Have you seen the magical island photos with sparkling blue water and relaxing overwater bungalows? Have you ever dreamed of snorkelling in one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons? Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Moana and are desperate to see the Polynesian world that inspired the movie? While Bora Bora and French Polynesia are not cited as the inspiration for the movie, you could be forgiven for arriving in Bora Bora and feeling like you are stepping foot into cinematic scenes.
Bora Bora is both an island and a community of islands within the Society Islands of French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of the French Republic located smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The main island of Bora Bora is a small mountain that rises up out of the ocean, surrounded by a lagoon and protected by a ring of small islands and reefs.
Inside the lagoon, the water is a crystal clear, brilliant blue that makes for some fantastic underwater sightseeing with remarkable clarity!
Making the most of this gorgeous, calm water, Bora Bora is home to many hotels featuring the iconic overwater bungalows that have become part of what Bora Bora is known for.
While staying in an overwater bungalow isn’t something you’ll get to do during a cruise to Bora Bora, there are plenty of amazing things to fill your time here!
Top things to see and do in Bora Bora when visiting on a cruise
Watch the sunrise
Most cruises arrive in Bora Bora early in the morning so that you get a full day in this tropical paradise. If you can, head out bright and early to watch the sunrise over the islands.
Vaitape is the main village in Bora Bora, located on the main island. Arriving on a cruise ship, you will take a tender boat to the Vaitape jetty, which is also where the Visitor Information Centre is located (and it does have free wifi available if you are desperate). In town, you can find a variety of shops, tour operators and vehicle hire options (from bicycles to cars to boats).
I’m sure you can do this in other places too, but our stop in Bora Bora was the first time I came across this remarkable way of exploring the coral and sea life in the Bora Bora lagoon. You might also see this called the Bora Bora Underwater Scooter.
The first overwater bungalows in Bora Bora were built at the Hotel Bora Bora in 1970. Overwater bungalows have since become a staple of accommodation here with almost every hotel offering them. On a cruise, you won’t have an opportunity to stay in one, but you can make sure you get to see them!
Bora Bora is located inside a barrier reef meaning that the lagoon is home to a wide range of coral and sea life. The snorkelling here is so beautiful. You won’t be able to jump straight in the water from the Vaitape jetty, but there are many tour options that will take you out into the reef to spot all kinds of fish, coral, sting rays, sharks and more.
Swim with sharks & sting rays
Take the Shark and Sting Ray Snorkel Safari for an opportunity to get up close with surprisingly large reef sharks and stunning sting rays.
Meet some dolphins
A variety of dolphin species frequent the Society Islands, and while there are no organised dolphin tours from Bora Bora, if you are watching closely on arrival, you just might spot these playful beauties checking you out and racing you to the lagoon!
Bora Bora was home to a United States military supply base in World War 2 and a number of artefacts were left behind. Taking a 4WD tour into the main island will show you some of this military history and some amazing views!
What I like best about Bora Bora
Hands down, the lagoon is my favourite part of Bora Bora. There is so much to do on and in the crystal clear water. I’ve snorkelled in a lot of reefs, and while the reef around Bora Bora is not the most spectacular, the clarity is unbelievable. Combined with the typically gentle rolling waves and shallow water, Bora Bora is extremely easy for novices to enjoy as well.
Snorkelling in the deeper water from the aqua bike platform is actually one of the most remarkable snorkelling experiences I’ve had. It was too deep to get close to coral, but there were many schools of different fish swimming through the water. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where a school of fish swam straight towards me, then parted like a bubble to go all around me in what seemed like I had a perfect sphere surrounding me. It was so cool!
What I don’t like about Bora Bora
There isn’t really anything I don’t like about Bora Bora. If I had to pick one thing, it would be that it can be a costly destination to visit, unless you go by cruise (like we did), which has the trade-off of limited time on the island.
The best time to visit Bora Bora by cruise ship
Owing to its tropical latitude of 16.5004° S, Bora Bora is between the Tropic of Capricorn and the equator making it a great destination all year-round. For reference, that puts Bora Bora roughly in line with other Pacific island nations like Fiji and Vanuatu. Bora Bora is also close to the same latitude as the Australian city of Cairns (latitude 16.9186° S if you are interested).
While thinking about somewhere on the same latitude as Cairns might sound muggy and unpleasant, Bora Bora is cooled by the surrounding ocean breezes and enjoys average year-round temperatures between 20°c and 28°c. That’s pretty pleasant!
