I admit it, I have been procrastinating. I just couldn’t make myself sit down and start writing about my ill-fated week in Bora Bora.
There’s just something about surviving a tropical cyclone on a tiny dot of sand in the South Pacific that gives you pause.
Paradise? Not exactly.
Last year, I visited Moorea on Round-the-World #4 and fell head over heels in love with the lush island encircled by a magnificent azure lagoon. So in love, in fact, that I confidently proclaimed it “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
And hey, I’ve seen a lot of places.
So, you can imagine how excited I was about my upcoming trip to Bora Bora on Round-the-World #5 this year. After all, I’ve heard Bora Bora is even better than Moorea.
But, as is often the case, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
But first, let’s talk about French Polynesia
French Polynesia is made up of a number of islands, the most famous of which are Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea.
All international flights arrive in the city of Papeete on the main island of Tahiti and inter-island flights go out from there. With the timing of international flight arrivals and departures, it’s often necessary to spend your first or last night on Tahiti before transferring to Bora Bora or Moorea.
After a fantastic few days exploring New Caledonia, my 6-hour flight from Noumea to Papeete, is as wonderful as a 6-hour coach flight can be. The flight isn’t full and I even scored an entire row of five seats to myself…heaven!
Read More: Paris in the Pacific: Bonjour! New Caledonia
We land in Papeete at dusk to a pounding rain.
On my last visit to Tahiti, I stayed at a resort hotel for my one night layover before catching the ferry to Moorea. This time, I decided to spend my two un-avoidable nights on the island of Tahiti (first and last night of the trip) in downtown Papeete.
Though Papeete is mostly uninspiring, it’s close to the airport and offers more local food options and shops.
My stay in Tahiti is truly just a stopover, Bora Bora is the main event.
Where to stay in Papeete
For my stay in Papeete, I have humble needs – cheap, clean, and functional. After exhaustive research, I settled on the Hotel Tiare. The Trip Advisor reviews were mixed but it seemed to be the best budget choice in the area.
And at $140/night, it’s just about the cheapest thing in town. How bad could it be?
Well, turns out, not great. Certainly not horrible but definitely bare bones. I’m pleased that the room does have a nice-sized balcony. I’m sure it has a lovely view of the harbor if only it wasn’t monsoon season outside.
Needless to say, it’s a less than glamorous start to my 8 nights in Tahiti. But I don’t care because I am ridiculously excited about my morning flight to Bora Bora.
I had an OK night of sleep. On the plus side, the front desk clerk is super friendly and helpful. All in all, I think it’s a solid budget option in a town with very few choices.
Why travel light to Bora Bora?
There is, however, one big plus to staying at Hotel Tiare both before and after Bora Bora. They are kind enough to allow me to store a bag with them so I can lighten my load a bit for my 6 nights in Bora Bora.
This is especially crucial because the Air Tahiti flights have extremely low baggage limits due to the weight restrictions for their aircraft.
The inter-island flights are rarely full because they have to carefully balance the flight loads between people and luggage. This is due to the extremely short length of the runways on the smaller islands.
For example, Bora Bora is one of the many islands with an airport on an outer “motu” or small atoll surrounding the main island.
The bottom line: If you plan to go to Bora Bora, you better pack light.
Even my small carry-on size bag would have weighed too much if I hadn’t taken 1/3 of the stuff out of it and left it at the Tiare.
When I get to the airport, I discover my flight is delayed due to the continuing lousy weather. I start to wonder if this rain is ever going to stop (little did I know).
Flying to Bora Bora
We finally get in the air and as we approach Bora Bora 40 minutes later, I realize I’m going to miss out on one of the most exciting parts of coming to Bora Bora…flying over the stunning lagoons on approach to landing on the motu.
The approach to Bora Bora is perhaps second only to the incredible seaplane flight to reach the resorts in the Maldives. It’s Bucket List worthy for sure!
The rain is still pounding and the water is dark and murky. But it’s still quite an exciting approach to fly over all of the motus with their overwater bungalows dotting the lagoon. I bet it would be truly amazing with the sun out.
Since the airport is on a motu, Air Tahiti provides a convenient free shuttle boat to the main town of Viatape. This is quite possibly the only free thing in the entire island chain. So if you come here don’t forget to enjoy it.
