Hearing the words Bora Bora often conjures up images of overwater bungalows, blue lagoons and fabulous weather. All true; but the island offers much more, even for those adventurous types.
Inhabited by only 9,000 people, Bora Bora’s 29km²/11mi² island is an extinct volcano surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef. Most locals live near the water, leaving much of the island’s interior and its two majestic peaks of jagged mountains wild and undeveloped.
The main town of Vaitape is much more rustic than one would expect for a place as well known as Bora Bora. In fact, the 32km/20mi long main road that circles the island is dirt and gets very muddy after it rains. Cars or scooters can be rented for those who want to explore, and bicycles are available for those looking for some exercise.
The only thing Bora Bora shares with other luxury destinations like St. Barts is price. Other than that, the ramshackle homes and wild jungle here make this island feel much more exotic and real; just what I like.
In Vaitape you’ll find supermarkets, a bank, a tourism office, a pharmacy and a doctor. The latter one we know because after Eric was unsuccessful fishing, he decided to hook himself. Which meant I had to drive our catamaran all around the island across a pretty shallow lagoon—and I’m usually not the captain when we cruise. Just to add some more color and excitement to the day, we lost our anchor in the port of Vaitape. Why make things easy when they can be difficult?
If you wanted to know where all these beautiful overwater bungalows are that you see in the ads, this is it. These little huts that sit perched on stilts over the shallow, crystal clear water of the lagoon got “invented” here in 1970, though of course a more rustic version can be found in indigenous communities all over the world.
The popularity of these novel hotel rooms is also a curse, as Bora Bora’s eastern side is literally jammed with these kinds of resorts. To keep them occupied, roughly ten planes fly in and out of Bora Bora daily Tahiti.
As most of these resorts are out on the motus or islands that surround the lagoon, many guests miss out on the wonders that can be explored in the interior of the island. With two whole weeks to explore Bora Bora, we did our best to explore as much as we could.
Bora Bora — the world’s most beautiful military base
One of the more interesting tours is a hike or 4WD drive (e.g. with Tupuna Safari) on rugged roads to one of the sites where the U.S. military put large cannons during WWII.
During that war, Bora Bora became the South Pacific military supply base for the U.S.A. and temporary home to almost 7,000 soldiers. As they never saw action and were surrounded by gorgeous scenery and friendly beautiful people, it must have been heaven on Earth for these guys.
Until 1960, Bora Bora had French Polynesia’s only international airport, which was then superseded by the current one in Tahiti’s capital of Papeete.
To bring in their ships and supplies, the soldiers blasted the only pass into the lagoon of Bora Bora and made it bigger than it originally was. Whether this was a curse (cruise ships) or a blessing (cargo ships for local supplies), is debatable.
The only thing left on Bora Bora from that era are seven of the originally eight huge artillery guns that were set up at strategic points for protection. They sit rusting in the hills above Pointe Matira to the south of the island, Pointe Fitiiu to the east, Pointe Tereia to north and Mont Poopooureroa to the west.
It’s not easy to find them, but this article by Bora Bora Insider should help you a lot. Just be forewarned: if you go without a guide, some of this land is private property and the locals might not welcome trespassing without permission.
Beach time on Bora Bora
One would think there are countless beaches on Bora Bora. But the main island actually has only one public one, Matira Beach, in the south. Its long, white stretch of sand attracts visitors and locals alike and invites you to relax under swaying palm trees.
There are more beaches around the island, but most are private or only accessible if you are staying at the hotel. Or you come on a sailboat and access the beach by water—all beaches in French Polynesia are public up to the high tide mark.
I have to admit, the most beautiful beaches here are not on the main island of Bora Bora, but on the motus (islets) that surround the lagoon. Most are privately owned as well, but usually—if you behave (don’t party, don’t leave rubbish behind and don’t trespass the property)—nobody will mind if you visit. If barking dogs come up to greet you as you approach the beach (this is how locals keep unwanted tourists away), you will know your presence is not wanted and it’s probably best to find another beach.
To enjoy some private island time it’s a good idea to organize trips through local tour operators like Maohi Nui. Its owner Heifara Patrick Tairua is the son of the last Chief of the village of Anau, the last one to occupy this social position in the community. Which means you’ll also learn a lot about the history and culture of Bora Bora as well.
Snorkeling hot spots on Bora Bora
Don’t leave for Bora Bora without your snorkel gear! The abundance of coral here means there are lots of fish and the best places to see them are are in the southern part of the lagoon.
The most famous snorkel site on Bora Bora is the Aquarium south of Motu Piti Uuuta. It can get pretty crowded, but you’ll see plenty of beautiful butterfly fish, puffer fish, trigger fish, snappers, tangs, goat fish, groupers, trumpet fish, unicorn fish, moray eels and wrasses.
The coral heads at Pointe Rahititi attract just as many fish, but less people— even though the locations is easy to reach. So I recommend skipping the Aquarium if you can only do one.
If you don’t mind black-tip reef sharks (and you shouldn’t when you’re in French Polynesia, as they are ubiquitous and harmless), head to the shallow waters west of the island of Toopua. Halfway between the island and the outer reef, you can find dozens of stingrays and little sharks.
To watch elusive eagle rays dance in the current, head to the canyon-like reef between Motu Topua Iti and the southern tip of the main island. You’ll find some cool underwater formations and plenty of fish along the edge where the bottom drops off into the deep part of the lagoon.
THough all these sites are great, my favorite snorkel experience was off Pointe Tuiahora, where we saw four manta rays that came out of the dark like aquatic spaceships.
