Sunday, April 19, 2009

bungalows of Bora Bora

What a beautiful place Bora Bora is, I have always wanted to sleep in an overwater bungalow. What better place for the dream to come true than in Bora Bora, where the whole idea of accommodation straddling the ocean was born?

“Of course when we were building this resort, overwater bungalows had to be featured prominently,” said Four Seasons Bora Bora manager Sebastien Carre. “It’s what people expect and anticipate when they visit this island. Plus, it’s a matter of conserving land. There’s very little of it to build on here.”

The overwater bungalow was created in the 1960s by other hotels in French Polynesia as a way to exotically cater to a well-heeled international clientele.

The concept has been refined since — and while the bungalows still have thatched roofs and sit on stilts, they have all the appointments of a luxury hotel suite complete with private veranda and ladder into the ocean for swimming.

Other tourist hot spots around the world have adopted the over water bungalow — namely Fiji, Bermuda, Belize, Mauritius and the Maldives.

Bora Bora is the marquee destination in French Polynesia, the smattering of 118 islands over a swath of the South Pacific Ocean the size of Europe.

“A lot of people aren’t quite sure where we are,” added Carre. “But everyone knows the name Bora Bora because it is so catchy and conjures up images of mystique and paradise.”

Bora Bora became synonymous with paradise after a U. S. Army base was stationed there during the Second World War. The French Polynesian tourist boom was launched when the soldiers returned home with descriptions of islands populated by beautiful Polynesians surrounded by waters of the most magnificent blue, green and crystal colours.

While the Americans may be responsible for the bulk of tourist traffic of the past 60 years, the islands have been a territory of France for 150 years.

The influence has created the French tropics where government services are provided by France and French and Polynesian are the official languages, but English is spoken to serve tourists from North America and other parts of Europe.

Long a honeymoon favourite, Bora Bora is diversifying and is now also after families.

The Four Seasons is leading the way, with an excellent Kids for All Seasons activities and babysitting program and Teen Island with its own beach, sand volleyball court, table tennis, Internet and video games.

The island was created by a volcano millions of years ago and the distinctive peak of the crater — 727-metre Mount Otemanu — is the dominant view from the overwater bungalows at all of the upscale resorts on Bora Bora.

All of this beauty is breathtaking and it’s very conducive to relaxation. But tourists — especially the growing number of families — also want excursions. So how about swimming with the sharks?

That’s what my wife and I and our two kids did with Natua and Arieta Tepeva — the husband-and-wife team behind Raanui Tours, which does a 3 1 /2-hour Lagoon Tour (US$65).

After racing over the multi-coloured water we came to a shallow spot full of 1.5-metre-long reef sharks. Positioned in the water in our snorkelling gear, Natua started to toss sardines into the water and we witnessed the shark feeding frenzy up close.

No need to fear, we were told, reef sharks prefer fish to people. The scene was repeated — with less ferocity — at another location with stingrays brushing up against us with their water wings and clamouring for feeding.

Matira Jet Tours (US$274) provides an adrenalin day of circumnavigating Bora Bora on Jet Skis. Our guide — speed demon and showman Rapha Leechipsao — claimed to have shown Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie around.

There’s also a stop on a small island where Leechipsao whips up a snack of fresh-cut pineapple, bananas and coconut after his coconut picking-husking-cracking-and-shredding demonstration.

An afternoon in Bora Bora’s main town of Vaitape is worthwhile for its authentic Polynesian atmosphere and black pearl shopping — be it at a high-end jewelry store or a market stall.

Island hopping in French Polynesia is inevitable. All international flights land on the main island of Tahiti in the capital of Papeete. From there most tourists fly to outer island resorts.

So that’s how after a few days in Bora Bora we found ourselves on another inter-island flight to Tikehau — a remote and beautiful pink sand island.

Again it was accommodation in one of the quintessential overwater bungalows at the Pearl Beach Resort. The waters were full of tropical fish and the bungalow was outfitted with liftable glass panels in the floor for fish feeding.

This quickly became my six-year-old daughter’s obsession. It’s become known as Tahiti TV.

“We get a very specific guest here,” said the resort’s assistant manager Wilfred Vincent. “We get those who want to get away from it all in a quiet, remote, special paradise. We get a lot of repeat customers.”

A spectacular eco-tour is Bird Island with Dan Natua’s Tikehau Excursions (US$65).

Natua picks up from the hotel in his rustic wood boat and motors off to the nesting place of thousands of seabirds. The tohonu and kahaia trees are full of Nodis and Redfoot nests with fuzzy young peering out. It is also home to the white tern, which actually doesn’t build a nest, but lays a single speckled egg on a wide branch.

There’s also a stop at a coral reef in the middle of the lagoon for snorkeling in water so clear that the fish are illuminated and the bottom 20 metres down is visable.

For a different experience, Blue Nui takes snorkellers (US$35) and divers into the open ocean for drift snorkeling following the surf and sightings of wild dolphins.