Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Perks of the "Rich" in Bora Bora

Mark and I have a wealth, not of money – unfortunately – but of time and adventures, and until not too long ago, age and health. Most visitors coming to Bora Bora have the kind of wealth that comes to mind first when you talk about wealth: the money kind, the big bucks, the means to go on fancy vacations. All those pretty over-the-water bungalows, or villas as they call them here, look very attractive. Sure, you can see the neighboring huts, or the ones from the next resort over, but some sort of privacy is offered, the water underneath looks very appealing, the comfort level is very high end, and the view of the lagoon and Bora Bora’s mountain is suburb. All the resorts on the motus (outer islands) have upscale restaurants and “private” beaches, and offer all the luxury one can imagine. No wonder this place is a prime honeymoon destination.

But, what does all that cost? Mark and I were curious and went online to have a look. The average over-the-water accommodation costs about $1000 a night. That is without meals or even breakfast. Depending on the location and the size of the villa you prefer, costs go up to about $10,000 for one night. The resorts on the “mainland” of Bora Bora are generally cheaper – some even half price; wow, only $500 a night! - than the ones on the motus. We briefly played with the idea of going out for a meal or a drink in one of the places, since we have so many past occasions we never celebrated. We even went ashore at the St. Regis – one of the top resorts on Bora Bora – to get some information. The hostess was eager to get our business – despite our raggedy outfit (we really don’t fit in with the crowds here) – but didn’t have much useful information to tell us. “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!”

Back online, the dinners ranged from about $40 to over $100 a piece, the sushi was outrageously priced. Bottles of wine started at $30, I believe, but the bigger selection was more in the $70 price range for one bottle. You could even buy a Cuban cigar for the same amount of money. The desserts were priced like a dinner in the more down-to-earth places of the western world. Fresh coconut water, straight out of the nut with a straw, went for $10, while on the street in Fare, such an ice cold and tasty local refreshment costs $1. And, that is probably about the going rate for everything at the resorts – ten to one. A bit disgusted by all this (they even charge $30 a day for WiFi if you stay there!), and not even feeling up for spending $8 a beer or $5 a soda, we stayed on Irie, made ourselves a drink and enjoyed the same marvelous view for free. I guess we are your typical kind of cruiser after all… :-)

With all the boutiques and souvenir stores for the hordes of honeymooners, Mark and I thought it might be a good idea to find a birthday gift in the otherwise shabby town of Vaitape. Once again, everything is so over-priced (and, granted, we are a bit spoiled having seen, and purchased, the pearls in the Gambier Islands) or of poor quality, that we went home empty handed. We’ll find something somewhere else. We are not in a rush; we have time, remember?

One afternoon, while we stayed on a mooring ball off the Mai Kai marina and yacht club, I took advantage of their pretty infinity pool. It had been many years, since I dipped my toes in some fresh water to cool off, and the feeling of just sliding in and having all the tiredness and hotness leave my weightless body was amazing. I met the (well-paid and hardworking) crew of the mega yacht Noble House (on which we received a tour by the departing captain later), which was docked at the marina. The friendly folks enriched me with stories of how the “other side” lives and offered me a delicious glass of white wine. In the evening, Mark and I joined them again for some social times and drank the happy hour beers and wine. Spending a reduced price of $12 for two glasses of fair tasting wine (beers are two for one during happy hour, wine is half price for the second glass) made me crave one of the glasses the mega yacht crew was drinking. While they drank, ate, and laughed the night away, fitting in with their nice clothes and chic demeanor, Mark and I walked back to our dinghy barefoot (the soles had come off my recently purchased flip flops) and went home to drink water and eat leftovers.

Nevertheless, despite all the boat wake and trash burning, and despite some tinges of jealousy of the happily spending and enjoying vacationers, we are fortunate and glad to be able to be here, rich in our own ways, and to combine our daily work schedule and boat chores with the beauty of these Society Islands, savoring (almost) everything they have to offer. Improving the performance of the wind meter: check. Cleaning Irie’s bottom and waterline: check. Sewing some ripping seams on the bimini: check. Cleaning the BBQ: check (no more grilling until we sell the boat!). Fixing the outboard engine: almost check! Writing articles and finishing up the new Wirie products: getting there… Busy times on Irie, as always. :-)

Replacing the bearings of our wind meter

Nothing broke during this tricky project - time to bring it back up!

