A dream landscape emerged as our dinghy sped through turquoise waters toward the uninhabited South Seas islet of Tapu. Here, on a triangular speck of sand and coconut palms at the bottom of the world, red hibiscus, white gardenia and yellow plumeria blossoms were strewn on the water at land's edge. As we stepped from the boat, a sommelier offered flutes bubbling with Dom Perignon. Behind him, china and crystal sparkled on a dining table positioned in shallow water at the edge of the lagoon. A French sous-chef, wearing a tall white toque, worked nearby, partly hidden behind a grill disguised by palm fronds.
This was my second trip to Bora-Bora, a stunning slice of French Polynesia once treasured nearly as much for its slow pace as for its scenery. But life here has begun to speed up. In the last year, two ultra-luxurious hotels have sprouted, with another on the way, all designed to lure the world's most affluent travelers to this fabled South Pacific island.
Some residents worry that continued growth and development will spoil their Shangri-La; some say it already has. Regardless, it has changed the island — and the quality of its tourist facilities. Hotels, both old and new, are scrambling to outshine one another by offering the finest facilities, food and service. But the pampering and the plushness come at a price. To wit:
At the St. Regis, which opened last year, you can stay in the 3,400-square-foot bungalows with swimming pools perched over the island's lagoon. The cost: $5,000 a night. Or, for $15,000 a night, you can frolic in the 13,000-square-foot island estate where Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban honeymooned. Or you can slum in the least expensive guest room for a little more than $1,000 a night.
At the new InterContinental resort, rates also begin at more than $1,000 a night. Its special offerings include a wedding chapel suspended over the lagoon, where the bride and groom can "walk on water" while colorful parrotfish, trumpet fish and manta rays glide by under the glass floor. Its über-luxurious Thalasso Spa, a 13,000-square-foot complex, boasts that it has "one of the purest waters on Earth" piped 3,000 feet from the ocean's depths. A 2 1/2-hour honeymoon treatment package for two costs more than $1,000.
The prices are as startling as the level of indulgence. It made me wonder: Had Bora-Bora turned into paradise cubed? Or just a paradise for the rich?
On my first trip to Bora-Bora more than a dozen years ago, I arrived with a friend on his sailboat. The expense of the trip had left us nearly penniless. But the color of the water, from pale turquoise to cobalt blue, electrified me. The coral reefs and fish glowed in a rainbow of colors. At night, we were lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the sea lapping softly against the hull.
The experience was so magical that I became an island addict, collecting visits to the world's atolls and islands the way some people collect visits to the 50 states. Palau, Anguilla, Tonga, the Cook Islands: Been there. But I hadn't returned to French Polynesia. Until now.
Thankfully, the water remains 43 shades of blue, and it took me only a few minutes underwater playing catch-me-if-you-can with a yellow butterfly fish to fall in love all over again with the best-known of Tahiti's sister islands.
But little sister is growing up. Bora is one of French Polynesia's most popular tourist destinations, second only to the main island of Tahiti. When I last visited, Bora-Bora had 100 hotel rooms. Now, there are 1,000. I rarely saw pleasure boats in the lagoon before, but this time, they were plenty of them, along with jet-powered skis and their annoying whine. Where once there had been huge schools of fish, there are now many fewer, a result of overfishing.
Still, the island hasn't become Maui South. No pink high-rises, no sprawl of condos and mini-malls, no snorkeling adventures in intimate groups of 75. And French Polynesian tourism continues to be far different from Hawaii's. In a year's time, Tahiti and its sister islands draw nearly a quarter of a million tourists — about the same number Hawaii draws in 11 days.
The low tourist numbers have allowed Bora to remain the iconic South Pacific Eden that has always lured wealthy travelers. Tropical flowers and vegetation still cloak the valleys and mountainsides, and islanders still set up small roadside stands where they sell pineapples, taro and just-caught wahoo.
More important, the water looks much as it did when author James Michener dubbed the lagoon "the most beautiful in the world." Michener, stationed here during World War II, is said to have used the island as one of the models for the mythical Bali Hai in his book "Tales of the South Pacific."
The island is a French territory, and most natives speak Tahitian and French, but there are enough English speakers to make U.S. tourists feel comfortable. There isn't much in the way of nightlife, and shopping is limited. Visitors must content themselves with water sports, shark- and ray-feeding expeditions and forays into the simple villages on the island.
So, hoteliers emphasize the destination's beauty and tranquillity. They aren't seeking the masses. Tourism officials proudly point out that all of the rooms in Bora-Bora don't equal the number of rooms in Waikiki's Hilton Hawaiian Village alone.
Not all the hotels in Bora-Bora begin at more than $1,000 a night. The 46-year-old Hotel Bora Bora (011-689-604-460, www.amanresorts.com/bora/home.htm) exemplifies beauty of intimacy. With only 54 rooms, this Aman Resort emphasizes its exclusivity — and has a guest list to match. Actor Pierce Brosnan is among the regulars.