I admit, I have been procrastinating. Couldn’t seem to make myself sit down and start writing about my ill-fated week in Bora Bora. There is 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, when I visited Moorea, I fell head over heels in love with the lagoon-encircled island and confidently proclaimed it “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” And that’s saying a lot, folks. So, you can imagine how excited I was about my upcoming trip to Bora Bora (which I’d heard was even better).
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 – interisland flights go out from there. My 6-hour flight from Noumea to Papeete, Tahiti was as terrific as a 6hr coach flight can be. The flight wasn’t full and I ended up with an entire row of 5 seats to myself…heaven! We landed in Papeete at dusk to a pounding rain.
I had decided to spend my two nights on the island of Tahiti (1st and last night of the trip) in downtown Papeete instead of going out to one of the resort properties. Though Papeete is mostly uninspiring, it’s close to the airport which saves taxi fare and offers more food options. I also wanted to do a little shopping at the huge market in the city before leaving Tahiti. I’d already done a resort hotel on Tahiti the last time I visited so this trip it was just meant to be a stopover. Bora Bora was the main event.
I’d done a little research on Papeete hotels and tried to find something cheap but clean and functional for my brief stays. I decided on the Hotel Tiare. The reviews on Trip Advisor were mixed but that seemed to be the case with all the hotels in the area. At $140/night, it was just about the cheapest thing in town and I figured how bad could it be?
Well, turns out, it wasn’t great. Certainly not horrible but it was definitely bare bones. I was pleased that the room did have a nice sized balcony that I’m sure had a lovely view of the harbor if only it hadn’t been monsoon season outside. Needless to say, it was a less than glamorous start to my 8 nights in Tahiti. But I didn’t care because I was ridiculously excited about my morning flight to Bora Bora. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep but, on the plus side, the front desk clerk was very friendly and helpful and spoke perfect English. All in all, I think a solid budget option in a town with very few choices.
The big plus to staying one night at Hotel Tiare again after Bora Bora was the fact that I could store a bag with them and not have to take everything with me for my 6 nights in Bora Bora. This was especially crucial because the Air Tahiti flights have extremely low baggage limits due to the weight restrictions for their aircraft. These interisland flights are rarely full because they have to carefully balance their flight loads between people and luggage. The reason for this is 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.
So, the bottom line is, 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. My flight was delayed by more than an hour due to the continuing lousy weather. I started to wonder if this rain was ever going to stop (little did I know).
Flying to Bora Bora
We finally got in the air and as we approached Bora Bora 40 minutes later, I realized I was 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 rain was still pounding and the water was dark and murky. It was still quite an exciting approach to fly over all of the other motus with their overwater bungalows dotting the lagoon. I bet it would have been amazing with the sun out.
Since the airport is on a motu, Air Tahiti is kind enough to provide a free boat shuttle 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). Since my hotel for the first two nights, the Novotel, was on the main island, I decided to take advantage of the free shuttle and head into town figuring I could get a cab or bus from there to the hotel. When the boat docked there was a driver waiting with a Novotel sign. I hadn’t given the hotel my flight arrival information I was surprised to see him. But I guess they probably send a driver to meet the airport boat from all 3 flights each day.
Hotel #1 – Novotel Bora Bora
The driver seemed to be an “independent contractor” working for the Novotel so I was 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 would have been $60 if I had arranged for it.) It was a short 10-15 minute ride around the island to the hotel and as I checked in the rain was still unrelenting.
The Novotel was my budget hotel choice for my stay on the island. With 6 nights on Bora Bora, my budget just would not allow $600/night hotels for the whole time (and that’s what they all are on this island, at a minimum). At $120/night, the Novotel was a true steal. I would happily recommend it to anyone planning a holiday in Bora Bora. Spending a night or two there before heading out to one of the more expensive hotels would save hundreds…and trust me, you’ll need that extra cash to be able to eat around here!
Not only was the Novotel a great deal, it totally lived up to the glowing reviews it gets on Trip Advisor. The hotel 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. I had a room on the top (2nd) floor and it was really lovely. Honestly, it didn’t even seem like a budget hotel. A bargain on Bora Bora, it’s a miracle! (Sadly, this hotel closed down in 2012 – still hoping it might re-open as something else but, as of 2016, I’m told it is still abandoned.)
