Worthy of its setting: Overwater bungalow at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso
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Staying in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora is as glamorous as it sounds. And the island’s appeal is enhanced even more at the ultra-luxurious InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa, where the view encompasses an expansive turquoise lagoon and the green jagged peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu.
At the IC Thalasso, an overwater bungalow regularly costs $1,000 (£773) or more per night. I’m a budget traveller, so a stay at this property would usually be well outside my price range. However, I found a way to use free credit-card nights and points to book a stay — it was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Booking there was a bit of a work of art and actually took quite a long time for it to all come together. I was able to stack consecutive annual-night certificates from a U.S. credit card.
I could only book two nights using the certificates, but I wanted to stay longer. Availability on award nights (70,000 points) is notoriously hard to find here — looking through the calendar, you’ll normally only see a couple of scattered individual nights, if anything at all. But sometimes, especially in the rainy season, availability opens up a few days in advance. It seems people see a room available, book it and sit on it in case they can make a journey to Bora Bora happen. Then when the cancellation window approaches, they free up the room, but others aren’t often in a position to arrange a trip.
I left the nights before and after my stay open, hoping one of those nights would open up. Sure enough, one night did, following the two nights I had booked with the certificates. I was left with three consecutive nights booked on three separate reservations.
If you plan to visit the IC Thalasso, you should definitely purchase InterContinental Ambassador status before your stay. For this stay alone, the $200 (£155) annual membership got me an upgrade to a mountain-facing villa, a welcome fruit plate, 4 p.m. late checkout and an invitation to an Ambassador cocktail hour (every Tuesday).
You don’t have to have Ambassador status when you book — purchasing a week before is enough time for them to arrange your upgrade and late checkout (but call or email to confirm these). Then you’ll maximize time with Ambassador status at the end of the year too.
Bora Bora — long claimed by honeymooners and visitors to high-end resorts — is possibly the most beautiful island paradise on the planet. Everything you’ve heard about it is true.
At the outer edge of the main island’s aquamarine lagoon is a a ring of islands, called motus, which are home to most of the resorts. From the motus, you have million-dollar views of the lagoon in the foreground and the lush mountains in the background.
Because the IC Thalasso is located on Motu Piti A’au you have to get there by boat, and a 20-minute boat ride from Bora Bora airport costs a ridiculous $72 (£56) per person. Other resorts charge similarly exorbitant fees and attribute them to the shuttle companies.
On the surface, they appear unavoidable. There really are no alternatives — no local fisherman who can shuttle you across the lagoon. By comparison, the boat shuttle from the airport motu to nearby Maupiti cost me $5 (£4).
However, there is a roundabout way to avoid the transfer fee. Air Tahiti offers a free shuttle from the airport to the town of Vaitape on the main island. From there, you can taxi (£15) or hitch down to the InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort, which runs a shuttle to the InterContinental Thalasso which is free for Thalasso guests before 4 p.m. (although this may have changed on 1 April; more on that later). I go into this transfer in more detail in this article on keeping to a budget at a luxury resort.
Bora Bora Airport (BOB) is reachable by a quick, expensive flight from Tahiti (PPT). Consider an Air Tahiti Pass to get more value out of visiting several islands, which I explained in detail in this column.
We were greeted at the boat dock by two golf carts. One was driven by a bellhop who took all of our bags and drove them directly to our bungalow. The other by a woman who escorted us to the check-in desk.
She led us to a table with a view of the lagoon, sat us down and brought us cool towels with glasses of vanilla iced tea.
I started going through the paperwork and signing the contracts. I had three to sign as I was booked on three separate reservations. Another paper was a printed offer, available only at check-in, for half-off the price of the breakfast buffet. The buffet was included for paying guests, but not for award stays. The standard buffet price was a whopping $46 (£36), but $23 (£18) was doable, even if it didn’t feel like a bargain.
