On to Bora Bora

Wednesday, June 1

11:10 am Depart Papeete Intl Tahiti Faaa
Air Tahiti Flight 452

Egads, we were about 45 minutes ahead of my planned schedule. After a 5 minute cab ride (1500 CFP) I went to check in.

There are 2 domestic terminals at Faaa and 1 international. Entering the airport, the first terminal is for Air Moorea, then the international terminal, followed by Air Tahiti (VT). Several shops, an upstairs restaurant, downstairs shops, Bance Socredo, McDonald’s, and business center.

Checkin requires you to first screen all bags, which then receive a tag. You take them over to checkin yourself after that (at least at LAX at the TBIT the bags are taken to checkin with you and you aren’t allowed to touch them after screening, couldn’t you put something dangerous in after receiving the tag? Maybe they aren’t worried about terrorism, but then what’s the point of the screening anyway?)

International passengers (I wasn’t asked to prove it, by the way) get 20kg checked luggage apiece. We were over, and were asked to pay an excess baggage fee. I was offered a 30% discount for paying the roundtrip charge up front – 6900 CFP by Visa for about 2 small roller suitcases worth of stuff roundtrip. I wondered if BOB would even weigh the bags, or if I could have gotten away saving money and just paying one-way? Given my experience on the return, I highly doubt I would have been asked to pay excess baggage charges on the way back. In fact, they didn’t even look at the receipt I was told to hold onto and present on the return checkin.

Carryons were limited to 3kg, they didn’t weigh ours which was good because they too would have been overweigh.

Checkin took no more than 5 minutes. Now I had about 2 hours to kill. We walked through the shops, grabbed a coke in the cafeteria, and sat down. I realized I was right next to a little girl with chicken pox – which I’ve never had! – so we moved and I started worrying about a ruined trip. Well, I didn’t catch it from a few minutes and the little girl probably wasn’t contagious any longer anyway.

We went through security and into the terminal. There are three gates which are really just separate lines/exit doors a la a domestic express carrier. Small snack shop inside security along with bathrooms, and flatscreen TVs above the gates showing promo videos of the islands.

The plane was an ATR 72 with 68 seats. Service consisted of pineapple juice of some kind. I was certain to be sure we sat on the left side of the plane – an important thing, actually, for the phenomenal view of Bora Bora on approach (here and here).

We get off the plane and enter the terminal and each major hotel has a desk. Bora Bora Nui is the first on the left. The woman asked if I was mr. gleff as I approached. Apparently we were the only Bora Bora Nui guests arriving on that flight, they had come to the airport just to get us. (When making reservations, you’re asked to email your flight information ahead of time.)

Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa

The woman from the Nui handed me luggage tags that were pre-filled out with my name and room number on them. As I picked up a bag, a porter took it from me and made sure I just pointed to whatever was mine. (No other resort seemed to have a porter to handle baggage.) When they had all 4 bags we went to a boat that took us to the resort. We didn’t see our bags until we made it to our bungalow.

We arrived at the overwater checkin and they already knew who were were. We were greeted by Tahitian music and we were seated and were each given a small chocolate cake shaped like a heart and chilled rosewater as I filled out their paperwork which was primarily asking to confirm our departure flight (so they could ensure proper transport back to the airport).

After returning the check-in paperwork we were taken by golf cart out to our bungalow. We pulled up to #109 which I had mentioned in advance as my first choice (followed by 108 and then 104-106). I figured I must have misread the luggage tags at the airport which I thought said 105, but the woman from the hotel couldn’t open the door with the key, checked her paperwork, and backed up to Bungalow 105.

109 is known as private for being at the very edge of the resort and facing out at the water without really being seen by any of the other bungalows (108 is equally private, perhaps more so, but gets less sunlight). However, the resort’s boats cross in front of it all day long it would seem, so I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed it.

It turns out that I was very happy with #105. The two common criticisms of the resort are that it isn’t very Tahitian (more opulence and American-style luxury, which for this trip I rather appreciated) and that it’s on the ‘wrong side’ of the motu facing away from the main island, thus having no view of Mt. Otemanu. To my surprise, #105 is unique in having a direct view of Mt. Otemanu! It has a nice sunrise view, not much of sunset, and in fact much of the day’s light is gone by noon. It isn’t a place to lay out tanning in the afternoon, but that was perfect for us – it was a refuge from the sun, and we were able to lay around coolly and comfortable for the afternoon, especially after spending time in the sun at the beach. In the end I wouldn’t have wanted any other bungalow (well, maybe Royal Suite 107, but even that would have been only the most marginal of improvements).