Unfortunately, for my next miracle I would need to master walking on water to be able to leave my hotel room for the next few days. The rain continued unabated for the entire two days I was at the Novotel leaving limited options for getting out of the hotel. I did take advantage of one of the local pearl farms’ offer to pick up guests and bring them to their store to learn about the Tahitian black pearls (and of course shop a little – though I didn’t buy anything). It was a nice way to pass an hour or two and it got me a free ride into the main town of Viatape where I even found a place with good, reasonably-priced food and cheap wifi.
Hotel #2 – Le Meridien Bora Bora
After the Novotel, my next hotel for nights #3 and #4 was Le Merdien Bora Bora. This hotel was my splurge for the trip. Like most of Bora Bora’s resorts, it was located on its own private motu and the only way to get there was by boat. I don’t know if any of you have ever arrived at your hotel by boat but I must say, it’s an awesome experience.
The rain had finally let up on my 3rd day though the clouds persisted. As the boat passed by the Meridien’s outer overwater bungalows and docked near the white-sand beach, I was speechless. What an absolutely gorgeous place.
My main reason for choosing Le Meridien Bora Bora and splurging on these 2 nights here was 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 was dying to do that.
Unfortunately, in addition to the weather, the sea turtle experience turned out to be another disappointment. Though I was able to attend their daily feedings and learn about the sea turtles from the director of the program, due to the weather (curses!) all the turtles had been corralled for safe-keeping within the lagoon. They were 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.
All of the turtles in the Meridien sanctuary are under 3 years old and too young to be released into the wild. When they reach an appropriate age they will be tagged and released into the Pacific, free to roam where they like.
On the plus side, my overwater bungalow at the Meridien was completely wonderful and had stunning views of Bora Bora’s famous Mt. Otemanu (in the fleeting moments it wasn’t obscured by clouds). The other downer was the condition of the lagoons around the island. Thanks to all the rain and wind in the preceding days, the lagoon – though still beautifully turquoise in color – was cloudy and not nearly as remarkable as the lagoons I remembered surrounding Moorea.
Hotel #3 – Hilton Bora Bora Nui
After 2 nights at the Meridien, it was time to move over to my final hotel for the week, the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort. For the past 24hrs there were increasing rumors of a tropical cyclone developing strength and heading our way. Though information on the island was limited, thanks to internet access (and a little help from my Dad back home) I was keeping an eye on the storm myself. It was too early to tell where or when (or if) it would make landfall but I was seriously considering taking an early flight back to Papeete and scrapping my final two days. I wasn’t worried about danger from the storm exactly, more of getting stuck on the island and screwing up the remainder of my itinerary since I am, after all, on a mileage Round-the-World ticket.
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 was well. I would not be so lucky with Tropical Cyclone Oli.
Before checking out, I spoke to the General Manager at the Meridien and asked him what they were advising guests to do. He assured me that the cyclone was being monitored by the hotels via the Tahitian government authorities and that for the moment, they were not advising any evacuation of the island. It was a “wait and see” approach.
Later that day I went into Viatape to do a little shopping before catching the Hilton’s free shuttle boat. Figuring I should take the opportunity to do a little more due diligence with Air Tahiti and the local tourism office in town, I visited both looking for advice on whether to get off the island today. The Air Tahiti office was closed but the tourism office was reassuring by saying that when the islands get bad storms, the airline will often call guests at their hotels (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 spoke with the Hilton’s Front Desk Manager before I checked in. “Should I be trying to get out now,” I asked, “or do they expect this cyclone to miss us?” For a 3rd time that day, I was again informed that if the situation became serious, the hotel would keep us informed. They were not advising guests to leave the island. So, I checked in 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.
February 2, 2010 – Tropical Cyclone Oli
This morning at 7:30am I was jarred out of the kind of sound sleep that can only be achieved in a South Pacific overwater bungalow by a ringing phone next to the bed. It was the hotel manager informing me that they were evacuating the overwater bungalows and would be moving me to a hillside bungalow. I had 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 walked outside on my deck to see what all the fuss was about; I mean, it wasn’t even raining. Very windy, yes, but no rain. Then I noticed that the swimming deck at the end of the stairs going down from my upper deck was almost completely submerged. Yesterday there had been about 3 ft between platform and water. Alright, alright, I’m packing.