Irie in the waters of Bora Bora

Monthly cleaning of Irie's bottom - it's not too bad yet

Irie's garden is growing again: basil, spinach, mint and an attempt for lettuce

We were allowed to walk on the southeastern motu, but only so far...

After a long workday, we stretched our legs around sunset

Sailing in Bora Bora's lagoon

Being passed by a charter captain, in a hurry...

Northern motus of Bora Bora

Va'a paddlers riding the wake of a charter boat near Vaitape

Trying to figure out how to make our engine run better

Tasty Thai curry dish on Irie

Anchorage off motu Toopua (western Bora), with motu Tapu (no going ashore here!) in the center

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bora Bora Uncovered

Bora Bora… Just the name conjures up dreams and fantasies of white beaches, lush surroundings, a turquoise lagoon and tropical paradise. It is called “The pearl of the South Seas” and “One of the prettiest islands in the world”, and has turned into many couple’s honeymoon destination, or at least an “I wish I could go to dream vacation”. Why then is Bora Bora one of the least favorite islands of cruisers (just like Tahiti – another island internationally rumored to be paradise, while it does not have much to offer the tourist)? Are the luxury travel magazines exaggerating? Is the tourism board of French Polynesia really doing such an awesome job of successfully promoting this Leeward island in the Society group? Or, are the boaters generally avoiding this place, because it is known to be touristy? And, are they therefore not devoting enough time to this island on their way west?

Since Mark and I have decided to spend cyclone season (or until we sell the boat) in the Society Archipelago of French Polynesia, we have some time to explore its islands, combining the necessary (work, daily chores, boat projects) with the enjoyable (sightseeing, snorkeling, relaxing). Initially hoping to join the 80+ va’a (outrigger canoes) to Bora Bora during the annual Hawaiki Nui canoe race earlier in November, we gave up on that plan when the final day of the race brought yet more rain. By afternoon, it had cleared up beautifully and surprisingly, but by then, we wouldn’t have been able to make it before dark. We sailed Irie to our destination the following day, under blue skies and with winds ranging from over 20 knots when we left to about 5 knots by the time we arrived! Sail changes were required and the spinnaker took center stage.

During a big chunk of our first week in Bora Bora, Mark and I paid for a mooring ball (5000 francs, or $55, per week) at the Mai Kai restaurant and marina on the west side of the island. In return, we received “free” internet (which didn’t work as well as expected), easy shore access, use of their pool, and a reliable mooring in 99 feet of water. Our first impressions of Bora Bora? An average view, traffic noise, lots of wake – the boat didn’t stop moving the whole time we were there - from local fishing boats, tour boats, heavy dive boats and airport ferries, and the penetrating smell of burnt garbage and compost first thing in the morning and last breath at night. We even found ashes inside the boat once. But, we were here for the internet and to work, so we tried to ignore these annoyances, now that our internet frustration from other anchorages was temporarily diminished.

Twice, we took the dinghy ashore to do some sightseeing. Keeping our expenses to a minimum, we opted to explore the island by foot, instead of renting bikes (the best way to see and circumnavigate the island), and hitching rides along the less interesting parts. We had a pleasant walk to Faanui Bay, from where we turned inland at the church and climbed the pass for a nice view over the motus, the many high end resorts, Taha’a and Raiatea. Down we went on the other side, where we reached Fitiiu Point, and with some difficulty, two of the handful of canons the Americans left behind after WWII. At this pretty spot, we had a snack and cooled off a bit in the shade. It was extremely hot, but the weather was perfect for reaching viewpoints and taking pictures!

Back down, we walked a bit further to find a little grocery store with sandwiches – these “casse croutes” are the only affordable food in French Polynesia - and then the long wait for a ride back around the north side of the island started. On Bora Bora, hitching rides takes much longer than on any of the other FP islands and we have to agree that the people appear to be less friendly here as well. Another drawback of tourism, we feel. But, we made it to the other side, hiked up another steep hill to a third rusty canon, walked along the busy road to a small and unimpressive marae, made our own pareo (sarong) with tie dye (batik) at a roadside store, and hitched a last ride back to return to the Mai Kai.

On day two, we started with a walk again, this time towards the south and through the capital of Vaitape. In steady traffic, we needed to wait a half an hour or so before someone picked us up and dropped us at Matira Beach, which was more impressive than we thought. The sand is white and the lagoon shallow and lukewarm, with only a handful of tourists wading out waist deep to cool off. The area was relatively quiet and people enjoyed themselves on the beach and the water. At this end of the island, a lot of resorts are located and a vacation atmosphere is present. Mark and I pressed on, in search of the Belvedere (viewpoint) and a sandwich, which we found in the lesser healthy version of meat and French fries – yes, all inside the baguette! The Belvedere eluded us, but instead, we managed to climb over the island again via a steep dirt road, and once on the other side, the ride back to Vaitape was a short one.

