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Photograph by Avery Stonich

Bora Bora: Adventure in the Polished Pearl of the Pacific

Have you ever dreamed of a paradise so breathtaking you have to witness it in person to believe it? Welcome to Bora Bora, the “Pearl of the Pacific”—a stunning French Polynesian island that has been called heaven on Earth. Last week I ventured to this far-off land to see if it could live up to the image I held in my mind. I can assure you, it did not disappoint. Bora Bora bared her beauty at every turn. Yet, too, she hinted that beneath her polished lustre lies a complexity not quite at peace with her soul.

I had just a week to explore—barely time to scratch the surface, but enough to pique my curiosity and make me hungry to learn more.

On the 45-minute flight from the island of Tahiti to Bora Bora, I fell in love. Eagerly peering out the small plane’s window, I could hardly believe the scene below me. Ribbons of aquamarine water embrace the islands’ shores. Stretching skyward are steep lava peaks—hints of towering underwater mountains that exploded from Earth’s fire millions of years ago.

We touched down on an island runway surrounded by soft, white sand. Let the adventures begin! And what better way to get under the skin of a new land that to get outside and explore?

During our seven-day stay, we scoured Bora Bora and the lagoon that surrounds it. Every outdoor adventure brought a different perspective. Snorkeling the crystal clear waters, I felt myself surrender to the island’s languid pace. There is something so relaxing about gently drifting along the ocean’s surface, watching the world below and listening to the sound of your breath. At one point, I lifted my head and saw three whales breaching beyond the reef break. What a dream.

Later we dove beneath the crystalline surface, swimming amid sharks and manta rays, marveling at their majestic grace. I was mesmerized by the dizzying variety of fish, and the beauty and bounty of the ocean.

One day we rented bikes and pedaled the 18-mile perimeter road, one of my favorite ways to explore a foreign land. Rolling along on a creaky cruiser with half-flat tires and a rusty chain, life slows to quarter speed. You have no choice to fully imbibe the sights, sounds and smells around you. What we saw was in stark contrast to the swanky, manicured resorts where tourists sleep. There’s no luxury to the locals’ life. Ramshackle houses, cagey watch dogs, and burning garbage expose an island truth far removed from the postcard paradise.

We also circled the island on jet skis, something I’ve never tried. It was way more fun than I expected! Flying along on this powerful steed, I had to completely focus on the water in front of me. I was surprised to find myself more connected to the lagoon’s aqua blue color than ever before.

Bora Bora is known for its lagoon. Many visitors never venture beyond its dazzling waters. But we wanted to dig into the island’s interior, so on our final day, we signed up for a guided hike. Little did we know that this is where the island’s true colors would begin to emerge.

Our guide, Azdine, is something of an anomaly—a French man of Moroccan descent who came to Bora Bora 10 years ago to study its archaeology. To fund his research, he leads hikes on a trail he cut into the island’s jungly interior, a place deemed taboo for natives. Bora Bora’s steep volcanic hills are cloaked in dense forest and shrouded in mystery.

The irony is that the islanders’ ancestors were well acquainted with the hills, evidenced by ancient burial grounds and abundant planted fruit trees. It’s only in recent times that the locals were relegated to the island shores. Adzine is trying to change this—by uncovering the island’s secrets, and teaching people where to gather fruits to save them from having to spend dearly on high-priced groceries. He records his archaeological findings, sharing stories of Polynesian heritage long hidden under tangled knots of vegetation. It’s funny: Azdine is a man without his own country, yet he’s trying to help the Bora Bora people regain their history and understanding of their land. And he does it with infectious enthusiasm.

Alas, our sweaty, adventurous slog to a remote cave ended too soon. Recent rains made the final approach too slick, and we had to turn back before we reached our goal. The full story of Bora Bora wasn’t ready to reveal herself that day.

Bora Bora seduced me with her beauty and intrigued me with her secrets. It’s a land of tropical abundance, yet its people live challenging lives. I was just a brief visitor, using outdoor recreation as a means to get acquainted—such a rewarding way to explore. I know I barely glossed the surface. But something tells me I’ll return one day to dive deeper into the soul of this enchanting land.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich