Our flight from Los Angeles arrived at the Papeete airport, on the island of Tahiti, an hour after sunset. We took a short cab ride to the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti, where we were driven in electric carts to our overwater bungalows.
As my family and friends set about doing sensible things like unpacking and reading about the resort, I threw on my swimming trunks and raced out the back door and down the steps to our private landing.
During the 8 ½ hour flight, I had pictured myself jumping off that platform, and I was not willing to wait for daylight. The one small complication: In the dark, there was no way to tell the depth of the ocean without getting wet.
I stepped down the ladder and tested the water temperature with my foot. It was a bit cooler than I expected on a warm and humid Tahitian night, but quite nice for the dead of winter (air and water temperatures vary only about five degrees year-round). I moved down another step, and another.
At the bottom of the ladder, I released my grip and slipped into the blackness of the sea, becoming completely submerged. When I rose to break the surface, I could see the glow of lights inside our bungalow, hear the water slapping against the piers under our room and taste the salt of the South Pacific.
For a few precious minutes, I let the seductive currents carry me away from shore. Ahh, paradise...
It was at about that moment that I slammed my foot into an underwater boulder and swam -- one-legged -- back to the landing for first aid.
Five minutes into the first of my many planned adventures, there was already skin on the rocks. With shark diving ahead, I wondered how much would be left of me by the end of the trip.
The next morning I was up early to explore (with a slight limp) the sprawling resort, perhaps the finest on the island. I found two inviting infinity pools, a spa and fitness center and an activities center for water sports.
The resort's gourmet, overwater, French restaurant and the casual restaurant are both open-air, while the lively Tiki Bar overlooks the pool and shares great views of the lagoon and the island of Moorea, in the distance.
Watch out for the Ti Punch -- it's the kind of drink John Wayne might have had before having a bullet removed.
One of the resort's highlights is the Lagoonarium, a man-made, saltwater snorkeling area stocked with colorful fish and fed by the sea on two sides. With such clear water, it's easy to see the fish from the paths and bridges, without getting wet.
At midmorning, we made our way back to the airport for a flight to Bora Bora.
French Polynesia is a long way to go for a 7-night cruise, so like many who sail the Paul Gauguin, we were treating ourselves to a pre-cruise visit to the island that author James Michener (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific) called the most beautiful in the world.
Forty-five minutes later, we touched down on an airstrip built by the US Navy during World War II, and entered the small, open-air terminal to find a representative from the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa.
Around the neck of every arriving guest, she hung a lei of tiare flowers, incredibly fragrant gardenias with pure white blossoms. Our luggage was loaded on a boat sent by the resort, and we were quickly off on a 10-minute ride across the lagoon.
Dead ahead, rising abruptly from the water, the main island of Bora Bora looked like the setting for a King Kong movie: A lush, green shoreline of coconut and banana and lemon trees giving way to deep and forbidding jungles and sheer cliffs of volcanic rock.
The clouds parted as we neared the private dock of the hotel, and under a bright sun we were awed by the brilliant shades of blue water in the lagoon.
We were met by smiling hostesses, offered a refreshing fruit drink and shuttled by electric cart to reception and down the long pier to our overwater bungalows.
The Intercontinental sits on its own island across the lagoon from the main island of Bora Bora. The resort is much newer than the Intercontinental in Papeete and simply spectacular in every way, from the infinity pool overlooking the beach to the beautifully decorated, open-air restaurants and bars.
The therapy rooms in the Thalasso Spa are positioned over a lagoon of brightly colored fish, and the large glass windows in the floor provide the best views ever seen through a face cradle.
I have been fortunate to stay in some pretty amazing places as I scout the world for my readers, but none that beat this resort's overwater bungalows for size, decor and surroundings.
The spacious living rooms feature a glass coffee table with a view through the floor into soothing, turquoise water. At night, lights under each bungalow lure fish of all sizes.
We swam and snorkeled and kayaked our way around the resort, merely stepping off the platform behind our bungalows into crystal-clear water with a sandy bottom and no boulders.
Throughout the day, as the sun moved from horizon to horizon, the colors of the water and the island seemed to change. I could not keep from turning toward the peaks of Bora Bora across the shimmering lagoon, a spectacle that filled the senses and left me as satisfied as Thanksgiving dinner.
Through the resort's concierge, we hired an enterprising and entertaining French expat to take us on a hiking tour of flora and fauna and to the remnants of an ancient Polynesian temple that he had personally uncovered. From there, we went deeper into the jungle, climbing to the top of the ridge that runs the length of Bora Bora under a canopy of leaves and branches so dense that we had to use a flash to take photos.
From the peak, we had panoramic views of both sides of the island, the coasts and lagoon and barrier reef, and the islands beyond.
If you find yourself on Bora Bora and in need of a strenuous hike, the guide's name is Oualid Azoine, but he is locally known as Tana Atea, which he roughly translated from Tahitian as "a child from far away."
In our exploration of Bora Bora, we have found the locals to be kind and welcoming, and many people in the hotels, restaurants, pearl shops and informal markets speak English as a third language, after French and Tahitian.
The currency here is the Pacific Franc (CFP), and with so much of what is consumed coming from France or New Zealand, prices are universally high. Hotel and restaurant rates start at expensive and go up from there.
By American standards, most homes are quite modest and cars are old and small, but we have not sensed that people are unhappy with what they have.
The pace is slow and easy. Freshly caught mahi-mahi and tuna hang by small boats along the shoreline, and barefoot children play in the shade of banana trees.
Tomorrow we are off to Papeete to board the Paul Gauguin, and I will check in from the ship. We will return to Bora Bora on the cruise, and visit three other islands of French Polynesia.
I can't say whether Bora Bora is the most beautiful island in the world, but I'm willing to keep looking.
Vacations To Go can arrange pre- or post-cruise stays at the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti and the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa, at the time you book your cruise. Ask your cruise counselor for details.
Vacations To Go
French Polynesia Trip, Part 1: I'm Never Going Home!
French Polynesia Trip, Part 3: Aboard the Paul Gauguin
French Polynesia Trip, Part 4: A Look Back
French Polynesia Trip, Part 5: Bora Bora and Moorea