A luxury cruise makes the most sense in French Polynesia, finds David Dickstein.
Watch the Travel Channel, talk to honeymooners, read what Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Justin Bieber, Eva Longoria and other rich-and-famous have to say in the celebrity magazines – they’ll all tell you French Polynesia is the quintessential romantic paradise.
And, for them, how can it not be when the TV crews get comped, newlyweds pay with their cashed wedding cheques and A-list celebrities never have to look at a price tag?
For the rest of us, including this travel writer who prefers paying his own way to remain objective, spending more than two grand a night for a five-star, bucket-list overwater bungalow, $55 at a quality restaurant for an appetiser (repeat, appetiser), $33 for a ham and cheese sandwich and $28 for a glass of unremarkable wine at a four-star hotel’s lobby bar is neither romantic nor paradise.
So, when French Polynesia is described as a lovers’ utopia, better take it with a few grains of sea salt. That is, unless the salt comes from one of three exquisite dining rooms aboard M/S Paul Gauguin, a Tahitian treat if there ever was one.
The 332-guest Paul Gauguin, which makes up the entire fleet of Seattle-based Paul Gauguin Cruises, prides itself on being designed specifically for the South Pacific; the ship’s 17-foot draft makes it ideal for French Polynesia’s shallow ports of call.
Its all-inclusive nature brings some sanity to the insane cost of vacationing in the land of exquisite natural beauty, emerald waters and dreamy sunsets. The cruise line doesn’t broadcast the money-saving factor, no doubt because the parent company is also the largest luxury hotel operator in the region. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, after all, especially when those bites at breakfast time cost $70 at the sister InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa, the most popular pre-cruise hotel.
For those of us with French Polynesia on our bucket list – exotic Bora Bora, in particular – Paul Gauguin is nautical nirvana. Its plusses are compounded in a side-by-side comparison with a comparable tourism competitor, a Hawaiian cruise aboard NCL’s Pride of America.
Doubling the price of the cruise and spending a little more for airfare get you 5-star luxury over 3-star mediocrity, a balcony cabin over one with just a window, only 331 fellow passengers instead of 2,185, a 1:1.5 crew-to-guest ratio over 1:2.5, unlimited drinks (adulty, too) over just coffee, tea and water, and tips and specialty restaurants included instead of being assessed $20 per day per person for gratuities and $35-$70 in upcharges just to eat a decent dinner. There’s also the gloat factor; tell a friend you’re going to Hawaii, and you get “that’s great.” Say French Polynesia, and the reaction is more like, “Oh, wow! I’m so jealous! Awesome!”
Speaking of awesome, nearly every aspect of a recent seven-day Society Islands and Tahiti Iti sail was. And appropriately so, Paul Gauguin is a luxury-category cruise line, as opposed to mass market (like Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean) or premium (like Celebrity, Princess, Disney). Luxury cruises tend to offer smaller ships, more interesting ports, better service, higher quality food and more inclusions. Check, check, check, check and check. Another plus: blatant upselling seems to be taboo on Paul Gauguin Cruises – not a single sales pitch was heard all week.
All of Paul Gauguin’s seven-day itineraries sail out and in of Papeete. Tahiti’s principal city is where all flights originate, and wonderful Air Tahiti Nui dominates the market. The French airline serves a handful of Australian airports and offers one-stop flights to Tahiti via Auckland. The route of Paul Gauguin’s Society Islands and Tahiti Iti cruise includes must-sees Bora Bora and Moorea, and tacks on visits to the islands of Huahine, Taha’a and the port of Vairao on the southwest coast of Tahiti. Overnighting in Bora Bora and Papeete slows down the speed port-dating aspect of an itinerary with no sea days.
Stern to Bow Wow Factor
With so much going for the Paul Gauguin, getting there really is half the fun. It starts with the people. Having sailed on dozens of previous cruises, this sea-legged traveller has interacted with his share of phony and lazy employees. Not here. Of the 217-member crew encountered, each was as genuine as the Tahitian pearls on display at the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Papeete. From affable Capt. Toni Mirkovic down, every Paul Gauguin badge wearer is ready to serve. The entire crew act as hosts, but that role is officially taken on by a troupe of Tahitian ambassadors and entertainers named Les Gauguins (men) and Les Gauguines (women). When they’re not leading interactive onboard activities involving Polynesian arts, crafts and music, they’re entertaining guests with traditional songs and dances.
Accommodation-wise, cabins on the Paul Gauguin aren’t that different to those found on megaships with 10 times the number of passengers. One distinction is free rein of a mini-fridge stocked daily with beer, sodas and waters – something verboten with beverage packages on other ships.
