The most beautiful island on Earth

James Shrimpton discovers the real star behind a recent romantic comedy.

Bora Bora has often been called the world's most beautiful island.

It comprises one main island of 29sq-km, roughly the shape of a seahorse, with white-sand beaches and surrounded by a coral reef and strings of "motus" (islets); resident population is about 6,000.

In between lies a lagoon of breathtakingly-brilliant colours, from turquoise to deep blue.

In the jungled hills of the interior, volcanic mountains named Otemanu (727m high) and Pahia (661m) dominate the skyline.

At Bora Bora's airport, located on Motu Mote,a fleet of boats waits to transport incoming tourists to their resort hotels, many of which offer "over the-water" bungalows with glass panels in the floors providing mesmerising views of the fish swimming below.

The five-star resorts on tropical Bora Bora are exclusive and expensive, popular with celebrities - Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban honeymooned at the St Regis where they occupied the palatial 1,208sq-m "royal estate" for four nights priced at $US15,000 ($A16,374) a night.

But the island also has "pensions" (French for guest-houses), and other cheaper accommodation.

Among activities for tourists are sailing in the lagoon where Polynesian guides introduce them to feeding (small, reef, friendly) sharks and playing with stingrays, also diving, snorkelling and boating of all kinds.

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On land there are 4WD safaris into the interior for some splendid ocean views and to visit some of the 50 ancient "maraes," holy places where Polynesians once prayed and made sacrifices to their gods.

Or try helicopter flights around the mountains, reefs and beaches.

The airport, and tourism in French Polynesia generally, owe much to the events of World War II.

On many inland tours on this peaceful and laid-back tropical island, you come across a reminder of war: Two deactivated seven-inch (17.8cm) cannons, still aimed at possible invaders by sea, remain on a hillside where eight of them were installed after Bora Bora became an American base early in 1942, just weeks after the US was propelled into World War II by the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.

Having sustained grave losses to its Pacific fleet, Washington needed a South Pacific military and refuelling base - and the French agreed with their new war ally that it should be Bora Bora.

One significant reason was that there is only one opening in the reef allowing ships through to the main island, making it easy to detect any Japanese submarine raiders (who never came).

A US armada arrived on February 17 1942 with 4,450 men and 178 officers in two troop carriers plus two cruisers, two destroyers, two cargo boats and one tanker - greeted enthusiastically by the Polynesian population in outrigger canoes, who suddenly found themselves outnumbered by five-to-one.

The Americans found a lovely but primitive island with no roads, no airstrip and an inadequate water supply.

They installed a water system, built a sealed road around the island and constructed and filled 30 fuel tanks.

As well, they completed French Polynesia's first airstrip, with a 2km-long runway, in April 1943.

(Papeete's Faa'a international airport did not open until 1962.)

The two most visible remaining cannons, their barrels nearly 7m long, are a favourite target for tourists' cameras along with Mount Otemanu, which seems to appear as background in almost every snapshot taken on Bora Bora, be they on or away from the beaches.

Something else the GIs reportedly left behind when they left early in 1946: at least 68 children babies born to local girls.

The recently-released Hollywood movie Couples Retreat, mostly filmed on Bora Bora, has been given a mixed reception by critics in Australia and America, but many of them agreed on one point: that the real star is the island of Bora Bora.

The island, called Earth's most beautiful by the late author James Michener and scores of others, was never identified during the film, and was only given a mention at the foot of the final list of credits.

Universal Studios booked the entire St Regis Resort for four weeks during the shoot, renaming it the Eden Resort for the occasion, then took 50 American journalists to Bora Bora shortly before the premiere.

(St Regis says it offers package holidays but none for people with marital problems like the four holidaying couples in the movie - and there's no special hedonistic island for singles there, either.)

A number of other movies have been shot in and around Bora Bora over the past 80 years, notably the three versions of the Mutiny on The Bounty story.

The star of the 1962 film, the late Marlon Brando, fell in love with Tahiti and her islands while here on location, married a Polynesian woman, bought his own small island and was a frequent visitor to Bora Bora.

The Sofitel Resort's bar is named after, and is decorated with photographs of, the 1969 film Hurricane starring Jason Robards and Mia Farrow.

Bora Bora's tourism people are grateful for the publicity generated by Couples Retreat, having suffered along with the other holiday islands of the South Pacific due to the world economic meltdown which saw overseas visitor arrivals in French Polynesia slump by 22.7 per cent to 87,929 for the first seven months of this year; two resorts are closed.

Australian figures were down 39.8 per cent to 2,337 while New Zealanders were 28.2 per cent fewer at 1,074.

The Australian figures may also have been affected by Air Tahiti Nui's decision last April to suspend its direct Sydney-Papeete flights; Australians can now go to Auckland on a Qantas flight code-shared with Air Tahiti Nui, then change to the Tahiti airline's New Zealand-Papeete service.

But there's hope that the direct Sydney-Papeete flights will be resumed soon - Tourism Minister Jacqui Drollet made this one of the priorities in a recent statement outlining plans for 2010, along with promotions in countries such as Australia, the US and Brazil.

Photos: World's most beautiful island

The writer flew to Bora Bora by Air Tahiti Nui from Auckland, then by Air Tahiti, on an itinerary arranged by Tahiti Tourisme. He was a guest of the Sofitel Bora Bora Resort and the Sofitel in Papeete.

IF YOU GO:

Bora Bora is in the Leeward group of the Society Archipelago of French Polynesia; it is a self-governing "overseas collectivity" of France.

Details of accommodation and package holidays in French Polynesia, call Tahiti Tourisme on 1300-655-563, email infrotahiti-tourisme.com.au or visit www.tahitinow.com.au or www.tahiti-tourisme.pf.

Tahiti Tourisme's office is in the Sydney CBD on Level 8, 25 Bligh Street.

Getting there: Australians can use a Qantas flight code-shared with Air Tahiti Nui to Auckland, connecting there with Air Tahiti Nui's direct flights to Papeete. Air Tahiti flies from Papeete to Bora Bora.

(Direct Sydney-Papeete flights were suspended last April but may resume soon.)

Air Tahiti Nui information and reservations: call 1300-732-415 or visit www.airtahitinui.com.au.

AAP

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