Itinerary: Papeete, Huahine, Taha'a, Bora Bora, Bora Bora, Moorea, Moorea, Papeete
There are a handful of cruise lines that don't fit the typical cruise review mold. Paul Gauguin Cruises is one such cruise line. First, the cruise line currently operates only one vessel: M/S Paul Gauguin. Second, they are focused on South Pacific destinations, most notably the islands of French Polynesia. And, third, guests will most likely be flying into Papeete to embark M/S Paul Gauguin, which presents its own set of unique circumstances.
As mentioned previously, our sailing embarked in Papeete, Tahiti, which required a total of about 11 hours of flying time. Our flight from DFW to LAX took approximately three hours, then add another eight hours for the flight from LAX to Papeete. Most US guests will likely fly to Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui (ATN), as was the case with us. That means you will probably not arrive in Papeete until very late at night. We flew in Economy Class, electing not to spend the $1,000 per person (each way) to upgrade to Business Class.
Economy Class on ATN is not all that comfortable. The Airbus A-340 is a wide-body aircraft with 2-4-2 seating. We were fortunate on the flight over to have a window and aisle seat on the "2-side" of the plane, as opposed to the center section. We also flew on one of their newer planes (not to be confused with a"new" plane) which did have touch-screen, on-demand entertainment in each seatback and had USB chargers. The seats, however, were very cramped and very uncomfortable. Halfway through the flight, we were re-thinking our decision to not upgrade.
In the photo above, you can see where my knees (I am 6' 2" tall) touched the back of the seat in front of me. And, this was before the person in front of me reclined their seat! Also, Air Tahiti Nui provides no way to select a seat in advance through their website. Multiple phone calls to their reservations' 800 number resulted in the same response: "You can only select your seats at check-in at the airport." Now, I only mention this because when you sail on Paul Gauguin Cruises, you are very likely going to be flying on Air Tahiti Nui so, if you can afford it, pay for the upgrade to Business Class!
Also, we highly recommend flying into Papeete a day or two ahead of your cruise. Get a room at the Intercontinental Hotel and Resort and you will be able to board the ship in the afternoon on the day of embarkation. Because of our late night arrival, we did not get to the ship until midnight, and we were pretty wiped out the next day.
Fortunately, once we boarded the ship, check-in was very fast and efficient. We were impressed that crew members were on hand to carry hand luggage up the gangway and into the lounge where we checked in. Once we arrived in the Grand Salon, we were greeted with glasses of champagne and whisked through the check-in process. A stewardess escorted us to our stateroom and, within 10 minutes of boarding, we were unpacking our luggage which was waiting for us in our stateroom.
M/S Paul Gauguin is 19,200 tons and can carry 332 guests on seven passenger decks. The ship was originally operated by Radisson Seven Seas, which later became Regent Seven Seas. If you look at the smokestack very closely, you can still see the outline of the original Radisson Seven Seas logo underneath the prominent "P" that now emblazons that space. The ship is 18 years old and I can still remember touring her in 2000 when we were in Tahiti for a cruise with the now- defunct Renaissance Cruises.
From the exterior, you would never know that the ship is 18 years old. Even inside, the ship has held up well, although there are a few spaces that could use a refresh. An upcoming dry dock will no doubt address some of these areas. For Goldilocks cruise enthusiasts that find ships with 700+ guests overwhelming, and those with fewer than 100 guests boring, M/S Paul Gauguin is "just right." With a crew complement of 215, she has one of the highest crew-to-guest ratios in the industry.
Because of her modest size, M/S Paul Gauguin is very easy for guests to find their way around. If you forget something right before you board the tender on Deck 3, it won't take more than a few minutes to get back to your stateroom, even if it is on Deck 8, to retrieve that bottle of sunscreen or beach towel.
The Grand Salon is on Deck 5 forward and is the venue for entertainment and lectures on board. It is also the meeting point for shore excursions. The Grand Salon is actually a very well-designed theater for a ship this size with comfortable seating and excellent sight lines.
There are two sets of stairs and elevators, one aft and one forward. You can move from Deck 3 all the way to Deck 8 from either set of stairs/elevators. This makes M/S Paul Gauguin easy to navigate for those with mobility issues.