Of course, if you are visiting by cruise ship, you are limited to the dates that they visit. Paul Gauguin Cruises operate in French Polynesia year-round, but if you are going with one of the major cruise lines, you will most likely need to line up a TransPacific cruise.
Almost all the major cruise lines operate at least one TransPacific cruise itinerary that stops in at Bora Bora along the way. That gives you two opportunities per year, per ship, per cruise line. If you did that mental math right, that means there are usually at least 12 crossings each year (outside of 2020) that do stop in at Bora Bora. Just be aware that not every TransPacific crossing goes to French Polynesia or stops at Bora Bora, so double-check the itinerary before committing.
TransPacific itineraries are cruises that transfer ships between the west coast of North America and Australia or Singapore (many can also be boarded in Honolulu). They typically leave North America in late September/early October and then head back in late March/early April. Since weather is good in Bora Bora any time, you know those dates work. The only questions are: what cruise line and what ship?
Ships that usually have TransPacific itineraries dropping anchor in Bora Bora are:
- Radiance of the Seas
- Quantum of the Seas
- Celebrity Eclipse
- Pacific Princess
- Sapphire Princess
- Emerald Princess
- Norwegian Jewel
Oh, and there are tropical cyclones to consider. Cyclone season is November through April, so it is possible that there might be one around if you take the Australia to North America route in March/April.
When I say it is possible there might be a cyclone, I say this as someone who was on a TransPacific cruise in April and skirted around the edge of a cyclone. It was pretty crazy, but our ship (Radiance of the Seas) and crew handled it brilliantly!
The cyclone was completely behind us by the time we got to Bora Bora, so I wouldn’t let that turn you off.
Pro’s and con’s of visiting Bora Bora by cruise ship
- A cheap way to visit Bora Bora (depending on the cruise line you choose).
- It’s a very relaxing trip to Bora Bora.
- No jet lag.
- No need to worry about accommodation.
- No need to get cash in an uncommon currency.
- You can see a lot in one day.
- Pretty much all the island activities are available on ship days (though they may be booked out if you don’t get in early).
- Depending on your arrival & departure times and direction of travel, you can watch the sun rising and/or setting over Bora Bora.
- There’s a good chance of seeing dolphins as they race the ship.
- Limited time on the island.
- You probably won’t visit the outer islets.
- No opportunity to stay in an overwater bungalow.
- Not as relaxing as staying on the island for a longer visit, especially if you pack your day full of activities.
- There are a lot more tourists around so most activities and the main island are busy.
- You don’t get to see Bora Bora from the air.
- Limited opportunity to experience Bora Bora at night.
What to pack when you visit Bora Bora for a day
Reef-Safe Sunscreen – You are probably going to be in the water or on the water, and in either case, the sun will burn you very quickly. Sunscreen is expensive on Bora Bora, and on your cruise ship, so make sure to bring it with you from home. To help protect the reef, make sure to choose a reef-safe brand.
If you need to top up you can order reef-safe sunscreen here.
Swimmers – Most of the activities in Bora Bora are in the water, so pack swimmers (or bathers if that’s what you call them)! Ideally ones that will help protect you from the sun.
Mask and Snorkel – There are beautiful reefs and great snorkelling to bad around the Bora Bora lagoon, so make sure to take your snorkel!
Flippers – Flippers aren’t 100% essential, but they definitely make snorkelling easier.
Reef shoes – If you don’t wear flippers, make sure you have reef shoes. Also called water shoes or water booties in some countries, foot protection is essential if you are in the water near rocks or reef. The last thing you want is a cut, graze, or worse that gets infected and becomes a costly end to your cruise.
Hat – If you aren’t in the water, make sure you have a hat to protect yourself from the sun. I know this sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to forget.
Cash – USD is generally accepted. You won’t need much for one day (unless you plan on doing a lot of shopping).
TransferWise Borderless Card – The best way to pay by card while travelling.
Passport – You know you need this, right?
Currencies and payments accepted in Bora Bora
The local currency in Bora Bora is the CFP Franc (currency code: XPF), also known as the Pacific Franc. Typically, everything in Bora Bora will be priced in CFP; however, many vendors around the main centre of Vaitape also accept USD and some accept other currencies as well. Be aware that if you choose to pay in cash with a different currency, the exchange rate will be whatever the vendor decides it is at the time.
