BORA BORA, French Polynesia - It was just after 6 a.m. when the sound of a ship's horn awakened us. My husband, Jeff, and I looked at each other sleepily, then scrambled to our knees so we could look out the window above our bed. There it was in all its glory: a massive cruise liner that overwhelmed Bora Bora's western lagoon.
I felt sorry for the passengers.
If the cruise ship that visited the previous day was any indication, the passengers would have only one day here, and that wouldn't be enough. To see the island in all its splendor, you need time and you need to get out of Vaitape, the very spot they were about to encounter. I could only imagine their confusion when the reality didn't match the travel brochures' depiction of a tropical Eden.
Vaitape is a collection of tourist shops, low-key eateries and disheveled private residences along Bora Bora's main drag, a pothole-riddled road that circles the not-very-picturesque main island. Because French Polynesia is expensive, Jeff and I had decided to spend the first half of our April honeymoon in an affordable studio in Vaitape. That way, for the second half, we could splurge on a five-star resort on one of the motus, or islets, on the barrier reef that surrounds the turquoise lagoon at the heart of Bora Bora.
On the day of the cruise liner's visit, we took the advice of our host, a friendly Frenchman named Gerard who owns the Sunset Hill Lodge, and stayed away from the crowds.
We set out to kayak across the lagoon to one of the motus near the airport. It was just a 20-minute paddle across the deep part, "and then you can walk," Gerard said. He was right, technically, but I soon discovered that walking in waist-deep water was much more tiring than hitching my kayak to Jeff's and leaning back to enjoy the views.
We didn't have the best weather that day, but here, away from the crowing roosters and barking dogs, Bora Bora is at its best. Even on a gray day the lagoon reveals its many shades of blue and the rich marine life just below the surface.
We returned to this area just a few days later on a lagoon tour. Simon, our guide, took the time to educate our group of seven about the lagoon's ecosystem, warning us not to disturb the marine life and to keep an eye on our fins so we wouldn't damage the coral around us.
The first stop on the tour was also going to be the highlight, if all went well. We stopped near an area frequented by manta rays on the eastern side of the main island. If we were lucky, we might spot one or two of the elusive creatures.
As we left the boat and swam to deeper water, Simon said: "Look straight down. Keep looking." A few minutes went by as we all peered into the deep blue. Then he came up and yelled in a thick French accent, "Mohn-TA! Right below!" I still didn't see anything. "Three manta!" Simon yelled again. Then "four," and ultimately "five! Woooooo-hoooo!" I started to panic. "This is what I came for," flashed through my head, "and I'm going to miss it."
Then I saw them. Two manta rays, gracefully circling below us, and three more deeper down. Just then, the group's matriarch decided to take a closer look at all these funny-looking creatures clad in bright colors. Mouth wide open, she slowly rose to about 10 feet below us, then dived back down. We all watched in silence, bobbing at the surface and taking in the show. It was magical.
On Sunday morning, while people in the church next door were singing hymns, Jeff and I were packing. The time had come to cross the lagoon to Motu Piti Aau and move into a fancy over-water bungalow at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa. As I sat on the passenger seat of Gerard's creaky Land Rover, his dog Rapunzel firmly planted between us (Jeff had been relegated to the bench seat in the back), I realized I was sad to leave. Our cozy studio had felt like a home away from home, with Gerard in the role of old friend rather than lodge owner.
He dropped us off at the entrance to the InterContinental Le Moana, where we would take a shuttle boat to its sister resort, which locals call the Thalasso. The walk through the lobby and out onto the resort's private beach was like walking from one world into another. On one side, the less photogenic reality of Bora Bora's main island; on the other side, the fairy tale world of postcards and brochures come to life.
The Thalasso met all of our expectations and even exceeded some. They got it right from the minute we set foot on the dock. We were picked up by golf cart and driven to reception, where we were offered a seat with a view of Mt. Otemanu as well as a chilled fruity beverage and a cold gardenia-scented washcloth. "Aaaaaah," we both sighed, grinning from ear to ear. "We have arrived."
The over-water bungalows, 1,010 square feet each, have identical layouts: a separate living room, bedroom, walk-in closet and large bathroom with tub and shower. Room prices increase as the view improves. Each bungalow has its own spacious shaded patio and a private pontoon with ladder for direct access to the lagoon.
At midday, the azure water looks its brightest, so we had arrived just in time for that visual treat. It couldn't have taken more than two minutes for us to find our swimsuits and jump in.
In general, Polynesians are friendly, so smiles greeted us everywhere we went. But if I had to choose one face that represented the warmth and friendliness extended to us, it would be Moana's, one of our therapists at the hotel's famed 43,000-square-foot Deep Ocean Spa.
Jeff had gone parasailing that morning, so he didn't think the day could get any better, but it was about to. Moana gave us a quick overview of the spa, then took me to one of three over-water couples treatment rooms. Jeff, who had booked a shorter treatment, was to follow a bit later.
For the next 90 minutes, I was in spa heaven, peering at the tropical fish through the window in the floor while Moana performed the Bora Bora Deep Blue massage, the spa's signature treatment. Afterward, Jeff and I enjoyed the spa's outdoor water features, including a deep-sea-water cold plunge pool that gave me a rush that's hard to describe. We went to bed that night with a profound sense of well-being.
I was sad when we left Gerard. But I was in tears when we had to leave the Thalasso. "Don't cry, baby," Jeff said on the boat to the airport. "We'll come back. I promise."
If you go:
Consider using a certified Tahiti specialist to book your trip, especially if you plan to visit more than one island. French Polynesia is expensive, and a travel agent who can create a package that includes airfare, accommodations and transfers will save you money and time.
Telephones: To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code), 689 (the country code) and the local number.
Where to stay:
Sunset Hill Lodge, BP 58 Vaitape, 98730 Bora Bora; 792-648, sunset-hill-borabora.biz. Five bungalows with kitchenettes from $63 a night, with air conditioning from $102. The two studios, they are well laid out and have a large outdoor patio.
Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, Motu Piti Aau, 98730 Bora Bora, 607-600, ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/bora-bora/bobhb/hoteldetail. Over-water villas start at about $877 a night in low season.
Where to eat:
Snack Matira, a beach shack with great views and picnic-style bench seating near Point Matira.
Mai Kai, 603-800, www.maikaimarina.com. Try the mashed potatoes and fresh fruit sorbet.
What to do:
Pure Snorkeling, 764-343, email@example.com. Avoid the full-day tours that include pareo-tying demonstrations, shark feeding and a mediocre lunch, and opt for this half-day tour with an emphasis on observing wildlife. $110 per person, a maximum of eight people per group.
Bora Bora Parasail, 705-662, firstname.lastname@example.org. Flights for one or two people start at $290 for 15 minutes (about 110 yards of rope), $388 for 25 minutes (about 330 yards of rope).