Bora Bora for the day: What to do while your cruise is in port
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Editor's Note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials' guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year. French Polynesia cruises are slated to resume in July.
Bora Bora -- home to the always-romantic overwater bungalow concept -- is one of the most anticipated ports of call in the South Pacific.
It's exotic and remote, and it lives up to its reputation. That's why most cruise ships that call here arrive early in the morning, spend all day, overnight in port and then enjoy a partial second day in paradise.
That extra time is important, because once you see the dramatic peak of Mount Otemanu covered by lush vegetation, the glorious white sand beaches and lagoons filled with brightly colored sea creatures, you'll never want to leave.
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If you want the cruise of a lifetime that visits Bora Bora, book an itinerary sailing French Polynesia's Society Islands. Two lines, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Windstar Cruises, sail the islands year-round from their home port in Papeete. Additionally, Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Ponant, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Silversea will all call on Bora Bora on a variety of 2021 itineraries. These cruises are longer itineraries -- often from the West Coast of the U.S. from ports like Los Angeles and San Diego. There are also round-trip itineraries from Sydney that call on French Polynesia ports and many world cruise segments also call on these island chains.
Related: Which cruise brand is best for you?
3 things TPG loves about Bora Bora
- The dramatic view of Mount Otemanu
- Incredible diving and snorkeling opportunities as well as other water sports
- The opportunity to stay overnight in a romantic overwater bungalow
What we could do without
- The high prices -- meals at restaurants can be extremely expensive, as are hotel accommodations (which is why it's an excellent place to use your stash of Hilton or IHG points).
Related: Which is better: The Maldives or Bora Bora?
Bora Bora basics
Bora Bora comprises an island ringed by a barrier reef and several smaller islands called "motus" where some of the swankiest resorts such as the Four Seasons, InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso and St. Regis are located. This arrangement creates calm lagoons between the landmasses that are perfect for enjoying various water sports.
French Polynesia cruises are popular with travelers celebrating milestones such as a wedding, graduation or retirement. As such, some visitors have waited a lifetime to visit Bora Bora and are extremely excited when they finally step off the tender to shore. Here's what they can expect.
Related: How to plan a Bora Bora vacation on points
You won't dock on the island of Bora Bora. Instead, your ship will anchor off the western shore of the main island. You'll then transfer to a tender that will ferry you through an open channel to the lagoon that leads to the pier at Vaitape Village.
Within walking distance of the pier is the post office, plus a few cafes, an Italian gelato shop, car rental agencies, souvenir shops, jewelry stores specializing in local pearls, a bank and the visitors center.
Time zone: If embarking on a cruise from Papeete, try to arrive a day or two before your French Polynesia itinerary. It's a long flight from just about anywhere in the United States to Papeete, Tahiti, where your cruise will embark. The Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Papeete (PPT) clocks in at just about eight hours (read a review of that flight's business class cabin). French Polynesia is in the same time zone as Hawaii -- two hours behind Pacific Standard Time (three hours behind during daylight saving time, late March through October).
Related: Finding flight award availability to Tahiti
Languages: French and Tahitian are the official languages, but you may also hear Marquesan and Tuamotuan.
Currency: The French Pacific franc, denoted as XPF, is the currency used in Bora Bora and throughout all French overseas collectives. There's an ATM when you exit the Quai de Vaitape tender area.
Related: Best translation apps for travelers
How to get around
On foot: While you can explore a few shops and restaurants near the tender pier, none of the island's major sights are within walking distance. You're better off booking a ship-sponsored tour, renting a car or bike or making reservations with a third-party tour operator that will meet you at Vaitape Harbor.
By bike: Bike rentals are available at places like Avis and Europcar car rental agencies, located across from the Vaitape pier, or in the Matira Beach area. A daily rental costs about $15 for a traditional bike and $25 for an electric bike.
By taxi: There is a taxi stand at the pier. Fares aren't metered, so always negotiate the fare before getting in the vehicle.
By bus: Le Truck is a public bus that traverses part of the island, but it's hit or miss when it comes to its schedule. You can hail it from Circle Island Road as you exit the tender pier.
Top sights and shore excursions
If you're not a beach person, don't enjoy water sports, don't dive or snorkel, or aren't interested in exploring a tropical island by car or bike, Bora Bora might not be for you. Most of the main attractions are for nature lovers and outdoorsy people, though there are a few World War II sites on the island that might appeal to history buffs. There are island tours on local open-air buses.
Here are some favorite pastimes for cruisers visiting Bora Bora.
