The peaceful Pacific kisses feet, its lagoon-snuggled surface warm as a lover's touch. Beneath the toes stretches a blanket of sand that could have spilled from a celestial hourglass. Overwater bungalows provide luxuriant lodging, and a Polynesian wait-staff serves umbrella drinks and plates of epicurean delights.
This is paradise, Bora Bora style. Ensconced in grandeur and opulence, I could tarry here forever -- or at least until the MasterCard runs dry.
But I don't. Like a couch potato with a StairMaster craving, I trade the beach recliner for a bicycle saddle. For one brief day, I will forego the pursuit of pleasure and pedal around this isle of renowned allure.
James Michener wrote that Bora Bora is "considered by most judges to be the most beautiful island in the world." It lies 161 flying-miles northwest of Tahiti on the leeward side of French Polynesia's Society Islands. From above, this 15-square-mile South Pacific jewel resembles a giant brooch pinned to a velvet ocean. A diamond studded reef encircles an aquamarine lagoon. In the center, foliage-wrapped crags jut skyward like giant jade gems. A 20-mile roadway rings the island between the summits and sea. This will be my route.
On Sunday morning, I am the first bike customer at the rental center in Vaitape, Bora Bora's main village. Located on the western side of the island, the town resembles a Starbucks-free, rural hamlet. A handful of shops and restaurants cluster near the pier where cruise and airline passengers first come ashore. Flowers bloom everywhere with colors dappling the landscape and fragrances perfuming the whispering air.
Heading south, I pass houses and outlying businesses. Most residences seem to occupy spacious lots, each enjoying a mountain-dominated backdrop. Some are tin-roofed wooden structures. Others are made from cyclone-resistant concrete. The neighborhood looks comfortable and middle-class tidy, perhaps an indication that the island's prosperity is shared.
At first, the road stays inland with properties on both sides. Then it swings out to follow the coastline. I'm soon treated to an unrestricted panorama of the lagoon, which shimmers in a swirling palette of greens and blues. In the distance lies a ribbon of white where waves froth against the submerged coral reef.
A typical Pacific island, Bora Bora was born with a volcanic blast about three or four million years ago. Coral then arrived and a fringing reef began to form around the sea-piercing mountain. As the volcanic mass began to sink into sea, the coral grew outward and upward toward open water. Over time the reef structure became separated from the shoreline and the lagoon formed. Small islets called motusnow cap much of the coral barrier.
The main part of Bora Bora's caldera rests under Povai Bay. Across the water, pieces of the crater rim stand as isolated islets. The bulk of the ancient volcano remains as the peaks that dominate the island's core.
Rising over 2,000 feet above the sea, the cloud-snagging summits of Bora Bora loom like monolithic stone deities. Silhouetted in the morning sun, they appear bold and mysterious. Shapes change with the viewing angle, making them a natural Rorschach inkblot test. I would spend more time bicycling in solo psychoanalysis if I didn't have to keep dodging tupa crabs.
The sandy-gold land crustaceans with a leg-span of perhaps eight inches, traipse sideways across the blacktop. When their stalked eyes spot the bike coming, they stop for an instant. Then they scamper for shelter. I miss them all, but many of their brethren have not been so lucky. Crab pancakes cover the road like fallen leaves on an early autumn day.
The morning's first le truck breezes past. These vehicles serve as local bus and tour transportation. As the name implies, they look like long delivery trucks with seats occupying canopied beds.
Although well after sunrise, roosters still greet the new day's arrival. The smell of wood smoke from an upcoming barbecue wafts in the air. Everywhere, I hear recorded music playing in homes. A pounding drumbeat predominates, making the tunes sound like Polynesian rock 'n' roll.
Some of the ancient world's greatest seamen, the Polynesians settled in Bora Bora about the seventh century. According to Michener, the natives "were brawling, freedom-loving, rugged, good-looking islanders, relishing the old songs and dances." The first European to sight Bora Bora was Captain James Cook in 1769 on his first voyage of discovery. Eight years later he finally landed. In spite of its British "discovery," the French laid claim and annexed the island in 1888.
I reach Bloody Mary's, the island's "in" place to hang out. Here, the world's gentry plant rumps on coconut stumps, rub bare feet on a sandy floor and swizzle rum at a U-shaped bar. A sign out front names an array of celebrities from Nelson Rockefeller to Marilyn Chambers who have ventured within. Many stayed at resorts along Pointe Matira, which lies minutes up the road.