I was then presented with another paper with two numbers handwritten on two separate lines — the equivalent of $32 (£25) times two, repeated. She casually told me to sign next to those numbers as well, for the transfers. This caught me off guard. I had read numerous reports from past guests who had all stated there was no fee for the boat transfer from the Le Moana resort, as long as you took a regularly scheduled boat before 4 p.m. The $32 (£25) fee would add up to $128 (£99) in transfers we hadn’t expected.
When I asked about the fees, saying I believed the transfers to be free for Thalasso guests if taken before 4 p.m., she declared, “Not for check-in and checkout.”
My friend and I had already mapped out a transfer to St. Regis three days later and we wondered aloud about getting a boat directly from the IC Thalasso to the St. Regis. To which the agent interjected, “The boat to St. Regis would cost 150 US dollars”, and gave me the same grin she had when she informed me of the transfer fees. Only then did I register on the impression that I was being made to feel unwelcome.
Maybe it was the hacked-together reservation of three separate awards. Maybe it was our backpacks or the food and drinks we had inside. But an overwhelming sense of us not being wanted there set in — a sense my friend later confirmed. We were freeloaders and the agent was going to stick it to us with fees.
I reluctantly told her I would sign for first transfer because we had already taken it, but we were still exploring our options for the final transfer. Still, the transfer fees did not feel legitimate. Our offer for breakfast was neatly printed on its own piece of paper. These fees were scribbled in pen as a line item. Also, when I had informed the resort I would be taking the shuttle from Le Moana, there was no mention of fees, which they were very careful to mention for an airport transfer. And when I checked in for the shuttle at the Le Moana front desk and boat dock, there was also no mention of a fee. Finally, no previous guest mentioned this fee in anything I had read. It didn’t sit right.
The agent then drove us to our villa, pointing out a few things as we passed but not slowing down. Other welcome tours I witnessed later were much more thorough and, well, welcoming. She mentioned we had been upgraded to a Sapphire Bungalow because of my Ambassador status. We walked in and toured the place but the first impressions were still marred by the check-in experience.
That evening, I emailed the GM and explained my concerns about the fees (without any mention of the agent’s demeanor). He replied, saying that I wouldn’t be charged transfer fees as the transfers were indeed free before 1 April. (Also, I checked the next day at the concierge desk and the agent quoted $120 [£93] for the transfer to St. Regis. We ended up taking a transfer arranged by the St. Regis for $33 [£26] per person for the 10-minute boat ride. And the next evening as I walked by the check-in counter, I noticed for the first time an exclusive Ambassador check-in area directly adjacent to the check-in area where the agent had sat us.)
Luckily, any remotely negative experience with the staff ended there.
Overwater bungalows are what the IC Thalasso is all about — there isn’t even an option to stay on solid ground. At over 1,000 square feet, these aren’t little shacks on stilts.
My Sapphire bungalow opened to an entryway where our bags were dropped and a welcome gift of a beach bag and chocolates awaited us.
To the left was the bedroom with its large king bed.
The bed faced a huge picture window that looked out onto the lagoon.
The room even came with a pillow menu, though I somehow didn’t see it until our last day. We tried the soft goose down and firm goose down pillows. I honestly couldn’t tell them apart from any other pillow, but all were comfy.
Behind the bed was a walk-in closet with plenty of shelving and a few amenities.
The rain ponchos could have been important but, thankfully, we didn’t need them.
The toilet room was adjacent to the walk-in closet.
Next to the bedroom was the impressive bathroom with a shower room, two full vanities and a bathtub.
The shower was big with a high waterfall shower head that would definitely pass the TPG shower test.
The shower liquids were in large refillable containers instead of individual plastic bottles, which may not be popular with some guests but is part of an environmental initiative at the resort.
A full assortment of bathroom amenities was available.
The after-sun lotion was especially appreciated.
The bathtub had a view that made you want to sit and relax for a while.
And that’s exactly what I did.
To the right of the entryway was the spacious living room, where all the seating, including the desk, faced out to the lagoon.
The minibar was fully stocked and super-expensive. Even the Keurig coffee maker cost $5 (£4) per pod, so bring your own!
