By Travel Beyond owner Craig Beal
I have never met a person with a passport that does not dream of an over-the-water-bungalow (OWB) trip. The OWB is depicted in those iconic travel photos of a romantic hotel room built on a platform over turquois blue water usually on the Society Islands, Fiji, or the Maldives (or the Grand Floridian in Orlando)! Last month, Kay and I celebrated our 20th anniversary at the Four Seasons on Bora Bora in an OWB. I finally redeemed myself for having my credit card declined at Disney World in 1994 on my honeymoon (for exceeding my $600 limit). Even at the age of 23, I had a back-up plan; we went back to our hotel and sat through a time share presentation to get a free ticket to Sea World instead.
Getting to the Society Islands is easy from anywhere in the USA. It is three hours further than Hawaii. There are daily overnight flights on Air Tahiti Nui and several flights per week on Air France both departing from Los Angeles. The main airport is Papeete (PPT) on the island of Tahiti and from there you usually take a plane to the other Society Islands including Moorea, Taha’a and Bora Bora, or a 20 minute private plane to The Brando, a luxury resort on Tetiaroa Island. The flight from Papeete to Bora Bora (BOB) is 45 minutes. The port side of the plane offers views of all the islands and there are no assigned seats so board early! The BOB airport is located on an island, meaning each of the eight OWB properties have their own boat to pick-up guests. The boat ride to the Four Seasons is 15 minutes.
OWB properties are usually not built over the open ocean but instead over lagoons. Bora Bora’s main island is the peak of an ancient volcano with a ring of land around the island that was the rim of the volcano. The western side of the rim is breached and shallow water filled much of the caldera. Six of the eight OWB properties are on the east side of the island. Four of the six are on Motu Pitiaau (an island created on the former east side rim) and two on the Bora Bora main island. Two more are on their own islands on the east side of Bora Bora. All the OWB properties are actually anchored into the ground on the caldera.
The Four Seasons, St. Regis, Le Meridian, and Intercontinental Thalasso are on the Motu Pitiaau east side rim in a line north to south with a few hundred yards between each resort. I visited the St. Regis and I rented a WaveRunner and drove around the island to see the other six OWB properties from the water. The Intercontinental Le Moana and Sofitel are on the main island but the OWB rooms are over the east side lagoon and face the aforementioned four properties. The Hilton and Bora Bora Pearl are on their own islands on the west side of Bora Bora. They are all fantastic!
Each property is unique and different. Some of the differences in price are due to the brand strength and the material quality of the room itself along with the amenities and other hotel services. The Four Seasons and St. Regis are generally the most expensive. The Pearl and the Hilton are the only properties from which you cannot see another OWB resort – a plus for privacy. The Hilton faces due south so it is the only place where you see open-ocean. The two properties on the island are often the least expensive. In my opinion there is not a significant difference in the view or water experience at the properties.
I was not prepared to be so relaxed. The release of stress on arrival was actually exhausting and mildly intoxicating in its effect on my mind. We spent 12 of the first 18 hours sleeping and the next two days sleeping more, paddle boarding, snorkeling, exercising, swimming, relaxing and eating fine foods. We watched the sunset over the island and enjoyed walks. We spent plenty of time on our private deck enjoying what felt like the perfect temperature (for those wondering, the OWB decks are not completely private, meaning you will be within plain sight of someone on the land or water). Every 30 minutes or so I would go in our private plunge pool or simply dive off our deck into the ocean to wash off the lightest beads of sweat. I had a new playlist and Southern Cross was our song of the trip as we spent an evening laying on the deck watching the stars and listening to music with a fine bottle of Bordeaux from the duty free shop a PPT and another bottle from a friend that surprised us with a gift on our trip.
After three days at the Four Seasons, we finished our trip with a seven day cruise around the Society Islands on the Paul Gauguin luxury adventure ship. I have been interested in this cruise since I joined the industry as the ship used to be owned by Carlson Companies in Minneapolis and was heavily marketed around our home office. From Bora Bora we flew back to Papeete (PPT) in the afternoon and took a cab ten minutes to the pier and boarded the ship. The seven day Society Island cruise is the Paul Gauguin’s bread-and-butter itinerary.
The ship is a floating luxury resort with a full service water marina that opens out of an aft bay door when the ship is at anchor. The ship generally repositions itself at night so you wake up each morning anchored at a new and exotic tropical Society Island. The cabins are similar in quality to a Silversea cabin but generally 1/3 smaller with the area savings from the living room portion. We had a balcony that we used to store our snorkel gear which each guests checks-out upon embarkations and keeps for the duration of the cruise.
Each island and each day is a new opportunity to explore (or not). Most mornings and afternoons offer snorkeling excursions, SCUBA diving, hiking or more relaxed bus touring around the various islands. Guests that want to stay onboard can kayak, windsurf, or paddle board off the back of the ship from the “marina”. Those that want to do nothing can do that, too! Our cruise went to Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora (again), and Moorea. The cruise line also offers trips to other island chains of French Polynesia and even a Fiji cruise once per year. Our favorite shore excursion was the stingray ballet on Bora Bora.
The cruise is all-inclusive and the food was marginally better than the Four Seasons. The seven included house reds were from California and Bordeaux and all were fine! After our time on Bora Bora we were ready to be around people again and we made many new friends. It really is a small world as we ran into a couple that we met on a sunset cruise at Victoria Falls in 2011. The guests were 60% American with the rest mostly from Europe and a few South Americans.
It is hard to compare the Paul Gauguin to any other travel experience, but if you have traveled the world, think of it like one of the newer Lindblad National Geographic Galapagos ships operating in Hawaii. Their low season 2015 prices start at $5,045 for a porthole cabin including coach class air from Los Angeles. The most popular time to go is June-August with strong shoulders in April, May, September, and October. November is supposed to usher in the rainy season and we had one short shower on our last afternoon. The Frenchman that owns the ship also owns the Intercontinental hotels throughout the Society Islands so there are some special offers on pre/post extensions to their various OWB properties. The ship would be ideal for families with kids age 5-18 that can swim. If you extend a trip with kids I recommend the Intercontinental OWB property on Moorea as they have a swim with dolphin activity and sea turtle program.