The city of Vaitape has always held a place of importance on Bora Bora. The word vaitape signifies “the place where bodies are taken at maturity. It’s a reference to the fact that in times gone by, it was here that deceased persons of distinction were embalmed for their voyage to Rohotu No’ana’a (Polynesian heaven). King Tapoa II (see below) was probably the last monarch to be embalmed.
Bora Bora’s first Pastor, the London Missionary Society’s John Muggridge Orsmond, arrived at Vaitape on 18th November 1820, where he lived until 1824. A carpenter, he undertook a number of substantial works, including the building of a large temple between 1821 & 1822. The current Protestant Temple is a much later construction.
Orsmand also built a jetty at Vaitape and scandalously used stones from the Marae Fare Opu to construct various roads (once more using stones from the maraes). There were also several habitable constructions using coral bricks sealed with quicklime.
In doing so, Orsmand laid the basis for what today is the village of Vaitape, now considered Bora Bora’s only town and the island’s administrative center.
Vatape’s quay hosts those coming and going between the main island and the airport, cruise ships, resorts, private vessels & the motus, amongst others. There’s an Information Centre in the middle of the wharf area, and for most tourists, it’s one of their first stops to pick up maps for Vaitape and Bora Bora itself.
Vaitape is lined with cafes, banks, a post office, supermarkets, service stations, doctors, dentists, a pharmacy, hardware & electronics outlets, souvenier shops, and plenty of pearl shops! The Gendarmarie (police), & Mairie (Town Hall) are also here.
Getting to Vaitape
Most people arrive in Vaitape via the wharf. So, if you are on the wharf look towards the mountain Mt Pahia.
- The Information Centre is in a small building situated in the middle of the wharf area.
- The Town Hall (Bora Bora’s administrative center) is complex waterside to the immediate right.
- There are banks/ATMs behind and opposite the Town Hall.
- Air Tahiti & the Helicopter Tours are based along the quay opposite the Town Hall.
- The Gendarmarie (police) is straight ahead across the main road, as are some car/motor-bike rental shops.
Heading Towards The Right
- Along the main road to your right are a snack shop, a number of galleries & pearl shops, the Post Office, souvenir shops, the Catholic Church, and doctors.
- About 500m out from the Post Office is a new commercial center with a doctor, dentist & Bora Bora’s best bakery! The center is also situated opposite the Bora Bora Medical Centre.
- There is no hospital in Bora Bora, but if you have a major health condition needing urgent attention, the Bora Bora Medical Centre is the place to visit.
Heading Towards The Left
- Along the main road heading left are a newsagency, some pearl shops, T-shirt & pareo shops, and car/bike rentals.
- A little further left along the main road is the Evangelist (Protestant) Church with its clearly red steeple.
- There’s a decent coffee to be found at the far end of the commercial center opposite the Temple.
- Behind the commercial center via a laneway behind Sibani Pearls is the library.
- Past the Protestant Temple, you can find the supermarket, petrol stations, dentist, a number of good waterfront restaurants, and the island’s only pharmacy.
- There is also a great patisserie (pastry shop) & electronic outlets, while the MaiKai & the Yacht Club restaurants are further along this route.
- The Chin Lee Supermarket is situated just after the Protestant Temple and is open from 5 am to 8 pm, 7 days a week.
Saint Pierre Celestin Catholic Church is situated opposite the Post Office and was designed by architect David Chauvin. The imposing stained glass windows above the altar were built by the French stained glass workshop Mari et Femme and are reinforced to resist cyclones. The impressive work represents the seven sacraments.
Sunday Mass at the Catholic Church is at 9:30 am.
The Protestant Temple is arguably Vaitape’s most imposing structure with its red steeple reaching high into the skies directly below Mt Pahia.
Sunday Service at the Protestant Temple is at 10 am.
The Seventh Day Adventists can be found on the lagoon side of the road around 150 meters past the Protestant Church, whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in Anau. The Mormons are reportedly looking to build slightly out of town on the Matira side of Vaitape.
Attractions In Vaitape
Here are a couple of attractions and interesting things to do in Vaitape:
In between the Banque de Tahiti & the Artisanat Centre, you can find a monument unveiled in 1951 to famed French war hero, world tennis vice-champion, and author, Alain Gerbault. Between 1925 and 1929, he became the first Frenchman to sail single-handed around the world. He was the first in the world to cross the Atlantic from east to west when he circumnavigated the globe aboard the 12m Firecrest.
He stopped in French Polynesia in 1926 and returned in 1933 when he introduced soccer to the locals whilst campaigning against the local French with the excesses of colonialism and the destruction of paradise.