A few days ago, we motored Irie to the east side of the lagoon, where the scenery improved, and the colors of the lagoon beckoned. This pretty area also attracted a lot of over-the-water-bungalow resorts, so the traffic was still pretty much non-stop and the boat was seldom stable. The smell of burnt trash from local houses was still part of our mornings and evenings. Upon our dinghy explorations towards the motus, “tabu” signs screamed at us to not set foot on the sandy beaches ashore. “Tabu” means “prohibited” or the equivalent of “private”, even though - as far as our understanding goes - beaches in French Polynesia are public. We were not going to risk it; some of these places have hordes of vicious dogs to keep visitors out. Instead, we went for a swim in the light blue shallows, where the water was pleasantly warm and the perfect depth to sit down and enjoy the scenery, with our heads just above the water surface.

We moved further to the southeast area of the lagoon; a truly beautiful place. We haven’t dared to check out the palm fringed beaches yet, but the resorts are located at a safe distance away, it is more peaceful here and the colors of the majestic lagoon range from aquamarine to cobalt blue. The weather has been gorgeous for a while, making us suspicious; we haven’t had this incredible weather for so many days in a row, since the Caribbean! Nevertheless, we’ll take it… We checked out the coral garden, which was less impressive than the one in Taha’a and, of course, very touristy, but it was a nice destination for a snorkel, and especially that day, the water was crystal clear, the only time since we have been here. Usually, the visibility in the lagoon water has been poor.

As a summary so far, I could see why people come here on vacation, but you’d have to stay in one of the expensive resorts – on a motu if you like privacy, exclusivity and romance - to make it your worthwhile and to fully enjoy the scenery and water activities. As for a cruiser, the SE of Bora Bora is definitely the place to be, but only catamarans seem to make it “all the way” out here, and I am sure that it is possible to find a similar spot as the one we have found right now in some of the other Societies. We might be spoiled. A daytrip to explore the mainland is also worthwhile; as the following photos will prove. For me, the dazzling colors of the surrounding lagoon on a sunny day and the majestic peaks of Bora Bora’s mountain can keep me entertained and enthralled, as long as it is peaceful around us and the smell of garbage burning is absent. Unfortunately, the internet in our most recently found Shangri-La is insufficient and frustratingly intermittent, so we will soon have to move again!

Approaching Bora Bora and its surrounding lagoon with Irie

Va'a rower "taking" Irie's wake to help his progress in the lagoon

Church of Vaitape with Bora's iconic mountain (Mt. Otemanu) behind

Sunset on the west side of Bora Bora, with motu Tapu

Va'a in the lagoon with motu Tapu in the background

Most local boats on Bora have their own lift system

Mt. Otemanu seen from a different angle, while hiking

One of the American canons left behind after WWII; Taha'a and Raiatea are seen in the background

One of the views the US soldiers had from their bunker on the hill

Site of the canons on the peninsula, with a view over the lagoon and - since after WWII :-) - its fancy resorts, with Taha'a on the horizon

Creating our own sarong with linoleum prints

Va'a paddlers in the shallow lagoon at Matira Beach

One of the many over-the-water-bungalow resorts - this one is the Intercontinental on the mainland

Unhealthy lunch: French fries on French bread! Where are the veggies??

Making (lunch) friends on the beach

The colors of Bora Bora lagoon, with Taha'a in the background

Walking back across and over the hill with full bellies

Tourist sailboat in front of the St. Regis resort, on the east side of the lagoon

Forget about stepping foot on one of these motus...

I don't think anyone will chase us off here on these pointy rocks!

Don't worry, pups, we are leaving!

Bora Bora in the early morning light (east side)

Sunset from Irie in the southeast corner of the lagoon

SE side of the lagoon by - very clear! - day

Approaching the coral garden and its tourists - the water was unbelievably clear that day!

This is what happens when fish are fed... they multiply! :-)

Kind of trigger fish I cannot identify

Sofitel motu with over-the-water bungalows

Irie in the SE lagoon anchorage on a very pretty day - who would not want to buy her and spend some time here? :-)