Honeymoon to Bora Bora : Beach Vacation in French Polynesia

By Tee1

Bora Bora: Unforgettable Beach Vacation

Bora Bora is paradise on earth. The unforgettable beaches and natural beauty of Bora Bora clearly have made it the “the most beautiful island in the world”.  This magical island is rich in history and culture. Of course, it is also one of the most well known beach vacation destinations in the world. The exotic dream island beaches of Bora Bora features amazing motus surrounded by white sand.

[pullquote]A motu is a very small island. It is a reef islet that surrounds an atoll, formed by sand and broken coral. [/pullquote]

Bora Bora is one of the major honeymoon destinations in the world. It’s name resonates with people wide and far. The luxury beach resorts over the water are famous for their high quality and remoteness. Located in French Polynesia, Bora Bora is actually an island group in the western part of the Society Islands. It is a French overseas collectivity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Bora Bora: Classic Honeymoon Destination

The permanent population of this island group is slightly less than 10,000 residents. The main island is surrounded by a barrier reef and one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. It is located 143 miles northwest of Papeete, Tahiti. An extinct volcano dominates the center of the island and extends up to 2,385 feet. The volcano has two spectacular peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu.

Across the main channel of the lagoon, is Bora Bora’s main settlement, Vaitape. Outside of coconuts, the island is limited to what can be harvested from the bountiful ocean. The many coconut trees were at one point important for their role with creating copra. Copra is the dried meat of the coconut, which is used to extract coconut oil. It has been discovered that copra has a spontaneously combustive nature and is classified as dangerous goods. Back in the day however, it was used by Pacific islanders. In the 1860’s, copra was a valuable commercial product in the South Seas and South Asia. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the copra trade in his 1893 novella, The Beach of Falesá.

Where is Bora Bora?  16°50′S 151°74′W

Bora Bora: first born of the Society Islands

About 7 millions years ago, the first of the Society Islands – Bora Bora, was created by volcanic eruptions. This is potentially more than 5 million years ahead of Tahiti. Initially known as Vavau or “first born”, Bora Bora became known later as Pora Pora. Like many other place names, including Key West, the change is the result of a simple mistake.

According to the Tahitian creation myth, Bora Bora was the first land. The first land was obviously the land of the gods. Pora Pora was the double canoe that carried god to the island. On a rainbow atop Otemanu, the manu or spirit of god is believed to have descended. In the local Tahitian dialect, the island was called “Pora pora mai te pora”, meaning “created by the gods” in times gone by. The explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, can be forgiven for this simple mistake.

The Bora Bora island group has been settled since sometime in the the 4th century by Polynesian navigators and their families. Remarkably, the beaches of Bora Bora and its inhabitants managed to survive until 1722 and their European discovery. None other than the famed Captain Cook landed in Bora Bora 47 years later in 1769. He was accompanied by the navigator/ interpreter Tupaia, who made much of Cook’s discoveries possible with his celestial navigation skills. A Protestant church was built by the London Missionary Society in 1890. Bora Bora’s last queen was forced to abdicate by the French when they annexed the island group. Until 1888, Bora Bora had been an independent kingdom.

Bora Bora in World War II

In the second world war, Bora Bora was chosen as a military supply base in the South Pacific by the United States. Additionally an airfield, oil depot, and base for seaplanes were all built. This tropical paradise also had defensive fortifications constructed as well. Approximately 7,000 men, a supply force consisting of nine ships and over 20,000 tons of material and equipment were in “Operation Bobcat.” To protect the island from Japanese attack, at strategic points seven artillery guns were set up.

Luckily for the Society Islanders on Bora Bora, the island saw no combat action. Throughout the duration of the hostilities, American supremacy of the island group was not challenged. Finally, on June 2, 1946 the military outpost was closed officially. The abandoned WW2 airstrip served as French Polynesia’s only airport until 1960. Even though the airfield was never capable of welcoming large aircraft, it remained in use until the Faa’a International Airport opened in Tahiti years later.

Bora Bora Beaches: Best in the World

The economy of Bora Bora is dangerously one-dimensional. It is solely based by tourism and probably will not be changing in the near future. Realistically, why should they change? Nearly everybody in the world wishes they were on the beach in Bora Bora for a family vacation, eating freshly caught fish. Surrounding the lagoon, there have been a couple resorts built on small islands, motu.

The famed Pacific beach resort, Hotel Bora Bora opened its doors to the world in 1961. Nine years later, it built the heavily photographed over the water bungalows that rest on stilts in the lagoon. This iconic image of the South Pacific has captured the imaginations of countless travelers. Most resorts in Bora Bora offer over-water bungalows as a standard room. There is a wide gulf in the quality of accommodations available. The top of the range is the best luxury and service available to a more basic and relatively “inexpensive” bungalows.

Bungalow over the water in Bora Bora

While most of the attractions in Bora Bora involve the surrounding lagoon or ocean, there are some limited destinations on dry land. In particular, the forgotten cannons from the American occupation are interesting.

