Colleen Alsberg, a tour manager at Fox World Travel’s Oshkosh office recently traveled to French Polynesia and brought back this insight to share! Let our Tahiti travel agents help you plan your dream vacation!
IA ORANA (Yo-Rah-Nah = Hello!) Steve Wood, the Cruise Director, greeted us at the pier and got us to Reception to check in. It was the first time in all my cruising that my bags actually made it to my cabin before me!
We had been upgraded to a Category C-Balcony cabin, which seemed to be a standard size cabin, not much different than other cruise lines, although it reminded me a lot of Holland America’s balcony stateroom sizes. The bathroom had a full size tub/shower, which is always nicer than the regular “shower capsule” they subject you to. There was plenty of storage space throughout and room under the beds for our luggage. The amenities included the wonderful L’Occitane (LOX-EEE-TAAN) bath products…..nice. We were also greeted with a bottle of champagne, finger sandwiches and chocolate covered strawberries……nicer! I’m assuming they had the sandwiches prepared for us due to our late arrival. It was the small thoughtful things throughout the week that made the trip extra special. One night it was chocolate chip cookies and 3 nights we had chocolate covered strawberries delivered to our cabin, which was perfectly fine by me!
It was much after midnight, so we just called it a night and went to bed. The “twin” beds were much smaller than I had anticipated, but our cabin stewardess was an artist in sheet-tucking, so there was no chance of us falling out. Snug as a bug!
Chapter 2 ~ RAIATEA, Tahitian for “Closed on Sunday”
There were probably a couple of reasons that Raiatea (rye-a-tay-a) was very quiet when we arrived. One, it was Sunday and we were in a country where they actually close the shops that day….and two, they were electing a president, which is kind of odd for a Sunday.
Since we hadn’t gotten the chance to explore the ship when we arrived, we took care of that right away in the morning. The ship is only 19,000 tons and there are 8 decks, so this was a quick and easy task. We were on Deck 7, near the stairs, so had perfect access to everything. The pool and Le Grill Restaurant were one deck up and the other restaurants and entertainment were on decks 5 & 6. You could actually see from one end of the ship to the other. The Paul Gauguin was an older ship that was completely refurbished in 2011. It’s very well kept and had some unique features, like the Marina at the stern that opened to the sea. It has all the typical bells and whistles like most ships, a small library, boutique shop, Spa & Salon, fitness center, show lounge, internet café and even a small casino (that was packed every night!). Other than the main show lounge, the entertainment consisted of Dan the Piano Man and Santa Rosa, a quite good Filipino cover band. The capacity of the ship is only 320. We never had to stand in line for anything.
Chef Paul (from New York) did a Moon Fish fileting demonstration up on the pool deck. That is definitely a “don’t miss” activity. Moon Fish are a flat, reddish-colored fish, similar in taste to the halibut. He fileted this 100 pound monster in minutes with a sharp knife resembling a machete. It was pretty cool and DELICIOUS as they served it later at dinner!
It was a hot and humid day in the 90’s, but we braved the heat and took a quick stroll around “town” if you can call it that. It was very desolate, except for the tents sent up for the election, which looked more like a marathon about to come through. After our 5 minutes of exploration we were ready to get back to the ship.
We did find out later from some couples that had been to Raiatea before that you can find a couple of boat captains that will take you out to the reef to snorkel or you could rent a car or mopeds and find the beaches. PG offered 6 tours here including kayaking, a pearl farm, island tour, snorkeling, etc. According to Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic, this was the most unpopular stop on the itinerary and it’s evident why. I didn’t mind the stop though, as it gave us a chance to get to know the ship.
We introduced ourselves to Ernesto, the Pool Deck bartender. He quickly became our friend because he served us popcorn and daiquiris with real bananas! We watched a beautiful sunset before getting ready for the Captain’s Reception and dinner. Captain Toni was from Croatia and was very personable….a mingler! Since PG has only Open Seating, we opted to share a table at the main dining room. We sat with two couples, Bob & Sue, from London (who liked their gadgets) and Mark & Robin from Honolulu. Mark was a stereotypical “dude” and I know you can picture this…..50-ish, overly tan, curly bleach-blond hair, cheesy big mustache, lived on a boat and surfed. I can’t make that stuff up!! He also claimed to have surfed with Hawaii 5-0’s Scott Caan! Jealous!
