Going to Bora Bora: A Review

[NOTE: This is a work in progress.]

Mary and I recently returned from Bora Bora. To say this was a marvelous vacation would be a monumental understatement. And, of course, one might expect that a trip to Bora Bora should be a bucket list sort of destination. It is. Stunningly beautiful—much more so than either of us even expected with all the pictures and video we had seen—and much more to do and see than sand, water, sky. It looks and feels like paradise.

Getting There

When we went [Spring 2018], the only way to get there was through LAX, currently undergoing major renovation, and pretty much a miserable place to fly through.This means: a flight [or drive] from Northern California [SFO, OAK, or SMF] to LAX, a flight too Tahiti [PPT], and then a flight to Bora B0ra [BOB]. At this time, only two airlines operate equipment between LAX and POT: Air Tahiti Nui or ATN [not the same as the Tahitian domestic inter-island airline Air Tahiti] and Air France. Qantas and others sell a code-share flight, but it's ATN's equipment. And service. And food. Beginning in October 2018, United will begin operating direct routes 3/week from SFO to PPT. And while United is not in the same league as Singapore or Cathay or several other airlines, it's a damn sight better than ATN and often better than Air France. United's equipment will be the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, a significantly better plane than ATN's Airbus 340, and its Polaris business service is miles above and ahead of ATN's. We had food on ATN that could charitably be described as edible, and coffee that was not drinkable. We got cute Polynesian costume changes by the very friendly flight attendants, but just lousy room and board. The seats are very uncomfortable. For a 7-8 hour flight, they are passable, but they are not modern business class and really not acceptable for a biz class fare; they extend straight, though do not actually lie flat—known as "angled seats" and not popular with the seat review crowd—and when extended, they leave insufficient foot clearance to straighten out. In-flight entertainment is presented on a nice screen, and the selection consists of 8 movies. But it's more limited than that. BTW, United's air fare from SFO to PPT is lower, and not marginally, than ATN's from LAX to PPT. I suspect this new carriage will be good for consumers.

Whether you fly in biz or economy will probably be a budget issue. If you can sleep on a plane, and get window or aisle seats, I would recommend considering economy. The difference in fare is worth thousands or, to put it in another context, a significantly larger budget for hotel and meals. And when you arrive, you'll soon forget your airline experience.

PPT is a charming 2d world open air airport. People are helpful and friendly. French is the primary language, and not everyone speaks English. There isn't a lot to do there, so try to control your layover window to allow enough time to make the transition from ATN [stairs from the airplane and walk to the terminal; no jetway—but that's not a complaint], clear immigration, collect baggage, and then walk the few hundred feet to check luggage into Air Tahiti. There are no reserved seats on AT flights, and tickets are sold in two classes reflecting the weight of luggage you are permitted to check. All luggage, including carry-ons, is weighed. Be prepared to plane check larger carry-ons. If your layover is longer than a couple of hours, you will have to kill some time before checking your luggage. You can try standby to catch an earlier plane, but the nice turboprops are generally full. The ideal layover is probably somewhere between 90 minutes and 3 hours. Cut it too close, and LAX is bound to make you late. Make it too long, and you will be passing time in the Atrium Cafe. If you like beer, there are three basic brands: Hinano lager, Hinano amber, and Tiaporo IPA. The latter, while not quite what you expect of a modern IPA, is very flavorful and has more body than the Hinano. And the label is way better. 

There are ATMs and and money exchange there; make sure to get yourself some XPF. All the websites say tipping is not expected in French Polynesia. That may be so, but I never found it unappreciated.

The non-stop flight to Bora Bora is 50 minutes, and it is beautiful. When you arrive, it feels like your own Fantasy Island. The airport is small, containing a gift shop, check-in counter, luggage collection, and several kiosks for the resorts. They are staffed by folks who hang a lei [yep, same word] around your neck. Ours were powerfully scented by the tiare, a Tahitian gardenia, with an intoxicating scent combo of plumeria and jasmine. When your luggage is collected, you are directed to your transportation, in our case, a boat docked right at the airport. The view of Otemanu across the lagoon is literally breathtaking. This is where it really starts to get under your skin.


Where to Stay

This is the subject that can probably have the biggest effect on your vacation. Where you stay probably won't affect what you choose to do; after all, you can snorkel, scuba, jet ski, cruise, fish, transfer to the main island, rent a fun car, etc., from any resort hotel on the lagoon or main island. So, how do you choose? I recommend you assess your budget candidly, read the reviews on Trip Advisor, and pick the best you can afford. It will make a difference. We found friendly people and excellent service everywhere we went. But we both have a sneaking suspicion that a large part of the excellent service we received, even off property, was precisely because of the hotel where we stayed [St. Regis]. Can't prove it. And can't disprove it. We've stayed at a lot of nice hotels, including other St. Regis properties

Where to Eat

We only ate at one off-property restaurant, well, two if you count the Iaorano Gelato Café in Vaitape. And you should count it. It is very good. But for dinner, the Villa Mahana is a superb French restaurant. We had a lobster and tiger prawn risotto that was out of this world [Mary makes a great risotto, and I am a risotto nut]. The restaurant is the converted residence of an artist, and it feels completely and thoroughly French. Polynesian. Both, but distinctly and separately both. Friendly staff. Good wine list. Superb, unpretentious food. Plated like food, not abstract art. Nice review here.

Why didn't we eat off property more? Well, because the St. Regis features its own array of excellent restaurants [some flavors operated on alternate nights], including the #1 rated restaurant in Bora Bora—Lagoon by Chef Jean-Georges. We ate at Lagoon twice, and Mary took a fantastic private cooking lesson in the kitchen. It is superb. Better than Mahana? Maybe, maybe not [and there is some discussion of who's #1 on Trip Advisor]. But the views are killer, suspended over the lit water and looking out at Otemanu.

And on top of all that, they teach a cooking class once or twice a week. Mary signed up for it, and had it all to herself. Taught by the sous chef, she had a fantastic experience, and then lunch was served at the kitchen counter with paired wines to the two of us. It was outstanding as a learning and dining experience. And as with all things at the resort, the people were the most superlative part.

What to Do

Whatever you want. You're in paradise. Do what you want. Swim, snooze in an over-water hammock, and then relax some more. It's a great place to get in touch with what makes you happy, and what you need to work on to stay happy back in "civilization." We made new friends, visited the turtle center at Le Meridien, swam, snorkeled, photographed, ate well, drove a "fun car" around the main island, scheduled and then canceled a sunset cruise [in favor of a different photo location], took a cooking class, spa'ed almost every day, and enjoyed the heck out of being together in paradise. And realized that a big part of what made it paradise was being together.

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