My hotel for the first two nights is the Novotel, located on the main island. I take advantage of the free shuttle and head into town figuring I can get a cab or bus from there to the hotel.
When the boat docks there is a driver waiting with a Novotel sign. I hadn’t given the hotel my flight arrival information I’m happily surprised to see him.
Hotel #1 – Novotel Bora Bora
The driver is an “independent contractor” working for the Novotel so I’m able to cut a deal with him for 500xfp or only about $6. Not too shabby! Cheapest Tahiti transportation ever. (The Novotel’s boat transfer fee was $60 if I had booked it.)
It’s a short 10-15 minute ride around the island to the hotel and as I checked in the rain is still unrelenting.
The Novotel is my budget hotel choice for my stay on the island. With six nights on Bora Bora, my budget won’t allow for $600/night hotels the whole time (and that’s what they all are on this island, at a minimum).
The Novotel shares a beautiful beach with the more expensive Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Resort property next door. The lobby, restaurant, bar, and pool are all right on the beach and the rooms are across the street surrounding a garden.
A decent budget hotel in Bora Bora? It’s a miracle!
2020 Update: Sadly, the Novotel has closed down since my visit. For a decent budget option on Bora Bora, try the Maitai Bora Bora instead. It’s located in the same area and their lovely garden bungalows are one of the few good bargains on the island.
A Bora Bora rain delay…
Unfortunately, for my next miracle, I will need to master walking on water if I want to leave my hotel room. The rain continues unabated for my entire two-day stay at the Novotel, leaving limited options for getting out of the hotel.
I do take advantage of a local pearl farm’s free offer of a ride into town. They pick up guests and bring them to the store to learn about Tahitian black pearls (and of course shop a little – though I don’t buy anything).
It’s a nice way to pass an hour or two and it gets me a free ride into the main town of Viatape where I even find a cafe with good, reasonably-priced food and cheap wifi.
Hotel #2 – Le Meridien Bora Bora
My next hotel for nights #3 and #4 is Le Merdien Bora Bora. This hotel is my splurge for the trip.
Like most of Bora Bora’s resorts, it’s located on its own private motu so the only way to get there is by boat.
I don’t know if any of you have ever arrived at your hotel by boat but I must say, it’s a pretty awesome experience.
The rain has finally let up by day three, though the clouds persist. As the boat passes by the Meridien’s outer overwater bungalows and dock near the white-sand beach, I am speechless.
What an absolutely gorgeous place.
The Le Meridien Bora Bora Sea Turtle Sanctuary
The main reason I chose Le Meridien Bora Bora and splurged on two nights here is the resort’s Sea Turtle Sanctuary.
One of only a few of its kind in the world (and the only one on Bora Bora) the Meridien’s inner lagoon allows guests to learn about and swim with these beautiful creatures.
I am dying to do this.
Unfortunately, in addition to the weather, the sea turtle experience turns out to be another bummer. Due to the weather (curses!) all the turtles have been corralled for safe-keeping within the lagoon.
Safe in their pens instead of loose in the lagoon to frolic with the likes of tourists like me. Something about it being dangerous with rising sea levels for them to escape into the outer lagoon and then into the ocean. Totally understandable (safety first!), but disappointing nonetheless.
Luckily, I’m still able to attend their daily feedings and learn about the sea turtles from the director of the program. So it’s certainly not a total loss!
All of the turtles in the Meridien sanctuary are under three years old and too young to be released into the wild. When they reach an appropriate age they are tagged and released into the Pacific, free to roam where they like.
A dream overwater bungalow
On the plus side, my overwater bungalow at the Meridien is completely wonderful and has stunning views of Bora Bora’s famous Mt. Otemanu.
There’s a bottle of champagne waiting and a wide viewing window in the floor (known locally as “Tahitian Television“).
Weather be damned, I think I can get used to this bungalow life!
I spend my two days at the Le Meridien relaxing outside my bungalow, enjoying the lagoon, and learning about the turtles at their daily feedings.
Hotel #3 – Conrad Bora Bora Nui
On Day #5, it’s time to move over to my final hotel for the week, the Conrad Bora Bora Nui Resort.