You can check current conversion rates here. As a quick guide, you can typically expect $1 AUD to get around 70-80 XPF and $1 USD to get around 100 XPF, minus any exchange fees that may apply.
Most stores and tourism operators in Vaitape accept major credit cards but do be prepared to encounter some that are cash only, especially at the market stalls. We did encounter one vendor that would accept online PayPal deposits as well.
If you are paying by card, I recommend taking a TransferWise Borderless debit card to make sure you get the best value currency exchange and don’t pay excess fees. Transferwise always gets me a better exchange rate than my credit card and other bank cards.
Most of the stores around the town of Vaitape show prices in CFP only, even if they do accept other currencies, so be prepared for a little bit of mental math if you want to make a purchase, and be prepared to pay whatever the vendor decides the exchange rate is if you pay in any currency besides CFP.
Should you get local currency or use overseas cards?
If you have pre-booked your activities, then you are unlikely to need any cash at all. However, if you plan on throwing in some souvenir shopping, then it is a good idea to at least have some cash in USD. Getting cash in CFP francs for a day in Bora Bora isn’t necessary. It is a waste of time/money unless you are going to be visiting other French Polynesian and New Caledonian ports.
Electronic payments are an alternative to cash and many vendors around Vaitape accept major credit cards: Visa and Mastercard. Don’t be surprised to find some smaller operators that may be cash only. As I mentioned previously, these operators typically accept USD and may also accept some other currencies (eg AUD, NZD), especially if they are in the immediate vicinity of the Vaitape jetty.
I recommend using a TransferWise Borderless debit card to save yourself money on currency exchange fees typically associated with paying by card (TransferWise saves me fees of 3% of the transaction value on most overseas purchases along with better exchange rates).
Getting CFP Francs (XPF) when you arrive in Bora Bora
I would not advise trying to get CFP francs on your arrival in Bora Bora. ATM’s at the banks around Vaitape have limits, and while they may claim to accept Visa and Mastercard, they don’t always work. Besides, why waste your limited time in port trying to get cash?
On a side-note, many credit cards do charge a fee on overseas cash withdrawals, foreign currency transactions (usually around 3%), and then there is also any possible ATM fees and cash-advance fees that may apply. It’s really not worth bothering with.
I’d suggest carrying some USD cash, but if you really want to have some CFP francs with you, you might wish to pre-order it from your bank at home before you visit Bora Bora.
Getting CFP Francs in Australia
Any Australian bank can order a currency exchange to get CFP Francs for you. Fees on bank orders for foreign currency in Australia are usually too expensive for small quantities, but if you are planning to visit multiple islands in French Polynesia, or to also visit New Caledonia (where CFP/XPF is also used), then the fees may be worthwhile.
Be aware that CFP is fairly uncommon so your bank will almost certainly need to order it in advance. Make sure you allow time.
Outside of banks, you can also exchange cash in Australia for CFP at currency exchange kiosks that can be found in international airports, shopping centres and CBDs in major cities. Typically these are located in city centres or in larger shopping centres. Currency exchanges can be expensive though, often with fees starting at AUD $12 or higher and they may not have CFP ono hand.
However, if you try some of the small ones near cruise terminals (particularly in Sydney) and in international airports that offer regular flights to New Caledonia (eg Sydney, Brisbane), there is a good chance they will have CFP on hand.
Again, I’d suggest that you just take some USD as a cash backup and use a TransferWise Borderless debit card everywhere you can. The exchange rates are much better and fees much lower than what you will get on CFP conversions in Australia.
The best way to get and spend CFP/XPF with minimal fees
I recommend getting a TransferWise card. TransferWise is a multi-currency account, similar in concept to pre-paid travel cards like those you can get from Australia Post. TransferWise does not currently have accounts available for the CFP/XPF currency, so savings are not quite as good as on directly supported currencies. However, TransferWise has lower fees than pre-paid travel cards as they do not add a margin to the exchange rate like most pre-paid travel money cards do.
TransferWise is not fee-free, but the fees are lower than most other multi-currency cards. When combined with the exchange rate savings, TransferWise cards represent excellent value for making purchases in CFP/XPF while you are in Bora Bora.
TransferWise cards are Mastercard debit cards, so they are accepted in Bora Bora for payments and cash withdrawals everywhere that Mastercard is accepted. Most stores (excluding market stalls), restaurants and services accept Mastercard.
I have one of these cards myself and use it for payments and cash withdrawals overseas, including in Bora Bora, with no issues. I also use one of their business accounts to manage my business transactions across multiple currencies.