We concluded the evening in the lounge where they brought on a troupe of local kids to do a wonderful Polynesian music & dance show. They were ages 4 to teens and were great!
As we cruised toward our next stop, the scent of flowers just wafted to the ship from the islands around us. It was pretty amazing. It was a very short, slow trip to the private island Taha’a (tah-ha-AH), only about an hour. That’s when we finally saw it! The turquoise waters that postcards and marketing photos lure you in with! To describe the blue color of the water, the best I can do is have you imagine the most brilliant turquoise or robin’s egg or other vivid blue….and then crank it up a notch! It was indescribable and not even lifelike. I guess you’ll just have to come here and find out for yourself!
Earlier we had picked up our snorkel gear (complimentary) from Regis, a flirty Frenchman with the best “office” I’ve ever seen! The ship’s rear end (stern….yeah yeah, I know) has a platform that opens up to the sea, where they bring the scuba boats up to load equipment. From our balcony we watched the crew loading the supplies for the island and it looked like a Polynesian water bucket brigade! Then it was our turn! Each tender held around 55 passengers and we just made the first one! How cool is it that the tender’s front end (BOW!) is a ramp that drops down, so you walk off into the beautiful water right up to the beach!?! Being greeted by beautiful Polynesian music and lovely locals didn’t hurt either…..women & men, a little sumthin’ for everyone! Onboard they called them the Le Gauguines & Gauguins, local Polynesians who are basically your cruise staff. The women were beautiful and the guys, well, WOW!
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more perfect weather spot in the world. It was hot and humid, but we scouted out our lounge chairs in the shade. We had a warm breeze and an incredible perfect view. We found a couple of coconuts and sipped the coconut water (now all the rage here in the States for big bucks; there it’s literally falling off the trees!). Eventually the water was replaced with a variety of island cocktails. Did I mention that all beverages were included on the cruise all week?! We even picked up one from the “floating bar!” Another cool concept that I need to take back to my friends on Lake Poygan!
The water was the warmest I’ve ever experienced. Even wet from swimming and sitting in the breeze, you never felt cold. We had been advised to bring water shoes with us and that was excellent advice. Although the sea floor looks sandy, it’s made up of mostly coral and is very rough on the feet. They were a godsend and well-worn after this trip.
What does one do on a very small, quiet, desolate island? We spent a lot of time in the water, looking at the coral and unique fish or just floating……ahhh that was so awesome! We didn’t need to put on snorkel masks because the water is so crystal clear that you could see the fish all the way to the bottom, even in the deep areas. I took a walk around the entire island and tried to get lost and run into some tattooed Tahitian Tribesman like on Gilligan’s island! No luck there, but did get around the island in 15 minutes at a snail’s pace with photo stops, never too far from a couple of French people or the sound of the generators keeping our lunch and ice cold. There were two palapa type buildings on the island, one housing the bar and the other for lunch. The PG brought out the big guns of the BBQ world. What a buffet it was! You had your typical picnic fare of burgers, dogs, cob corn, rice, baked potatoes, etc, plus steak, chicken, fish & kabobs. The salad & dessert bars were endless.
In the afternoon, the staff had various activities you could join in on like basket weaving and pareo folding. If by the end of this cruise you don’t know how to fold and wear a pareo, you must have been sleeping. I think there were no less than 8 demonstrations throughout the week. There were also local crafters on the island selling handmade jewelry, pareos and vanilla.
PG offered 4 optional excursions while on the island and there were kayaks brought over from the ship that could be used by anyone complimentary.
Leaving this beautiful island was very hard, but we had a lot of cruise to look forward to. We went back to the ship where they had a nice sail-away party with Santa Rosa and another colorful sunset. After dinner, the entertainment in the lounge was our very own Cruise Director, Steve Wood, singing his favorite songs of all times. This guy is multi-talented. More about him later.
Chapter 4~ BORA BORA, Don’t Be Tight With Your Pig!