Note: At the time of my stay, this property was the Hilton Bora Bora Nui, it has since changed names to the Conrad Bora Bora.
Cyclone season in Bora Bora
It’s at this point in my story that I should mention that February (the month of my visit) is historically cyclone season in the South Pacific. But cyclones are rare and this is the only time of year I can visit, so I went for it anyway.
However, for the past 24-hours, I’ve heard increasingly worrying rumors of a tropical cyclone developing strength and heading our way.
Information on the island is limited, but thanks to internet access (and a little help from my Dad back home) I’ve been keeping an eye on the storm myself. It’s too early to tell where, when, or if it will make landfall but I am seriously considering taking an early flight back to Papeete and scrapping my final two days.
I’m not worried about danger from the storm exactly. But I am worried about getting stuck on the island, missing my next flight, and screwing up the remainder of my Round-the-World itinerary.
When I first arrived on Bora Bora, there were warnings issued for Tropical Cyclone Nisha. Luckily, on my 2nd day here it took an easterly turn away from Bora Bora and all is well.
I would not be so lucky with Tropical Cyclone Oli.
Tropical Cyclone due diligence
Before checking out at the Meridien, I spoke to the General Manager and asked him what they are advising guests to do. He assured me that the cyclone is being monitored by the hotels via the Tahitian government authorities and that for the moment, they are not advising any evacuation of the island.
It is a “wait and see” approach.
Later that day I go into Viatape and ask the same question at the local tourism office. Their response is more reassuring. I’m told that when the islands get bad storms, the airline will often call guests at their hotel (it’s a tiny island) and advise them that their flight has been moved up a day due to approaching bad weather.
Apparently, this is common.
Reassured, but still not 100% convinced, I also query the Conrad’s Front Desk Manager before I check-in. “Should I be trying to get out now,” I ask, “or do they expect this cyclone to miss us?”
For a 3rd time that day, I am again informed that if the situation becomes serious, the hotel will keep us informed. They are not advising guests to leave the island.
So, I check in to the Conrad and spent the remainder of the partly sunny day enjoying another fantastic overwater bungalow and a dip in the lagoon from my private dock.
Had I known it would be the last bit of Bora Bora I would get to enjoy, I would have savored it a little more.
Tropical Cyclone Oli
This morning at 7:30am I am jarred out of the kind of sound sleep that can only be achieved in a South Pacific overwater bungalow. The phone next to the bed (which I hadn’t noticed until now) is ringing insistently.
It’s the hotel manager. “We are evacuating the overwater bungalows,” he says, “and are moving you to a hillside bungalow. You have 30 minutes to pack”.
There are a lot of ways to be woken up in the morning, this one is not high on my list.
I walk outside on my deck to see what all the fuss is about; I mean, for once, it isn’t even raining. Very windy, sure, but no rain.
Then I notice that the swim deck at the end of the stairs going down from my upper deck is almost completely submerged. Yesterday there was about 3 ft between platform and water.
Alright, fine, I’m packing.
I shower and pack hastily. 30 minutes later a bellman in a golf cart pulls up outside to deliver me to 5-star luxury on higher ground.
On the ride, I notice hotel employees everywhere are busily boarding up windows and moving furniture inside. Including all the windows & deck furniture on every guest bungalows.
Clearly, yesterday’s casual “wait and see” approach has been upgraded.
We arrive at my new bungalow and it’s a twin of the one I’ve been enjoying in the lagoon but with an excellent panoramic view. As far as cyclone shelters go, this one seems like a winner.
As long as I still have A/C and internet, I could stay here forever.
Lockdown in paradise
After the bellman leaves, I realize he didn’t leave me a key to my new room. I call the front desk to request one and am told (by a hesitant front desk clerk) that the hotel advises all guests to please remain in their bungalows until further notice.
I ask, “Does that mean you won’t give me a key to my room?” The response gives me pause, “that is correct, Madam.”
Swell. I’m a prisoner in paradise. I guess there are worse things.
She further advises that the hotel will be delivering food and water to the bungalows for as long as the “lockdown” lasts.
Ok, fine. I hunker down and make the best of the situation.
After all, I am in a gorgeous bungalow in Bora Bora.