The forward section of Deck 6 is occupied by balcony staterooms, as is all of Deck 7, and Deck 8 forward. Deck 8 midship is where you will find the ship's pool and the Pool Bar. The nice-sized pool is surrounded by plenty of sun loungers. However, the lounge chairs are not quite up to the standards we would expect to see on a ship that spends its days sailing the sun-drenched waters of the South Pacific. The addition of cushions would be nice.
Deck 9 forward is where you will find Bar Du Soleil, a very nice area that appeared to only be used for special events. It is too bad that it is not utilized more because it is a wonderful space with expansive views of the ocean. There is also a lot of open deck space on Deck 9 and sun loungers can be found here for those who want a bit more privacy than is available on the pool deck.
The ship is equipped with stabilizers, which can help to smooth out the ride in rougher seas. We only experienced minimal motion the first night sailing from Papeete to Huahine, and it was not bad at all. On several evenings, the ship is anchored at night in protected waters.
M/S Paul Gauguin is equipped with WiFi Internet access for guest use. The costs are in line with what most other cruise lines charge for Internet access. I was pleased with the speed and reliability of the Internet on board...for a cruise ship. I was able to connect from our stateroom and from La Palette (Deck 8 aft). There were only a couple of instances of dropped connections, which is common with cruise ship satellite Internet connections.
Our Category C Balcony Stateroom (760) was located on Deck 7 aft, port side. The 202 sq. ft. stateroom is nicely laid out and quite comfortable overall. The use of mirrored walls helped to make the room appear larger. The queen-sized bed was reasonably comfortable and linens were top quality. A beautiful fresh tropical floral arrangement was the nicest (and largest) we have ever seen in a stateroom. However, it did take up a sizable amount of much-needed space on the coffee table.
The white marble bathroom has a full-size tub/shower combination, toilet (obviously) and single sink with storage on each side of the sink behind mirrored doors. There is additional storage space both above and below the sink. Lotion, shower gel, shampoo and conditioner are all L'Occitane and are replenished as needed.
The twin closets can easily hold enough clothing for two people for a two-week cruise. Between the closets there is a vanity with mirror, but no makeup mirror, and less-than-perfect lighting. This space can also double as a small desk and is the only place we found electrical outlets (1 US-Style 110 and 1 European-style 220). This table soon became cluttered with all of our chargers, computer, iPad, camera and cell phones. A small battery-operated alarm clock is provided, a welcomed feature.
Between the bed and the balcony is a small sofa, coffee table and padded stool that can be used as additional seating. A wall unit has lots of storage cubbies and cabinets, a small flat-screen television w/DVD player, and a mini-fridge (stocked with soft drinks, water and beer). The balcony is only 37 sq. ft. but can easily accommodate two people to enjoy Tahitian sunsets or watch dolphins playing alongside the ship. Enjoying breakfast al fresco might be a challenge due to the very small balcony table. The sliding door to the balcony functioned smoothly, but could easily be slammed if you were not careful. The stateroom door, on the other hand, is difficult to slam. In fact, if you let the door close on its own, you can barely hear it.
If I were picking nits, I would say the reading lights attached to the wall on each side of the bed should be changed to cool LED lights instead of the broiling hot, and super-bright halogens. And, please add more electrical outlets and perhaps even a couple of USB charging ports. The stateroom was reasonably quiet. We could hear our neighbors slam their balcony door a few times. And, if you book a stateroom on Deck 7 aft of 756 (port) or 755 (starboard) you will hear the late-night disco music (especially the pounding bass!) coming from La Palette. The music would crank up around 10pm and continue until about midnight.
A hair dryer is provided in each stateroom. Laundry service is available for a fee. There is no self-service launderette on the ship.
Food and Dining
A continental breakfast is set up in La Palette each morning at 06:30 with pastries, fruit, cereal, coffee, tea and juice. Buffet breakfast is available starting at 7:00 or 7:30am in Le Grill on Deck 8 and La Veranda on Deck 6. Both venues offer an a la carté menu and eggs cooked-to-order. Tip: have breakfast in La Veranda to avoid crowds. Most people have breakfast at Le Grill because of the outdoor seating near the pool. But, La Veranda has outdoor seating, too, and fewer people!
