The hotel was Bora's first, and it has one of the best locations on the island. Mature coral heads draw an array of fish. I sneaked into the hotel grounds the last time I was here and snorkeled off the powdery white beach. I couldn't afford the room rates then, and with the nightly fee now starting at $675, I chose a thriftier alternative.

I introduced myself and took a tour with Bianca Henry, global sales manager. We walked through lush grounds, fed puffer fish and needlefish from a small dock and peeked in on a couple of the bungalows that sit on stilts over the water, an island trademark. The Tahitian-style thatched-roof suites made their debut at the Hotel Bora Bora more than 30 years ago. Now, nearly every hotel here has them.

In most of the hotel bungalows, you can watch the fish and even feed them through a small glass opening beneath the living room coffee table. And when you're ready to join the fish, all the bungalows have decks and stairs that lead to the lagoon so you can take a dip.

As we crossed one of the decks, I paused by the stairs. I could see fish flashing in the midmorning sunlight.

"Would you like to go in?" Henry asked. I sighed. "No, just looking," I said, responding as though I were shopping for socks instead of peering into water so clear I could see to the bottom of the lagoon.

Our little tour moved on. Henry showed me around a tidy suite. Unlike the newer hotels, the Bora Bora doesn't have TVs (although you can have one brought to your room). The exclusion is purposeful. "Our guests want to get away from those kind of distractions," Henry said. "They want tranquillity."

'Not a question of money'

Bora-Bora is 160 miles northeast of Tahiti, a 50-minute hop on the island carrier Air Tahiti. From the air, as from the ground, it is dazzling. Two towering peaks of black rock soar nearly half a mile above the six-mile-long island; the lagoon, a barrier reef and myriad islets, called motu, surround it.

A morning sail on these waters is a gift from the sea gods. Or, in this case, Richard Postma — "Capt. Rick" to those who have sailed with him. I now count myself part of that group, which includes Danny DeVito, Tommy Lee, Rob Lowe and Brosnan.

Postma's 50-foot catamaran Tara-vana is rigged for trolling, so sailors can pretend to be sport fishing instead of just enjoying a sublime day.

The captain isn't interested in large-group outings. He's into private charters with people who can pay the freight: $1,200 for a half-day sail, $1,500 for a full day or $3,650 for an overnighter. "With these people," he said, "it's not a question of money. It's a question of quality time. I give them good memories."

My two-hour trip convinced me of this wisdom. A light wind filled the sails, billowing white clouds rolled across a blue sky and sea birds wheeled in the currents overhead as the sea slid under our bow.

"This place is ideally situated on the planet," said Postma, a U.S. expat who left it all behind 35 years ago for life in French Polynesia. "It's the place everyone wants to be.

"Yes, I had to give some things up, like football games. But it was worth it."

He worries a bit about the changes he sees in the island. Is development spoiling it? He avoided the question. "Developers will find anywhere that's beautiful and put something there," he said.

Some islanders aren't as philosophical. Patrick Tairua, a Tahitian guide and historian, fears continued growth.

"The hotels need more water than the island can provide," he said. "And there's more trash than we know what to do with."

I asked French Polynesia President Gaston Tong-Sang about these problems. By e-mail, he replied that the government is considering calling for a hiatus after the next hotel opens. (A Four Seasons, now under construction on a motu, is scheduled to open next year.)

Tong-Sang, who is also mayor of Bora-Bora, said the new developments had brought benefits. The availability of jobs has kept families from moving away, and, "thanks to these hotels, we managed to finance and build a water treatment network that protects our lagoons. We have one of the most protected lagoons in the world."

Pampering the guests