I spend a few hours online working and e-mailing family and friends with updates. I’m actually starting to enjoy my little 5-star storm shelter.
And then around noon, the power goes out. The situation spirals rapidly downhill from there.
I call the front desk to inquire as to whether the whole resort has lost power or is it just me? After all, it still hasn’t even rained much. It seems a little early for power failure.
The manager says most of the property still has power but they are now evacuating everyone to the spa situated at the very top of the hill. (I later learn that the hotel cut power to the bungalows on purpose to force everyone to evacuate).
I am to report to the spa right away and they will provide us with further information once everyone is together.
Forced to abandon my solitude, it looks like I’ll be waiting this thing out with the rest of the hotel’s guests.
I gather the essentials (laptop, cell phone, camera, passport, book to read, etc.), throw it in my backpack, and make my way up the hill to join the rest of the nervous-looking guests.
Our storm shelter
Within the confines of the spa, the gym is a single room that barely exceeds the approximate square footage of my bungalow. It’s been cleared out and outfitted as a make-shift shelter.
The floor is covered wall to wall with bare mattresses. The hotel front desk manager is handing out towels and sheets for the mattresses at the door. She explains that we all need to share the mattresses because there will be 80 other people in the room.
In this room? I think to myself.
I count 12 mattresses, a mix of singles and kings.
Yes, it seems I will get to know my fellow guests very well by the time this is all over.
When I arrive, there are only about 10 other people in the room already making up their mattresses. They are all American and two are even from Atlanta (my hometown). We get to chatting about what a great story this will make when we all finally get home.
Assuming we didn’t get blown off the top of this hill, of course (cue nervous laughter).
The small room fills quickly as the remainder of the hotel’s sun-burned and disenchanted guests file in, each taking up residence on a spot of mattress. Though we still have power, the A/C is not up to the challenge.
Within an hour the room is stifling and lousy with flies.
The hotel manager, Karine, goes down a list taking attendance to make sure everyone is accounted for. Then she proceeds to give an update on the weather situation.
Here comes the storm…
Tropical Cyclone Oli will pass just to our west in the next few hours and the situation on the island is expected to get serious.
Karine says she has no idea how long we will be stuck here but they will continue to provide food and water and try to make us as comfortable as possible.
She warns it is possible we’ll be spending the night in here (which at only noon seems an absurd possibility).
And then, we wait
Hour after hour drags by with no sign of relief.
The gym is an interior room downstairs in the spa building. Everything upstairs is boarded up tight so we can’t even hear what’s going on outside.
I just pray we will not be forced to spend the night in this sweltering room.
The make-up of the 80 guests in the room is about 50% Japanese with the other 50% split between Europeans and Americans. The American group bonds quickly – Randy and Autumn from Atlanta, Craig and Kathy from Kansas and a few others.
Craig requests fans for the room to help fight the oppressive heat and the hotel produces two tiny stand-up fans. It’s about as helpful as dropping an ice cube into a pot of boiling water but at least it’s a start.
Dinner is served, sort of
After 7 hours in lockdown with no end in sight, they announce it’s time for dinner.
Finally! We haven’t eaten since around noon when they brought lunch (a small sandwich & salad) to our bungalows. We are starving and in desperate need of a distraction.
Karine explains that the two options for dinner will be ravioli (from a can that she holds up) or ramen noodles and she will now begin heating them up. Her dinner menu is greeted with a universal groan from around the room.
But we all make the best of it (again). What else can we do? Dinner is served as flies continue to buzz around the room.
The world’s slowest cyclone
Unfortunately for us, Oli proves to be one of the slowest moving cyclones ever, advancing at a leaden pace of only 12 miles per hour.
For the first few hours of captivity, Karine allows us to escape the stuffiness of the gym by standing just outside the door to the spa for some fresh air.
It’s far more pleasant out there even while getting pelted with rain and dirt (which should tell you something about the conditions inside). So that’s where our little group spends most of the next few hours.
Right at the entrance to the spa, there is a single, large palm tree that has been swaying with the winds throughout the afternoon. Around 8:00pm, as we are all standing outside chatting and watching the storm, the wind picks up in intensity knocking us off balance.
It’s enough to unnerve us and we head back inside the shelter.