I was glad to have received one of the specific bungalows I had requested, especially since the reservation process wasn’t all that smooth. Awards at the Nui can’t be reserved online, since they’re all suite awards and two levels of suite awards are offered at that. I don’t imagine CSRs are that familiar with the property. I booked an overwater bungalow, the proper number of points were deducted, but it turns out that two rooms were reserved rather than one! This only came out by chance in an email exchange with the Front Office Manager.

We were shown the room and were very impressed. It’s my favorite hotel room ever by a wide margin. The bedroom, the bed, the living room, and couch were all great. But it was no understatement when the woman who brought us to our room described the bathroom as the best part of the room (complete with separate shower room and room for toilet and bidet. Bath products were Aveda and Ashford & Hall. Paolo, the Front Office Manager, called a day later to make sure I was happy with my choice – I was!

We were left alone briefly to unpack and there was a knock on the door, complimentary welcome fruit and champagne. The half-bottle of champagne was Pommery and was on the room service menu for 5360 CFP. Eleanor, the assistant front office manager, called wanting to arrange a surprise for later as well and asked whether we’d be staying in for dinner or going out. We found out later that evening that the surprise was a large plate of canapés and a large bottle of Evian, a nice treat for spending some late evening time on the deck our first night.

Some items to note. At checkin we were given a copy of the boat schedule to and from Vaitape, the main town on Bora Bora. The boat is complimentary during the day but there’s a 500 CFP charge per person each way for boat rides after 6:15pm. I imagine this is to encourage people to stay at the resort and spend money on dinner, but it’s such a nominal charge that it isn’t much of a discouragement. It’s not hard to avoid the fee, though. It seems that you’re charged only if the hotel knows in advance that you’re going to town and puts you on the schedule (for instance, if they make dinner reservations for you). But there’s no checking your voucher/receipt on the way back and no attempt to discern who is on board. So if you make your reservations yourself, and depart the hotel on the 6:15pm boat (which is free) I imagine you’d return free on, say, the 9:45pm boat which would otherwise come at a cost. It wasn’t worth it to me to test the theory.

Golf carts are available whenever you want them, though there may be a short wait. Just call the front desk and someone will pick you up and take you wherever you want to go at the resort. This wasn’t ever necessary except for the spa at the top of hill (we walked down, but honestly didn’t want to walk up). I imagine that guests in any of the 300-numbered bungalows might use the carts quite often though.

I had heard that the airport transfer, which has been free in the past, was now being billed. It isn’t, at least until this point that was just a rumor.

There was also some question in the past about the cost of the breakfast buffet. The guidebooks list a price, but reports in the past here were that guests weren’t charged, and speculation was the complimentary breakfast was being provided to platinums. The hotel doesn’t tell you this in its literature or at checkin, but full American breakfast buffet is indeed complimentary for all guests at the Tamure Grill, the hotel’s beachfront restaurant. Out of curiosity I confirmed this in advance with the hotel by email.

The odd thing is that each morning I was asked for my room number, so I wondered if there was going to be a charge even though I never was given a bill. Best I can figure they’re just checking to see whether we’re in fact guests to know whether we should be charged or not. (One could come over on the hotel’s free boat shuttle from another resort and have a breakfast for free, I imagine…)

We made a morning routine out of breakfast. Since we woke up early each morning, we ambled on over to the Tamure Grille and had coffee and sat and talked and looked at the ocean for a couple of hours, and then got around to eating breakfast. Coffee by default comes with some kind of 2% or fat free milk, but they managed to find cream for me each morning. Once I was told they were out of cream, but Stephan – the maitre d’hotel who is outstanding – found some for me.

When we arrived the stereo was tuned to 88.8 FM, which has commercial free music much of which is in English. A very pleasant station, and we never changed the channel. I brought a few CDs but never used the CD player. We did watch a movie on DVD the day it rained. The TV had both CNN International and Turner Classic Movies in English, but we really didn’t watch either.