The island of Bora Bora looks like a prop out of Pirates in the Caribbean. For the past 3 days we’ve seen it’s mountain from every angle at a distance. In the morning and for most of the day it was crowned with fog or clouds, sporadically making an appearance. The captain told us that when it rains it’s usually for an hour or less and then the sun comes out which was exactly the case today. The temperature was a consistent wonderful and the weather gods threw out a few rainbows for good measure. We had a leisurely morning, breakfast al fresco at Le Grill on the top deck. As a time killer, we made shell bracelets with a Le Gauguin (exceedingly well toned Polynesian dancer)! Always a good morning pick-me-up (although not literally)!
The passengers onboard are quite a mix and not what I had anticipated. There were lots of French (because we are in French Polynesia) and New Zealanders (because it’s close by, only 5 hour flight). A good mix of Europeans and maybe a third of the ship’s compliment was from the US. Surprisingly, I would say the median age is mid-50’s. There are young couples on honeymoons, couples celebrating 25th or 30th anniversaries, big-trip bucket list travelers, adventurers and I’d classify a smattering of them former hippie-type earth worshippers (if there is such a category). Case in point, we made our bracelets with a couple from Austria, who lived in Dubai for 19 years while he flew for Emirates Airlines and they now live in New Zealand where he trains pilots on a flight simulator in Aukland. This was their second Paul Gauguin cruise.
The rain held off for our entire afternoon excursion to swim with the stingrays (there were sharks too, only a few feet away!), snorkeling the Coral Garden and a jet boat ride around the whole island.
I love snorkeling with rays. Like your pets, they’ll love you to pieces if you feed them. Our snorkel guide, slash ukulele entertainer and fruit server, fed the rays to bring them close. They are so soft to the touch; they swim up your sides and past your ankles. It’s an incredibly cool experience. Our guides pointed out the sharks that were very close to us as well, telling us they were Great Whites. They were a tad smaller and brownish yellow, black-tipped reef sharks, apparently harmless. The captain didn’t freak out, so I didn’t either.
I’ve snorkeled in some incredible places in the world, but this one beat the band! The Coral Garden is now in my top two, right after the Great Barrier Reef! There were fish of all sizes and colors too numerous to count. Some were cartoon-like and made me laugh as I swam by. The fish surrounded you sometimes coming right up to your mask. The coral was spectacular.
After a snorkel that I did not want to end, we pulled up anchor and circumnavigated the island and stopped for a fresh fruit break. The pineapple and green grapefruit were the best I’ve ever eaten (maybe I don’t get out much?).
As soon as we returned from our snorkel adventure, we attended the Enrichment Lecture given by French astronaut, Jean-Francois Clervoy. He told us about his trips on the space shuttle and working on the international space station. He felt a need for continuous space exploration, because we need to continue to educate the world about it. I didn’t realize all the things one can learn by just looking at Earth from above, the moons, planets and stars. It was good to finally learn how they did certain “things” in zero-gravity, which I won’t share at this time, but was very interesting.
Before dinner, there was another Enrichment Lecture by Mark Eddowes, an archeologist and anthropologist who has been working in French Polynesia for many years. He talked about the natives, how they lived, ate, dressed, their hierarchy, how they worshipped and their imminent downfall at the hands of the explorers that came upon them. Just remember to always have an extra pig on hand for your tribal chiefs or a fatal outcome will befall upon you!
After another wonderful dinner, we had to see Krew Kapers! The Filipino staff supplied the entertainment tonight. There was Charlie Chaplin, a Gangnam-style flash mob, a juggler, singers and glow in the dark ping pong! There were lots of laughs and some good old-fashioned fun with this very talented crew.
Chapter 5~ BORA BORA, Day 2: The Crabs Were A Highlight
After breakfast at Le Grill with my entourage of waiters (I really miss those guys!), I booked the “Bora Bora by Le Truck” excursion. Le Truck…..sounds more glamorous than it really is, but I’ve got to give them credit for ingenuity. It was a truck cab with a “box” built on the back to make it look bus-like, then they found some of those circa-1968 plastic school chairs that they bolted to the floor and for comfort added foam seat pads that were about as old as the chairs. Surprisingly it wasn’t all that uncomfortable!
