The InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa sets the bar in French Polynesia for large eco-luxury incentive programs, in terms of both the eco and the luxury. The experience begins as you exit the prop plane onto the tarmac at Bora Bora Airport, where you’re immediately confronted with one of the world’s most iconic tropical images. Monolithic spires of a crumbling volcano tower into the heavens inside a mesmerizing teal blue lagoon rimmed by a circle of low lying coral atolls. The rugged peaks lend an aura of prehistoric drama juxtaposed to the elegant resorts tucked along the atolls, all with unblemished white beaches and gin-clear water.
From the airport, everyone hops into their respective hotel’s fast ferry for the transfer inside the placid lagoon. It’s about 20 minutes to the InterContinental where we’re greeted by a heavily tattooed Maori man blowing the traditional conch shell greeting.
Quite possibly, I’m the only single visitor from here to Hawaii. Bora Bora is one of the world’s top honeymoon destinations, and right away you realize everything here is designed to help propagate the human species.
The grounds are thick with palm trees and fat ferns. The 80 overwater villas are the largest in Tahiti, stretching out into the lagoon along wooden piers emanating from the resort’s hub. On land, the pool is bookended by the two restaurants, the fun and funky-luxe Bubbles Bar and the long talcum powder beach.
Picking me up at the dock, hotel manager Christophe Maudet stops our golf cart near the beach so we can watch the afternoon’s manta ray feeding. Every day at around 2pm, a school of stingrays show up in the knee deep water to be fed by guests. Because the water is so clear and so shallow, it’s a very up close and personal experience in the stingray’s natural habitat.
DEEP OCEAN SCIENCE
How the hotel protects that natural habitat is a helluva story. Marlon Brando purchased the private island of Tetiaroa after he visited Tahiti to film Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962. He became friends with Dick Bailey, who owns the four area InterContinental hotels and Paul Gauguin Cruises. Brando was an inspired environmentalist and he proposed to Bailey the idea of sourcing cold 40°F water from the sea floor for refrigeration and A/C, instead of cooling warm water on land electrically, requiring the use of dirty diesel generators.
With inspiration from his famous friend and Dr. John Craven, chief scientist at Honolulu’s non-profit Common Heritage Corporation, Bailey built the world’s first “closed-loop chilled water distribution system” when the hotel opened in 2006. It’s called “SWAC” for short: Seawater Air-Conditioning. The cold water pumped up from 2,800 feet below sea level is used throughout the main resort, spa and overwater villas, which negates the need for about 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel yearly.
The system will pay for itself next year.
I requested a tour with Maudet out to the edge of the atoll where you can see the big supply pipe disappear into the depths. We also looked inside the main control room. Maudet was proud to show off the inner workings of the entire system and the series of original black and white photos on the wall of Brando, Bailey and the innovative construction phase itself.
“There’s nothing like this in the world,” he says. “We usually have about 20-25 guests per week ask for this tour. More and more, people want to know about these kinds of things, and what impact their visit has on the environment.”
DEEP OCEAN SPA
The InterContinental Bora Bora opened with the first Thalasso spa in the southern hemisphere. The massive 50,000-sf Algotherm Deep Ocean Spa requires a huge amount of water and A/C on constant demand, which would have been prohibitive to operate in this remote locale without the SWAC system.
The destination wellness facility features 14 treatment rooms, including five hydrotherapy units, cold plunge pools, rainshowers and steam rooms. There’s also three couples’ spa bungalows with glass floors below the face rests, so you can look at the colorful fish while enjoying therapies like the Deep Blue Massage. The deep “sub-marine” water used is rich with plentiful minerals not found at higher levels, combined with sea salts, seaweed and essential oils.
Outdoors among the landscaped palm forest, I tried the “Swim Spa Pool” where you swim in place against an adjustable current. The numerous elbow jets are like metal firehoses pulsating with powerful water streams to loosen up the neck and back. There’s also a 25-foot cold seawater foot path and five private jacuzzis hidden behind tall stone walls, with views of the lagoon and volcano.
While most of the hotels in Tahiti recreate the local flavor with lots of bamboo and thatch, InterContinental Bora Bora forges a slightly more designer flair. The two restaurants are both open-air. Le Sands is right on the beach with casual bistro fare, among the best we tasted in six hotels throughout the islands. Le Reef is the fine dining restaurant famous for it lobster soup, adjacent to a large outdoor plaza used for weekly firebreathing dance performances.
In between the two restaurants, the Bubbles Bar was designed by the famous French designer, Philippe Starck, which is apparent the moment you walk in and sit down on the different shaped white leather and lucite chairs plucked straight out of South Beach.
In keeping with the modern vibe, the new bar menu features molecular cocktails—a sort of science experiment in a glass and offshoot of the molecular gastronomy trend—where ingredients are tweaked with anything from blow torches to liquid nitrogen. Try the “Molecule of Love” cocktail (below) including rose champagne, Malibu rum and a strawberry and raspberry puree.
BEST VIEW FROM THE BEDROOM
The star attractions, of course, at InterContinental Bora Bora are the 80 overwater villas stretching out into the lagoon along four curved wooden piers emanating from the resort’s hub. The design on the outside is simple: concrete piers, unpainted wood and thatch. In fact, up and down the lagoon’s “Honeymooon Row,” all of the hotels look pretty much the same, and that’s a good thing because their plain exteriors don’t distract from the South Pacific postcard.
Inside, prepare to be blown away. The villas are over 1,000 sf with cathedral ceilings and a huge living room opening out to a large wood deck with table and chairs. A ladder extend to a second deck perched a couple feet above the water, and trust us, you will spend a lot of time on these two decks while guests kayak by and wave hello.
In the center of the villa, the beds face a floor to ceiling window, some of which frame the volcano. These units have been ranked as having the “World’s Best View from the Bedroom” on Tripadvisor, and yes, you’ll spend a lot of time here too. On the other side of the hall, there’s a large walk-in closet, and at the far end, big clawfoot tubs face another large window with the same stunning views.
Waking up in one of these villas and taking you coffee out on the deck with a loved one—not that I would know—is in a word: awesome. After more than 1,000 site inspections around the world, this was easily the best hotel bedroom I have ever experienced. Ever.