The next time we crack the door to look out, the huge palm is on the ground exactly where we were just standing. Needless to say, after that, all field trips are canceled and it’s back to the fly-infested oven.
Is the end in sight?
By midnight, the storm has settled a bit and the natives are getting restless after 12 hours in captivity.
Several guests make repeated requests for something cold to drink but are denied at every turn by a stern-faced Karine.
Some are beginning to demand to return to their rooms. But none of us have keys, so we have nowhere to go until they agree to release us.
Karine explains that we are waiting on a government minister in Papeete to give the OK for the hotels to release guests back to their rooms.
Adding to our frustration, it becomes obvious that the hotel staff are hunkered down in a separate shelter somewhere, clearly having more fun than we are.
Staff members in a golf cart regularly come up the hill to chat with Karine. They are all laughing and carrying on…with sodas in their hands!
Sodas that we, the paying guests, are being denied. Can they really not use one of those golf carts runs to bring up a case of beer or soda to at least make us all a little more comfortable?
The lockdown continues…
Several hours pass and we are all growing despondent. Luckily, the spa never loses power or cable so we are able to monitor the storm about once an hour when CNN International does an update.
This is crucial since by now the hotel is giving us no information at all. They continue to say they have no idea how much longer we’ll be here.
By 4:00am, we are all exhausted and getting more restless by the hour (sleep is impossible since we are 12 to a mattress). According to CNN the storm is well past us and moving south toward the island of Tahiti.
There are still bands with strong winds passing over us, but the worst is over.
We can’t understand why they won’t release us. The whole room is nearly ready to revolt.
Finally, the call comes from the minister granting our release. Hooray!!
Karine whips out a small basket containing all of our key packets and begins to distribute them. She wants us to wait for them to take each group back to our room in the hotel golf cart.
But that would take hours so most of us elect to go it alone and make the walk.
My hillside villa isn’t far down the hill from the spa so I make it back easily. Though I do have to use my cell phone for light to navigate sidewalks with downed trees and palm fronds.
But at this point I will gladly navigate the Sahara desert to get back to my room.
Miraculously, the power is back on in all of the villas so when I get back to my room I jump immediately into the shower.
It’s the best shower I’ve had since the end of my 18-hour stint in India on Round-the-World #1.
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Next, I raid the mini bar of the two Hinano Tahitian beers and finally sit down to my computer to e-mail my family and let them know I’m OK.
It was 5:00am by this time…17 hours of misery in paradise.
The Aftermath of Cyclone Oli
I try to get a little sleep but the sun is just now beginning to rise. I’m anxious to get outside and see what the storm has left behind.
The gorgeous resort has clearly suffered substantial damage (the General Manager later estimates it at $5 million). Downed trees are everywhere, some landing just inches from bungalows.
Many of the resort’s sidewalks are underwater making it difficult to get around. Swim decks have snapped off many of the overwater bungalows due to rising waters.
The lobby suffered the most damage with a few holes in the roof and damage to the boat docks. Rumors abound that the hotel on the other side of our motu lost two entire overwater bungalows in the storm.
The clean-up plan
When I make it to the restaurant for breakfast, Karine informs me that there would be no flights and no boats for the day. The airport in Papeete is closed down until the storm has passed that island as well.
The hotel staff will do their best to provide limited services for the day. There will be no maid service or room service but they will try to come by with fresh towels at some point.
The few staff that remained on the motu during the storm will be focusing on clean-up and making sure the grounds are safe.
And now, how to get out of paradise?
After breakfast, I reunite with my American friends who are gathered at the pool re-hashing last night’s excitement. They are also combining resources to get off the island in time for our impending international flights.
Kathy and Craig have the biggest issue since they are scheduled on a flight back to LA tonight. My Air France flight isn’t until tomorrow morning but it’s not looking good for me either.
Just about the time we’d all given up hope and made peace with the fact that we are going to be spending another night here, Karine comes running up to the pool. She’s waving a list of names and shouting that a boat is on the way to take us to the airport.
Air Tahiti has managed to scramble one plane from another island and it is arriving within the hour. We have 15 minutes to pack and get our bags down to the hotel dock if we want a chance at that flight.
