Luxury Cruise Brings Value to Pricey Paradise

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  Story and photos by David Dickstein
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Relaxation Bora Bora style.
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Poisson cru, raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, is a signature dish of Tahiti.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - Read the guidebooks, talk to honeymooners, listen to the star of “The Bachelorette” from season six – they’ll all tell you that French Polynesia is the quintessential romantic paradise.

And, for them, how can it not be when the glowing travel writers are enjoying press rates or straight-out comps while they’re on assignment, or the newlyweds are paying with their cashed wedding checks, or spouse-seeking Ali Fedotowsky is getting ABC-TV to pick up all the bills?

For the rest of us, including this ethical travel writer, spending two grand a night for a five-star, bucket-list overwater bungalow, $40 at a quality restaurant for an appetizer (repeat, appetizer) and $24 for a ham and cheese sandwich and $20 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 lover’s 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 the 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.

Being all-inclusive brings 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 $50 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 its closest tourism competitor, a Hawaiian cruise aboard NCL’s Pride of America. Doubling the price of the cruise and airfare, and flying another 2 1/2 hours from L.A. aboard wonderful Air Tahiti Nui gets you 5-star luxury over 3-star mediocrity, a balcony cabin over one with a 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 $14 per day per person for gratuities and $25-$50 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 7-day “Society Islands and Tahiti Iti” sail was, and appropriately so. Paul Gauguin is a “luxury” category cruise line, as opposed to “mass market” (e.g., Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean) or “premium” (e.g., 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 7-day itineraries sail out and in of Papeete, Tahiti, with most making calls in must-see Bora Bora and Moorea. The route of “Society Islands and Tahiti Iti” cruises tacks on visits to the islands of Huahine and 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 21 previous cruises, this sea-legged traveler 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 (for free!) at the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Papeete. From affable Capt. Toni Mirkovic down, every Paul Gauguin badge wearer is ready to serve – think Nordstrom employees of old. 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.

Accommodations-wise, cabins on the Paul Gauguin aren’t that different from 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 proteges doing delicious justice with 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 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 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.

Island Adventures

Asterisks to Paul Gauguin cruises being all-inclusive include spa treatments, premium alcohol and organized scuba dives. Shore excursions are also extra, 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 already set thanks 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), 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 interactive TV system in each cabin. In Huahine, choices include ATV, 4x4 and WaveRunner adventures, and the falsely named “Huahine Nui Safari Expedition” ($95). 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 just neither a safari nor an expedition. The “Highlights of Tahiti Iti” ($95) 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’s not enough highlights on the iti (small) side. Two solid recommendations for Bora Bora and Moorea are the “Day at the Beach” ($144 and $130, respectively). Each has you spending 6-7 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 $50 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 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 percent of impoverished Tahitians live and the country’s reliance on funding from mother France is educational and humbling, and can’t help but make one appreciate the next seven or so days aboard one of the world’s most luxurious ships.

If You Go ….

Paul Gauguin Cruises – www.pgcruises.com

Marama Tours – www.maramatours.com

InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa – www.tahiti.intercontinental.com

Air Tahiti Nui – www.airtahitihui.com

Relaxation Bora Bora style. Poisson cru, raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, is a signature dish of Tahiti.Captain Toni Mirkovic on the Paul Gauguin bridge.A visit to a vanilla farm is a Huahine tour highlight.Paul Gauguin cruisers enjoy an authentic Polynesian revue.