Average costs of a port day in Bora Bora
Bora Bora is not the cheapest place to get to, and while it is possible to get reasonably cheap accommodation (as long as you stay on the main island), the luxurious overwater bungalows can be in excess of $1,000 AUD per night. Visiting by cruise ship can significantly cut your costs, but you have the trade-off of time. Most cruises give you just one day in Bora Bora, so what can that day cost?
Activity costs in Bora Bora
Activities in Bora Bora are expensive, and shore excursions purchased through the cruise line are always more than booking directly with tour operators. However, while we all want to save the dollars, some activities in Bora Bora have limited space, like underwater aqua biking (which has a maximum capacity of 8 per session with 3 sessions in a day), so a cruise ship full of people can see it sell out fast.
If a particular activity is something you really want to do, make sure you book it in advance to avoid disappointment, even if that does mean paying a bit more to book it through the cruise line.
Prices for shore excursions do vary significantly. More expensive tours, like the Bora Bora Aqua Bike, will cost you around $320 AUD per person if you book them through the cruise ship vs about $275 AUD per person booking through Viator.
Other excursions like the shark and ray snorkel safari will set you back about $180 AUD booked through the cruise ship vs about $130 AUD per person when booked through Viator.
It’s worth noting that there are a number of different snorkel tour options available at different price points including private hire.
Many of the shore excursions in Bora Bora are timed to make it possible to do two excursions in the one day while comfortably having lunch in between. So if you do two excursions, be prepared to spend up to $600 AUD per person without going the private hire route.
If you don’t go back to the ship for lunch, you may be able to squeeze in a third shore excursion.
You can explore the available options for activities below:
Bike or car hire in Bora Bora
It’s possible to drive the 30km’s all the way around the main island of Bora Bora, so to get a peek at it all, you could hire a bicycle or car from Avis in Vaitape.
The Avis depot is located across the road from the souvenir shop at the Vaitape jetty so it is only a minute’s walk (or less) from where the tender boat will drop you off.
Prices vary, but you can typically rent a bike for the day for around 1,900 XPF, an e-bike for 4,400 XPF, and a small 2-seater electric car from 9,900 XPF (note, they are tiny little cars with one seat behind the other, more like a motorbike – you can jump up to an actual small car for 10,800 XPF).
So, for around $25 AUD per day for a bicycle up to around $150 AUD for a small car, you can get out and explore the island at your own pace. This is expensive compared to car rental in Australia, but it is a cheaper option compared to doing a tour or excursion. The question is, are you ok if you miss out on some of the spectacular marine life that Bora Bora has to offer?
This is what we’ll be doing the next time we visit Bora Bora for a day on a cruise ship!
To save on currency exchange fees when booking, and get the best price, I would suggest booking through Viator in your local currency where possible as they usually have better pricing than booking direct.
However, options on Viator are limited to the little electric cars and Minimokes. For other options, you will need to book directly with Avis Bora Bora and make sure to use your TransferWise Borderless debit card to get the best value currency exchange and save on fees.
Book a car or bicycle in Bora Bora:
Boat hire in Bora Bora
Renting a boat and seeing the lagoon your own way is another option. There is a wide range of choices in Bora Bora, from boats you can take out on your own through to luxury private yachts with guides, food and all the gear you need.
Going out on your own is a great way to see the lagoon for yourself, however, if it’s your first visit, or you’ve never controlled a boat before, it could be a better choice to go with an option where someone else can do the navigating. They know the lagoon and can take you to the best swimming and snorkel spots!
Here are some options from Viator:
- Bora Bora Self-Drive Boat Rental
- Bora Bora Self-Drive Jet Ski Tour
- Bora Bora Half-Day Catamaran Sailing, Snorkeling and Floating Bar
- Private Cruise: The Legends of Bora Bora
- Private Bora Bora Snorkeling Cruise
Consumer tax (VAT) on purchases in Bora Bora
The French Polynesian VAT taxation rules apply in Bora Bora and all goods sold include VAT in their advertised price. In practice, this means the price you see is what you will pay, just like how in Australia all prices advertised include their GST component.
There is no real tax-refund scheme available for tourists that is worth your time, however, some of the larger stores in Vaitape do offer duty-free shopping.