I showered and packed hastily and 30 minutes later a bellman in a golf cart pulled up outside to deliver me to 5-star luxury on higher ground. On the ride I noticed hotel employees everywhere busily boarding up windows and moving furniture inside – including all the windows & deck furniture on the bungalows. Clearly the situation had changed from yesterday’s casual “wait and see” approach.
When we arrived at my new bungalow, it was a twin of the one I’d been enjoying in the lagoon but with an excellent panoramic view. As far as cyclone shelters go, this seemed like a winner. As long as I still had A/C and internet, I’d be a happy girl.
After the bellman left, I realized he didn’t leave me a key to my new room. I called the front desk to inquire about getting one and was told (by a hesitant front desk clerk) that the hotel advises all guests to please remain in their bungalows until further notice. I said, “Does that mean you won’t give me a key to my room?” The response gave me pause, “that is correct, Madam.” Swell.
I’m a prisoner in paradise. I guess there are worse things.
I was advised that the hotel would be delivering food and water to the bungalows for as long as the “lock-down” lasted. Ok, fine. There was nothing I could do so I decided to hunker down and make the best of the situation. After all, I was in a gorgeous bungalow. So, I spent a few hours online working and e-mailing family and friends with updates. I was actually starting to enjoy my little storm shelter…and then around noon, the power went out. The situation went rapidly downhill from there.
I called the front desk to inquire as to whether the whole resort had lost power or it was just me? After all, it still hadn’t even rained much – seemed a little early for the power to abandon us. The manager said that most of the property still had power but that they were now evacuating everyone to the spa situated at the very top of the hill (I later learned that the hotel cut power to the bungalows on purpose to force everyone to evacuate). I was to go there right away and they would provide us with further information once everyone was together. It was looking like I would be forced to give up my solitude and wait this thing out with the rest of the hotel’s guests.
I gathered everything essential to me (laptop, cell phone, camera, passport, book to read, etc.) threw it in my backpack and made my way up the hill to join the rest of the nervous-looking guests. Within the confines of the spa, the gym – a single room that didn’t appear to exceed the approximate square footage of my bungalow – had been cleared out and outfitted as a make-shift shelter. The floor was covered wall to wall with bare mattresses.
The hotel front desk manager was handing out towels and sheets for the mattresses at the door and explained that we would all need to share the mattresses because there would be 80 other people in the room. I counted 12 mattresses, a mix of singles and kings. Yes, it seemed I would get to know my fellow guests very well by the time this was all over.
When I arrived, there were only about 10 other people in the room already making up their mattress. They were all American and 2 were even from Atlanta. We got to chatting about what a great story this would make when we all finally got home. Assuming we didn’t get blown off the top of this hill, of course (cue nervous laughter).
The small room filled quickly as the remainder of the hotel’s sun-burned and disenchanted guests filed in each taking up residence on a spot of mattress. Though we still had power, the A/C was not up to the challenge and within an hour the room was stifling. Not to mention lousy with flies. The hotel manager, Karine, went down a list taking attendance to make sure we were all accounted for. Then she proceeded to give us an update on the weather situation.
Here comes the storm…
Tropical Cyclone Oli would be passing just to our west in the next few hours and the situation on the island was expected to get serious. Karine said she had no idea how long we would be stuck in here but that they would continue to supply us with food and water and try to make us as comfortable as possible. She warned that it was possible we’d be spending the night in here (which at only noon seemed an absurd possibility).
Hour after hour dragged by with no sign of relief. The gym was an interior room downstairs in the spa building and everything upstairs was boarded up tight so we couldn’t even hear what was going on outside. I prayed we would not be forced to spend the night in this miserable room.
The make-up of the 80 guests in the room was about 50% Japanese with the other 50% split between Europeans and Americans. The American group bonded quickly. There were Randy and Autumn from Atlanta, Craig and Kathy from Kansas and a few others.
Craig requested fans for the room to help fight the oppressive heat and the hotel complied with 2 tiny stand-up fans. It was about as helpful as dropping an ice cube into a pot of boiling water but at least it was a start. After 7 hours in lock-down with no end in sight, they announced they would be serving us dinner. Finally, we thought! After all, none of us had eaten since they brought lunch (a small sandwich & salad) to our bungalows right before the evacuation around noon. Karine came into the gym and told us that the two options for dinner would be ravioli (from a can that she held up) or ramen noodles and she was going to begin heating them up. She was greeted with groans from around the room. Again, we all made the best of it and dinner was served as flies continued to buzz around the room.
