Bora-Bora: the island Michener called 'Bali ha'i'

On my last day in Bora-Bora, two middle- aged couples arrived rather loudly at the hotel where I was staying. They were from Connersville, Ind. (I am notorious baggagetag reader), and they wanted to know what Bora-Bora had in store for them. They had just come from another jewel of an island, Moorea, which one of the two wives had found "barren." "Nope, there wasn't much action," said her husband, "but this place looks livelier."

If the larger, more commercially developed Moorea -- only a ten-minute flight from he even more bustling Tahiti -- let them down, I am wondering what they did for fun on an island without telephones, taxicabs, discos, and golf courses. Bora-Bora amused me endlessly, but then I was already persuaded before ever setting foot on the tiny French Polynesian island that James Michener called the most beautiful in the world.

It was the approach by sea that got me, as it has so many others. In my bag was a paperback copy of "Tales of the South Pacific," the Michener collection that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Logan turned into the musical "South Pacific." No doubt the author was thinking of Bora-Bora -- he was stationed there during the war -- when he introduced the world to Bali ha'i in the story "Fo' Dolla," where we also met Bloody Mary. Mists were rising at sunrise when Lieutenant Cable first saw Bali ha'i: "It was small. Like a jewel, it could be perceived in one loving glance. It was neat. It had majestic cliffs facing the open sea. It had a jagged hill to give it character. It was green like something ever youthful . . . .

It was not sunup but high noon when I first saw Bora-Bora. From Papeete I had flown in an Air Polynesie 44-seat F-27, putting down first at Raiatea before landing on a runway the Seabees built in World War II on a coral atoll just across the water from Bora-Bora. There is no space for an airstrip on the mountainous, jungly island, so you arrive by a motor launch which has to pass through a narrow opening in the vast reef that encircles Bora-Bora.

The reef makes the surrounding waters a shallow, luminous green, and there are tufted little islets called motum riding on the horizon. But the sight that takes your breath away at the end of the 45-minute boat ride is the little white church in the hamlet of Vaitape with the piercing green 2,165-foot Mt. Pahia rearing above it.

Pahia and its neighboring peak, the jagged, dark-faced Otemanu, dominate the island, give it its lordly character, provide the newcomer with a point of reference, an anchor. Otherwise you haven't much to go on, for Bora-Bora has a single encircling road -- the same crushed coral road the US military laid down during the war -- and whether you attack it by rented car, scooter, or bycycle, it is a 12-mile trail of unrelieved, uncharted floral beauty. Well, there is one stretch of floral emptiness, near Vaitape, where an artificial-looking mansion stands in a clearing, reminding islanders of a nonmilitary invasion only several years ago.

The house is a leftover from the movie Hurricanem which brought Mia Farrow, Jason Robards Jr., and Trevor Howard to Bora Bora and which has since bombed. Dino de Laurentis, the producer, had nowhere to billet the cast so he quickly built a string of thatched cottages (fare,m in Tahitian) very much along the lines of the island's only substantial hotel, the Bora-Bora. Today the Cottages are a hotel called the Marara, managed by the producer's brother, Alfredo. The Marara and the Bora-Bora are quiet rivals, and each has its points.

The Bora-Bora seems to favor an American clientele; the Marara, though it is certainly not off-limits to Connersvile, Ind., customers, has a more international touch. The Bora-Bora is proud of its curving, palm-lined beach and its fine view of the sunsets. We've got the sunset and they've got the sunrise," sniffed a Hotel Bora-Bora man referring to the Marara's east-facing situation.

At either hotel and at all the others for that matter (the 50-farem Club Med, the Oa Oa, and Bloody Mary's) you live in a simple, unattached, high-peaked hut either suspended by pilings above the water (these are the most expensive) or within an easy moonlight stroll of the shore. Air-conditioning is, as far as I know, nonexistent on Bora-Bora and all the French Polynesian islands other than Tahiti. A fan above the bed more than does the job, although I am told the close, rainy days from November through March can be uncomfortable, though not stifling.

Paradise, sad to say, does not come cheap. At the Bora-Bora and the Marara you pay about $175 to $255 a day for a double room with meals included (though the package plans most visitors choose bring the daily rates down). A car costs across the bay to the towering Otemanu for $24 at bloody Mary's -- or less than half that at the guest house of the curiously named Mr. Alfredo Doom. And you don't need a car or a moped when a bike will easily get you around the island in a day for $8.

On a bike you can stop and sniff -- or pick if you wish; nobody minds -- the hibiscus, double hibiscus, frangipani, bougainvillea. On a bike you will not be too hurried to appreciate, on washday, the lines of brightly colored pareusm flapping in the breeze and the little roadside boxes that hold not the daily mail but freshly baked and delivered baguettes. On a bike you may spot a band of kids playing a ragtag game of basketball while a tiny girl watches the proceedings from a unique vantage point: balanced at the very top of the backboard.

I can still see, too, the children diving off the dock at Vaitape and singing in unison some French song as they splashed in the shallows. This was the afternoon I left Bora Bora, and the last glimpse as the boat pulled away -- the green Mt. Pahia looming above the white-steepled Eglise Evangelique in a fine drizzle -- was even more enchanting than my first view. I have a feeling the couples from Connersville were equality impressed.

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