Updated: September 22, 2018
Best Places to Stay in Bora Bora
About halfway between Australia and America, and still part of French Polynesia, Tahiti has 5 archipelagos of 120 islands. Part of the largest group, the Society Islands, is Bora Bora, an adorable cluster of islets and atolls about 260km northwest of the Tahitian capital. The self-labeled ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ offers the quintessential tropical paradise: curved bays of snow-white sand peppered with sloping palms facing a serene and shallow lagoon that shimmers with innumerable shades of blue and green. In fact, the lagoon is 3 times larger than the combined land mass of Bora Bora, and is surrounded by a broad reef with only 1 opening to the Pacific Ocean.
Stories about the beauty of Bora Bora, which means ‘first born’ in the local language, became legendary during WWII, when the Americans built an airport (which still functions) on a northern atoll. Predominantly Protestant, and still substantially French in culture, food and language, Bora Bora is not as developed as its Melanesian cousin, New Caledonia, but is probably the most expensive place in the South Pacific.
Almost all accommodation is based in 3 areas, so anywhere else will offer a poor beach or none at all. The only town – which is really more like a village – is Vaitape on the main island. Although home to a limited selection of banks, supermarkets, shops and lodges, and the terminal for the catamaran ferry to/from the airport, Vaitape is overwhelmingly the most developed area in Bora Bora.
Many stay in one of the dozen or more exclusive resorts sprinkled around the outlying atolls. Guests are transferred there on speedboats from the airport, and may never feel the need to visit the main island. And the third main tourist area is Matira, an idyllic beach at the southern end of the main island with more low-key lodges than upmarket resorts. But be warned: Matira – and Bora Bora in general – is nowhere near as developed as resort regions in Bali, Thailand or even Fiji. This suits some, while others may become frustrated by the lack of things to do and places to shop.
Best Places to Stay in Bora Bora
Little more than 10% of the 20km-long coastline around the main island has beaches, and any atoll with sand will have been commandeered by an upmarket resort long ago. Beaches on the atolls are technically available to the public, but the only way to reach them is on a resort speedboat (available to guests only), or by chartering a boat at eye-watering rates. Thankfully, Matira, along the southern end of the main island, is perfect with white sand, turquoise water and exquisite views of the alluring atolls. It’s easy enough to find a quietish patch of sand at Matira, but facilities are very limited: 2 general stores, a handful of restaurants, and no public transport.
- Diving & Snorkeling
Bora Bora consists of 1 tiny island in the middle of a lagoon surrounded by motus (atolls), and linked to the Pacific by a single narrow pass. So, the lagoon waters are calm, shallow, and rarely affected by tides, and the visibility is excellent – except if the trade winds are particularly dominant (from June to August). Marine life includes barracuda, manta rays, and harmless sharks, and much can be accessed by steps from a sundeck on an overwater bungalow, which makes it ideal for children and novices. But to explore coral reefs and gardens, join an organized dive trip or lagoon tour. Serious scuba-divers can arrange trips at one of the dive centers for deeper and more distant underwater adventures.
- Outdoor Activities
Few visit Bora Bora for anything more energetic than turning over on a lounge chair, but sedate activities like kayaking and paddle-boarding can usually be organized, often for free for guests at resorts and mid-range hotels. More adventurous water-sports are also available, including jet-skiing and parasailing, and some companies offer quad-biking and fishing charters. Check out the very useful Tahiti Islands Travel Guide, available in English and French at hotel lobbies. Hiking is also possible among mountains, caves and rainforests dotted with WWII relics, but guides are heartily recommended. And cycling is wonderful along the 20km-long coastal road, which is flat between Vaitape (the only town) and Matira (the main beach region). For surfing, abseiling, sky-diving, and kite-surfing, head back to the main island of Tahiti or the adjacent Moorea Island.
A few yachties sneak through Passe Te Ava Nui, the only opening from the Pacific to the lagoon surrounding Bora Bora. The best of the few yacht clubs on the main island is the MaiKai Bora Bora Marina & Yacht Club. It is only about 1km north of central Vaitape, the only place on Bora Bora with supermarkets, banks and stores offering boat repairs and equipment. The yacht club provides everything a yachtie needs: safe mooring, a classy waterside restaurant and bar, swimming pool, free Wi-Fi, and various marine services.
Most resorts on the atolls offer a couple of boutiques, but unsurprisingly, prices are sky-high. Matira, the only beach region on the main island, provides nothing more than a couple of minimarts, so the only place to really shop is the main town, Vaitape. A few modest places there sell traditional souvenirs, such as pareaus (sarongs), ukuleles, baskets, and pottery, while more upmarket boutiques offer pearls and jewellery, mostly for cruise-ship passengers. A few stalls are also set up along the road to sell more affordable mementos, while a sizeable market is held near the ferry terminal on Sunday mornings.
