A riot of flowers and fish in Gauguin’s paradise

What’s in Bora Bora?” I asked a frequent visitor there. “Sharks – but in a good way”, was the answer. Did that justify twenty hours flying time to French Polynesia, I wondered. A few weeks later, swimming in a lagoon so blue it looked digitally enhanced and watching grey-tipped reef sharks, I had my answer.

Lying north-west of Tahiti, Bora Bora’s a small island – a mere 9 km north to south and 4 km across. Its winding coastal road is overhung by rampant hibiscus and plantations of papaya, mangos and noni – the “universal medicine tree”. Islanders swear the juice of its knobbly, smelly fruit cures anything from headaches to hernias. In the mountainous interior, fingers of volcanic basalt rock point dramatically skywards, caught in seeming freeze-frame at the moment of eruption. Yet Bora Bora’s greatest beauty is its vast, shimmering lagoon almost entirely enclosed by a reef and dotted with motus – tiny islets. Gazing at its constantly shifting shades of blue, it’s not surprising to learn that, just as the Inuit have many words for snow, the Polynesians have many for the sea’s colour from ninamu matie – “green blue” – to moana – “dark blue, deep as the ocean”.

Even far from the shore in places the water is shallow enough to stand as rays undulate around hoping to be fed with fish. Disappoint them and these giant creatures – velvety smooth to the touch – will buffet you. The prospect of easy pickings also attracts the reef sharks. The first time you are in the water and see their silvery-beige forms – some are well over five foot long – is a shock. Their small eyes look speculative. You can’t help a certain film score running through your mind but they’re harmless and unlike the bumptious rays, rather shy.

The lagoon is snorkel heaven. Coral gardens lie in the deeper waters. Fragile antler-like branch coral sway and other corals shaped like giant brains or cauliflowers glow pink, blue, orange and purple. The fish inhabiting them are suitably flamboyant – rainbow-hued parrot fish, unicorn fish with long pointed snouts, the surreal “Picasso” fish with a purple band over its eyes that makes it look like a bandit and tiny but feisty iridescent blue damselfish so territorial they’re not afraid to nip at you.

Bora Bora also has some fine diving sights and, for non-divers, a submarine descending outside the reef to a depth of 35 metres where lemon sharks, surgeon fish and barracuda slink about. I tried an aquabike which looks like a scooter except for a hood that covers your head and shoulders and provides enough air for you to breathe normally. Though your lower body is entirely in the water, your head and shoulders stay dry. I had a few misgivings as, sitting on my scooter which had been waiting for me on a raft out in the lagoon, I was lowered with a bit of a bump and a grind into the water. But I was soon gliding serenely ahead at a depth of three metres, escorted by clouds of striped orange and white clown fish. A diver swimming ahead pointed out green and purple-lipped clams, silvery-blue jackfish, a darkly sleek spotted eagle ray and the streamlined head of a conger eel protruding from the rocks, jaws agape in hopes of a passing snack.

These seas once teemed with green turtles long worshipped by the Polynesians but now threatened by poachers despite their protected status. Le Meridien Bora Bora, a hotel situated on a quiet motu facing Mount Otemanu, runs a turtle sanctuary. The youngest turtles live in nursery pens while older ones have their own coral filled lagoon. Once strong enough they are returned to the ocean. Accompanied by Eve, a French biologist who ensured I didn’t get too close, I swam with these gentle creatures as they flippered about, occasionally poking their snouts out of the water to take a gulp of air. Eve explained that when they reach maturity – around twenty five years old – they stop eating fish in favour of sea grasses that turn their fat green (hence their name though their shells are amber). They’ll migrate as far as New Caledonia, nearly 5,000 kilometres away, in search of feeding grounds but return to lay their eggs.

Time slips seductively by on Bora Bora, from watching turtles to paddling an outrigger canoe across the lagoon as the setting sun flushes the sky deep rose. After dark it’s nice sitting in the warm night air sipping a glass of wine – amazingly it can be Polynesian if you’re up for it. Grapes cultivated on the coral atoll of Rangiroa produce red, rose and white wine. Fragrant blanc de corail is probably the best and goes well with fresh-caught grilled swordfish or tuna. Unlike most tropical places visitors needn’t worry about biting bugs after dark. There are no poisonous insects – or snakes either – in the Polynesian islands. In fact, there’s nothing more alarming than a few wild pigs or a mildly combative centipede. The greatest danger is of being whacked on the head by a falling coconut.

I’d have welcomed a mild case of concussion as a reason to stay longer on Bora Bora. On the short flight back to Tahiti, I felt real regret as the island’s impossibly blue lagoon and ring of white-sand islets merged into the greater expanse of the Pacific. But Tahiti itself still awaited and proved far more than just a jumping off point to Bora Bora. Its dramatic coastline complete with blow holes, waterfalls and wild interior sprouting pandanus palms, lady ferns and waxy torch ginger flowers – not to mention the good looks of the locals who routinely wear flowers in their hair – explains why it attracted artists like Matisse and Gauguin who called Tahiti “this Eden” and some of whose descendants live here.

Places like Polynesia are hard to leave as Captain Bligh discovered when his crew mutinied soon after sailing from Tahiti. I tried not to look too mutinous as I boarded my flight home to London, forsaking the big blue and the brilliant light for the wintry grey.

January to March is the humid season but you can visit year round. Le Meridien Bora Bora (www.lemeridien-borabora.com) with glass-floored bungalows over the water and lagoon-side bungalows costs from £450 per night. Le Meridien Tahiti (www.lemeridien-tahiti.com) with L’Atelier, a studio where you can watch artists at work costs from £230.

Air Tahiti (www.airtahiti.com) flies between the islands. For diving go to www.diveinstyle.com and for the aquabike experience check out aquabikadventure.com. For information on Bora Bora, the other islands, package deals and special offers contact Tahiti Tourisme on 0207 367 0931 or visit www.tahiti-tourisme.co.uk Astronomers’ alert: Those interested in emulating Captain Cook, sent to Tahiti by the Admiralty to observe the rare transit of Venus in 1769, should note that the next transit falls on 5 June 2012.