Most cruise ships visiting the island have one or more scuba diving excursions. Booking a ship-sponsored tour, or going with a third-party vendor, is your best bet for seeing the most impressive underwater spots. You'll find dive options both inside and outside of Bora Bora's lagoon. In many cases, but not all, you need to have your scuba certification to sign up for these trips. A two-hour excursion costs about $110 per person.
Snorkel and stingray experience
One of the most famous shore excursions in the Society Islands is the opportunity to snorkel among stingrays and small sharks. (Yes, I was nervous about the shark part, but the sharks are small and they honestly ignored us and just swam around. It wasn't threatening.) The stingrays, on the other hand, are very friendly. They reminded me of labrador retrievers that are excited to greet a new visitor. If you don't want a sea creature getting close to -- or touching -- you, this is not the tour for you. Expect to pay upwards of $110 per person for this tour.
If you're not comfortable snorkeling but still want to see the magic happening under Bora Bora's lagoon surface, book a glass-bottom boat tour. These boats are easy to board and drinks and snacks are often served as you peer through the glass floor at the tropical fish swimming below. Tours like this cost around $90 per person.
Bora Bora Lagoonarium
Located on the reef between Le Meridien and the St. Regis, this is a fun place to visit because, while you may expect it to be a manmade aquarium, Mother Nature carved the lagoon herself. This is the perfect spot to snorkel and see all sorts of tropical fish, turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, moray eels and sharks (blacktip, lemon and nurse). Tours to the Lagoonarium run about $100 per person.
Bora Bora by Waverunner
For those who love the feel of sea breezes and salt in their hair, try this tour where you circle the island on a Waverunner. Scenic stops are included so you can swim and enjoy different locations around the lagoon. The tour costs about $300, but each Waverunner accommodates two people.
Bora Bora by four-wheel drive
This exciting tour takes you to parts of the island inaccessible without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. (If you've got a bad back or are afraid of heights, you may want to avoid this rough ride.)
Some sights on the tour include Pahonu Hill for sweeping panoramic views of the island, the World War II-era American guns at Fitiiu Point and Anau cannons at Faanui Bay near Farepiti Point, marae (sacred temple) sites and more. You'll spend about $125 per person for a tour like this one.
Related: 11 of the best far-flung dive and snorkel spots to add to your bucket list
Best beaches in Bora Bora
While Bora Bora is home to many beaches, finding one to spend the day at can be tougher than you might expect.
Many of Bora Bora's most beautiful beaches are located at luxury resorts on its motus. The beaches at Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, The St. Regis Bora Bora and Conrad Bora Bora Nui are all beautiful and Le Meridien Bora Bora has an incredible lagoon. Since most ships stay overnight here, you book a stay and enjoy the beach for the day.
Or, book a shore excursion that includes a taxi to the resort where you'll spend a beach day. The package usually includes nonmotorized water sports, snorkel gear, lunch and return by taxi. Paul Gauguin Cruises, for example, offers a beach day at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa for $144 per person.
Put your points to good use if you plan to use the overnight call in Bora Bora to stay in an overwater bungalow. Here's how you could do it:
The St. Regis Bora Bora: Book with Membership Rewards points or cash through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program. Reservations include daily breakfast for two, a room upgrade at check in (when available), noon check in (when available), guaranteed 4 p.m. checkout (which you wouldn't make use of in this case) and free Wi-Fi. You must have a Platinum- or Centurion-branded card, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, to book through FHR. (Note that you can also book the Conrad Bora Bora Nui and Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora through Amex's FHR program.)
Related: The ultimate guide to Amex Membership Rewards
Or, use your Marriott Bonvoy points. The rate starts at 70,000 points on off-peak nights, 85,000 points on standard dates and 100,000 points on peak nights. You can earn Marriott Bonvoy points with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card.
Related: The beginner's guide to Marriott Bonvoy
Le Meridien Bora Bora: This is a Category 7 property that costs 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points on off-peak dates, 60,000 points on standard dates and 70,000 points during peak season. If you have an up to 50,000-point free night certificate that's conferred on the anniversary of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, you can use it at Le Meridien on off-peak nights. New cardholders can earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Another perk of the card is up to $300 in statement credits each cardmember year for eligible purchases at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels. The card has a $450 annual fee (see rates and fees).