For a snorkel adventure with a twist, you can dive for your own pearls at The Farm of the Bora Pearl Company off Pointe Rahititi. I brought home a huge pearl that’s a beautiful reminder of my time in Bora Bora.
Go diving on and around Bora Bora
For all our scuba adventures in French Polynesia we chose the operator TOPDIVE as we knew we could rely on their great service, good gear, and helpful dive guides. They have seven major dive spots they frequent around Bora Bora and we did five of them.
- Tapu: Just outside Bora Bora’s pass, this reef dive is a prime location to see lemon and black-tip reef sharks, maori wrasses, all kinds of moray eels and turtles.
- Muri Muri: Outside the lagoon near the airport, this dive spot lets you explore the deep blue with its barracudas and sharks as well as the reef which is home to turtles and gardener moray eels hiding in the sandbank.
- Haapiti: Encounter lemon and black-tip reef sharks in this reef canyon.
- Teavanui Pass: Home to black-tip and white-tip reef sharks, diving along the passes wall will show you unique blue coral.
- Toopua: This underwater canyon land is home to dozens of eagle rays that dance in the current, making this my personal favorite dive site on Bora Bora. They were so hypnotizing that when I came back to my senses (after watching them for ten minutes while I lay still on the ocean floor), I realized I had barely used any air.
- The Aquarium: Perfect for beginners, this protected spot is also good for snorkeling.
- Anau: Anau has beautiful corals and offers the chance of seeing graceful manta rays if you’re lucky.
And because we haven’t gotten to edit our own videos yet, here a very nice one from TOPDIVE:
If you’d like to find out more about diving on other islands of this beautiful South Pacific nation, check out our ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia.
Hiking the interior of Bora Bora
Though the focus of most visitors is on beaches, the lush green inland of Bora Bora offers some great delights for hikers.
If you want to take it easy and have a view, go to Mont Popoti (249m/817ft) or Mont Pahonu (123m/410ft). Both can also be visited by organized tours in a safari jeep. Just make sure you know when the cruise ships are in port so you can avoid the crowds.
We spent almost an hour at Mont Popoti, which you can reach on a 4WD road leading up the hill shortly before Taihi Point. The view of the motus along the north eastern side of Bora Bora is stunning and unreal with its countless hues of blue.
Mont Pahonu offers similarly vistas, albeit of the southwest of the island, which includes Matira Beach and the island of Toopua. Toopua by the way is part of the edge of the old volcano. The other remaining edge is the mountain range on the main island. Between them lies the flooded caldera, which is now part of the bigger lagoon.
A longer, but not very strenuous walk is the Valley of the Kings hike. This excursion takes from you from Faanui along old pathways to the site of the original main settlement of Bora Bora. Somewhere along the way is a gigantic banyan tree that hides the remains of former kings covered under it roots.
The trees in the lush green of Bora Bora’s interior provide an endless tropical buffet consisting of passion fruit, pumpkin, ginger, vanilla, pistachio, guava, coconuts, star fruit and even wild coffee. Surviving here should be pretty easy if you get lost.
For those that are looking for a hike that fills a whole day, the hike to the Sacred Cave of Te Ana Opea, half way up Mont Otemanu, is a strenuous 4- to 6-hour trek with climbing (sometimes along ropes) that offers rewarding views of the motus lining Bora Bora’s eastern lagoon.
Gazing at the highest peak of Bora Bora, Mont Otemanu (727m/2,385ft), from all kind of angles during our stay made us long to climb it. But after some inquiries with the locals we found out that the mountain’s vertical cliffs of the towering peak can’t be conquered.
The highest point on Bora Bora you can reach is neighboring Mont Pahia (661m/2,168ft), which takes 4 hours to climb, and 2 hours to get back. You have to be very fit and an experienced hiker who can handle a little ropes work (you have to use a rope to get over the cliffs in the end).
After deciding that we’ll give Mont Pahi a try, the rainy season lived up to its name and we had a big downpour the day before our planned hike. As the unmaintained trails become treacherously muddy and slippery, we bailed. Which was probably better anyway, as it’s recommended to have a guide, which we couldn’t organize on short notice. Oh well, it’s always good to leave some things un-done as it gives us a good excuse to return to Bora Bora.
Ancient religious sites of Bora Bora
Bora Bora boasts some impressive, ancient sacred sites called maraes that have been rediscovered only recently. These are rectangular courtyards built of stones, where priests would perform rituals, including animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices. Most of them are now only a pile of rocks, but if you look closely you may discover grinding stones and petroglyphes.
Marae Aehautai, Fare Rai and Nonohaura are all along Vairou Bay in the east, facing the luxury hotels that line up along the motus. The former one is the most intact of the three and close to where you can check out some WWII guns and also near my favorite snorkel where you can see manta rays.
Marae Fare Opu, Taianapa and Marotetini hug the shore of Faanui Bay on the opposite side of the island. Fare Opu is half buried by the road, but you can still see petroglyphs of turtles carved into the huge coral. On the hillside, Taianapa is well maintained, but because it’s on private property you have to ask for permission to visit. The most important marae on Bora Bora is Marotetini on Pointe Farepiti. Go there at low tide to walk along the shoreline to see its massive 25 meter long center stone.
We spent 2 weeks on Bora Bora and even though it’s a pretty small island, our schedule was full. In fact, we didn’t even get to see it all, though we tried really hard. I guess we’ll just have to go back. I mean, someone has to do it, right?
If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at our list of Top Spots in French Polynesia which shows you more great pictures, and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.