Bora Bora may have the most luxurious and expensive hotels in French Polynesia. Each exclusive enclave offers its competing interpretation of an oceanside Utopia. Most feature a costly combination of waterfront rooms, beachfront sundecks and upfront dining. These are the places that have made Bora Bora the cliché for tropical splendor and indulgence.
Club Med knots the far end in this string of rich retreats. From here, the road crests a rise, then drops onto the eastern, backside of the island. Unlike the groomed resort strands, the first palm-studded beach I pass here is littered with washed-up cans, bottles, bags and wrappers. The discards of civilization besmear nature's masterpiece. I ride onward.
This is the lonely side of the island where few outsiders venture beyond tours. Many of Bora Bora's 6,000 inhabitants call the area home. As I pass, people smile and offer friendly greetings of "bonjour." The unexpected amity touches me as genuinely warming.
After a few miles of rural solitude, I enter the fishing village of Anau. Music pours from the community's combination school and meeting house. In its open breezeway, a Polynesian choir harmonizes for the local church service. In sheer volume and exuberance, they put American gospel revivals to shame. I toe-tap until the sermon starts.
A string of flat-topped motus cap the reef along the eastern side of the lagoon. On one sits Bora Bora's Lagoonarium. In controlled safety, visitors can snorkel with rays, eels, turtles and fish, which include five-foot-long blacktip reef sharks. Fortunately, the toothy nemeses of the deep have not acquired a taste for tourists.
The highest hill on the route rises where the road shortcuts the island's northernmost point. I shift into low gear and furiously pedal upward in teetering slowness. Near the crest, I stop to search for a pair of rusting World War II artillery guns.
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military established a supply base on Bora Bora. Called Operation Bobcat, 5,000 sailors and Seabees occupied the island. In addition to placing defensive armament, they built the circle island roadway and the runway on Motu Mute. Until 1961, the strip served as the international gateway to French Polynesia. The airfield remains as the access point for flights from Tahiti.
Coasting down the hills' backside, I grin into the breeze and listen to knobby tires hum on the pavement. A deserted beach invites, its lonely sand shaded with coconut palms. Glass-clear water laps the shore. I long to strip naked and splash in, but the road is too close to make it a skinny-dip beach for anyone but perhaps the flaunt-it-all winner of TV's "Survivor" series.
It's just as well, since I soon pass a young girl selling coconuts and fruit at a roadside stand. After buying a small treat, I look for a place to get something to drink. A small convenience store beckons. Setting the bike against the store's outside wall, I walk in.
"You no like?" a young clerk asks in English. Her hand gestures toward a bicycle rack that I blindly missed.
"Pardonnez moi," I apologize using a few words remembered from college French. After moving the bike, I test the rest of my Francophile vocabulary.
"Avez-vous une bière, s'il vous plaît?" I sputter, asking if she has beer.
"We do not sell that here," the pretty Polynesian replies.
Thirsty as a duck in the desert, I settle for a tall mineral water and a Schweppes lemon soda, which I guzzle in one gulp. Then, it's back on the road again.
I reach the northwest side of the island, soon passing the Bora Bora Condominiums where Marlon Brando supposedly owns three bungalows. Beyond, a few locals play at a small beach where the water is flat and still as a backyard pool. Around another corner, I reach Marae Fare-Opu.
Common throughout Polynesia, maraes are ancient places of worship shared by families or clans. This one consists of a low, stone-paved platform built of basalt blocks and coral sheets. Etched into two of the slabs are circular petroglyphs representing sea turtles, an animal the inhabitants considered sacred. I linger, savoring the site's spiritual aura and prolonging the holy relief from being off the bicycle seat.
A seaplane ramp and submarine docks built by the Navy during World War II lie nearby. This must have been a heavenly assignment for the sailors. Not only were there beaches and postcard scenery to admire, but according to Michener, the eligible women of Bora Bora loved to have babies. By the time the Americans departed, there was an outbreak of blue-eyed tykes toddling around the island.
Pedaling onward, I re-enter Vaitape. Along the road, unoccupied stands vend taro root and coconut on the honor system. Teens use a basketball for a soccer match. As I ride down the street, a little girl looks up and asks, "What's your name?" For a few minutes, we practice her grade-school English.
I'm on an island famed as the playground of the affluent. Yet, as I ride along, I feel as though I'm passing through a congenial, small-town anywhere. This is a side of Bora Bora I would never have experienced from the sequestered bliss of beach and bungalow.
Approaching the rental agency, I pass through a small industrial zone stacked with shipping containers. A tattooed, tough-looking longshoreman loiters beside the pavement. He appears to have lost a few teeth in a barroom brawl. As I nervously pedal by, the man glances up.
"Bonjour," he smiles.