Flights between Tahiti and Bora Bora depart up to 6 times per day. There are also other flights as well. There is no public transportation, so be prepared to rent a car or at a minimum a bike. For exploring the lagoon, rent a powerboat.

Things to Do in Bora Bora

Both in and around Bora Bora’s lagoon, visitors have the opportunity to snorkel or scuba dive. There a number of rays and shark species in this local waters. Shark feeding and manta ray dives can be arranged with any of the dive shops. Surfing in French Polynesia is on many people’s bucket. There are two surfing spots on Bora Bora, Taevanui Pass and Motu Pitiaau.

A new manmade Motu Marfo has been created in the northeastern part of the lagoon in one of the resorts. As space is at a premium, expect this to be the first of many new land reclamation projects.

Society Islands History, Traditions and Myths

These islanders tell the tale of their origin in a myth. When the feathered god Ta’aroa lay in his shell and called out without an answer, he returned to his shell. There he stayed for ages. After Ta’aroa emerged, he had transformed his body into the sky’s multi-layered dome. He transformed other parts of his body into the earth, Papa-fenua. “Other parts he made into Te Tuma, the ata, or shadow of his phallus. Ta’aroa said, “Cast your eyes on my phallus. Gaze upon it and insert it in the earth.” He came down to earth at “Opoa in Havai’i” (now Ra’iatea), one of the most sacred places in the Society Islands. Other gods were created, and these ran directly into the time of the people. The high chiefs or ari’i rahi were descendants from the gods, reckoned to be forty generation previously. In their presence commoners showed respect by stripping to the waist. The high chiefs erected marae as places of worship.”

The Cult of the Red Feathered Girdle

A cult called ‘Oro-maro-‘ura developed: the cult of the red-feathered girdle developed in the generations before European arrival, which was a tangible expression of the chief’s power. Living apart from the common people were the “arioi”, the key followers of the “Oro cult”. The arioi decorated themselves with scarlet dyed cloth  and wore scented flowers.

Not everyone could become arioi. Only the best looking women and men were eligible to become arioi. The leader of each group of arioi was called a blackleg and heavily tattooed from the thing to the ankle. Men and women could each become blacklegs and were privileged members of society. However, there was a prohibition on having children. If they had kids, they were killed at birth. While the arioi received and offered many lavish presents, it sounds short sighted to me. Quite clearly, there are parallels to the Roman Catholic church. As they were very talented and privileged members of the Bora Bora community, the arioi were able to be navigators, oral tradition specialists, or priests. Besides good looks, this group of people had a wide range of artistic talents. The arioi were at the forefront in the ceremonies associated with births, deaths and marriage.

In 1722, the modern world catches up with Bora Bora

European explorers ventured to Bora Bora in 1722 for the first time, when a Dutch West Indian Expedition led by Jacob Roggeveen wrecked. The Dutch  shipwrecked on the atoll of Takapoto. The survivors rowed to a nearby island and proceeded to kill the islanders with their muskets. About 40 years later, in 1765, two British ships under the command of John Byron, visited the area for a short period of time. One of the vessels under Byron’s command was the HMS Dolphin. Two years later, the HMS Dolphin returned, under a new captain. The crew of the vessel were nearly incapacitated from scurvy and needed fresh food and fruit.

In their previous encounter with Europeans, the islanders learned about iron. They were delighted to see the Dolphin and the bounty of iron aboard. Naturally, the islanders tried to board the ship and take the iron fittings. The good captain could not allow that to happen and was obligated to shoot the cannons.

The desperation for iron was quite apparent to the sailors. Young women and girls were hopeful to trade sec for a nail. The nail would be used as a fish hook or for woodworking. The exchange of sex for iron became so extensive that eventually the physical integrity of the Dolphin was threatened.

Bora Bora Beaches and Sex

Young women had traditionally offered themselves to chiefs or other high status members of the tribe, as a gift to their ancestor gods. The chiefs had sex with virgins in public during some of these rituals. As a sign of hospitality, this was proffered to some officers and European captains. As far as we know, the officers did not accept.

The beaches of the Society Islands were visited again a year later, 1766. This time the French nobleman, Louis de Bougainville, led an expedition that arrived once again gravely ill with scurvy. The excess food of the island was traded for axes, knives and other iron items. Bora Bora’s demand for iron was insatiable at this time in history.

History of French Polynesia Beach Spots

The Polynesian ancestors started from South East Asia and sailed the Pacific Ocean for centuries. They were the initial island hoppers. They travelled by pahi, huge double-hulled sailing canoes that transported up to 60 people.  The most impressive feat of the pahi is that it could sail upwind. Keep in mind that both Cook and Bouganville were unable to do that so many years later.

