Hidden in the South Pacific somewhere in the middle of French Polynesia, you’ll find Bora Bora, a volcanic island identified by its mountainous terrain and coral reefs. Most people know the island for its clear-watered beaches, stunning overwater bungalows, and lazy days by the water. But there is more to this Pacific paradise than meets the eye.
Its history starts in Southeast Asia from where Polynesian ancestors sailed across the Pacific Ocean around the 3rd century AD. All it took was stars, wind, and bird flight patterns for these travelers to navigate a vast ocean sailing in double-hulled canoes known as pahi. Bora Bora, or Porapora in the Tahitian spelling, means ‘First Born’ and is said to have been created after Raiatea, the second largest island of French Polynesia.
Captain James Cook was the first European explorer to set foot on Bora Bora on his third expedition in 1777. Those who followed were whalers who brought violence and disease to the island, wiping out up to 40% of the population. From then, Bora Bora was inundated with missionaries whose goals were to erase the Polynesian culture. And while many violent customs of sacrifice have been done away with, traditional dancing, music, and art thankfully still prevail on the island.
If you’re deciding to travel to Bora Bora, as much as you should revel in the sun on the beaches, consider immersing yourself in local culture and historical customs. This guide is to help you experience a side to Bora Bora that many who travel to the island overlook.
Below we show you the best things to do if you want to experience the true island culture in Bora Bora, where to eat for island cuisine, and how to get the most out of your stay. (Related: Exceptional Restaurants in Bora Bora).
Cultural exploits on Bora Bora that you have to experience
The locals are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. Their culture is very much based around family and tradition, and it’s not unusual to find four generations living within one household.
This generally translates to a slower pace of life. Bora Bora culture is also very much steeped in the tradition of storytelling and dancing.
If you want to indulge in local culture, tradition, and customs, then these are the five best activities on the island to do so. (Related: Hiking in Bora Bora).
1. Tahitian Ahi Ma’a
In the early hours of dawn, the Ahi Ma’a dinner prep begins with huge pits dug and filled with firewood and basalt lava rocks. The fire is lit and tended to, its temperature controlled with the use of banana leaves. It’s a cooking and preservation process used in Polynesian culture that can be experienced on Bora Bora throughout the year, though it’s not used as much as it once was what with the advent of modern technologies.
Still, it’s a style of cooking that you can often find being used on Sundays or during big celebrations or banquets. As a tourist, your best bet is to find a resort that hosts such meals, though they will often have a bit of a modern twist. Or if staying in Bora Bora for a while, make friends with locals and who knows maybe you will be invited to this incredible cooking experience!
2. Art Galleries and Studios
The fusion of French and Polynesian cultures can be seen nowhere better than in one of several art galleries and studios found on the island.
One studio, Alain Despert, houses many local artists with works that feature peaceful tropical sights found around the island, which can also be viewed here. The studio’s location is also a unique place from where you can watch the sunset over the blue lagoon.
Another studio, Art Du Pacific, boasts a collection of local and international art. The gallery delves into the history of the French and Polynesian cultures through art, telling a unique story of how the island is influenced by the past.
The art galleries in Bora Bora provide an unvisited insight into the island and allow tourists the option of souvenirs unlike any you’ll find in a shop selling knick-knacks. This is a surefire way to remember your once-in-a-lifetime visit to the island.
3. Traditional Bora Bora Tamure
Chances are, if you’re staying in a resort, you will have the option to bare witness to some island shows and activities that celebrate Polynesian culture. Even if you aren’t staying at the resorts, you will still be able to join in watching these shows, none of which are more impressive and entertaining than the traditional local dances.
Many parents will teach their children these dances to keep the tradition alive, and the generosity that is fairly inherent in locals tends to make it so they want to share this tradition with visitors. Several resorts offer regular shows throughout the week that you can attend. You may even get the chance to join in!
While the dances were once prohibited by missionaries who arrived on the island hundreds of years earlier, nearly resulting in their complete loss, they have prevailed and are celebrated on Bora Bora and other nearby islands all year round.
4. Musée De La Marine
The very essence of an island is its surrounding water, and this is no different in Bora Bora where its marine history comes to life at Musée De La Marine.
This small museum filled with models of historical ships, will blow you away by the sheer amount of detail that goes into each display. What’s more, it’s the museum’s owner who, inspired by his passion for the island’s marine history, has built every single model. If nothing else, it’s a brilliant example of patience and perseverance.
The museum is charming in that you’ll likely find it closed when you arrive. Not to worry though! The neighbors will call the owner to let him know of your arrival, and you’ll likely be let in and treated to a real slice of culture in Bora Bora. Is there anything that screams ‘easy island living’ more clearly than this?
5. Local Festivals
If one night of traditional dance and food is not enough, you might want to find yourself on the island during one of its yearly festivals. One of the biggest festivals, taking place in July or August each year, is the Heiva I Bora Bora, also known as ‘The Celebration of Life.’ It takes place in the city of Vaitape and is known for its music, dancing, singing, and athletic events, highlighting the culture of the people of French Polynesia. Competitions are steeped in ancestral tradition and legend with experts in each category serving as judges.