In case you forgot you were over water, a simple glance down through the coffee table would remind you.
On top was the IHG Ambassador welcome fruit plate.
The terrace contained two loungers and a table and was strategically angled to give a view of the mountain but still provide privacy from the neighbors.
The platform had a handheld freshwater shower to rinse as soon as you come out of the lagoon. It was tough to look down at this and not jump in.
So, I did!
The Thalasso has four categories of one-bedroom overwater villas — Emerald, Sapphire, Diamond and Diamond Otemanu. All are exactly the same inside; only the view is different. Emerald villas look back to the resort and motu. The other three face the main island with progressively better views of the mountain from Sapphire to Diamond to Diamond Otemanu.
As this was an award stay, I was booked in the lowest category — the Emerald Overwater Villa. My Ambassador status got me a one-category upgrade to Sapphire, which was worth it for the mountain view. There isn’t much to gain with an upgrade to the Diamond villas.
There are also pool villas measuring 1,500 square feet and split into Pool Overwater Villas and Pool Premium Overwater Villas. Again, the only difference is the view, with the premium villas facing the mountain.
And then there are the Brando suites. The one-bedroom measures 2,335 square feet and the two-bedroom 3,465 square feet, advertised as the ultimate in privacy and luxury.
Thalasso doesn’t have a bad room on the property. Overwater bungalows elsewhere are often the size of a standard hotel room but with the overwater gimmick. A good example are these bungalows at Thalasso’s less-attractive sister resort, The InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana.
All rooms at the IC Thalasso have thatched roofs.
The resort grounds matched the luxury of the overwater bungalows.
Seating and hammocks were sprinkled across the motu.
And it was almost always empty.
Granted it was low season, but I did occasionally wonder where everyone was — though I wasn’t complaining.
This was my favorite seat in the house.
There was one modest pool but with the lagoon, it would be easy to miss it.
The IC Thalasso is definitely a resort that caters to couples.
I witnessed three weddings in the three nights I was there.
Kayaks and paddle boards were available for free.
The ultra-calm conditions were great for beginners on a paddle board.
Every day at 2 p.m. the resort hosted a stingray feeding. About 30 minutes before, the stingrays started to circle.
After the feeding, the rays circled the guests, giving us a chance to pet them as they looked for more food.
Venturing away from the water a bit, I found the Deep Ocean Spa. Other guests gave the spa good reviews, but the treatments were well out of my budget.
Next to the spa was the gym with the standard equipment. No one was using it but it did have free filtered water and apples.
It was sweaty humid but the resort also had a tennis court, if you’re a masochist.
I saw the “Secret Garden of Love” on the map and half expected to walk onto the set of a soap opera, but what I found was an interesting explanation of different symbols in Polynesia. Lovers or newlyweds could attach a padlock to the tree corresponding to the symbol they identified with.
Venturing even farther through the grounds, I got to the outer reef, which was worth the walk just to see. There are signs that warn not to venture past because of “private properties and wild dogs.”
A ferry back the main island via the InterContinental Le Moana ran on the following schedule, which is free for Thalasso guests before 4 p.m. (except perhaps for check-in and checkout, which I discussed earlier).
From the IC Le Moana, you could take a free kayak across the lagoon to the coral gardens for the best snorkeling on Bora Bora.
The lagoon crossing was windy and rough, but the payoff underwater was worth it.
WiFi at the IC Thalasso was reliable and fast, but hopefully you don’t waste much time on it.
Food and Beverage
The buffet breakfast was well worth the fee.
The first island table contained a selection of meats, cheeses and olives along with miso soup.
The next island had a selection of local fruits, yogurt, a tart and salads
The last island had yogurts, cereal and juices.
But we were just getting started. The omelette station had all of the standard options.
Gluten-lovers wouldn’t be disappointed with this spread.
Or with the French toast, pancakes and crepes.