The French Polynesia beach areas were some of the last places to be settled by people due to their remoteness. It is thought that the Great Polynesian Migration occurred in approximately 1500BC. Scientists may not be sure of the exact year, but they do know that the Austronesian navigators travelled by the stars and used celestial navigation. The South Pacific Islands and their beaches were discovered by sailing with the stars as a guide. The Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia were the first islands to be settled around the year 200 BC. Hundreds of years later, the Polynesians ventured southwest and found the Society Islands, including Bora Bora around the year 300AD.

The first encounters between Polynesians and Europeans began in 1521. None other than the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, saw the small coral atoll, Puka Puka, in the “Disappointment Islands”.  Magellan was working for the Spanish crown at the time. Today, Puka Puka has a population of 197. The islands are arid, and are not especially conducive to human habitation. The previously mentioned British explorer Byron, named them the “Disappointment Islands” because he found the natives to be of a hostile disposition toward him.

Even thought the many islands and beaches of French Polynesia, extend over 5.5 millions square kilometers, Magellan was the first European to see any of the area. While he was the first, it would e difficult to say Magellan encountered very much. He did not see the other 120 islands in the region.

Nearly 100 years later, another group of Spanish explorers, led by Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, travelled through the beaches and islands of Polynesia. On the 10th of February, 1606, they “discovered” a populated island which is most likely the Rekareka, to the south-east of Tahiti.

The first European to mention Bora Bora was Jakob Roggeveen, the Dutchman in 1722. He opted not to stop, as it was mistakenly confused with parts of the Somoan islands. Later both the English (1767) and French (1768) claimed Tahiti for their own. The English were there a year earlier than the French. However, the French did not realize this at the time. Interestingly, Captain Cook was the first European to come ashore a decade later. Cook visited to negotiate for an anchor lost by the French in the previous decade. He was successful with his offer of some clothing, axes, mirrors & other trinkets.

Multiple expeditions to Tahiti were ordered by the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, starting in 1772. The expeditions were launched under the command of the accomplished Domingo de Bonechea, the first European to travel to and explore all of the islands beyond Tahiti.  In 1774, a Spanish settlement was created, but it didn’t last long. The Spanish renamed Tahiti Isla de Amat, after the ambitious Viceroy. Spanish priests stayed in Tahiti for a year and founded the first Christians missions. The Protestants arrived into the South Pacific waters full of missionary zeal about 30 years.

After the wake of the explorers who visited the islands, the whaling industry followed. They carried diseases which came close to wiping the populations out in the area. Bora Bora may have lost 40% of its population to disease. Following the arrival of the whalers, the population of the Marquesas Islands plummeted from 80,000 to 2,000 in a century. Firearms and alcohol were introduced to French Polynesia at this time as well.

Oddly enough, less than 10 years after the missionary spread their version of love, the “King Pōmare II of Tahiti was forced to flee to Mo’orea in 1803; he and his subjects were converted to Protestantism in 1812.” Catholic missionaries arrived in Tahiti in 1834 from France. A brief 2 years later, they were expelled which promptly resulted in some gun boat diplomacy by the French. To ensure Catholic missionaries could save souls peacefully, Tahiti and Tahuata were made a French protectorate in 1842. The next year, the capital Papeete, was founded. Eventually, the islands were annexed by France which changed their status to that of a colony in 1880.

The administration of French Polynesia recognized the Free French Forces in 1940. Many Polynesians served in World War II. On September 16, 1940, Imperial Japan decided that in the post-war world, the islands of French Polynesia were to become part of the “Eastern Pacific Government-General”. Fortunately, these tropical islands and their beautiful beach spots never did become Japanese possessions. In fact, the Japanese were unable to even attempt an invasion of these French islands. The Polynesians and French were completely unaware of how the Japanese had planned their future for them. Without doubt, these islands fared much better, than some other French colonial places, like Cambodia and her beach vacation spots.

After the war ended, the status of the French islands was changed to an overseas territory. That change granted the Polynesians French citizenship in 1946. In 1957, the the islands’ name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia). When Algeria became independent in 1962, the French relocated their nuclear testing to the South Pacific.

The beaches of Bora Bora have a special place in the history of the world. Fortunately, they have not been ravaged by man yet through overdevelopment of over the top resorts  If you ever get the chance, take it. There are not many exotic places left like this.

Bora Bora and its Reputation

Sailors, writers and artists all contributed to Bora Bora’s reputation as paradise on Earth. The famous or possibly infamous “Voyage Autour du Monde” was penned by the explorer Bougainville after his “beach vacation” to the island. Bora Bora was the inspiration for Bougainville’s “La Nouvelle Cythere”, the island of pleasures in the southern seas. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born in in Cythere. The author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, wrote about life in French Polynesia not once, but twice he was so enraptured. Of course, the most famous visitor to the South Seas was the French artist, Paul Gaughin. He created an illustrated book about ancient Polynesian culture. This book, “Noa Noa” tells the tale of the Areori who resided on Bora Bora and of the god’s first miracle creation Noa or “fragrance.”

Thank you to the gentleman pictured in the hammock above for the sharing the wonderful images. John is a former classmate who obviously appreciates the finer things in life. Hoya Saxa.