When I started to travel to Manila on a weekly basis for work the team and I unashamedly decided to stay at the Intercontinental simply because its loyalty program was the best of all the options available and the hotel fit the expense policy requirements. In terms of points we were not going to get the most but it was the largest of the chains with presence in Manila and, most importantly, it had a dream property we could use the points for: Bora Bora.
Four years later, I finally took that once in a lifetime journey to the South Pacific island.
All of the top-end properties on Bora Bora are beautiful and offer divine over water villas but, for an outsider, choosing between them is a decision that needs to be made with incomplete information. Resorts will emphasize what makes them great but they all seem to point at the same incredible features. Even glossy magazines tend to focus on what makes each resort great but they rarely offer a complete review including the trade-offs. After all, who has been to all of them to make an honest review? I’d like to meet the lucky one 🙂
Intercontinental Group has four properties in French Polynesia, one in Moorea, one Tahiti and two in Bora Bora. The two in Bora Bora offer a different but complementary experience. Partially because the booking with points was not available for the duration of my intended stay and partially because I felt like a stay on the island would be interesting I ended up booking a combined stay on the motu at the Thalasso plus a few days at Le Moana on the main island. In this post I will review the Thalasso. For my thoughts on Le Moana please visit this link.
First, here’s some eye candy to set the mood.
What makes the Thalasso special
There are three things that make the Thalasso a more rounded option than its competition: location, water activities and the spa.
1. The views
If you are going to Bora Bora and you are splurging on an over water villa you want to make sure to have the right views and location. There is no point in having a deck from which you don’t see the crystalline turquoise water of the lagoon or enjoy the beautifully rugged views over Mount Otemanu which make Bora Bora so famous. The Thalasso is the only one with villas from which you can jump straight into the lagoon with no oncoming traffic, no jet skis and no boats. It is a shallow lagoon, perfectly safe to swim with water up to chest level and very warm and inviting. The resort is facing Otemanu from the only perspective where the mountain is symmetrical for those postcard-perfect shots.
Both the St. Regis and the Four Seasons also face the mountain, but from a different angle and the water there is not as shallow and safe to jump in so you will have to go back to the resort’s beach if you want to get into the water. Some villas in the other resorts certainly offer the same lagoon feel but not all, so bear this in mind.
2. Enjoying the lagoon
Bora Bora is all about the lagoon and the water so you want to have direct access to the beach and the complimentary water sports facilities (paddle boards, kayaks, swimming, canoes, etc.). Guests staying at the St Regis were coming to the Thalasso’s safer lagoon to use the facilities. I can only assume that they found it more appealing to paddle on the shallower and quieter waters?
One of the most exhilarating and exciting activities to do while in Bora Bora is the shark and ray feeding which you do on a lagoon tour. Although the resort does not get any sharks it does have a permanent population of rays that come every day around 2pm for feeding on the beach. This is a real performance I could never tire of. The resort’s staff brings out a bucket full of fish and you are welcome to take a piece and feed it to the rays. What an incredible show of nature! Don’t you worry, they do not sting and they have no teeth instead they suck the fish from your hands and, if they are slightly confused, they may suck your leg too. They certainly brush themselves against you often.
3. Spa facilities
The Thalasso gets its name from the Deep Ocean Spa that is on site. The spa is also accessible if you stay at Le Moana but you will have to rely on the free shuttle service so that may require waiting around and time wasted. If you are looking for some serious pampering with water pumped from almost 1km under the ocean’s surface the Thalasso has just that.
What is a holiday without some relaxing massage?
I reviewed the food based on three aspects: the prices, the quality and the variety.
1. The price
Based on my experience at the Maldives and other similar isolated and island resorts I was prepared to rack up a hard-to-justify food bill at the Thalasso however I was positively surprised. I averaged about $200 per day on food and drinks for two people so that is quite acceptable – I would spend more if I ate out the whole day in Singapore. However let me qualify this with three “savers”.
I took advantage of the Happy Hour every day, it was the perfect setting for an amazing sunset time. For an hour from 5-6pm you would get two drinks at the price of one and these were some to-die-for cocktails that were not only deliciously made but also had all the ingredients you need for the perfect tropical escape: flower and fruit arrangements making drinks look pretty, great island concoctions using coconut and pine apple and generous amounts of alcohol. After these two cocktails, I just could not have any more wine during dinner so the alcohol bill was relatively tame because of that. Add wine during dinner and you are talking $100 more.