The island is only 19 miles in circumference, but it will take you about two hours to go completely around it, especially in Le Truck! I was grateful for the high clearance of a truck though and glad we weren’t in a Le Car! It was a rainy morning and that’s putting it lightly; it poured! It was still a great tour with a great guide and I got to see a lot of the way people live, work, shop and attend school. I was a little leery when the guide stopped at the side of the road and said it was time to feed the crabs! It turned out to be the coolest thing! Everyone on the bus got up to take photos. The bus was decorated with beautiful, big red hibiscus flowers. We plucked them off the walls of the bus and tossed them to the ground where a crab would pop out of a hole, grab tight to a flower and drag it down the hole with him (or her as the case may be). These types of crabs were “hunted” by little boys and given to their fishermen friends as bait. Our next stop was at a small roadside hut, where they sold shell jewelry and hand decorated pareos. I’m sure it was the guide’s cousin’s place, but still kind of neat, complete with a smiling little 3 year old Tahitian girl to ooh and ahh over. We nibbled a little fresh fruit and bought a few items before moving on.
Bora Bora seemed quite primitive, but maybe that’s just the way they live. Lots of little ramshackle houses, very open, very muddy, lots of garbage tossed about. Dogs, wild or not, roaming the streets freely, not wanting to be petted. Chickens everywhere and even a pig with a leash tied up to a tree. Remember pigs are sacred. There were some nice houses, mostly up on the hillsides, but not many. The nicest areas seemed to be the hotels with the over-the-water bungalows, but even those had seen their better days. It was a little like stepping back into the 60’s or 70’s which I believe were the hay days of this island. We saw Marlon Brando’s former condo bungalow, which was next door to Jack Nicholson’s condo. Brando’s offspring from his second wife, a Tahitian, still live on the island. After a couple of photo stops, we stopped at the famous Bloody Mary’s…..famous for not giving change I came to find out! Named after the character in the movie South Pacific, it has hosted celebrities since 1979. Built in traditional Tahitian style, it was pretty cool and I could see a night of drinking, music and fun happening under its thatched roof and white sand floors (you can check your shoes and sandals at the door). A brief shot of the mountain of Bora Bora can be seen in the movie South Pacific, so now I will have to see it again! Even though the tour sounded like it was just another hokey run of the mill tourist trap, it was fun and very informative. It was really the only way to see the interior as most of the excursions concentrated on the water aspect of the island (which there is quite bit!).
There was another deck party/pareo tying show before dinner and then we went to the second Mark Eddowes Enrichment Lecture “The Mutiny on the Bounty – What Really Happened.” It was another very interesting subject and perfect for our location (although his 45 minute dissertation on the breadfruit plant got a little stale). The evening entertainment was our very own Dan the Piano Man playing his favorite songs, this time in the show lounge instead of in the bar.
PG offered many different optional excursions for our two days at many price points. The priciest were the helicopter tours.
Chapter 6~ MOOREA, Skinny Pirates & A Night With Steve Wood
Moorea hands down is the most beautiful of the islands we visited. Lagoons and valleys formed from volcanic craters, lush greens of every hue and jagged peaks in the background dominated by Bali Ha’i, or Shark’s Tooth as the natives call it (because Bali Ha’i is fictional). At breakfast we saw a pod of spinner dolphins in the lagoon, jumping out of the water and interacting with the dive boats. They stayed in the same area for several hours.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of snorkelers on this trip, so the tour we wanted was canceled. Our only option then was the Island Highlight Tour which was rather dull, not at the fault of our guide who tried her best to make it interesting, but there just isn’t that much to be seen. The water, marine life and reef around the island are the true attractions and we heard it was the best island to snorkel (so very disappointed). But we got a good lay of the land as we traveled all the way around its 30-some miles. It was also one of those infamous European bank holidays that closes the attractions and all but a few shops. You could tell that this island is more affluent by looking at the houses and resorts. It’s also only 12 miles from Tahiti, the financial center of the islands, so many choose to live in Moorea and ferry over to Tahiti for work.
The evening made up for our rather disappointing day as it was Polynesian night on board. They had lei and hei making. Heis are the ring of flowers that you wear around your head. They are so beautiful and the smell of flowers just floats down to your nose! The local Mamas came on board with piles of fresh, fragrant flowers. They artfully crafted these beautiful decorations and gave them to us for our night. There was also a ukulele band and local performers from the island who were also our evening show in the lounge. Moorea has the number one school in Tahiti that teaches traditional dance and music, the Tiki Village Cultural Centre.
