beach bungalow here, mainly because it was a bit less expensive. The bungalows at the Intercontinental Moorea were tasteful and very spacious. Plus, we were right on the lagoon which made for easy access to swimming and snorkeling.
Moorea is stunning and does have a different feel than its splashier, more famous sister island. It's incredibly lush here and feels very tropical and less touristy. We rented a car and drove the whole island in a leisurely hour and a half. We also drove up to Mt. Belvedere for the stunning vistas. (Bring bug spray, we were attacked by mosquitos.)
One of the highlights of our time in Moorea was swimming with stingrays and sharks. I was quite apprehensive about it: The day before I was stand-up paddleboarding around the lagoon when I saw three sharks beneath me. Small, yes, but still sharks, and totally unexpected. I had a mild freak-out and raced back to the bungalow.
But swimming with the stingrays (in a group, with an organized tour) felt safe. The guides visit this spot daily and the rays and sharks know to come for the free lunch. We were able to touch the stingrays, which feel like soft, wet portobello mushrooms, ones with the cutest faces! One even swam right up on top me, which was rather unexpected. But they did tell us to refrain from touching the sharks. Don't need to tell me twice.
A few more shots of Moorea in the slideshow below.
I had heard that no one actually stays in Tahiti, it's usually used as a transit stop when island-hopping. But because it was such a long, faraway trip, we decided to add three more nights to our stay. The Intercontinental here was the largest resort of the three, with two beautiful pools, one with a sandy bottom, and a lagoonarium you can swim in, but no proper beach.
The food here was even more expensive than at the other two locations, which was surprising. And, it wasn’t as good. Is Tahiti as nice as Bora Bora and Moorea? I didn’t see much of the island so I can’t speak to that but was I glad that I had three more days in the tropics? You bet!
The only excursion we did here was to take a shuttle into Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. The city has about 134K inhabitants. And while the setting is beautiful, there is substantial poverty. There are some beautiful buildings, like the City Hall below, but by and large, it’s quite run down.
What was most shocking to us was the prices at the local grocery stores. Much more expensive than home. One large can of beer is almost $4.50. And we were shopping amongst the locals, not at a touristy store. I can’t fathom how they afford it.
A word about the locals. Everywhere we went, the Polynesian people were helpful, kind, always quick with a hello and a big friendly smile. We felt welcome and well taken care of.
One of our favourite words that we learned was Maururu, which means thank you. Maururu for your hospitality French Polynesia!
Breakfast was included at all the hotels and we made that our biggest meal of the day. Buffet style, there was lots to choose from.
In general though, the food and the drinks are expensive. One cocktail, like a Mai Tai, is about $32 Canadian. A chicken dish in Tahiti was $39. We checked out the happy hour which had a two-for-one special, but found the drinks heavy on the sugar and light on the booze. We generally stuck to wine and beer at restaurants, which were comparable to prices at home: A glass of white was about $10.
Another advantage of staying on the island itself (as opposed to on the atoll in Bora Bora) is access to stores. I definitely recommend popping into the local grocery story to stock up on drink and snacks. We did this at each location and saved a bundle.
While breakfast was bountiful and tasty, the rest of the meals were hit and miss. The food in Moorea was the best, featuring a large menu with lots of vegetarian options. But by and large, I can’t rave about the food. But that’s okay, that’s not why I came.
French Polynesia is famous for its pearls. Small and large, natural and cultured, black, green and purple - they were everywhere. Of course, I couldn’t go home without a treasure from the South Pacific of my own. I choose a delicate bracelet with three natural pearls made by a local jewellery designer. A beautiful reminder of my amazing trip here.
A few more travel tips:
Sunscreen is a must. The sun felt hotter here and we burned quickly, even though we lathered up with 30 SPF sunscreen and kept to the shade.
Bring bug spray. Bora Bora was mosquito-free (not sure if it's always that way), but Moorea and Tahiti did have them. We didn’t see a lot of other bugs though. I’m not going to tell you about the cockroaches on the high-speed catamaran we took from Moorea to Tahiti. Oops, wait, I just told you.
Bring water shoes. There’s a lot going in the water right outside your door. Coral can be sharp, and stone fish could be hiding in the sand, so shuffle your feet when walking in the water. And we did see moray eels right outside our bungalow. It's best to explore in water shoes.
Dress code is casual. We weren’t in the fanciest resorts on the islands but even so, almost everyone was very casually dressed. Women in heels were few and far between. If you are traveling there, ladies, I’d recommend bringing light dresses to keep you cool. I brought a denim jacket, a sweat-shirt, and a rain jacket, and didn’t wear any of them.
Summer (our winter) is the rainy season. Apparently we lucked out: In 12 days, we had one iffy day. And by iffy I mean we were still able to go to the pool but it did rain on and off. Their summer is also the hottest and most humid time of year. (So bring your rain jacket.) Locals told us that October is the optimum time to visit in terms of weather, if not in terms of crowds.
I want to say that this was the trip of a lifetime... but I hope not. I’m already dreaming of my next visit to this most stunning part of the world.