Bora Bora, Tahiti and French Polynesia: Insider’s Guide

4 years ago
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Vahine private island resort on the motu of Taha'a Island, Tahiti

Where to Stay and Eat

The Brando Resort, French Polynesia

Best resort for romance
Vahine Island, situated on a reef surrounding the main island of Taha’a, is that dream we all have of Tahiti: A boutique hotel at what feels like the end of the earth, with just nine bungalows, plenty of privacy, excellent service, and a sandy-floored restaurant with amazing food. And because it’s on the reef, you can snorkel in a new place twice a day for an entire week. The three Beach Suites are a perfect prelude to an overwater bungalow on Bora Bora, which you can see in the distance.

Best resort for a splurge
On the surface, The Brando looks expensive. But when you factor in everything that’s included—meals, drinks, many activities, one spa treatment per day, even the minibar—it’s actually quite a good value. So good that I always save it for last, because staying anywhere else afterward would be a disappointment. The resort, which opened on land that stole Marlon Brando’s heart 50 years ago, is mindful of its natural surroundings: The air conditioning comes from an innovative seawater cooling system, the villas disrupt the native vegetation as little as possible, and all the energy comes from renewable sources. I prefer staying on the lagoon side, where the sand slopes down into the water; on the ocean side, there is more coral, and the water isn’t nearly as clear.

The Turtle Center at Le Meridien Bora Bora

Best resort for families
At Le Méridien Bora Bora, kids love visiting the Turtle Center, which rehabilitates injured turtles; it’s very interactive, and visitors of all ages can learn about the effects of rising waters on the lagoon and its coral ecosystem. The Two-Bedroom Pool Beach Villas are great for families: Since they’re on the inner lagoon, you don’t have to worry about your children stepping off into deep water or getting stung by a ray. One of the resort’s restaurants serves a buffet dinner three times a week.

Best pension (locally owned small hotel)
What Bora Bora was 40 or 50 years ago, its smaller neighbor of Maupiti is today: an authentic South Pacific isle with unblemished white-sand beaches and—thanks in part to the lack of overwater bungalows or waveriders—a large lagoon so full of life that you’re likely to see eight or 10 manta rays in a single snorkeling session. The only accommodations on Maupiti are pensions (small, family-run hotels), and the best of these is the very reasonable Pension Tereia. The three rooms are small and simple, right in the owner’s house, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the beach. There is free Wi-Fi, but no phone service. The food is very good; ask for the coconut curried shrimp.

Best locally loved neighborhood restaurant
The Blue Banana in Punaauia, just outside Papeete, is right on the water—some of the tables are even on a pontoon floating on the water. This place isn’t fancy, but the location is quite romantic. It’s easy to get there from the Intercontinental, Le Meridien, and the main city of Papeete. My favorite dish is the coconut curry shrimp.

Fare Manuia is a local hangout on Bora Bora, near the Intercontinental. There’s often live music, and you can just put your feet up and relax. I really like the mahi mahi with the coconut sauce—but I order the sauce on the side so that I can fully savor the fresh fish!

On Moorea, Allo Pizza serves the most delicious dessert pizzas. Go to Te Honu Iti, just down the road, for dinner, than come here and order the Total Banana. (Their savory pies are good too, but one of those followed by a dessert pizza is too much.)

Dish to try
Poisson Cru: This is a raw fish dish, usually tuna that has been marinated with coconut milk, lime, and vegetables. The preparation is a bit like ceviche, but the flavors are totally different. Everyone makes their own version, but my favorite is at Snack Mahana, next to the Intercontinental Moorea. Go early for lunch, because that’s when the locals will be eating!

Chef-Damien-Villa-Mahana-Restaurant-Bora-Bora-CR-Damien-Rinaldi squareMeal worth the splurge
The five-course prix fixe, with wine pairings, at La Villa Mahana on Bora Bora. French-born chef Damien works mostly with local ingredients, and he’ll happily adjust the menu to suit specific dietary needs and wishes. A meal here is always well paced, relaxed, beautifully presented, and great tasting. Since there are only seven tables, reservations are always necessary.

What to See and Do

Most underrated place
The main island of Tahiti. Most visitors think of it as just a stopover on the way to other islands, but there’s a lot to do and see here, and it’s less expensive—so with the money you save during a few nights here, you can splurge on an overwater bungalow later in the trip. You can shop for Tahitian-style fabric in the main market, learn to surf, dine with locals at Chez Roger, dive or snorkel, visit the Museum of Tahiti or the Black Pearl Museum, or go further afield to the beautiful Papenoo Valley or the Marae Arahurahu—one of the best-reconstructed marae (sacred places) on the island.

Most overrated place
In its heyday, Bloody Mary’s, on Bora Bora, was full of celebrities. Now that the original owner has retired and his sons have taken over, the food is just O.K. and even the namesake drinks aren’t great. For a nice waterside meal on Bora Bora, I much prefer Mai Kai, Restaurant St. James, or Matira Beach.

The hidden gems

Nihamu Resort, Tikehau, french polynesia

Point Venus, on Tahiti, is where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus in 1769. The park around the lighthouse that now stands here is an ideal picnic area, with spectacular views of the coast and Papeete in the distance. This beach also has a great surf break for all levels and ages. (Do note that the beach is not white-sand, but brownish-black). On the way there, stop at the Tahara’a lookout, at the top of the hill just above the Pearl Beach Tahiti, for another pretty view, this one all the way to Moorea.

Ninamu Resort, once a cult surfing hotel, underwent a major renovation into a quirky resort for all types of travelers. Each of the seven bungalows are unique, like something out of a Dali painting or a Tolkien book, and all are crafted from local materials, including coral, stone, and thatch; one is arranged specifically for families. There’s no air-conditioning in the bungalows, but with the breeze the fans are enough. Ninamu is situated on remote Tikehau, which—unlike Bora Bora and Moorea—is an atoll, with different wildlife, which you can experience by snorkeling and visiting Bird Island, an avian sanctuary in the lagoon.

The cheap thrill
Visit a Protestant Church during Sunday service. You need do no more than stand under a shady tree near the church to listen to the unique acapella singing floating out of the open windows. It is pure joy. You’ll also get to see the impressive hats that the local ladies weave and wear, each trying to outdo the others in a friendly competition.

The prime picnic spot
Jardins de Paofai, in the city of Papeete, is a lovely location with views to Moorea.

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