We drop our beers and run at a full sprint for our bungalows.
The only flight out of Bora Bora
There were a few people scheduled to leave yesterday, PLUS those of us who are scheduled to leave today, so seats on that flight will surely be at a premium.
Within minutes we are back to the main dock and going thru the checkout process at a table with a cash box substituting for the damaged front desk.
About 50 of us (more than half of the hotel guests) are rushed onto the Hilton boat. After a very rough 30-minute ride, we dock at the airport. As we disembark and grab our luggage, boats from the other hotels are approaching right on our heels.
Craig and Kathy are also on the boat with me. When we realize how many boats are pulling up to try to get on this flight, we again put on our sprinting shoes and literally run to the check-in line.
Will we make this flight?
There is no one from Air Tahiti behind the desk yet but as we wait the line quickly swells.
Tensions are rising in the airport as the people toward the back of the line do the math. Everyone knows there is only one airplane coming and it isn’t exactly going to be a 747.
About an hour after we arrive, the small Air Tahiti plane finally touches down on the motu and they begin checking people in. Craig, Kathy, and I don’t relax until we all have boarding passes in our hands.
Once we do, we buy a round of Hinano beers from the stand in the terminal and sit outside on the dock to celebrate.
Evacuation conditions at the other resorts
While we wait, we strike up conversations with other passengers and begin an unscientific poll about everyone’s evacuation experience.
Judging from our results, those of us at the Conrad got the shaft.
Guests of other hotels reported free wi-fi (one hotel evacuated everyone to their business center), decent food, their own mattresses (oh, the luxury!) and even…cocktails!
At least some were able to make a bit of a party out of the cyclone experience.
The only thing we had going over everyone else is that most of them spent the whole night in lockdown and weren’t released until almost 9:00am (4 hours longer than us).
This is likely because they were all sleeping soundly instead of plotting an overthrow.
The flight back to Tahiti
It takes nearly two hours for the airline to sort out who gets the 100 or so seats on the only flight out. But eventually, we board just as the sun is setting over Polynesian paradise.
Things are looking up but I’m still a little concerned about my Air France flight to LAX tomorrow morning. What if Air France doesn’t send one of their big, fancy planes to an island just coming up for air after a cyclone?
After takeoff, I chat up my French seat-mate, Marc, who relays his evacuation experience at the Sofitel (they were evacuated to the guest rooms at the Novotel next door and were allowed to stay in their individual rooms!).
I share my concern about whether my flight to LA will still leave tomorrow morning. He asks, “You are on the Air France flight to LAX tomorrow?” When I say yes, he looks at me with a broad, knowing smile and responds in his thick French accent, “Oh, I can assure you it will be on-time…I am your pilot.”
What a hysterical coincidence! Marc was on a layover in Tahiti and decided to hop on over to Bora Bora for a few days of R&R…big mistake! Guess I am lucky he made it on this flight, too.
Safely back in Papeete
When we land in Papeete the rain is still coming down hard. I catch a cab back to the Hotel Tiare hoping they will still have a room for me. When I thought I was stuck on Bora Bora for another night I e-mailed to cancel my reservation for tonight.
Luckily, they d0 and the bag I left a week ago is waiting for me behind the front desk right where I left it. This time my room is much larger and nicer, which was a lovely surprise after a stressful day.
After a shower, I set three alarms (taking NO chances on missing my flight) and fall into bed.
The next morning as I board the plane, Marc is waiting at the top of the stairs to greet me decked out in full pilot regalia. As I settle into my seat, I am overjoyed at the prospect of finally escaping paradise.
Time to move on to the final stop on this round-the-world trip – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico – and put this entire experience behind me.
Memories of Bora Bora
There were, of course, a few good hours in my Bora Bora experience. And for now, this is how I’d like to remember it…
A big thank you to those back in the States who helped me during and after the storm. My Dad for staying on top of the weather situation (you’d be amazed how hard it is to get good weather info for Bora Bora) and texting me updates.
And thanks to everyone for your concern. I have never been so happy to be leaving paradise.
And now it’s time to get this vacation back on track with a little whale-watching in Mexico.
This weary globetrotter is in dire need of a margarita and a taco. Stat.
Next stop, Cabo!
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