I can’t remember the first time I saw pictures of Bora Bora. But it had always felt like one of those far-off fantasy destinations, a place I would never get to see with my own eyes. When my husband and I decided that we wanted to go somewhere special for our honeymoon, we quickly realized we couldn’t afford 10 days on the island. After a little more research, however, we stumbled upon pictures of nearby Moorea and began to plan a trip split between the two islands. For lovers of both the mountains and the ocean, French Polynesia seemed like a dream destination.

I spent hours looking at pictures of Moorea online, but nothing prepared me for how beautiful it really is. On the ride from the airport to our hotel alone, my jaw dropped at every turn. I felt like I was in Peter Pan’s Neverland. Towering green mountains rose up from one side of the road, and calm blue waters rested on the other. The land was covered in a variety of unique plants, many of which contained bright tropical flowers that acted as pops of color against the endless green of the island.

On our first morning in Moorea, there was no need to seek out expensive excursions; simply walking down the main road was amazing in and of itself. As we continued on, the ocean gifted us with a gentle sea breeze while the mountains offered views of its dramatic mountain peaks. We traversed the street for a few hours, staring in awe at the scenery around us.

The residents we passed met us with huge smiles and made us feel welcome on the gorgeous island they called home. At one point, I stopped to take a picture of a cute pink house covered in plants, and when I was done, I turned to see the owner approaching my husband. For a moment, I thought she was upset with me, but it turned out that she just wanted to say hello and ask us about our trip. We pet her dog and laughed together as she tried to understand my English and my husband attempted to converse in what little French he knew. I told her I had never seen a place so beautiful. As we ended our walk, a gentle rain shower began to fall, but it didn’t dampen my mood — I knew the rain was giving life to the flourishing island.

The next day took us on a whale-watching tour offshore. As we rode out to sea, our guides educated us on humpback whales and their migration patterns. They warned us that we might not see any whales on the excursion, but we ended up being extremely lucky — the water was calm and clear, and after just 10 minutes, we spotted a whale not too far from the boat.

We dove into the water to see if we could watch them from a distance. The slightly cold temperature of the water, along with my anticipation, seemed to heighten my senses as I tried to listen for whale sounds below. Floating on the surface, I spotted what looked like a shadow in the water. I kept my eyes glued on the figure, knowing that at any moment, it might disappear into the blue. As it turns out, whales are surprisingly curious. To my amazement, the shadow slowly came closer until I could clearly make out the figure of a giant humpback whale.

I remained motionless in the water as it swam toward me. Because it was so big and so close, I felt a rush of adrenaline, sensing that, if it surfaced, I would end up on its back. After it swam directly underneath me, I turned around and popped my head out of the water just in time to see it breach near where we were treading water. We waited again and were lucky enough to see a mother and her calf up close. I had the biggest smile on my face all morning, unable to believe that I had just been that close to a whale.

We rented a car for the last few days of our trip, as we wanted to explore the island on our own. We drove up to Belvedere Lookout, an easily accessible spot that allowed us to admire the ocean and mountains beyond. To get there, we had to drive through long, flat fields until we reached a small, winding mountain road. It was quiet at the top, except for the sound of our only company — some free-roaming roosters and chickens. The view gave us a better picture of how jagged and drastic the mountains of Moorea really are. They seemed to shoot up out of the land and distract from the dazzling blue water beneath them.

We spent the remainder of our time exploring the island and stopping along the way at beaches and small shops. We learned how delicious the local pineapple is and became instantly addicted to Rotui mango juice, which was served at all of the local markets. When it was time for us to leave Moorea, I couldn’t imagine how Bora Bora was going to measure up.

But it didn’t disappoint.

Although many have seen photos of Bora Bora, no image does the island justice. I have traveled to many tropical destinations over the years, but I can confidently say that no place I have ever seen compares to Bora Bora.

The main island is surrounded by a string of motus, small islets formed from broken reef and coral. In between the motus and the main island lies the clear, blue lagoon that makes Bora Bora so famous.

Most of our time on the island was spent in the water. Although Moorea has the most gorgeous land I’ve ever seen, the water in Bora Bora is unmatched. We took a sunset sail on our first evening, and it was incredible to view the sunset and stargaze from the water. I was amazed by the dramatic blue shades of both the water and sky. We also took a snorkeling tour that stopped at several places along the lagoon, including a spot where manta rays often swim. We were lucky enough to see some gliding below us, which, as a diver and someone who has always loved marine animals, was a dream come true. At yet another location, nicknamed “Coral Gardens,” we kayaked along a small, rocky island and explored the beautiful reefs on our own.

We embraced our freedom to wander.

When we planned this trip, my husband and I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but before we had even returned home, we were already talking about ways to come back. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to somewhere as extraordinary as French Polynesia, meet its kind people, and experience its stunning scenery.

The vibrant colors of Bora Bora left a mark on me. I don’t think even the most talented artist could accurately capture the way you feel in a place like that. But, from time to time, I look back over my pictures and do my best to remember.