Island Hopping: French Polynesia

by Thomas Mizer
French Polynesia Opening Photo

We are in that paradise of the cultural imagination, that far-away land of iridescent blue waters and palm trees and hypnotic fire dances that drove sailors to once-upon-a-time mutinies.

Thomas Mizer


InterContinental Bora Bora French Polynesia

Diving Off Our Bungalow Deck at the InterContinental Bora Bora
Photo: Thomas Mizer

Bora Bora is impossible, appearing out of nowhere like something in an ancient epic poem. Its central island sweeps upward from the ocean, protected by a perfect, ringed reef. A boat ride from the airport is a kaleidoscope of color and light, the water a variety pack of blue crayons melted in the sun. Our arrival at the InterContinental Bora Bora & Thallaso Spa is heralded from the dock by a bronzed god trumpeting on his shell horn. “Where are we?”

We are in honeymoon heaven, and it’s immediately clear why. There is a luxurious romance to everything around us: the sensuously leaning palm trees, the perfume store of flower scents, the spokes of overwater bungalows creating curving walkways perfect for strolling, hand in hand. And we, as a gay couple, feel absolutely comfortable joining in. From the moment we arrived, we’ve noted Mahu, members of the traditional Polynesian third gender, working as front desk staff, servers, and entertainers. From what we can see, they are accepted fully and are valued members of the community.

Kissing or no kissing, we’ve sprung for one of those over-water bungalows here and it is ridiculous, and perfect. Our bathtub sits in a window overlooking the lagoon. Our living room has a glass bottom coffee table to watch the fish below. Our private deck juts out into the lagoon and we sun ourselves on towels that match the color of the water. We swear we may never leave this improbable place.

The trade-off for this luxury romance is that it is expensive. In fact, most everywhere in French Polynesia the food and beverages are eye-poppingly expensive. But we can see how the money is put to use at the Inter-Continental. The grounds are manicured to casual perfection. The service is first rate and a reminder that we are dolts who only speak one language as local waitstaff converse easily in French, English, and their native Tahitian. The spa generously, and at the last minute, moves my appointment to another day where I am treated to a stunning massage on a table that allows me to look down at the fish in a private lagoon. At Le Corail, they pull eclectic vintages from the largest wine cellar in French Polynesia and we take pictures of all the fabulous bottles we’ve tasted to try again at home.

But for all the resort polish of Bora Bora, glimmers of a more homespun life can be found. Fortuitously, we’ve arrived during Bora Bora Heiva 2019, an annual series of traditional singing and dancing competitions. Unlike the pre-packaged hotel shows, this features everyday people representing different districts and celebrating their culture for a largely hometown crowd. It is joyous and rollicking and, when two elderly women are helped to the center of the field only to belt out a duet, it makes us burst into teary applause.

Similarly, the next day we spend on a snorkeling tour with a local charmer named Roman from Lagoon Service Bora Bora ( Roman steers his boat with his knees while playing the ukulele and crooning about his love for Bora Bora. He shares sad tales of his ex who left him for San Diego and introduces us to his new “girlfriends,” the stingrays he feeds by hand in a splashing frenzy. He takes us out beyond the reef and drops us into the ocean to snorkel with dozens of reef sharks. As we float amidst a swarm of black tips, three six-foot lemon sharks rise from 30 feet below us; one stares us down only to swim right by. It is thrilling, gorgeous, and impossible, perfectly Bora Bora.

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