- Food & Restaurants
Every resort and most mid-range hotels provide at least 1 restaurant offering a mouth-watering selection of predominantly French and Polynesian cuisine. Staying at a resort on an atoll severely limits the choices of places to eat; not so if based on the main island. Matira offers a reasonable selection, from pizza joints to world-class seaside bistros, while Vaitape is home to a few cafés, a Chinese eatery, and some roulottes (food carts). And remember: some places on the main island offer free transfers (mostly for dinner only); and many independent restaurants (i.e. not part of a hotel) are closed on Sundays.
The only way to reach an atoll with a resort is by speedboat, whether offered by the hotel (for a fee), or chartered especially. There is no public transport around the main island, so the only options are to organize a ‘taxi’ (simply an unmetered car with a driver charging whatever he likes), or to rent a scooter, bicycle or car (including a cute 2-seater buggy). But with little to do on Bora Bora except laze on the beach, there isn’t a huge demand for transport anyway – and ask your resort/hotel, and any restaurant you want to visit, about free transfers.
Most resorts across Bora Bora offer some sort of nightlife, usually on weekends, which may include groups of old men playing ukuleles, or more entertaining fire-and-dance shows. The latter are often combined with buffets, usually with Polynesian cuisine or seafood. Nothing else is available on the main island, except for a few bars. And note: almost everything in Bora Bora outside of the resorts closes on Sundays.
- For Families
Perhaps, the exquisite beauty of Bora Bora appeals more to couples than families, and the cost and time involved in visiting the island, and the very high price of everything, puts off those with children from coming. Nonetheless, families do visit and enjoy the lovely beaches, safe snorkeling, rainforest walks, and cycling along the coastal road. However, very few resorts offer family-friendly facilities such as a games area, or special rooms accommodating 2 adults and 2 children. Also, the sorts of kids’ clubs often available in Fiji, Thailand and Bali are not found on Bora Bora.
- Vibe & Culture
Of the 10,000 or so residents on Bora Bora, most are French expats or workers from elsewhere across the Tahitian archipelagos, while many reminders from pre-colonial times were obliterated by Protestant missionary zeal 200 years ago. As a result, far fewer traditions have survived the tourist onslaught on Bora Bora than elsewhere in Tahiti and the South Pacific. The best way to experience local culture is to walk the backstreets, visit the Sunday market, or attend a church service in the main town, Vaitape.
- Romantic Holidays
Bora Bora just oozes romance, so it’s justifiably popular with those on dreamy getaways, especially honeymooners. The above-water bungalows provide serenity, seclusion, and privacy, with direct sea views and steps from a sundeck to the lagoon below. Most resorts offer special packages for honeymoons (and can even organize weddings), providing intimate delights like candlelit dinners on the beach with a private butler, and massage rooms with side-by-side tables. And there is no shortage of beachside walks, romantic restaurants, and bars offering cocktails at sunset.
The Best Areas in Bora Bora for Tourists
The only town on the only island (rather than an atoll) is little more than a village. Compact and friendly, it offers several banks, some decent eateries, a couple of well-stocked supermarkets, and an inordinate number of boutiques selling nothing much but pearls – aimed primarily at day-trippers from cruise ships. Vaitape is home to numerous amenities for locals, such as churches and sports fields, and every tourist staying on the main island will at least pass through the harbor from where (free) boats travel to/from the airport. A few low-key lodges cater for those seeking convenience to facilities and transport without needing a resort-style experience.
- Best Hotel: Oa Oa Lodge
Based along both sides of a pencil-thin peninsula at the southern end of the main island, Matira offers 2 white-sand beaches for the price of 1. The region is home to the InterContinental and Sofitel (the only 2 upmarket resorts on the main island), yet astoundingly, most of Matira is packed with scruffy homes that have million-dollar settings. A few mid-range resorts and budget-priced lodges are also dotted along the roads, but with only a handful of eateries, and 2 general stores, this is far less developed than resort regions in, for example, Bali and Thailand.
- Best Hotel: InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort
Speedboats at the airport whisk most visitors to one of the dozen or so super-sumptuous 5-star resorts on the motus (atolls) surrounding the main island. Most resorts feature a postcard-perfect beach (which might be quite undersized or artificial), but it’s all about the setting, with traditionally-designed bungalows perched above the lagoon, and accessible by wooden walkways. These resorts – which thrive on exclusivity (so the public are unwelcome) – can feel quite remote. The selection of places to eat, drink, and shop is very limited, and transfers to the main island infrequent.
- Best Hotel: Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora
Those staying on the main island can still wander about a motu not commandeered by a resort. From the harbor in Vaitape, a catamaran ferry leaves every 1½ to 2 hours (timed for flight arrivals/departures) to a northern atoll with the airport. The 15-minute trip is free for all anytime (no-one asks to see an airline ticket). There aren’t any decent beaches on the atoll, and fair chunks of it are off-limits, but visiting is worthwhile for the offshore snorkeling, captivating views back to the main island, and the trip itself.