Around 11am each morning complimentary fruit was brought to everyone laying out on the beach. I was never there at the time, but I understand refreshments (cookies?) are brought around in the afternoon as well. Past reports on the beach suggested that there was a paddle with “I’m thirsty” in English and French, and that guests need only raise the paddle and someone would come take a drink order. The paddle wasn’t there, but receiving service on the beach was never a problem. Frankly, I never did see very many people at the resort. It’s the largest property in French Polynesia, the bungalows are wonderful so people spend lots of time in them, and there are plenty of activities, etc. And the service we received was good – unlike most resorts where once you finally chase someone down to help you, you’re offered something off a limited cocktail menu, here they’ll come up with whatever you wish.

Turndown service each night included a bottle of water at each nightstand, which is a wonderful touch in this warm climate.

Early on in our stay we lost power a few times, but only for a few seconds and everything came right back on. I did have to reset the bedside clock each time, though.

Bugs – you really do need to bring bugspray. I googled “vanilla with deet” and found bugspray.com which had some that was good and quite reasonable. We probably only used 4 ounces of the stuff, but it was invaluable. There are bugs everywhere. At the Tamure Grille (beachside restaurant) they would be on some tables too (we’d just switch tables) and occasionally wind up in the juice (we’d ask the waitstaff to switch our glasses). We got bitten in the mid-afternoon sitting in front of the library when we hadn’t put on any of the spray. Incidentally, the library was near the business center which has two computers with complimentary internet access and US-style keyboards.

Sunscreen. You need more than you think. My first day on Tahiti, laying out at the Beachcomber, I missed a spot on my stomach and had a pretty bad burn in that one spot. We each used at least an ounce of SPF45 each day, more when we were out in the sun for longer periods of time.

Service. This isn’t a Four Seasons, a Ritz-Carlton, or even a St. Regis. There are two conflicting stories over how this hotel is flagged. There were some Sheraton items around, such as napkins, and I understand when it first opened it was often referred to as a Sheraton. It was supposed to become a St. Regis. I read one story that the owner of the hotel visited the St. Regis in NYC and the St. Regis Monarch Beach and was horrified and refused to put the name on his hotel. The other story, which I find more likely after my stay, was that the hotel simply didn’t meet the service standards and amenities that are specific to the St. Regis brand. In any case, it’s part of the Luxury Collection and not any of the other brands.

People forget requests, apologize, and smile. One day a bathrobe was taken by housekeeping but not replaced. A requested replacement wasn’t sent, but the second call took care of it. One of two sinks in the bathroom didn’t drain properly. After my first mention didn’t elicit any response, I just took out the stopper and it worked fine. The real disservice happened with the spa.

One morning after breakfast we walked to reception rather than back to our room. They called the spa at 9:30am but no one was available to take an appointment. Sarah suggested we call back in an hour. At 10:45 we were heading back to our bungalow and Sarah saw us, stopped her golf cart, and asked if the spa had called me (addressing me by name, as most everyone from the front office did throughout our stay). I got back to my room, they hadn’t, so I called at 11. No spa appointments were left for the day. There are only 3 treatment bungalows, so I imagine slots do fill up. I made an appointment for the next day at 1pm.

At 11:30 the next morning I called to confirm the appointment, and also to confirm our pickup. (The spa has its own van, separate from the front desk’s golf carts.) Everything was set, and they were picking us up at 12:30. I was glad I called, as I had remembered them telling me we’d be picked up at 12:45. 12:30 came and went, and at 12:45 I called. They told me, “Sorry, we don’t have a van at the moment, there’s nothing we can do.” If they had called to let me know they couldn’t pick us up (nevermind that they had just confirmed the pickup an hour earlier) we could have just walked. But at this point it was getting late, and they advise you to be 15 minutes early and that being late will reduce treatment times.

I called the front desk and asked for a pickup (why couldn’t the spa have just called the desk?). It was 1:10pm before the cart turned up. We were 15 minutes late for our appointment, and it took firm insistence and help from the desk to insure that we received our full treatment time, though the pre-session rituals were more than a bit rushed.

Still, the ve’a ve’a (hot stones) massage was wonderful and I quickly forgot all of my cares.

The view from the spa is of the whole resort and is incredible. There are three treatment bungalows, I believe each is set up to accommodate two people for treatments.

