What It's Like to Travel to Bora Bora During the Pandemic, According to an American Who Went

Travel during COVID-19 may not be for everyone, but I committed to taking every personal precaution during the trip and at the destination. Here's what I learned along the way.

Tropical paradise landscapes of Bora Bora
Photo: Patricia Doherty

Bora Bora inspires thoughts of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a faraway island with turquoise seas and swaying palms. When I was offered an opportunity to go to that island in French Polynesia, I accepted without hesitation, more than ready for travel after months of quarantine and road trips. The South Pacific? Yes, of course! Along the way, I learned that the Bora Bora of my imagination was only partially accurate.

Travel during COVID-19 may not be for everyone, but I committed to taking every personal precaution during the trip and at the destination. I researched the pre-travel testing and reporting requirements. Flights were convenient, and to my surprise, flight time from Los Angeles to Tahiti is only about eight hours, not much longer than a flight to the East Coast. From there, it’s a 50-minute flight to Bora Bora and then a quick boat ride to the hotel. Cruising on the St. Regis Resort boat made it feel as if the vacation had started even before I checked in. First lesson learned: Bora Bora really isn’t that far away after all. Second lesson: once in a lifetime may not be enough. I hope to return for another visit. Soon.

The part about the turquoise sea is true. Shades from pale aqua to deep teal and sapphire blue extend to the horizon. A craggy mountain covered in dense greenery appeared as we approached the hotel — Mount Otemanu. Its emerald-colored peaks were the backdrop of the view from my overwater villa at the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort. After a quick check-in at the plexiglass-framed front desk and a golf cart ride to the villa, I surveyed my surroundings.

The spacious living room included a round glass table, cozy corner with couch, desk, and a long curved sofa. In front of the sofa, a six-foot-wide, clear plexiglass cocktail table was a window to the sea below. Outside on the large deck were a mosaic tiled whirlpool, umbrella-topped chaise lounges, and a round dining table for four. A few steps down, a platform extended over the sea. I couldn’t wait to jump in, so I changed quickly, skipped the ladder, and cannonballed in. The water was clear, warm, calm, and utterly delightful.

Interior of overwater bungalow in Bora Bora
Patricia Doherty

A post-travel massage had been arranged at the hotel’s new Iridium Spa, set on its own island in a lagoon on the hotel’s property. The therapist wore her mask the entire time, and guests are required to shower in the spa facility before the massage. The spa was spotless and spacious, and guests are assured of thorough disinfecting of the facilities between treatments.

Each overwater villa is assigned two bicycles, labeled with the villa number, for guests’ use during their stay. It was fun to ride to the restaurant for breakfast and to the beach or pool, although it was possible to walk to most areas or call for a convenient ride in a golf cart. The St. Regis Butler is there to take care of every detail. A favorite of mine was the Wake-up Beverage service — coffee and croissants on the deck were the perfect start to the day.

COVID-19 Precautions Are Evident Throughout

While it’s easy to forget the rest of the world when you’re in Bora Bora, I was still aware of the global pandemic, with masks, sanitizer dispensers, and distancing markers as constant reminders. A video playing on the TV detailed the health precautions taken regularly, for example, disinfecting the entire room with special attention to touch points and all surfaces. Minibars in the villas have been emptied, but they can be supplied upon request. Beach equipment like paddleboards, oars, and kayaks are disinfected after each use, and guests keep the same complimentary mask and snorkel throughout their stay. Hotel staff wore masks at all times.

Restaurant tables are widely spaced, and several have outdoor seating. Breakfast and lunch are served at Te Pahu, open to the beach and lagoon. I enjoyed a special dinner at Lagoon by Jean-Georges, after a sunset cocktail on their outdoor terrace. Sharks swim below, visible through parts of the floor, and the French-Asian dishes were delicious. Sushi at Bam Boo featured fresh local fish.

Tropical landscapes of Bora Bora
Patricia Doherty

There’s Much to Do — but Nothing at All Is Fine Too

I loved the half-day boat trip to snorkeling sites where I swam among rays, black tip reef sharks, and hundreds of colorful tropical fish. I was wishing I had an underwater camera to capture the underwater scenes, but I did come home with a sunburned back to remind me of my snorkeling adventure. Splashing through the lagoon on a jetski was great fun, and others explored on paddle boards and kayaks. My neighbor in the villa next door was content floating in the aqua lagoon for hours in her inner tube.

The white sand beach features an overwater hammock and several large cushioned cabanas where guests can relax or even enjoy a meal. The main pool, near the beach and Te Pahu Restaurant, is expansive and has a swim-up bar. The Oasis Pool, for adults only, is serene with a waterfall and raised private cabanas overlooking the mosaic tiled pool. The Lagoonarium, a protected sanctuary for thousands of tropical fish, clams, and other sea creatures, includes the large Napoleon fish. Guests can snorkel among the marine life or hear from a marine biologist about the fascinating sea creatures. Feeding time was fun to watch, and guests can buy approved fish food at the resort and have their own party with the fish.

Getting to Bora Bora

I flew Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Tahiti aboard their Tahitian Dreamliner, a new Boeing 787-9. The larger than usual windows can be dimmed to the level desired, and video screens are provided on each seat. Service was excellent, with dinner and breakfast on the overnight flights, along with complimentary cocktails and beverages. Premium economy on my outbound flight offered extra space and comfortable recline, and I returned in economy class, impressed with the amount of legroom and meal service. Amenity kits are provided in both classes as well as a mask, spray sanitizer, and wipes.

Other airlines serving Tahiti are United Airlines, Air France, and French Bee. The inter-island flight from Tahiti to Bora Bora is offered by Air Tahiti.

Pre-travel Requirements

Every passenger is required to take a COVID-19 test within three days of departure, and specifics are spelled out for travelers. An online form must be completed along with proof of negative test results. An additional test is required after four days in French Polynesia, and a date-stamped envelope containing a self-administered test is provided upon arrival indicating when to take and submit the test. An email reminder is also sent on the third day.

Additional conditions are spelled out relating to masks, curfews, groups, and social distancing. Wearing a mask is mandatory in all enclosed places and on public transport, and in some outdoor public spaces, including parks and markets and near schools, airports, places of worship, and more.

The Current COVID-19 Situation in French Polynesia

French Polynesia as a whole has seen a total of 12,121 COVID-19 cases and 56 deaths since the outbreak began, according to Johns Hopkins' Coronavirus Research Center data. "The majority of the active cases are in Tahiti and Moorea and are related to spread within the local community," a rep for Tahiti Tourisme told Travel + Leisure. "Only 1% of those who test positive in French Polynesian are travelers."

However, the French Polynesian authorities have extended the state of health emergency through Dec. 16, which includes the increased regulations mentioned above and also prohibits gatherings of more than six people in a public place. It also limits restaurant seatings to six people per table and establishes a curfew of 9 p.m. in Tahiti and Moorea.

Where to Stay If You Go

Overwater bungalows and beachfront villas are the most popular places to stay in Bora Bora. Most of the luxury resorts are situated on motus, or small islands surrounded by lagoons, thus the requirement to arrive by boat. Airbnb offers Bora Bora properties, and vacation rentals are also available.

The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort features the largest overwater villas as well as beach and garden villas. Their Royal Estate three-bedroom, 13,000 square-foot villa includes its own beach, pool, and an array of amenities, attracting celebrities and guests who value its exclusivity and privacy.

Other resorts include the Four Seasons, Conrad, and Intercontinental. Paul Gauguin Cruises offers another way to explore Tahiti and the Society Islands.

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