The Paul Gauguin has 3 venues for dinner each evening. Two are reservations-only specialty restaurants and one an open seating main dining room. Le Grille on the pool deck had a wonderful Asian inspired menu and partial al fresco dining. La Verandah had more South Pacific type specialties like tuna, wahoo and Mahi Mahi, served in various local spices and sauces, coconut being a big part of that. The Le Etoile main dining room changed menus each evening and the food was always delicious. Lunches always had a theme, like Greek, Asian, Italian, etc, and you could order off the menu if you didn’t want to do the buffet. The food was always hot, the choices plentiful and the lines were always short.
This evening we ate at the main dining room. Steve Wood, the cruise director was standing by the maitre’d podium when we arrived and he invited us to join him for dinner with another couple. It turned out to be a really lovely night of good conversation, wine and food. I really appreciated Steve telling us his life story, probably for the ten-thousandth time (I know the feeling as we share a similar fate when meeting new travelers). He had been an air traffic controller, a Broadway-type singer/actor, and then a cruise performer before becoming a cruise director. He’s been with Holland America, World Cruises, Seabourn and now PG and just finishing his third month. Steve had delightful stories about his time at sea including the “Naked Cruise” and the wine drinkers group who brought their own 4000 bottles onboard and drank them all PLUS! Chef Paul came out as well to ask us how dinner was. I told him thanks for the weight gain this week. We also met a very nice young couple from California, very well-travelled and fun. It wasn’t an awkward evening by any means, unlike some of those dinners with the ship’s captain or staff. One time….I was invited to a dinner with a distracted Hotel Manager, his wife who spoke no English and two other couples approximately 800 years old of which 3 out of 4 fell asleep half way through the entree course! Thank god for the waiter who saw my plight and kept filling my wine glass and talking to me through the whole debacle. But enough about that…..
Maybe I’m naive, but did you know a Captain Morgan and diet coke is called a Skinny Pirate? I had a couple of those and now they are so much more fun to order! They aren’t skimpy with their drinks on this ship. Since all alcohol is included, I thought maybe they would be on the light side. It’s definitely not the case, even with their premium brands.
Chapter 7~ MOOREA, Spinners & Poole
Today was the excursion we were really looking forward to. Michael Poole has a laundry list of university degrees, including a Ph.D. in ocean studies concentrating on Spinner Dolphins. He has been featured on Nightline, Good Morning America, TBS, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, PBS, Nat Geo TV, Travel Channel, many magazines and even filmed an IMAX movie. The excursion he hosted had excellent reviews and we were lucky to be part of this 14-passenger adventure.
Moorea was glorious today as we tendered into port and jumped into a small motorboat just on the other side of the dock. We were greeted by Michael himself and Jerome, his very capable captain (BOY! Living the good life really makes for good looking people!). In no time at all we were off on a wonderful trip.
On our ride, Michael talked a lot about his research and his life in Tahiti. It was his dream to live there and study dolphins and he’s REALLY living his dream. He has been there for over 25 years, is married to a Tahitian woman and they have 2 sons. He has also learned French. His knowledge about dolphins and whales, the ocean and the reefs, ecology and the environment is staggering. He also has a few personal views that he shared about the world, the people in it and maybe just a tad about politics!
It was quite windy, but Michael knowing the island so well, had Captain Jerome head straight to the west side of the island. We were all on the lookout for anything moving in the water! It wasn’t too long before we saw our first school of dolphins. The first dolphin flop caused quite a stir in our boat, but the excitement grew as now we knew what to watch for. Then the Spinner Dolphins started to do what they do best, spin, and it was so fun to see. Quite a few times the dolphins swam close and under our boat and we could see them perfectly in the clear water, even though it was 60 meters deep! Michael explained that they are wild animals and have never been fed by humans to entice them to come out and play. That’s what made it extra special, that we were seeing them in their natural habitat. We were very fortunate that there were no other boats (and especially no wave runners) doing what we were doing for almost 2 hours. The time went by so fast. On the return trip, we stopped to watch the surfers because there were some “gnarly heavies, off the richter dude!” I’m becoming fluent in “Surfer” now!