Unfortunately for us, Oli may have been the slowest moving cyclone ever, advancing at a leaden pace of only 12 miles per hour. For the first few hours of our captivity, Karine had allowed us to escape the stuffiness of the gym by standing just outside the door to the spa for some fresh air. It was much more pleasant out there even when you were getting pelted with rain and dirt (which should tell you something about the conditions inside) so that’s where our little group spent most of our time.
Right at the entrance to the spa there was a single, large palm tree that had been swaying with the winds throughout the afternoon. Around 7pm while we were all standing outside chatting and watching the storm the wind picked up in intensity knocking us off balance. It was enough to unnerve us so we headed back inside the shelter. The next time we cracked the door open to look out, the huge palm was on the ground landing exactly where we had just been standing. Needless to say, after that, all field trips were canceled and it was back to the fly-infested oven.
By midnight, the storm seemed to have settled a bit and the natives were getting restless after 12 hours in captivity. Several guests made repeated requests for something cold to drink but were denied at every turn by a stern-faced Karine. Some were beginning to demand to return to their rooms but since none of us had keys, we had nowhere to go until they agreed to release us. Karine said we were waiting on a government minister in Papeete to give the OK for the hotels to release guests back to their rooms.
What was even more frustrating was that it became obvious the hotel staff were all hunkered down in a separate shelter somewhere and they were clearly having more fun than we were. Staff members in a golf cart kept coming up the hill to chat with Karine and they were all laughing and carrying on…with sodas in their hands! Sodas that we, the guests, were being denied. It seemed silly to me that on one of those golf carts runs they couldn’t have brought up a case of beer or soda to at least make us all a little more comfortable.
Several more hours passed and we were all getting despondent. Luckily, the spa never lost power or cable so we were able to monitor the storm about once an hour when CNN International would do an update. This was crucial since the hotel was giving us no information at all, only that they had no idea how long we would be here.
By 4am we were all exhausted and getting more restless by the hour (sleep was impossible since we were 12 to a mattress). According to CNN the storm was well past us and moving on south to the island of Tahiti. Though there were still bands with strong winds passing over us, it definitely seemed the worst was over. We couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t release us. The whole room was nearly ready to revolt.
We were at the point of being willing to sign waivers releasing the hotel of any liability if we went back to our rooms against their advice when they finally got a call from the minister granting our release. Hooray!! Karine whipped out a small basket containing all of our key packets and began to distribute them. She wanted us to wait for them to take us each back to our rooms in the hotel golf cart but since that would have taken hours most of us elected to go it alone and make the walk.
My hillside villa wasn’t far down the hill from the spa so I didn’t have much trouble making it back. Though I did have to use my cell phone for light to navigate sidewalks with downed trees and palm fronds. I would have gladly navigated the Sahara desert to get back to my room at this point.
Miraculously, the power had been returned to all of the villas (though the walkway lights were still out) so when I got back to my room I jumped into the shower. It’s was the best shower I’ve had since the end of my 18-hour stint in India. Next, I raided the mini bar of the two Hinano Tahitian beers and finally sat down to my computer to e-mail my family and let them know I was OK. It was 5am by this time…17 hours of misery in paradise.
The Aftermath of Cyclone Oli
I tried to get a little sleep but with the sun just beginning to rise, I was anxious to get outside and see the storm damage by the light of day. So around 7am, I grabbed my camera and headed out. The gorgeous resort had clearly suffered substantial damage (the General Manager later estimated it at $5 million – which seemed high but it’s possible). Downed trees were everywhere, some landing just inches from bungalows. Many of the resort’s sidewalks were underwater making it difficult to get around. Swim decks were snapped off many of the overwater bungalows due to the rising waters. Some of them were captured by hotel staff and tethered to the overwater lobby building.
The lobby suffered the most damage with a few holes in the roof and damage to the boat docks. Rumors abounded that the hotel on the other side of our motu had lost 2 overwater bungalows in the storm. When I made it to the restaurant for breakfast, Karine informed me that there would be no flights and no boats for the day. The airport in Papeete was closed down until the storm had passed that island as well.
