The first thing that really made an impact on me when I first arrived in Bora Bora wasn't the vivid stripes of cobalt and turquoise water lapping against the island, nor the sweet, intoxicating smell of Tiare, a local flower decorating everything from the airport counters to local ladies' ears. It wasn't even the fact that we saw a giant turtle swimming by our water taxi from the airport to the Four Seasons. Nope. It was the fact that everyone here has got the most infectious giggle I've ever heard. Seriously, it was unbelievable -- the locals just do not stop laughing! They should rename this the Island of Laughter: if everyone visited, they could literally rid the world of depression because I've never been immersed into such happy, smiling people.
So, this is a terrible admission for someone who claims to be pretty well-travelled to make, but when I first looked into heading down to Bora Bora, I didn't really know where, or what, it was. Except for the image of tropical islands surrounded by transparent azure waters and -- ahem -- I may have stumbled upon the drama-charged Keeping Up with the Kardashians episodes that took place there, I knew zip. A little research later, and I found out that Bora Bora is a spec of paradise nestled into a smorgasbord of French Polynesian islands, which cover a hefty area ¾ the size of Europe. Tahiti is perhaps the most famous of these South Pacific islands, but Bora Bora is the real gem in the crown. A sunken, inactive volcano created four million years ago, now encircled by a coral reef and tiny bumps of land, covered in lush green coconut palms and vivid red Tiare flowers, which -- when contrasted with the aquamarine lagoons -- makes you blink twice to take it all in. It doesn't quite seem real and there's certainly no need for colour-correction to improve the holiday photos.
The journey isn't short, no matter where you're flying from. Air Tahiti, however, is a brilliant airline that somehow combines luxury with a very laid-back, island atmosphere. From LAX, we took a punctual nine-hour overnight flight, filled with happy couples and no businessmen (yay). The plane was decked out in ocean blue, there was a chic L'Occitane goodie bag on our seats, and the cabin smelled of vanilla -- another popular product of Tahiti. Staff were friendly, and by the time I'd snacked and napped, we'd landed in Papeete at 6 a.m. and ate our breakfast at the little airport whilst waiting for the short hour-long flight to Bora Bora. Yes, it's a tiring journey, but when you step onto the silky white sands and take a deep breath at the other end, it's beyond worth it.
Warning: When you first enter your overwater suite, you will be speechless for a good few minutes. It's just mouthwateringly blissful. A little living room opens up onto a deck with steps down into the water. The rooms are filled with sunlight, the beds are enormous, the pillows are fluffy and there are various glass panels on the floor looking directly down at the fish underneath. Every now and again when a golf cart rides by on the pontoon, the floor does a little wobble, reminding you that you are indeed half a kilometer out at sea. It's like being on your own decadent yacht, with the luxury of room service just a phonecall away. (And PS -- the restaurants are lovely, but my favorite meals of the trip were room-service pizza and a bottle of wine under the stars out on the porch. So peaceful.)
Any Four Seasons around the globe adheres to their meticulous levels of service, but what Bora Bora does well is temper that with the island's tranquil, relaxed attitude. Local culture, tradition and produce are interwoven everywhere you look around the resort's 54 acres: overwater bungalows are thatched with native pandanus leaves, woven by local craftsmen. Inside, walls are adorned with indigenous artwork. A weekly Tahitian beach party takes place, featuring local musicians; all four restaurants serve local fish and veg, plus beef imported from New Zealand -- which is tender as butter and practically local. Coconuts thrive on the island, both in the wild and in a nursery, and are used to make everything from cake, bread and massage oil, to cocktails or served straight up with a straw at the epic breakfast buffet. Guests can go deep-sea fishing on excursions inland, and take a guided snorkel with the hotel's in-house marine biologist. I started every morning off with a dive out of the bedroom and into the sea, followed by a paddle-board to the beach and a fresh coconut juice and omelet. Sure beats the usual commute to work!
The spa deserves it's own paragraph as well. My other half and I had the Kahaia Haven Ritual, a couple's treatment that lasts three hours. It consists of a foot scrub and body scrub with a black pearl powder exfoliator, followed by a Polynesian massage with locally pressed coconut, vanilla or tiare-scented Monoi oil, then a facial and, finally, a coconut bath served up with a platter of fresh tropical fruit. Suffice to say it's the most balancing, nourishing and awesome experience ever. Taking place in an indoor-outdoor double room, all the senses are lulled into relaxation mode simultaneously: I listened to the waves gently lapping in the lagoon underneath, which you can see looking down through the massage headrest and down again through a window in the floor. Whilst my shoulder knots were pummeled, I watched shoals of needlefish dart about and one slightly scary sea-snake unravel from its underwater rock-side slumber. The warm breeze is filled with the sweet scent of vanilla, and then, at the end, you're just about ready to taste the delicious mango and melon brought in. I was so utterly relaxed I became a slobbering fool -- my second bout of speechlessness in as many days.
My Four Seasons Bora Bora tips? Try the banana spring rolls with apple caramel sauce at the Sunset Bar. Indulge in at least one spa treatment, and ask for Siti -- she's the best. Order the scallops at the Arii Moana restaurant, they're melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Take a paddle-board out -- the ocean is so calm that it's easy no matter your ability or fitness level. Don't turn on the TV in your room. Read as much about the island's history as you can before you go, it enriches the experience tenfold. Wear a flower in your hair every day (that one's for the ladies). Hop on the free boat to the mainland to wander around. Don't shop in the first boutiques you come across, they are ridiculously overpriced, but keep walking to the supermarket and you'll find local Tiare oil, coconut soap and beach snacks for a bargain.
Oh, and if you've got a spare $1 million in your pocket, the entire island, all 100 overwater villas, seven beachfront houses and four restaurants can be yours for the week, including meals, drinks and a spa treatment per guest. Hmm, let me just grab a quick lottery ticket...