I found portions to be unexpectedly large so one dish was enough for me to be full. In fact, despite absolutely loving deserts and wanting to make the most of the Polynesian and French heritage of Bora Bora by sampling all the mouth-watering options I rarely had any space for desert after any meal. So if you are a hungry person consider a larger budget.
Lastly, at check in we were offered the option to sign up for breakfast at half price if we would commit to having it every day. I found this to be very good because the reality is that you won’t be going anywhere for breakfast so 50% off was a great way to save. Otherwise, breakfast was priced at $50 which is a very steep price tag, even if you were to eat your heart out at the buffet!
Aside from the spent on food the quality left a lot to be desired not because it was poor but because for the price, it did not compare to the quality and service level you get in any other cosmopolitan city. It is understood that Bora Bora is remote and a lot of the produce needs to be imported so this may justify the high prices but I couldn’t help but feel slightly taken advantage of. Luckily, on Bora Bora, as opposed to the Maldives or other island resorts, you have the chance to go on the island and try local restaurants which are more reasonably priced. Expect mains to cost between $40-70.
Quality is also measured by the presentation and the preparation and the two restaurants available felt unimaginative and lacking in innovation, they offered dishes that a good cook could prepare at home: fresh and simple but nothing to write home about. This could have been solved if Corail, the third restaurant specializing in fine dining, would have been opened but without it food was not a highlight of the trip. It was good but not great; it did not deter from the experience but it did little to contribute to making it memorable.
When you are going to spend a relatively long time at a specific place you are left in the resort’s hands with regards to choice. Regardless of the quality of the food, having the same relatively short list of options to choose from may become repetitive and tiresome. I had assumed that Bora Bora would follow the likes of luxury resorts on the Maldives and provide a relatively ample menu to choose from coupled with other personalized options that would never make you feel like you were looking yet again at the same menu. However, given that I travelled in a peak week in the middle of the low season one of the 3 available restaurants on site was closed so we were left with only two restaurants to choose from.
For lunch, only one option was open and for dinner we had two. Despite the food was tasty and generous I couldn’t help but feel like I had very limited choices. The menus were relatively long but with lots of “not applicable options”. If you didn’t want to eat a sandwich or a pizza the options left were narrowed down so I found myself eating “poisson cru” almost on a daily basis.
Because lunch was almost always taking place at the one restaurant dinner ended up being at the other one as I found myself craving for a change but the menu was not significantly different and it did not change during my stay so it became very unimaginative.
Aside from the choice, I also found the menu lacking local dishes. There were a few traditional Polynesian dishes on offer but the hotel did not seem to put too much focus on showcasing the local cuisine. For me, travel is one third about taking in the surroundings and the beauty, one third about the culture and one third about the food and I would have liked to enjoy more of the recipes leveraging the Polynesian bountiful gardens beyond the typical dishes and ingredients.
At a resort of this cache you would expect the service to be top-notch. Not just because the rack rates are over $1,500 per night but also because Bora Bora has become such a myth in the luxury resort market that I had expected them to master the art of dealing with demanding guests and would treat us like kings in our own slice of paradise. This was a very unexpected surprise but service left a sour taste in my mouth.
The Thalasso, does not assign you a butler, all requests and guest needs are handled by the concierge desk or the reception. Although this would not necessarily imply lousy service I found that the resort lagged in two areas: speed and proactiveness. I will give you a good example.
I truly wanted to book a helicopter tour but they require 4 guests for the price to be expensive but not unrealistic so as soon as I arrived at the resort I asked the Concierge to please contact the company and let them know we were keen to join any trip at any point if they needed two more guests. Bora Bora being the ultimate honeymoon destination almost all guests come in couples so it should have been easy to find two other guests to join us. After the 4th day of chasing the concierge on a daily basis to no avail I contacted the helicopter company directly. The next day, they called the hotel with a slot. I found this to be extremely disappointing and illustrative of the service level. For the duration of the stay I had the feeling that the Concierge felt bothered when we had any request, demands which were all within the basic level of service: booking activities for us. I had read about this similar situations on TripAdvisor from other guests so I knew this could be an area of contention but I just could not understand how a resort of such caliber could not guarantee a more personalized concierge service that makes you feel valued rather than a nuisance. It is a significant area for improvement for Bora Bora to match the levels of service of similar high-end properties and destinations. I do believe that this may have been brought on by the limited amount of competition and the very established properties which have been operating under the same circumstances for years. The St. Regis does offer personalized butler service.