When we returned to the pier, we did a quick perusal of the craft stands and picked up our last minute Tahitian trinkets. Back on the ship, we prepared for our Farewell Party and dinner. The Captain came by to wish us well and the whole staff was there to say goodbye. It was a beautiful last evening up on the Pool Deck. Dinner again was FANTASTIC and then we concluded the night in the show lounge with Polynesia’s #1 folkloric dance troupe “O TAHITI E.” Another wonderful show, but was kind of disappointed that they didn’t do a pareo folding demo (sooo being facetious now!).
The Final Chapter ~ PAPEETE, Taxi Negotiation, Infinity Pools & the LONG Road Home!
Keeping in rhythm with the rest of the week, PG disembarkation was very well organized and casual. Processes were pretty much the same as all cruise lines, tags & instructions delivered to the cabin, bags out by such and such time, out of your cabin by 9:30 am, where to find your transfer/taxis, etc. PG offered guests post-cruise packages that included a dayroom at a nearby hotel and transfers. I’m guessing they use the Intercontinental, because that’s where we had our dayroom and we ran into quite a few folks from the ship. We lollygagged as much as we could after breakfast and then got off the ship around 9:30 am. We took the half-block walk to the taxi area and convinced the drivers that we hadn’t pre-arranged a cab (for 15.00 USD, PG will arrange a cab for you and graciously add that service fee to your account). Eventually they figured it out and we jumped into a cab with a sweet lady with a lead foot!
Our flight didn’t leave until 11:15 pm, so we booked a dayroom at the Intercontinental! We were greeted by the barefooted bellmen and checked in with a very attentive and kind staff. Per the norm, our rooms wouldn’t be ready until 1:30-2:00 pm, but we had full access to the resort, including towels and a cabana boy (for drinks silly!). Most of our time was spent at and in the infinity pool, but we also explored the property. The over-the-water bungalows had amazing views of Moorea. There was a salt water lagoon if you wanted to snorkel and a small beach. The lounge chairs were plentiful and had comfortable cushions. With the big fluffy towel and my cushion, I could have just stayed there all day! We were able to get into our room around 1:30 pm. It wasn’t a bungalow, but the room was very big, well-appointed, big balcony and the view was perfect. In the evening, the bar had happy-hour and live music and the restaurant had a good menu, good food and not too high priced considering where we were. I would have no hesitation recommending this resort for a dayroom or a week! It was a perfect day and a perfect ending to the trip.
I would love to return and do it all over again and I hope that if you haven’t been there yet, that you also get an opportunity to experience it! Contact a Tahiti travel agent to help plan your unforgettable vacation!
Keep In Mind:
-Do some price comparisons between a Paul Gauguin Cruise versus Resort Vacations. It is very expensive in French Polynesia, so even though the initial price of PG seems high, it does include all of your meals, all beverages including alcohol, shipboard gratuities, snorkel gear and kayaks. I think you’ll be in the same ballpark, if not a little bit better depending on your cabin type.
-I had anticipated a stuffier, high end type cruise due to the location and the price, but that is definitely not the case. During the day, it’s very casual. The evening dress is “Resort Elegant” which seemed to be taken in many directions. Although a few Europeans wore very dressy clothes, it looked a little out of place. The majority dressed nice, but casual. The ladies wore casual dresses or capris and a fun top. Men didn’t wear jackets to dinner, mainly polos and khakis. PG asks that no beachwear, shorts, tanks, etc, are worn in the evening.
-It’s different than Hawaii (I didn’t think it would be). Hawaii is beautiful and has the ocean, but is extremely commercialized in comparison. The islands in French Polynesia are surrounded by natural reefs, creating the gorgeous blue, calm waters and have better snorkeling/diving/watersports opportunities. With the exception of Papeete, the towns are not commercialized. It’s more true to life and true to its location.
-Be prepared for some rocky seas between islands. This is only a 19,000 ton ship and there were a couple nights of heavy swells. Dramamine, Bonine, or patches may be a good thing.
-Water shoes are a must and I was so grateful I brought them along! There is so much coral here that they are needed for beaches and for snorkeling.
-Leave-in spray hair conditioner is ideal for after snorkeling, to get the mask tangles out.
-Bring plastic ziplock bags for items like your camera, wallet, and wet clothes.
-If the PG maitre’d offers you a great table for 2 and it happens to be 17B, don’t take it!!
-If you want to marry a younger woman, you must be a very old Frenchman!
Mauruuru & Nana! (Thank You & Goodbye)