One of Bora Bora’s most popular activities is a lagoon excursion, a day-long event which usually includes a picnic, snorkeling, ray and shark feeding, and plenty of beach time. If you’re lucky, your guide will bring along a ukulele for some live music and a festive vibe. The food can vary but generally includes poisson cru (a raw fish salad), grilled fish, rice, chicken, and a pasta or rice salad. With a good guide and a good group, you’ll feel like a mobile beach party on the most beautiful waters in the world. There are plenty of companies offering this excursion; try Pure Snorkeling By Reef Discovery or Lagoon Service.
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Let rhythm claim your soul at the Heiva Festival
The Heiva song and dance festivals and competitions take place all around French Polynesia between June and August; Bora Bora’s is the second largest after Tahiti. These celebrations of traditional performing arts and sports are some of the greatest shows on Earth. Among flamboyant sets and dressed in costumes of flowers, greenery, shells, and colorful fabrics, lithe female dancers shake their hips in a fast blur while muscular men waggle their knees; drum orchestras tap out primal, complex rhythms and vocalists sing together to create astounding harmonies.
Marae are ancient, open-air Polynesian temples built for religious purposes ranging from prayer to sacrifice. Bora Bora has less marae than many of its island sisters, and those that survive are quite humble, but you can still visit a handful of these eerily beautiful sites. Top choices are Faanui Bay’s Marae Fare-Opu, with its turtle petroglyphs; Marae Taianapa, also on the coast road of Faanui Bay; and a coastal marae just south of the ferry quay in Farepiti. Some are on private property, so be respectful and admire the fern-covered, coral slab structures from a distance.
Mahi mahi in vanilla sauce, lagoon fish in garlic butter or slathered in a Roquefort cream, fresh lobster and prawns—such seafood specialties await you at Bora Bora’s fine restaurants. But the dish you really have to try can be found on every menu, including at the most humble roadside stalls: poisson cru, which is French for “raw fish." Poisson cru is much like ceviche—chunks of fresh, raw tuna are slightly cooked by the acid of a lime juice marinade, doused in coconut cream, and mixed with vegetables to create an indescribably cooling and delicious salad. Eat it with a traditional side of white rice.
Around 60 outrigger canoe teams compete in the Hawaiki Nui Canoe Race each November, and at the end of the grueling 116 kilometer paddle, they all congregate on Bora Bora’s Matira Beach. This is French Polynesia’s biggest sporting event, so the buzz and fanfare at the final is beyond compare. Expect plenty of colorful canoes, bronzed, muscled men, an abundance of flowery wreaths, and days of partying. The race begins in Huahine and over the course of three days passes all the Leeward Islands before reaching Bora Bora. Although most teams come from French Polynesia, some ambitious foreign teams compete as well.
There are a few special snorkeling adventures on Bora Bora that are not to be missed. Most day-long lagoon tour safaris will stop at stingray and black tip reef shark feeding sites where you can stand in shallow, sandy-bottom water and get buzzed by sharks and can feed rays by hand. The critters are drawn in by the tuna scraps thrown in the water by the tour staff and it’s up to debate how disruptive this is to the animals’ behavioral patterns. After all the adrenalin you usually get taken to a beach for a gourmet picnic, sun bathing and more relaxing snorkeling.
Bora Bora must have been one of the best places to be based during World War II, partially because no combat took place on the island. Up to 6,000 American troops at a time were stationed here from 1942–1946 as part of “Operation Bobcat.” The garrison generated romantic stories like Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, and the airstrip built during this period was the country’s first. Few remnants of the Americans' presence remains today—mostly abandoned guns and bunkers—but if you do want to explore what is left you can take a four-wheeler tour, easily organized through your hotel.
While Bora Bora’s beaches and lagoon are nothing short of sublime, it’s worth taking a break from the seaside to check out the island’s interior; you can hire a guide, go solo, or join a four-wheeler tour. The small network of island trails are used by very few people, let alone tourists, and are even quieter than the beaches. Traipse through thick jungle with basalt cliffs to dry, windswept vista points. Some of the island’s peaks are impossible to climb due to the crumbly nature of the terrain, but if you’re in good shape the views from the tough, five-to-six-hour walk up to Mount Ohue and Mount Pahia are well worth the sweat.
For the ultimate view over the island, get hitched to a parachute and dragged in the air like a kite behind a speeding boat. Parasailing is a flight like no other, somehow exhilarating and relaxing at the same time, but is not a sport for those who are afraid of heights—you'll be between 150 and 400 feet up in the sky. This is the perfect height to look out for the best beaches, though you are more likely to be mesmerized by the island's natural beauty. Most parasailing flights last around 15 minutes; book them through your hotel with Bora Bora Parasail.
The island of Bora Bora is peaceful and idyllic, but under the sea there’s a whole new world of tropical beauty and calm—until a lemon shark swims past you. Less adrenalin-inducing but just as majestic are the manta rays often found at the Anau dive site on the island's west side—they come here to get the parasites nibbled off them by fish. Along with the island's coral, there are plenty of colorful fish, eels, black tip reef sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles in the blue depths. Even non-divers should consider taking a first dive—or at least an undersea walk with a weighted helmet, where you don’t even need to know how to swim.
Bora Bora’s giant lagoon is the perfect playground for board sports which don't require waves. Trade winds provide a steady push for kitesurfers, while the reef-protected waters mean a nice, flat surface for the newest island craze: stand-up paddleboarding. People often prefer the standing views compared to the angle you get when sitting in a kayak or canoe. Stand-up paddleboarding is a great workout, so you can feel a bit better about eating, drinking, and lounging for the rest of the day. Many resorts rent or have paddleboards on offer for guests, and you can get lessons from schools like Bora Bora Stand Up Paddle.
Not much beats swimming with sea turtles, but you’ll probably need to spend several hours in the lagoon to have much chance of encountering one in the wild. Otherwise, visit the Marine Turtle Protection Center at Le Meridien Bora Bora. Guests and non-guests alike are welcome to observe—and swim with—growing juveniles and rehabilitating older turtles in a protected lagoon. The most common species are green and hawksbill turtles, which can grow up to three to five feet long. The area also acts as a coral nursery, where the reef can regenerate and thrive.
The main island’s biggest, best, and most popular beach stretches along the Matira Point tourist enclave. It’s long enough that it’s lively in some spots and quiet in others, and it has a fun, friendly vibe—thanks in part to the local beachgoers, who also help to make it a more authentic Polynesian experience. A few little snack restaurants can be found along the beach, serving burgers and poisson cru (a type of raw tuna salad), and the handful of hotels are relatively spread out from each other. The water's sandy bottom is easy on your feet, and the turquoise waters stretching from the perfect white sands are as pretty as you’ll find anywhere.
Bora Bora is a great place to sample a range of seasonal tropical fruits. In general, the widest variety is found between November and March, known traditionally as the “season of abundance.” Mango season happens twice a year around December and again in July. Fruits like bananas and papayas, however, are always available. Whereas the mangoes, pineapples, and pomelos are fantastic, the soursop—a big, prickly green fruit with a tart but sweet white fleshy interior—has one of the most unique flavors. If the tropical delights included in your breakfast buffet are not enough for you, buy more by the kilo at the local fruit stalls in Vaitape or along the side of the road.