Bora Bora: Off the Beaten Path

Destination Mini-Guide to Bora Bora

By Nancy Smay

A graffiti-covered gun is a reminder of the U.S. Army's occupation of Bora Bora during WWII. Photos by Nancy Smay
A graffiti-covered gun is a reminder of the U.S. Army’s occupation of Bora Bora during WWII. Photos by Nancy Sma

Bora Bora. Just the name evokes images of sparkling waters, shimmering beaches and a certain Polynesian mystique. Like most honeymooners anticipating a tropical escape from reality, we expected to find all of these things. And they were there in abundance.

I might have been content to spend the entire trip gazing at the water, snorkeling in the lagoon and relaxing along the outer edges of the island as most visitors do, but I found myself wondering what else there was.

What was hidden within the dense jungle that covers every part of the island except the sandy tufted shores dominated by tourist resorts and the occasional colorful towns?

I talked my husband into signing up for a “4 x 4 Backcountry Excursion” in hopes of heading off the beaten path and finding out.

The truck was waiting the following morning in front of our resort. Two other couples waited along the padded benches in the Land Rover’s open back. There were no seatbelts and only a tarp stretched overhead to provide shade from the already beating sun. We climbed aboard, smiling at our guide and fellow explorers through layers of sunscreen.

What Lies Within

A pearl farm on Bora Bora
A pearl farm on Bora Bora

The truck rolled out onto the single 17-mile road that circles the island. Our driver introduced himself and asked if anyone had back problems. In response to our unanimous “no,” he smiled and advised us to hold on. We each found a grip and within seconds, the truck turned and careened upward, following a steep angle up a rutted muddy path, shaking violently.

What had begun as fingertip holds quickly turned into white-knuckled death grips on the truck’s frame as my five companions and I held on tightly to avoid crashing into each other during our race upward into the thick interior of Bora Bora.

Bora Bora is one of the Leeward Isles that make up part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia. Tahiti is the most widely recognizable name among these islands, which are a semi-autonomous part of the French Republic.

Those residing beside the startling turquoise lagoons and long white beaches speak Tahitian and French, and managed to remain largely unaffected by the outside world until World War II, when the United States sent 4,500 troops to establish the island as a refueling station. Today, our guide reported, Bora Bora is home to 18 resorts. The tourist season lasts all year, from the wet season from November through April, through the drier months, which last from May to October.

Six Months of Training

Although we were visiting during the “dry” months, it had rained hard the previous day and the deluge had left the path slick, forming a sucking mud that threatened to swallow the tires as we climbed. At one point, the driver forced the truck into gear and got out to push from behind as we rolled haltingly forward, wheels half-buried in deeply carved trenches winding through the muck.

Our guide Jay and his 4x4
Our guide Jay and his 4×4

We exchanged uncomfortable glances with one another as we tried to ignore the way the steering wheel spun violently side to side with no driver to control it. Before the older woman sitting across from us became entirely unhinged, the driver swung merrily back into his seat, took an appraising glance at us and declared, “Don’t worry, I had six months of training!”

We quickly learned that this was his favorite saying during the more hair-raising parts of the tour, along with another: “This is the real Magic Mountain!”

Our theatrical guide was Jay, a man we’d just met but had evidently entrusted with our lives for the duration of our adventure. He was a native Polynesian who’d lived on Bora Bora all his life. “This is my island,” he told us, with a close-lipped smile of pride and affection crossing his shining face. “I have explored every inch of it.”

Jay would have fit in just as naturally on the beaches of Maui or California. He wore surf trunks and flip-flops, a tank top, backwards cap and sunglasses, and carried himself with an air of laid-back confidence. He was quick to smile or joke, and spoke English well. And though he didn’t choose to demonstrate, something about his jovial manner gave me the impression that Jay probably knew more English swear-words than most of his American passengers.

War in Paradise

An abandoned U.S. Army bunker
An abandoned U.S. Army bunker

The 2,000 residents living on Bora Bora in 1942 might not have had many modern conveniences when the US troops arrived to triple the island’s population, but they definitely had fruit. “The avocados here are as big as your head,” Jay told me. “The papayas are huge.”

As he said this, Jay halted the truck in front of a metal building jutting from the hillside. The abandoned structure, now just an eerie shell, turned out to be a bunker that had housed U.S. troops from 1942 to 1946. It was covered with the encroaching jungle flora and shadowed by Mt. Otemanu, the 2,400-foot volcanic peak that loomed in the distance.

Jay told us that no one had ever managed to climb Otemanu successfully, because the volcanic rock crumbled too easily and wouldn’t bear a climber’s weight. Knowing that it had never been conquered gave the dark crag a kind of mythic appeal, and I gazed up at it from then on with a certain degree of reverence.

We explored the abandoned bunker, and returned to the truck to find that Jay had laid out a feast on the hood in order to drive home his point about Bora Bora’s large and plentiful fruit. Spread out on a palm frond were sections of a giant grapefruit with green skin, and a pineapple. Both were delectably sweet, and Jay grinned knowingly as we took turns assuring him that this fruit was better than any we had at home.

The View from the Top

Motus -- little islands -- in the distance
Motus — little islands — in the distance

At the top of one of the island’s verdant hills we were greeted by stunning views of the island and water below. From that perspective, it wasn’t hard to understand what led James Michener to write that this island was the most beautiful in the world.

Bora Bora is protected by a circular outer reef dotted with motus, or smaller islands. Inside this protective ring, the waters that surround the island sparkle across a spectrum of astounding blues, the lightest of which is a crystal blue swimming pool hue, while the darkest gleams a deep cobalt.