Karine said the hotel staff would do their best to provide limited services to us for the day. Lunch and dinner would be served in the only restaurant able to re-open. There would be no maid service or room service but they would try to at least come by with fresh towels at some point. The few staff that had remained on the motu during the storm would be focusing on cleaning up the property and making sure the grounds were safe. Fair enough.
After breakfast, I re-united with my American friends who had gathered at the pool to re-hash the previous night’s events and combine resources on getting off the island in time for our international flights. Kathy and Craig had the biggest issue since they were scheduled on a flight back to LA that night. My Air France flight wasn’t until the next morning but it wasn’t looking good for me either.
Just about the time we’d all given up hope and made peace with the fact that we were going to be spending another night, Karine came running up to us at the pool waving a list of names and telling us that a boat was coming to take us to the airport. Air Tahiti had managed to scramble one plane from another island and it would be arriving within the hour. She said we had 15 minutes to pack and get our bags down to the hotel dock. We dropped our beers and ran at full sprint for our bungalows.
Since there were a number of people who were scheduled to leave the day before, PLUS those of us who were scheduled to leave today, seats on that flight would surely be at a premium. Within minutes we were 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) were rushed onto the Hilton boat and after a very rough 30 minute ride, we docked at the airport. As we disembarked and grabbed our luggage, boats from other hotels were approaching right on our heels. Craig and Kathy were also on the boat with me and when we realized how many boats were pulling up to try to get on the flight, we again put on our sprinting shoes and literally ran to the check-in line. There was no one from Air Tahiti behind the desk yet but as we waited the line quickly swelled to cover the dock of the tiny airport.
Tensions were rising in the airport as the people toward the back of the line started doing the math. Everyone knew there was only one airplane coming and it wasn’t exactly going to be 747. About an hour after we arrived, the small Air Tahiti plane finally landed and they began checking people in. Craig, Kathy and I didn’t relax until we all had boarding passes in our hands. At which point we bought a round of Hinano beers from the stand in the terminal and sat outside on the dock to celebrate.
While we waited we struck up conversations with other passengers and started an unscientific poll about everyone’s evacuation experience. Judging from our results, those of us at the Hilton 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 it. The only thing we had going over everyone else was that most of them spent the whole night in lockdown and weren’t released until almost 9am (4 hours longer than us) – probably because they were all sleeping soundly instead of plotting an overthrow.
It took 2 more hours for the airline to sort out who would get the 100 or so seats on the only flight out but eventually we boarded just as the sun was setting. Things were looking up but I was still a little concerned about my Air France flight to LAX the next morning. What if Air France had decided not to send one of their big, fancy planes to an island just coming up for air after a cyclone?
After takeoff, I struck up a conversation with my French seat-mate, Marc, who relayed 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 shared my concern about whether my flight to LA would still leave tomorrow morning. He said, “You are on the Air France flight to LAX tomorrow?” When I said yes, he looked at me with a broad, knowing smile and responded in his thick French accent, “Oh, I can assure you it will be on-time…I am your pilot.”
What a hysterical coincidence! Marc had been on layover in Tahiti since last Thursday and decided to hop on over to Bora Bora for a few days of R&R…big mistake! Guess I was lucky he made it on the flight, too.
When we landed in Papeete the rain was still coming down hard. I caught a cab back to the Hotel Tiare hoping they would still have a room for me since I had e-mailed this morning cancelling my reservation for tonight. Luckily, they did and the bag that I’d left a week ago was waiting for me behind the front desk right where I’d left it. The room they gave me this time was much larger and nicer than the previous room which was a nice surprise. After a shower, I set 3 alarms (taking NO chances on missing my flight) and fell into bed.
The next morning as I boarded the plane, Marc was at the top of the stairs to greet me decked out in full pilot regalia. As I settled into my seat, I was overjoyed at the prospect of finally escaping paradise. Time to move on to my final stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and put this entire experience behind me. 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. Lynn for keeping everyone updated through Facebook for me while I was in lockdown. And Gary for exhausting all options trying to find me a flight out of Bora Bora after the storm and help me come up with a “Plan B” if I couldn’t make my original flight to LA (thank God for that last minute Air Tahiti flight because Plan B was NOT looking good!).
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…next stop, Cabo!