VAT varies between 5% and 16% based on where you are buying from and what you are buying. The majority of products and services outside of hotels will be taxed at 10%. Again, the advertised price includes any applicable VAT, regardless of the rate, so you don’t need to worry about what items have tax on them (or how much) and which ones don’t.
VAT applies to all restaurants and eateries as well as all activities and services you may purchase.
Tipping in Bora Bora
Tipping is not expected or common in Bora Bora or elsewhere in French Polynesia.
Staying safe in Bora Bora
Bora Bora is very safe. SmartTraveller does warn of occasional minor petty crimes occurring in French Polynesia, but as long as you keep common sense about where you are leaving your things (or what you even bring off the ship), you should be fine.
The biggest things to take care of in Bora Bora are going to be in the water (if you swim). Make sure you apply reef-safe sunscreen frequently and pay attention to your surroundings. The water is crystal clear and inviting with lots of fascinating reefs to explore. However, with those reefs comes the danger of waves, coral, reef sharks, stingrays, stonefish, and even barracuda.
If you are part of an organised tour you should be fine, but even so, take care. Pay attention to instructions and don’t try and touch things unless the tour guides explicitly tell you it is ok. Reef creatures are beautiful and generally safe to be around, but accidents can occur so stay alert.
While flippers aren’t essential in the calm lagoons, they are helpful. If you don’t wear flippers, I absolutely recommend weaingr reef shoes (aka water booties / water shoes) that have a sturdy sole. Reef shoes might not be the most stylish footwear, but they are so important to protect your feet from cuts and grazes that can become infected as well as protecting you from spiny stonefish.
The last thing you want on your holiday is an expensive ship doctors bill for an infection or other injury that could have been avoided with something as simple as reef shoes.
Accessing the internet in Bora Bora
If you are only in Bora Bora briefly on a cruise, you probably aren’t thinking about the internet. However, if you are desperate, there is free wifi available at the Vaitape Visitor Information Centre, and if you do a resort visit, they typically have wifi available too.
Otherwise, there is cell service across most of the main island. Your mobile plan will need to support roaming and you will need to be prepared to pay for any applicable roaming charges, of course.
Useful apps for travelling to Bora Bora
If you are planning on touring Bora Bora yourself instead of an organised excursion, it’s pretty hard to get lost (unless you somehow manage to find yourself outside of the lagoon, but I don’t know how you could manage that unintentionally and you probably have a much bigger problem than just being lost).
Should you choose to explore the main island on your own, a map might come in handy. I recommend the Google Maps app on your phone because you can pre-download a map of Bora Bora and then use it without internet access. Perfect!
The best booking tools and resources for travelling to Bora Bora on a cruise
Generally speaking, I book cruises direct with the cruise lines.
The main cruise lines that have TransPacific itineraries every year are:
While I do usually book direct, I’ve found I can sometimes get better deals through these booking agents:
- Cruise Critic: Deal search across multiple booking agents and cruise lines direct. Useful for finding the best itinerary and price comparisons.
- Qantas Cruises: Subsidiary of the Qantas airline group, Qantas Cruises is operated on Qantas’ behalf by Cruise Guru and has been known to offer additional loss-leader sales on top of cruise line offered sales that cannot be met by other travel agents (I’ve tried getting other agents, even family members to match the prices and they can’t do it, and these deals aren’t available through Cruise Guru directly either). This isn’t always the case mind you, but if you can find one of those deals, it’s brilliant value.
- Expedia Cruises: Offer some of their own promotions from time to time on top of cruise deals that represent great value, particularly when you combine cruises with accommodation and/or flight bookings.
- OzCruising: Australian cruise specialist that sometimes has better pricing than elsewhere.
- Vacations To Go: US-based booking agent specialising in last-minute cruises, usually with steep discounts.
I also find Cruise Critic a great source of information on ships, stateroom reviews, excursion information and just about anything else related to the cruise.
Viator and Get Your Guide are the only booking sites for activities in Bora Bora. Viator has the most comprehensive range of choices with much better prices than booking through the cruise line. Get Your Guide does not have as many activities available, but their prices tend to be ever so slightly cheaper.
There are also some shore excursion specialist booking sites that focus on cruise line shore excursions. They tend to have policies specifically to cater for things that happen with cruise ships, like port cancellations or missed sailings. However, I’ve never used any of the ones that offer excursions in Bora Bora.
When I need to get flights before or after a cruise, I always check these sites for the best flight options:
Did I miss something that should be here? Let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, let me know what you are most looking forward to about a cruise to Bora Bora!
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