Other festivals, such as the Liquid Festival and Pearl Regatta are also competitive in nature, with their activities taking place in water. All festivals tend to have party elements and are meant to be enjoyed. So, if you’re planning a trip to Bora Bora, make sure you go during one of these events.
Revel in Local Cuisine and get a taste of Bora Bora
Bora Bora is a unique amalgamation of various cultures that extend beyond the South Pacific and into French, Italian, and Japanese. Because tourism is Bora Bora’s main revenue, a lot of the restaurants you will find are intended to cater to this audience. However, fish is the main staple of a Tahitian diet and is used to make unique dishes.
Along with chicken, pork, and a variety of fruit and veg, local cuisine has plenty of options for fresh food at any restaurant you choose. But if you want to go somewhere that comes highly recommended and serves Polynesian food, one (or all) of these three are the way to go:
1. Bora Bora Beach Club and Restaurant
Looking out over the brilliant waters surrounding the small island, Bora Bora Beach Club and Restaurant offers traditional Polynesian foods alongside other European cuisine for the more picky eaters in your group.
With dishes like the Poisson Cru au lait de Coco that comes spilling out of a coconut, and other well-presented and delicious traditional foods, you will leave this place eager to return the next day! As a selling point, eating here at sunset provides views unmatched anywhere else.
2. Matira Beach Restaurant
Offering traditional Polynesian dishes along with Japanese options, this restaurant has a more intimate and one-of-a-kind dining experience while still hosting beautiful blue views.
Fresh fish and other seafood is offered in colorful Japanese-inspired portions and presentation that make for envy-inducing photographs. It’s a perfect place to end a day on the beach and has delicious meals beyond fish for those less interested in seafood.
3. Lagoon Restaurant by Jean-Georges
A more high-end and pricey option, this restaurant can be found in the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, serving as its signature venture. Regularly thought of as one of the best dining experiences on Bora Bora, the dishes are made using a fusion of unique ingredients that celebrate Polynesian, European, and Asian cultures. The Crusted Ahi tuna with citrus and Sriracha emulsion is just one example of such a dish.
Fish is freshly caught locally and served with tropical fruits and sauces that draw from all these different cultures. Of course, great views of turquoise waters and local mountains are sure to be had, and the restaurant’s terrace features long glass panels that look beneath the floor into the waters below. If you’re willing to spend a little extra, this one is worth every penny.
Stay like a local in Bora Bora
Although staying in a resort it a fantastic way to experience the island and is certainly a bucket list way of vacationing, staying in less popular accommodation that’s a little off the beaten track and closer to Bora Bora culture is a fulfilling alternative.
Booking sites like Booking.com and Airbnb offer a wide selection of these types of accommodations with the latter offering a stay that is closer to those who live on Bora Bora all year round. Here are three accommodation types to check out that allow new perspectives of the island.
1. Boat Stays
There are a surprising number of boat accommodations available via Airbnb, which allows you to rent a whole boat, mostly with the use of an included crew who will give you information on the best of Bora Bora. Prices tend to include the fuel in the nightly stay.
Sail around the island, exploring the crystal waters with equipment on board before watching the sunset and hunkering down with the soothing waves gently rocking you to sleep.
While the high-end houseboats tend to be reserved for tourists, there are a few locally-owned and lived-in homes on the water, which is your connection to local island life. Unfortunately, the houseboats you’ll be staying in are going to be catered to your lifestyle rather than giving you much insight into local life. However, the stay is bound to be an adventure.
2. Hut Stays
In the recognizable architectural style found in Bora Bora photographs, you’ll be able to stay nestled within nature in cabin-like huts. There aren’t many accommodation options that follow this style, but if you’re able to book one of the few that are available, you’ll be one of the lucky few who can say they’ve experienced the grassroots version of the island.
You won’t find any catered meals or fancy shows here, but you will have a space all of your own with which you can pretend you’re a local. Away from the resort lights, you’re also have a fantastic view of the stars at night.
If you’re really wanting to get to know Bora Bora culture, where better to do it than with a local? Homestays are few and far between as well, but they offer a host who lives on the island and knows all there is about Bora Bora.
This not only means you’ll be given a first-hand account of the island, but you’ll gain knowledge about the island’s hidden gems that most miss out on. Hosts tend to be incredibly friendly and eager to share their love for their home, so you are unlikely to regret choosing a homestay for your vacation.
Bora Bora is on many people’s bucket lists for a reason and while staying at a resort, eating foods you’re familiar with, and spending your days on the beach or by the pool are perfectly respectable vacationing methods, immersing yourself in local culture and customs is going to provide you with a perspective seldom seen.
Who doesn’t want to be one of the special few who can say they’ve delved into the real Bora Bora?