Don’t get me wrong, the service was not terrible or negatively affected my stay, except for the helicopter incident, but I was expecting a much higher level of hospitality than a mediocre 4*. The staff was friendly and well trained but they just did not go the extra mile, they did not anticipate my needs and they did not do anything to make my stay memorable.
The resort is made exclusively of over water villas. There are no longer any beach villas available as the hotel has recently removed them. If like me, you are using your points to splurge, these are great news because you are guaranteed an over water villa.
The villas are large, they are very spacious and you could easily spend a significant amount of time there without feeling claustrophobic. There are four distinct spaces: the bathroom, the bedroom, the living room and the outdoor deck.
The bathroom is long and has a large window by the bathtub. There are his and hers sinks and beautiful amenities from the Deep Ocean Spa range which are one of the best quality I have ever experienced in a hotel. I can quickly determine the quality of the shower amenities by the texture of the shampoo and conditioner and these were some of the best I have ever tried, perfect to pamper your hair after a long day of sea, salt, sun and wind.
The bedroom incorporates a walk in closet which also has the toilet, separate from the bathroom something which adds a level of privacy when you are sharing with someone else. The walk-in closet helps unpack and have everything within easy reach. The bed is plush and king size. The wall facing the lagoon is made of floor-to-ceiling window that provide direct views of the turquoise waters, if only the glass was reflective you would actually be able to enjoy the view from your bed but this not being the case you can’t really laze in bed taking in the views without having the entire beach or passing traffic see you.
The living room is very large. It features a sofa and an armchair, a large plasma TV, a cabinet with the minibar and a small desk. The coffee table is affixed to the floor and under it there is a glass window opening onto the lagoon underneath.
From the living room or the bedroom you can directly access the two tier outdoor deck. On the top level there is a table, two sun loungers and an umbrella. The lower level has direct access to the lagoon and nothing else. I took the sun lounger mattress down to the lower deck to sun bathe closer to the water.
I found the villas to be comfortable and providing everything you need. They were modern and well taken care of without providing ultra-modern amenities. There was a Nespresso machine for coffee charged at $5 per capsule and strong wi-fi signal, although you could only connect 2 or 4 devices depending on the amount paid. The air conditioning would automatically switch off if the windows were opened and I found it very hard to set the right temperature without either freezing in the middle of the night or waking up covered in sweat.
Because of the location and the distribution of the villas in a V-shape facing Mount Otemanu there are three distinct views. The villas on the inner parts of the two V face the beach, away from Otemanu, and have the least appealing views. The sun sets on the left of Mount Otemanu so those villas facing West have the best views because they look both at Otemanu and the sunset. A last setoff villas on the outer part of the right V don’t see Otemanu or the beach but rather face the St Regis and the hotel’s jetty so they are the villas with the most traffic and nuisance. They are also the ones from where jumping in the water is less appealing because of that.
If you can, choose a villa at the end of the pontoon away from the resort’s pier.
The Thalasso has a full functioning spa, the Deep Ocean Spa, which was rated the Best Spa in the Pacific. I found the spa to be excessively expensive and unimpressive for the price but a once in a lifetime experience.
As per the water sports, as mentioned above, the resort has all the same free f charge options as the rest: paddle boards, kayaks and canoes. There is a large swimming pool by the shore and a couple of hammocks for guest’s use. There is also a large cabana on the beach bookable for a fee, something slightly strange. The beach is relatively narrow but there are plenty of sun loungers and umbrellas to relax on. The resort has a small lagoon with crystal water so clear that it looks like you haven’t got into the water yet. There are a lot of curious fish inside this lagoon who will come swim up to you as soon as you walk in.
For those who like to exercise there is a fully equipped gym. Stingray feeding session take place every day and the resort’s staff will show how to weave hats and tie pareos. Diving can be organized through Top Dive, the largest Polynesian diving outfit with a store on site.
Aside from the restaurants there are two bars, one by the beach where you can dip your toes in the sand and another one in the main building where the shops and the other restaurant is.
For all the last minute souvenirs there is a black pearl store selling jewelry and a souvenir shop.
I found the Thalasso to be a good resort with the highs being its location, the facilities and the large villas but with lows on primarily the food and service level, issues which seem to be common of all resorts in Bora Bora. These two did not negatively affect my vacation and since I had booked with points my value-for-money equation was intact.
For lack of a better explanation I would assume the flaws are the result of very limited level of sophistication, development and competition in the hospitality industry in Bora Bora, especially when compared to other destinations that bill themselves the same way such as Maldives or several luxury islands in Asia, destinations that I know well. But this also comes with the charm of a world gone by.