Bora Bora’s jungle sprawls out to meet the sandy coastline, bursting forth in a proliferation of dense flowers and greenery. Mt. Otemanu and Mt. Pahia dominate the interior. The island was once believed to be the last remaining tip of the sunken continent of Atlantis, and was the inspiration for Broadway’s Bali Hai in South Pacific.

The Guns of Bora Bora

One of the guns left by the U.S. Army
One of the guns left by the U.S. Army

The truck dove through the encroaching greenery and attacked another ascending trail, at the top of which we found ourselves parked between two huge coastal defense guns, aimed menacingly in opposite directions toward the island’s outer reef. The guns were covered with graffiti and rusted to a deep ochre, and seemed strangely out of place peering over the top of the dense jungle in battle-ready stance.

Jay sat down at the base of one of the massive artifacts while the rest of us scrambled around, taking pictures. We tried to capture the strange contrast between this beautiful island and the bulky vestiges of World War II that had been left here. We photographed Mount Otemanu’s craggy face looming above us and the incredible hues of the shining waters below.

After a while, Jay began, “The Americans left eight of these big guns here when they went away in 1946.”

I cringed, expecting him to tell us how the island was ruined by the arrival of so many foreigners, or how the native people hated Americans as a result. Considering the United States’ continuing entanglement in the Middle East, it is becoming commonplace to hear theories of American neo-imperialism. One travels abroad as an American in 2006 fully prepared to listen to a broad range of opinions concerning the political strategies of our homeland.

A sailboat glides through the azure waters
A sailboat glides through the azure waters

I readied myself as Jay continued, “The GIs left other things here, too. A road around the island, an airport, schools, water treatment facilities and generators. The people here were very lucky.”

My husband and I exchanged surprised and relieved glances. Jay was silent for a moment, and then broke out in a grin. “They also left 165 little GIs!” We all laughed, the tension broken. I was glad to hear Jay’s take on the American legacy left to Bora Bora, but I wondered if the message was colored by his awareness that all six of his passengers were American.

Vestiges of Ancient Culture

Another white-knuckled ride returned us to the main road, where we pulled over and Jay pointed at what appeared to be a pile of rocks. “This is an ancient shrine,” he told us. “A marae.”

There are 42 of these ancient altars hidden within the jungle on Bora Bora, where human sacrifice was once performed as a part of traditional religious ceremony and culture. The shrine had eroded, almost melting into the scenery, and most visitors passing in cars would never identify it as anything out of the ordinary. I was glad to have had a moment to examine it.

Bora Bora
Bora Bora

What We Take With Us

As we headed back to the resort, I looked towards the interior of the island as we flew past, instead of gazing out towards the water. Muddy trails crept up the hillsides, most of them partially obscured by the thick jungle growth. I realized that many visitors to Bora Bora wouldn’t notice these paths, these subtle invitations to explore.

The natural beauty of the water out the other window would command their attention as they passed, anticipating the same beaches, lagoons and tropical drinks that lured them here in the first place. And there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a vacation and finding exactly what you’d expected to find. But in our case, we left glad that we’d allowed ourselves to find something unexpected, too.

Getting There:

Direct flights to Papeete, Tahiti are offered from LAX via Air Tahiti Nui and Air France. During the summer months, Air Tahiti Nui offers promotional fares as low as $558 roundtrip. Air France’s roundtrip from LAX to Papeete ranges from $639 to about $900 per person.

From Papeete to Bora Bora, Air Tahiti offers daily flights for $378 round trip. The airport on Bora Bora is actually located on a motu, separate from the main island, but free boat shuttle service is provided to the main dock at Vaitape.

Tourists must bring a passport for any international travel.

Where to Stay:

There are 18 luxury resorts on Bora Bora, many of which offer package deals including roundtrip airfare. The accommodation of choice is an over-water bungalow, set on stilts atop the shallow lagoon, but most resorts offer several options.

Club Med offers all-inclusive vacations including airfare. Guests choose from beachfront or garden-view bungalows and enjoy three included meals daily, along with snacks and drinks provided in the bar. Watersports are included, and range from snorkel trips to sailing lessons, while scuba diving and jet skiing can be enjoyed for an additional fee. End of summer rates for two adults start at $810 for seven nights. Call (888) WEB-CLUB or visit for details.

The Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort is one of the most luxurious hotels in Bora Bora. It is located on the Tevairoa Motu, across the lagoon from the main island, offering increased privacy and seclusion. An all-inclusive meal option is available, and guests have access to a wide range of sports and activities, as well as a full-service spa. Prices for two adults begin at $552 nightly for garden-view bungalows. Check Pearl Resort for details.

— A less pricey option is Le Maitai Polynesia, which offers over-water and beach bungalows, some of which are air conditioned. The onsite restaurant combines French and Polynesian fare. The owner, Pauline Youssef, is a native Bora Boran, who strives to use authentic Polynesian décor and hospitality at the resort. Rooms begin at $250 nightly. Details from or by calling internationally: (689) 60-30-00.


November through May are hot and wet months, while June through October, the island’s high season for tourists, tend to be drier and cooler. The air is always fairly humid, with temperatures in July averaging 76 degrees, and ranging around the mid-80’s in March.

4 x 4 Tour:

Tupuna is the most established 4 x 4 tour operator. Details:,, or (689) 67-75-06.


Official information can be found through the Bora Bora Visitor’s Bureau by emailing or by calling internationally: (689) 67-76-36. Many excellent websites and guidebooks are available as well.


Nancy SmayNancy Smay lives in San Diego with her husband and writes full time, focusing on lifestyle, travel, fitness and wine. Her work appears regularly in Wine Adventure Magazine and she pens a regular health column for Rancho, a North San Diego newsmagazine.

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