When he passed away, at the initiative of the Yacht Club de France, the French navy returned his ashes to be buried on Bora Bora, his last wish.
You can find the Arisanat Centre alongside the Gerbault Memorial. It’s worth a look to see the ‘mamas’ creating an amazing array of Tahitian works of art. They’re typically made uniquely from locally available materials using skills past down through the centuries.
King Tapoa II
Further along the quay, besides Radio Bora Bora, a fairly non-descript site shelters a most interesting story in Bora Bora’s history gleaned from Fichaux’s “History of Bora Bora”:
Here is a little background. At the time of the arrival of the missionaries, a Polynesian custom held that a king lost his throne upon the birth of a son, acting simply on the son’s behalf thereafter, a custom that saw infanticide practiced on occasion.
Pomare I, for example, did this with his first-born son, the elder brother of Pomare II. However, Bora Bora was the exception. Omai, the Raiatean who traveled with Captain Cook, felt that the superiority of Bora Bora’s warriors was due to the fact that the practice was not done on the island.
When the islands King Tapoa I passed in 1819 he left a young son, also named Topoa. Pomare II adopted the young Topoa, exercising power on his behalf before passing soon after in 1827. He left the throne to his infant son Pomare III with the English missionaries governing in his name. Soon after Pomare III also passed, leaving his sister, Aimata and his adopted step-brother, Tapoa, in line for the throne.
Polynesian tradition held that it was the male child, Tapoa, even if adopted, who was king. English tradition, however, held that it was the legitimate child, Aimata, who must reign. Faced with the dilemma, the English missionaries resolved matters by simply marrying Aimata aged 9 years & Tapoa aged 11 years. Tapoa II became king of the Society Islands but the missionaries continued to govern.
During this time Orsmond, the first pastor of Bora Bora, had arrived in Bora Bora and set about rigorously applying puritanism to the island. Fichaux records that adulterous boys & girls were punished by being compelled to fill sections of the route, which was around 2.5km long & 2.5m wide. Orsmond built out from Vaitape.
More intriguing again, Orsmond, on the basis of the biblical verse: “You will earn your bread from the sweat of your brow”, marked the road’s extremities with bread-fruit trees.
Orsmond had both support and opposition on the island, but such division gave rise to trouble, in particular, a practice of mixing Christianity with certain ancient traditions. The missionaries appointed Tapoa II to determine who was at fault, but when he held that it was Ormand who was to blame, the missionaries took to him with vengeance enforcing a divorce between Tapoa II & Aimata.
Despite them having an adopted daughter, they divorced on the basis they were too young to have been legally married, then banished Tapoa II to Bora Bora. The banishment caused a revolt against the missionaries on Bora Bora, and the missionaries responded by orchestrating a revolt against Bora Bora on the other Society Islands.
In the upshot, Tapoa II lost all power and in those days a dozen or so guns made all the difference between success and failure. He found himself left to wander the islands. The troubles in Bora Bora persisted, however, with peace only being attained once the adopted daughter of Tapoa II was declared Queen of Bora Bora. She took the name Terriimaevarua, after whom Bora Bora’s sporting complex is named.
With his daughter now Queen, Tapoa II would return home to Bora Bora. He would build a small cottage at the water’s edge at Vaitape. Overlooking the water alongside Radio Bora Bora, you can find the scant remains of the foundations of a square rock terrace. They are sealed with quicklime obtained by burning coral at high temperatures of the small cottage of Tapoa II, the last King of Bora Bora.
Update: This historical site has been demolished and landscaped, presumably to make the public toilet area look better. Well done, Bora Bora!
Place Tu Vavau
Tu Vavau is the extensive open area that greets people upon their arrival at Vaitape Quay. This public place is the theatre of a most fascinating story.
Mt Pahia, photographed above behind Vaitape’s prominent Evangelic (Protestant) Temple, provides a magnificent backdrop to the town. The name Mt Pahia stems from the Tahitian ‘pai’ha’ signifying ‘what has been hit’. It’s a reference to the legend that the mountain’s shape was formed by the massive hit from the god Marama in a moment of great rage.
Vaitape marks the starting point of a spectacular but challenging hike up Mt Pahia along an unmarked trail requiring around 3 hours of effort for the ascent & 2 hours for the descent.
Despite the destructive fires of the past, it’s a wonderful climb through forests of mape (chestnut tree), giant ferns & wild orchids. When you reach the summit, it offers scenic views of Bora Bora and the Leeward Islands.
It needs to be said that this hike should only be attempted with an experienced guide. It can be very dangerous to do so without one.
I hope this helpful travel guide makes your visit to Vaitape all the more enjoyable!