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? :-)

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