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As a writer specializing in honeymoons and romantic travel, I have been lucky enough to visit Tahiti five times (go ahead and hate me) and these magical South Pacific islands never get old – but cruise ships do. So I was happy to hear that the m/s Paul Gauguin (shown at left in Moorea), the 332-passenger ship that has been sailing the South Pacific for 14 years, underwent a $7 million refurbishment in January. And when I went aboard in late February for a seven-night Tahiti & Society Islands cruise, the renovations looked great. The new color scheme – muted neutrals and pale blues instead of the old red and dark navy – gives the ship a renewed elegance and sense of place. And the all-inclusive (with the exception of shore excursions and spa treatments) pricing makes the Paul Gauguin, while still a splurge, a great value in a region where overwater bungalows run upwards of $800 per night and food alone can tack on another $500 a day for two. Plus, book in 2012 and cruise fares include free round-trip airfare from Los Angeles. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of booking a romantic sail through the islands of French Polynesia.
The ship: At 19,200 tons, the Paul Gauguin is a small ship (purpose built for cruising the region’s shallow lagoons), but there is a nice sense of space, especially around the pool deck and in the restaurants. You can expect stellar service (there’s a staff of 217) and Croatian-born Captain Toni Mirkovic is not only personable but also an expert on these islands’ waters. Decor-wise, the new lighter, more contemporary cabin palette makes even the lower-tier categories feel more spacious. Seventy percent of staterooms have private balconies and I was in a Category C & D Balcony Stateroom (shown at right and measuring 202 square feet with a 37-square-foot balcony) that was comfortable in every way – especially the bathroom with its full-size tub and ample space for storing toiletries. Having a balcony is always lovely on a cruise through islands as beautiful as these, but if your budget doesn’t allow for it and you book a Category E or F Stateroom (200 square feet with a window or portholes) you can always head to La Palette Lounge at the rear of Deck 8, where the outdoor seating is an ideal sunset sail-away spot.
The itineraries: If it’s your first visit to Tahiti, the classic seven-night Tahiti & Society Islands itinerary offers a great introduction to some of the must-see islands. After boarding in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital and only major city, you wake anchored off of Raiatea, home to the region’s most sacred marae (temple) as well as Tahitian black pearl farms. Next is the laid-back island of Taha’a, also known as the Vanilla Island because this precious spice is grown here, where you can also spend an afternoon picnicking and snorkeling from the private Motu Mahana. In the distance, you can see Bora Bora (shown at left) on the horizon and you’ll get to spend two full days here ogling the endless shades of blue in its lagoon and staring at enigmatic Mt. Otemanu from every possible angle. Then it's off to lush Moorea with its towering green spires, twin bays, and multitude of land and lagoon activities. Finally it’s back to Papeete. If you have a bit more time, you may want to book one of the 10- to 12-night cruises that also visit the Tuamotus (flat coral atolls that offer great diving and black pearl farms), the nearby Cook Islands (famous for their dancing), and even Fiji, where the Melanesian culture offers a nice contrast to Tahiti’s Polynesian lore and lifestyle. Those with an adventurous streak, should consider the 14-night Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Society Islands cruise that gives you a sampling of the region’s various offerings – from the bliss of Bora Bora to the untamed beauty of Hiva Oa and Fatu Hiva.
The passengers: Given the cost and romantic “dream destination” nature of Tahiti, the majority of those sailing on Paul Gauguin tend to be American and European couples, many of them 50-plus and celebrating milestone birthdays or anniversaries. During wedding season in the U.S. (May to October), you’ll find honeymoon couples as well. Tahiti is not necessarily a family destination, so you won’t find many children onboard.
The dining: Paul Gauguin features three restaurants and all deliverfantastic and very different dining experiences. The main venue, The Verandah, serves both a buffet breakfast and lunch (with a wonderful selection of themed dishes that changes every day – Greek, Italian, Asian, etc.). There’s also 24/7 room service – a great option in the morning. Come evening, the Verandah (shown at right) transforms into a sophisticated French bistro seating 70 guests (reservations required) that offers a multi-course degustation menu by famed Parisian chef Jean-Pierre Vigato (of two-Michelin-star restaurant Apicius) as well as à la carte selections. Elegant L’Etoile, the main dinner restaurant, serves French- and Tahitian-inspired cuisine with a menu that changes every evening, while Le Grill, adjacent to the pool, offers casual lunch options and inventive dinner appetizers and entrees.
The excursions: You will not be bored. The onboard excursion desk offers up almost 70 options (costing, on average, $69-$149), from sedate glass-bottom boat rides to pulse-racing Waverunner adventures. Two I highly recommend: the Eco Snorkeling Tour ($122) on Bora Bora, where you learn about the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem and then snorkel a secluded, fish-filled coral garden with expert guide Laurent Graziana of Diveasy while listening to soothing music, and the Dolphin Watching Expedition ($129) on Moorea, where resident dolphin expert Dr. Michael Poole takes you to spy on pods of acrobatic spinner dolphins.
The amenities: By day, when not exploring the islands, passengers can enjoy special local performances (the dancing Children of Raitea are adorable), get certified via the onboard PADI dive program, take out complimentary kayaks or windsurf boards from the rear watersports marina, or indulge in a massage or facial at the Deep Nature Spa. At night, you’ll enjoy the song and dance of the beguiling Gauguines (a troupe of Tahitian women who entertain throughout the ship); the versatile melodies (everything from easy listening to classic rock to the latest chart toppers) of house band Siglo, followed by a DJ spinning requests, in La Palette; a small casino; nightly shows (the staff show is a must) and the beautiful “mini heiva,” as local women (shown at left) come aboard to string heis (for the head) and leis (for the neck) of the most heavenly smelling local blossoms – everyone onboard gets one!
The add-ons: If you’ve always had your heart set on sleeping in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora, you can. The two-day stay on Bora Bora means you can book the Romantic Escapade package to overnight in a luxurious Sapphire Overwater Villa at the contemporary InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa (shown at right), complete with a romantic dinner for two and a canoe breakfast delivered to your bungalow ($1,850 per couple). You can also extend your stay with a three-night post-cruise option at the InterContinental Thalasso Resort (from $2,650 per person including air transfers) or at the lovely InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort (from $2,175 per person).
The cost: Seven-night cruises start at $4,297 per person and include round-trip airfare on Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles.
See our French Polynesia destination guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rate on flights, hotels, packages and more travel deals.