Another table contained all the standard buffet fare — eggs, bacon, sausage, broccoli, hash browns and rice. This food would be considered premium at a standard buffet but with the selection here, I never touched it.
Which brings me to highlight of the breakfast — the Polynesian table. The large breakfast tray rotated between a sweet banana dessert and a savory fish curry.
But the best part was easily the poisson cru. I had at least a pint of it every morning. In my month in French Polynesia I tried plenty and this was the best.
My first breakfast plate usually looked like this. Then I’d switch it up for plates two and three.
The breakfast buffet was served in the Reef restaurant. During the day, the Sands restaurant served lunch and opened to the beach and lagoon.
Fine French dining is normally served at Le Corail restaurant, but it was under renovation during my visit. It has since reopened. We had dinner at the Reef.
The drinks were expensive here at around $25 (£19) per cocktail, but there’s a half-off happy hour on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Our dinner started with fresh rolls.
For an appetizer, we went with the goat cheese ravioli (£21).
My main course of wahoo fish (£26) crusted with garlic breading and served on a vegetable fish soup did not disappoint.
My friend ordered the lagoon fish (£25) with coconut crust and caramelized banana with cream sauce. It was a smart order — in a way it was a main course and dessert in one.
My friend was telling an animated story when she knocked over her cocktail, breaking the glass and cutting her hand. The waiter came right over as we assessed the cut. It was small and we told him she’d be fine. He disappeared and returned a minute later with saline, gauze and band-aids. After a few more minutes, he came back with a new cocktail that was on the house.
We didn’t ask for much from the staff but when we did, they went above and beyond.
Some nights have a theme, which could include Polynesian dance. Be careful, though, you might get pulled in to join them like I did.
For drinks after dinner or during the day, you can go to the Bubbles bar in the lobby.
You may even have the place to yourself.
InterContinental Ambassadors were treated to a complimentary happy hour on Tuesdays (as you should be) to mingle with the staff.
Here we met two staff members who were leading an environmental initiative at the resort with some fascinating projects.
The resort was the first in the world to implement Seawater Air-Conditioning (SWAC) technology. SWAC pumps water from ocean depths and cools the resort — an energy savings of 90% over traditional air-conditioning methods. The resort is also 10 years into a coral gardening project, which has brought marine life to the motu that naturally had no coral.
The staff members also take one day a month to snorkel and collect garbage in the lagoons beneath the bungalows. That happened to be the following day and guests were invited to join, so we did.
While we heard about these projects, including the recycling program and future plans to compost, other staff generously circled with wine and appetizers.
I spilled tomato soup on my white tee shirt and when I asked the bartender for club soda, he quickly attacked the spot. He worked for a couple minutes and managed to save my shirt. More exemplary service.
After the hour ended, we moved to the bar to thank the staff. They had a couple of extra glasses of wine and appetizers they invited us to take for the road.
We polished off the wine and apps as the sun set.
Despite a negative first impression from our check-in experience, the InterContinental Bora Bora & Thalasso Spa redeemed itself quickly. I’m not a luxury traveler, and don’t have £650+ a night to pay for a room. However, I now understand why those with the means spend it here. If budget is a concern, see my article on how to keep to a budget at a luxury resort.
This resort is ideal for couples. The vibe is luxury, relaxation and romance. I might get bored as a solo traveler here and for a family with kids, a resort with more activities, like the St. Regis Bora Bora, would be better.
A few days later, after my award stay at the St. Regis Bora Bora, it replaced the IC Thalasso as the best resort I ever stayed in. That’s not a knock on the Thalasso; I just prefer to be more active. So while the Thalasso is among the best options to capture the magic of Bora Bora, it isn’t the only one. Both resorts are definitely several levels above the InterContinental Le Moana, however.
Be weary of rainy season here (December-March). I was lucky to get bright sunny days but guests the previous week didn’t get any. A few years ago, the island went months with no sun. If you’re lucky enough to book a room with points, take it, regardless of season. But if you’re paying cash for a bungalow, take the sure bet in high season (May-October) or shoulder season (April, November).