Related: Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express card review
Conrad Bora Bora Nui: As mentioned above, you can use cash or American Express Membership Rewards points to stay at the Conrad. Or, use your stash of Hilton Honors points. Award nights run about 89,000 points. You can earn points with the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card and Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. In fact, the new welcome bonus on both of those cards is more than enough for a night at the Conrad. The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Related: The award traveler's guide to Hilton Honors
Paul Gauguin Cruises' private beach
Paul Gauguin Cruises also has its own private beach on Bora Bora for guest use. It features a gorgeous view of Mount Otemanu as the backdrop.
But, if you're looking for a public beach to explore on your own, this is your best bet:
Head to the southern tip of the island -- a 15-minute drive south of Vaitape -- for the most popular public beach on Bora Bora. Access to Matira Beach, right near the entrance to the InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora, is free. The sand here is impossibly soft and silky and it's rarely crowded. But while the water is crystal clear and shallow out to the coral reef offshore, it's not the best spot on the island for snorkeling. And, watch for falling coconuts from the palms that line the 2-mile-long stretch of beach.
Where to eat and drink
Food is quite expensive throughout French Polynesia, so most cruisers tour the island but eat lunch and dinner on their ship. But, if you can, dine out at least once while you're on Bora Bora.
Island specialties include many French classics you might enjoy on a trip to Paris, including croissants, baguettes and French cheese.
Look for these local specialties:
- Poisson cru: raw fish and diced vegetables soaked in coconut milk and lime juice
- Chevrettes: freshwater shrimp
- Poe: a sweet taro pudding that's flavored with papaya, banana or vanilla and topped with a coconut-milk sauce
If you'd like to plan a special dinner out, grab a table at one of the following restaurants. Note that most restaurants will send a taxi to pick you up at the tender pier. Just request transportation when you make your reservation.
It might feel a bit cliche, but there's something special about dining barefoot with your feet sinking into the sand at Bloody Mary's (at Pofai Bay, northwest of Matira Beach on Circle Island Road). Yachters and visitors staying on the island have stopped here for fresh seafood under the restaurant's vaulted thatched roof since 1979.
At lunch, the menu focuses on burgers, sandwiches, sashimi and fish 'n' chips. But dinner is another matter. As you walk into the restaurant, you'll see today's catch laid out on ice. Pick one item or a platter piled with crab, lobster, shrimp, steak and chicken.
Diners are seated at tables that have polished tree stump seating. The vibe is decidedly Polynesian. You can find more refined cuisine on the island but the feel here is special and it's a meal you'll remember for a long time.
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La Villa Mahana
Damien Rinaldi-Dovio, a French native, opened the intimate eight-table Villa Mahana in 2003 and its Mediterranean-inspired menu has been popular with locals and tourists ever since. There's indoor seating in a villa-like setting as well as tables in a garden courtyard. It's a lovely place for a romantic dinner. The entrees -- featuring seafood, beef and pasta -- are beautifully presented and the desserts are works of art.
This small open-air hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Circle Island Road, with a water view of Matira Beach, fits the bill when you just want a basic and affordable meal. The menu features burgers, grilled fish sandwiches and fries, steaks, barbecue chicken, pizza, poisson cru and more. Seating is picnic table-style.
Matira Beach Restaurant
More upscale than Snack Matira but also right on Matira Beach, this restaurant features well-regarded sushi plates. Additionally, you can order entrees such as filet mignon, duck breast, fish burgers, grilled fish and tuna tartare.
Related: Dreaming of French Polynesia
Where to shop
When you're shopping in Bora Bora, look for souvenirs like:
- Black pearls
- Shell jewelry and leis
- Soaps and oils scented with coconut and tiare flowers
- Pareu (sarong) wraps in bright tropical colors
- Wood carvings
You'll find shops and a marketplace in Vaitape near the tender port as well as along the southern portion of Circle Island Road. Just note that many stores close around lunchtime -- sometimes for an extended period.
If you're shopping for pearls, buy from a jewelry store specializing in these local gems. While haggling isn't common with other items in French Polynesia, you should ask for a discount during the pearl-purchasing process. Also, make sure a certificate noting the pearls' authenticity is included. The document should say Tahitian cultured pearl.
Some pearl shops include Tahia Pearls and Robert Wan (within walking distance from the Vaitape pier) and Arc En Ciel (head north on Circle Island Road from the tender area; you'll need a car or bike).
Visiting Bora Bora on a cruise will help you avoid the costly transfer flight from Papeete, Tahiti, to the island — plus you can skip the very expensive hotel rates. So, if you love the tropics, beach life, water sports and slowing down to "island time" you'll thoroughly enjoy your call on Bora Bora.
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card, click here.