The culinary highlight of French Polynesia was a trip to Vaitape for a relatively new small restaurant called Villa Mahana (see here and here. It has only six tables inside and two more outside upstairs, so several days’ advance reservation are a must. I emailed the chef a couple weeks ahead of time and got my preferred booking. We took the resort’s 6:15pm shuttle which arrives at Vaitape around 6:30pm and the restaurant had a cab waiting for us at the dock (they added 300 CFP each way to our bill for the cab). This was the best shuttle for us – for some of the other restaurants the 7:15pm boat would be better (in fact very few people took the 6:15pm boat), but either way we were going to wind up coming back on the 9:45pm and Villa Mahana is a meal worth savoring. In fact, at the end we were even a bit rushed.

When we arrived we were offered cocktails and the waitress recommended a special champagne fruit drink they offer, which we accepted. It tasted like grenadine and we didn’t enjoy it. I was rather surprised to see that we were charged 1900 CFP apiece for it. Otherwise everything was perfect.

The chef comes out after you arrive to discuss the menu. Since we were the first diners of the evening (though in the end, hardly the first to leave), he had a bit of extra time to chat with us.

We ordered the five-course ‘degustation menu’ which they call the Menu Royal. It was 10500 CFP apiece, but well worth it.

    Sea Food Salad and Caviar

    Foie Gras in Sweet Spices Crust

    King Rock Lobster with Exotical Flavor

    Roasted Beef Tenderloin, Red Wine Vanilla Sauce, Creamy Gnocchi

    Warm and Creamy Chocolate Cake with Tiare Flower Ice Cream

The foie gras crusted in spices was the absolute best foie I’ve ever had. The chef asked how the meal was after our second course, and I told him the foie was wonderful. He sent out seconds (the initial serving was in a copper pot).

Everything else was good, but I didn’t finish the gnocchi that accompanied the beef tenderloin – a bit too rich after more than one serving of foie gras.

One table near us did just two courses, I thought what a waste as the lady ordered the chicken – something the chef didn’t even mention as he discussed the menu with us. Another table asked what foie gras was and didn’t like the sound of it. My goodness, they missed out.

The décor of the restaurant is nice local artwork (though I’m not personally a fan), though lots of it and it strikes me as a bit kitsch. Frankly I was there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. Our best meal of the trip so far.

Less wonderful for food was Iritai, Bora Bora Nui’s formal dining ‘panoramic’ restaurant. (Formal dining in French Polynesia means a clean pair of shorts and perhaps a short sleeve shirt with a collar.)

Iritai is a beautiful restaurant with rather nice service, more attentive than we had in most of French Polynesia. The view is amazing. There’s a piano player. The food, though, is worse than mediocre. Someone needs to introduce the chef to salt. They conserve on ingredients by using the same things over and over throughout the menu – their amuse was very similar to one of the appetizers. The sauce from the shrimp and crab soufflé appetizer was the soup in the bouillabaisse (!). The fish in the bouillabaisse had scales left on and some bones were in it too. My tuna was overcooked and dry, despite ordering it mid-rare, probably as a consequence of the thin slices of fish. As an apology they brought a complimentary dessert. We didn’t really want to stay, so they sent it to our room.

Here’s the walkway from the 100-numbered bungalows to the rest of the resort.

Here are some hillside bungalows.

This is the resort’s pool.

Facing the Tamure Grille from the Beach and looking out from the Tamure Grille in the evening.

The public restroom by the pool.

Some photos of the sunset:
Here
Here
Here
Here

Some more fabulous photos:
Here
Here

Honestly, this is the most beautiful physical property I’ve ever seen. There are some occasional service limitations, this is common in French Polynesia. It did grate at me a bit at times but then I’d just gaze out at the magnificent water. My pictures don’t capture it, but it’s just awe-inspiring. In person it looks airbrushed, it doesn’t even look real.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Do you have any lodging suggestions for planning a honeymoon to Moorea or Tahiti?

    My other half just wants to have a hair dryer of all things.

    Thanks,

    William

    Dallas, TX

  2. All depends on what you’re into.

    Personally I found Tahiti to be a bit of a pit, would want to spend as little time there as possible and more on the other islands (if on a honeymoon, i recognize that there’s culture and beauty outside Papeete but that’s not as much what I’m looking for on a honeymoon). But the only place I’d want to spend more than a single night on Tahiti is the Intercontinental.

    As for Moorea, my own choice would be an overwater bungalow at the Sheraton.

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