Bora Bora! (And an Overwater Bungalow)

Or “What’s at the top of Rob’s Travel To Do List, and why?”

Somewhere in my childhood, a seed was planted.

I blame Walt Disney, Quinton McHale, and Daniel Defoe, among others, though it really all started in 1812 with Johann David Wyss. What began as an adventurous tale to teach life lessons to his sons became the epic Swiss Family Robinson. Walt Disney, of course, turned the fables into movie gold in 1960. That was the very first feature film I recall seeing, and I was hooked. From that moment on, all of my favorite books, movies and television shows somehow involved adventure (and/or hijinks) on the high seas, deserted islands, palm trees, and the occasional pirate. James Michener (and Rodgers & Hammerstein) cemented my dreams in the South Pacific, which led to a travel bucket list with Bora Bora firmly in the top spot. (Despite the fact that Swiss Family Robinson was filmed entirely on the Caribbean island of Tobago.)

The plot seemed always to be some variation of modern man marooned on (or otherwise confined to) a beautiful Polynesian island, eventually “going native” and finding true happiness in a thatch-roofed hut with the most basic of amenities. The last part is where my bucket list dream diverts. Rest assured, I long to find myself on a Polynesian island, but the thatch-roofed hut I dream of is distinctly more luxurious – though no less accommodating – than the Robinson’s tree house.

The island in question, of course, should be the epitome of idyllic islands. Long sandy beaches. Crystalline waters. A remote location that almost requires you to disconnect and decompress. Thatch-roofed bungalows that hover just over the water. Bora Bora today is what many people dream of when considering the ideal beach vacation. Ironically, it didn’t start out that way.

Panoramic photo of Bora Bora.

Where fantasy meets reality: The island and islets of Bora Bora are among the world’s most popular luxury destinations.

The Story So Far

Most likely settled by Polynesians in the 4th century, the island was “discovered” by Europeans in the 1700s, and became a French colony in 1888. During World War Two, the United States used Bora Bora as a South Pacific outpost, with military hardware, supply ships, an airstrip and seaplane base, and about 7000 servicemen. The outpost never saw action, though, and the American position was never challenged. Nobody, it seems, much cared that the Yankees were there.

Photo of overwater bungalows on Bora Bora.

While overwater bungalows did not originate on Bora Bora, they are an icon of the island’s luxury resorts. (Photo: Chris McLennan/Tahiti Tourisme)

In 1960, a new international airport, which could accommodate large passenger jets, opened on nearby Tahiti, with inter-island service delivering travelers to surrounding islands. The Bora Bora Hotel, the island’s first, opened in 1961, and a tourist hot spot was born. Or, at least, conceived. Then, in 1970, the hotel added overwater bungalows, something first seen on nearby Moorea just a few years earlier. The rooms were an instant hit, and were booked solid, year ‘round. They became an icon of luxury, synonymous with the island and featured regularly in tourism advertising.

In the half-century since, Bora Bora has blossomed into a major destination, drawing tourists from around the world to snorkel and dive in its protected waters. Couples go to reconnect in the island’s lush solitude. Sun seekers bathe on its pristine beaches. And “Bucket Listers” like me want to spend a night in the famous overwater bungalows.

An International Paradise Destination

The island of Bora Bora, along with its surrounding islets and atolls, is part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia. The islets arise from a coral barrier reef which surrounds the island and provides a somewhat protected lagoon. The calm lagoon waters are home a wide variety of fish, dolphins and sea turtles, and a famously large collection of ray species, including the huge Manta Ray. Migrating humpback whales are frequently spotted in the area as well. All of these features draw scuba and snorkel enthusiasts from around the world.

Aerial photo of Bora Bora.

An aerial view of Bora Bora shows the extinct volcano and the surrounding islets and barrier reef that make up Bora Bora. (Photo: Chris McLennan/Tahiti Tourisme)

At the heart of the island is an extinct volcano, which provides another of Bora Bora’s recognizable features: the twin 2,000-foot black peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu. The island’s largest town is Vaitape, with more than half of the island’s population of 8,900, but many of the luxury resorts can be found on the islets, or Motu’s, surrounding the central island. While expensive – bucket list expensive – these resorts cater to almost every luxury taste, whether that is a therapeutic spa experience, gourmet dining, or a jeep tour and hike through a rugged rain forest.

If You Go

Getting to Bora Bora is much easier today but it is still a long journey. It is literally an all-day affair, starting with a flight to Faa’a International Airport in Tahiti. To give you an idea of just how remote Tahiti is, that’s about eight hours in the air from Los Angeles, a little more than 9 hours from Sydney, and a whopping 20 to 25 hours from Europe! But, after that, it’s a breeze: A 140-mile flight from Papeete to Bora Bora will land you on Motu Mute (remember the WWII airstrip we mentioned?), and then boat transportation will take you the last mile to your resort island. Even from the U.S. West Coast, plan a full day just to travel. Each way. A small price to pay to check off a Bucket List paradise!

Panoramic photo of Bora Bora by Hervé. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

5 comments on “Bora Bora! (And an Overwater Bungalow)

  1. Pingback: Ice Hotels – the Best New Places to Chill | TravelLatte

    • Hi Valeria – It does look heavenly! I’m sure being so remote has helped keep it that way – not so much tourism and development that it’s been overly-commercialized. And maybe, because it takes a lot to get there, it seems even more heavenly when you do arrive. I think we should all go find out! 🙂

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