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For a luxury escape that’s not too far afield, French Polynesia offers beautiful cruising grounds and idyllic islands. Words and photos: David McGonigal.

Few of life’s great pleasure have universal appeal. Tell friends you are going trekking in Bhutan and you are likely to be asked why you would want to spend a holiday walking. Or nominate a skiing holiday at Whistler and you’ll be told, “I hate the cold.” But I defy anyone to react with anything other than envy when you take a week-long cruise from Tahiti to Bora Bora.

French Polynesia has some negatives. Because of French taxes, hotels here are mind-numbingly expensive and so are meals and if you wish to island hop by air you’ll be perpetually in and out of planes, airports and (expensive) taxis. This is a destination where cruising comes into its own. Fly in, taxi to the ship, unpack and settle in for a week of pleasure where all your accommodation, transport and dining needs are satisfied on board, until it’s time to fly home again. Even the perceived cost of the destination works in your favour because it adds a significant element  of exclusivity so you can rely on not finding fellow passengers who have come because it seems like the cheapest holiday around. It isn’t.

The natural beauty of Tahiti is astounding. This is the Polynesian paradise of fantasies where beautiful brown-skinned people live between picturesque crags drafted with impossibly verdant vegetation and beaches bordering tranquil turquoise lagoons teeming with fish. Dive into the tepid water and you’ll discover an underwater coral universe of infinite beauty.

So we come to Paul Gauguin. Not the 19th-century artist who showed the world the beauty of Tahiti, but the luxurious modern cruise ship named after him. Launched in 1998 specifically to cruise in French Polynesia, she has found her niche and is rarely less than fully booked. Since inception Paul Gauguin has been operated by Regent Seven Seas Cruises but from the end of this year she will revert to Paul Gauguin Cruises. Here in Australia that shift will be seamless as Wiltrans will continue to represent the vessel.

The ship has a lot to offer. She’s larger than the 332-passenger capacity suggests so there’s a lot of space and the interior decoration is refined without being stuffy. Some 70 per cent of the cabins have private balconies and many come with butlers to deliver canapés and drinks when you return from the day’s excursions. There are several restaurants and the food is modern and of a very high standard. The stern folds out to become a watersports marina and this is where masks, snorkels and fins are issued for a week of aquatic relaxation. The 215 staff are universally helpful and agreeable.

For Australians, the ship has two particularly appealing features. The first is that most drinks are included in the cruise cost, so ordering a drink at the bar, attending sunset cocktails or ordering a bottle of wine with dinner doesn’t involve any calculation. Tips are also included. The all-inclusive nature of the voyage has an unexpected benefit, too: because the company isn’t relying on bar profits it’s quite happy to stay in port in the evening so passengers can dine ashore or hit the bars as they choose.

Paul Gauguin sails on a range of voyages around French Polynesia and further afield in the Pacific. Our voyage was the standard fare – a seven-night cruise from Papeete on a Saturday that takes in Raiatea and Taha’a then heads off for a couple of days in both Bora Bora and Moorea before returning to Papeete. It’s a wonderful sail plan.

There’s a wide range of optional tours to choose from. The selection process was the most stressful moment because several tours overlapped. We elected to snorkel because diving would limit our time to explore the islands. Our first time off the ship was a five-hour hike on Raiatea through the jungle, up to waterfalls and a swim in a rock pool. About the time I was swinging off a rope down a rock face I realised that a PG ‘adventurous’ rating should not be discounted. We all returned to the ship grubby and happy – and in time for pre-dinner drinks.

We rented bicycles to see Bora Bora and this was the best pace to explore the world’s most beautiful island. At Taha’a the ship has its own beautiful sandy motu (private island), so we swam, kayaked and snorkelled before an expansive barbecue and reading in a shaded deck chair. It was the tropics at its most decadent. Moorea was large enough to warrant renting a car one day and a motor scooter the next.

The Raiatea waterfall hike cost us US$95 each and the ‘stingray ballet and snorkel safari’ in Bora Bora Lagoon was US$105 for three hours. It was worth that just for the initial adrenaline rush in the first five minutes when I had an over-friendly stingray as a breastplate and the tail of another draped over my shoulder while two black-tipped reef sharks swam past. Our third and final excursion was off Moorea, where we went looking for spinner dolphins – and found them. As I watched these tiny dolphins pirouette around the boat, the US$129 fee was forgotten as I marvelled that two of the world’s great wildlife experiences are found in such a beautiful locale.

Returning to Paul Gauguin each afternoon felt like coming home. We’d discuss the day’s highlights with our neighbours and do the rounds of the three restaurants before deciding on dinner. Unlike home, we’d sit on our balcony after dinner and listen to the waves lapping against the ship while the warm wind caressed us.

We came home revitalised. We chose Tahiti and Paul Gauguin because we could only spare a week and so flew out of Sydney Saturday afternoon and were back the following Sunday evening, tanned and completely relaxed. It was as if we had briefly stepped into a bright, warm and beautiful parallel universe where relaxation and enjoyment was paramount.

Fact File

Cruise Line: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Vessel: Paul Gauguin

Star rating: 4.5

Max passenger capacity: 332

Passenger decks: 7

Total crew: 215

GRT: 19,200 tons

Entered service: 1998

Facilities: Fitness centre and Carita spa, 4 restaurants and bars, outdoor pool, casino with slot machines, no children’s facilities, library, 1 cabin wheelchair accessible, onboard hospital/medical facilities, 9 single cabins, Le Grand Salon lecture theatre/show room.

Highs

Too many to list but busy days with sharks and stingrays, coral gardens and waterfalls then evenings of good food and wine and the chance to spend relaxed time together in luxury while being pampered filled a wonderful week.

Lows

The only minor irritation through the whole voyage was at the beginning when we rushed to select what excursions to do and calculated that learning to SCUBA dive would prevent us from some island experiences.