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Most of Bora Bora's residents live on the flat coastal strip that rings the island. The paved round-island road skirts the shoreline and runs in and out of the bays. Because the road is only 32km (19 miles) long, many visitors see it by bicycle (give yourself a full day), scooter, or car.

Some of the sights mentioned below may not be easy to find, however, so consider taking a guided tour around the island. Otemanu Tours (tel. 67.70.49; otemanu.tours@mail.pf) still uses one of the traditional, open-air le truck vehicles, which adds an extra dimension to its trips, but be sure your tour is in le truck and not an air-conditioned bus. The cost is about 4,000CFP (US$50/£25) per person; you can book at any hotel activities desk.

You can get a spectacular bird's-eye view of the island with Polynesia Hélicoptères (tel. 54.87.20; www.polynesia-helicopter.com). It charges about 16,300CFP (US$204/£103) per person for a 15-minute sightseeing flight over Bora Bora and its lagoon. If you've never seen an atoll and aren't going to the Tuamotu Islands, consider a 30-minute flight over Bora Bora and out to Tupai, a ring of flat islets enclosing a lagoon north of Bora Bora; the cost is about 27,000CFP (US$338/£171) per person. A minimum of four passengers is required on all flights. Polynesia Hélicoptères also provides transfers between Bora Bora and Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa, off Tahaa.

Vaitape

Either driving or biking, you should begin at the small boat harbor in Vaitape, Bora Bora's only town and its administrative center. The harbor is the center of attention in Vaitape, as Air Tahiti, the cruise ships, and the shuttle boats from the resorts on Motu Toopua (the large islet offshore) land their passengers here. The island's visitor information center and women's handicrafts center are in the large building beside the harbor. Vaitape's only street is lined with boutiques, black-pearl shops, and other establishments designed to wrench money from your pockets. The post office is to the right as you face the mountains, but most business activity takes place north of the harbor, especially at the modern Centre Commercial La Pahia.

In the parking lot, opposite the gendarmerie, is a monument to famed French socialite, author, and yachtsman Alain Gerbault, who single-handedly skippered his boat Firecrest around the world between 1923 and 1929, stopping for an extended period in French Polynesia. Gerbault returned to French Polynesia in 1933 and championed the cause of the islanders against the colonial bureaucracy. He also introduced soccer to the locals. Gerbault was interned on Moorea at the outbreak of World War II in Europe because he favored the pro-Nazi Vichy government in Paris, while French Polynesians sided with Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French. He was released on the condition he leave the territory. He sailed to Indonesia, where he died on Timor in 1941. Six years later, the French navy returned his ashes to Bora Bora, his favorite island.

From the harbor, walk northward through Vaitape, taking in its large Christian church, which stands at the base of soaring Mount Pahia. When you've seen enough of this Polynesian village, turn south and head counterclockwise around the island.

Matira Beach

After following the shore of semicircular Povai Bay, the road climbs the small headland, where a huge banyan tree marks the entrance to the Hotel Bora Bora on Raititi Point, and then follows curving Matira Beach, one of French Polynesia's finest. Some of the island's best snorkeling is in the shallow, sand-bottom lagoon off these powdery white sands. People have homes on the other side of the road, but the beach itself is still remarkably undeveloped.

The road follows the beach and then curves sharply to the left at the south end of the island. Watch here for a narrow paved road to the right. This leads to Matira Point, the low, sandy, coconut-studded peninsula that extends out from Bora Bora's south end. Down this track about 46m (150 ft.) is a public beach on the west side of the peninsula, opposite the InterContinental Le Moana Resort. The lagoon is shallow all the way out to the reef at this point, but the bottom is smooth and sandy. When I first came to Bora Bora in 1977, I camped for a week on Matira Point; the InterContinental Le Moana Resort is now just one of many structures in what was then a virtually deserted coconut grove completely surrounded by unspoiled beach.

A Killer View -- The round-island road curves along the shore of Povai Bay, where Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia tower over you. Take your time along this bay; the views here are the best on Bora Bora. When you reach Bloody Mary's Restaurant & Bar, go out on the pier for a killer view back across the water at Mount Otemanu.

The East Coast

After rounding the point, you'll pass through the island's busy hotel-and-restaurant district before climbing a hill above the Club Med, which sits beside Faaopore Bay. A steep trail begins at a set of steps on the mountain side of the road and goes up to a lookout over the bay. Another trail cuts off to the right on the north side of the hill and goes to the Aehautai Marae, one of several old temples on Bora Bora. This particular one has a great view of Mount Otemanu and the blue outlines of Raiatea and Tahaa islands beyond the motu on the reef.

You will go through a long stretch of coconut plantations before entering Anau, a typical Polynesian village with a large church, a general store, and tin-roof houses crouched along the road. Anau is the landing point for boats going to and from Le Meridien Bora Bora and the InterContinental Resort and Thalasso Spa Bora Bora, whose overwater bungalows you will see out on Motu Pitiaau. The St. Regis Resort Bora Bora and the Four Seasons Bora Bora are slated to join them out there.

The road goes over two hills at Point Haamaire, the main island's easternmost extremity, about 4km (2 1/2 miles) north of Anau village. Between the two hills on the lagoon side of the road stands Aehautai Marae, a restored temple. Out on the point is Taharuu Marae, which has a great view of the lagoon. The Americans installed naval guns in the hills above the point during World War II.

The North & West Coasts

On the deserted northeast coast, you will ride through several miles of coconut plantations pockmarked by thousands of holes made by tupas (land crabs). After turning at the northernmost point, you pass a group of overwater bungalows and another group of houses that climb the hill. Some of these are expensive condominiums; the others are part of a defunct project that was to have been a Hyatt resort. The ruins of what was to have been the resort's funicular railway scar the hillside. Across the lagoon are Motu Mute and the airport.

Faanui Bay was used during World War II as an Allied naval base. It's not marked, but the U.S. Navy's Seabees built the concrete wharf on the north shore as a seaplane ramp. Just beyond Farepiti Wharf, the main cargo shipping dock at the point on the southern entrance to Faanui Bay, is the restored Marotetini Marae, which in pre-European days was dedicated to navigators. In his novel Hawaii, James Michener had his fictional Polynesians leave this point to discover and settle the Hawaiian Islands. Nearby are tombs in which members of Bora Bora's former royal family are buried. If you look offshore at this point, you'll see the only pass into the lagoon. The remains of two U.S. guns that guarded it stand on the hill above, but are best visited on a safari tour.

Entering Vaitape, Magasin Chin Lee is a major gathering place for local residents. It's a good place to soak up some island culture while trimming your thirst with a cold bottle of Eau Royale.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.