Food-wise, like the paintings by its namesake, the dishes coming out of the Paul Gauguin’s two specialty restaurants are masterful works of art. By day, La Veranda and Le Grill serve up sumptuous breakfasts and lunches, then are transformed at night to reservations-only, no-fee venues for gourmet dining inside or al fresco.
Michelin-starred Parisian chef Jean-Pierre Vigato helms La Veranda’s menu, his onboard protégés doing delicious justice to lobster lasagna, braised veal, heart of beef tenderloin with beef tartare, roast halibut and guilt-worthy desserts. Polynesian specialties grace the menu at the more casual poolside venue Le Grill. At L’Etoile, the ship’s main dining room, nightly selections may include moonfish caught in local waters and arguably the best beef Wellington on the high seas.
Let the megaships have their full-production shows and comedy clubs – entertainment aboard the Paul Gauguin is charmingly modest and indigenous. Local acts get tendered in to share Polynesian culture through music and dance in the 314-seat Grand Salon. Also on the weekly program are performances by Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, specialty acts, a crew talent show, enrichment lectures and itinerary-relevant movies ranging from the Polynesia-set animated Disney feature Moana to a documentary on Monsieur Gauguin, the Parisian artist who got his groove back while in self-imposed exile in the French colony.
Asterisks alongside Paul Gauguin cruises’ all-inclusive claim exclude spa treatments, premium alcohol, organised scuba dives and shore excursions, but this is a rare cruise that doesn’t require spending additional money to satisfy your sense of adventure. For the more shipshape, snorkeling gear, paddleboards, kayaks and other watersports equipment are supplied at the ship’s retractable marina in back. At most ports, after the short tender, free shuttles can take guests into town for light shopping and people watching. One day is dedicated to a hosted barbeque on the cruise line’s private island, or motu in Tahitian speak. This section of Taha’a is palm tree-shaded paradise with enough loungers for everyone, open bars (one floating), a quality spread featuring five different kinds of perfectly grilled meats, snorkeling and other aquatic fun in calm, translucent, sea cucumber-infested waters, and all the while being serenaded by the beautiful and buff Gauguines and Gauguins.
If you want to spend on shore excursions and haven’t pre-booked, the cruise line makes it easy at the desk on Deck 4 or on the interactive TV system in each cabin. In Huahine, choices include ATV, 4×4 and WaveRunner adventures, and the misleadingly named Huahine Nui Safari Expedition ($132). You’re driven to an archaeological site, ancient and restored fish traps, a spot where blue-eyed eels congregate, a vanilla farm and, by outrigger canoe, a black pearl farm with a store, of course. It’s neither a safari nor an expedition. The Highlights of Tahiti Iti ($132) excursion takes vanloads to a lookout, a famous surf spot and a water garden that’s actually on the nui (large) side of Tahiti. Clearly, there aren’t enough highlights on the iti (small) side. Two solid recommendations for Bora Bora and Moorea are the Day at the Beach ($200 and $181, respectively). Each has you spending six or seven hours at a gorgeous InterContinental beach resort, where poolside luxury and an included lunch await. A visit to either property, seeing waters of indescribable shades of blue, will substantiate why French Polynesia attracts celebrities, business elite and political magnates.
A pre-cruise pick is a half-day circle island tour of Tahiti. For around $70 a person, Marama Tours whisks guests in an air-conditioned van to a waterfall, a water garden (yes, the same), a fern grotto, a blowhole (when in season) and a couple of lookout points. What’s nice about this tour is that by making a full circle around the largest side of the economic, cultural and political center of French Polynesia, one sees the extremes between posh and pauper as presented by a safe and knowledgeable local. Being exposed to how the 30 per cent of impoverished Tahitians live and the country’s reliance on funding from Mother France is educational and humbling, and it makes one appreciate the next seven or so days aboard one of the world’s most luxurious ships.
Highs: Posh without pretentiousness, Paul Gauguin cruises offer a luxurious, more affordable alternative to resort-based island hopping in pricey French Polynesia. The natural beauty of Bora Bora, Moorea, Tahiti and other tropical paradises is only rivalled by the first-class service, cuisine and accommodations experienced aboard a ship expressly built for these waters.
Lows: With little to see and do, Tahiti Iti is a weak call for itineraries that include the newest port for the cruise line. A late tender to the ship might mean missing the executive chef’s one-time culinary demonstration featuring an enormous, colorful moonfish caught in local waters.
Best Suited To: Discerning travelers more comfortable in beachwear than formalwear; packing a suit and evening gown is a waste of time and valuable luggage space with this luxury liner. Cruisers accustomed to big production shows and full-service casinos need to be content with low-key, indigenous entertainment and a teeny, limited gaming area.