Lunch is served at La Veranda and Le Grill each day at noon. Both venues offer a buffet of salads, breads, desserts, a pasta station and an a la carté menu featuring burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, etc. La Veranda was our favorite place for lunch because it was less crowded and had more food choices including a carving station and additional hot entrees. They also offer a different ethnic "theme" each day in La Veranda (French, Italian, Tex-Mex, Greek, etc.)
For dinner, guests can choose to dine in the ship's main restaurant, L' Etoile, on Deck 5 aft. This is a more traditional cruise ship dining venue but with open seating allowing you to dine anytime between 7:00pm and 9:00pm and sit with whomever you like. We had dinner in L' Etoile on three evenings and never had a problem finding a table for two.
Reservations are required to dine at Le Grill on Deck 8 and La Veranda on Deck 6 in the evenings. Both offer fixed menus with Le Grill offering a Pan-Asian-influenced menu. The menu at La Veranda offers a Menu Dégustation (multi-course chef's selection) as well as an a la carté menu. You should make reservations as soon as you board the ship to ensure the dining day and time you want.
On the evening of our dinner at Le Grill, the weather was perfect, so tables were placed on the pool deck for a very romantic setting. Tables are candlelit (battery-operated candles), and the mood is as nice as we have experienced on any ship. My Polynesian marinated strip steak was flavorful and cooked perfectly. Rickee's Wahoo fish was a bit overcooked and dry. We also shared an order of the Chicken Chow Mein, which was my personal favorite. Dinner at Le Grill is a must on any Paul Gauguin Cruise.
At our La Veranda dinner, Rickee and I ordered the exact same thing. The cream of mushroom soup was delicious. The mushroom risotto was cooked well, but swimming in truffle oil. The vanilla creme bruleè was excellent.
Everyone should try Le Grill and La Veranda at least once per cruise. And, L' Etoile, the only evening venue that does not require reservations, is quite good. Guests can also enjoy room service 24 hours a day with a fairly extensive room service menu. The evening menu at L 'Etoile is also available from room service during regular dining hours. We saw a lot of room service meals being delivered each morning at breakfast.
Complimentary wines are offered each day for lunch and dinner and we found the wine choices to be excellent.
When we mentioned to our waiter that we prefer a sweeter wine, he did not hesitate to bring a bottle of Gewürztraminer (a sweet German wine) to our table for us to enjoy. Not many cruise lines even stock sweeter wines, much less allow you to deviate from the standard "red or white" offering of the day. From that day forward, our waiters somehow remembered that we liked the Gewürztraminer and always offered it.
All cocktails, beer, wine, spirits and soft drinks are complimentary on Paul Gauguin. That means you will never have to be hassled by having to sign a check every time you order a drink at one of the bars. We feel that is a huge value. Bar service throughout the ship is extremely good. Bartenders were not shy about pouring generous amounts of rum into the fruity, colorful "drink-of-the-day" and, the Spicy Bloody Mary at the Pool Bar is as good as you will find anywhere.
The Piano Bar on Deck 5 was our overall favorite spot for pre-dinner cocktails. On our second visit to the Piano Bar, the bartender knew our favorite drinks and, as soon as we sat down, the drinks were delivered. Delicious canapés are served each evening in the Piano Bar and La Palette.
All the way aft on Deck 8 you will find La Palette. La Palette is a panorama lounge with indoor and outdoor seating. There is a full bar here and this becomes the ship's disco each evening. If you want to enjoy your favorite cocktail while taking in an amazing sunset, La Palette is your spot.
La Palette is one space that is showing its age but we were told that a renovation of this area is scheduled in the upcoming dry dock. The indoor seating is not as comfortable, or attractive, as the seating in the Piano Bar and the tables are small and dated. However, La Palette was my go-to spot for early morning coffee and blogging/internet duties. Fortunately, coffee and hot water were available after 5:30am and a nice continental breakfast is served here from 6am until 11am.
Onboard entertainment focuses heavily on immersion in the Polynesian culture. On our voyage, we were treated to a dance performance by the "Children of Huahine" and to a group of local musicians who performed during Polynesian Night. We also had the opportunity to be entertained by the most famous dance troupe in French Polynesia.
The Les Gauguines, a group of Polynesian crew members who serve as onboard cultural ambassadors, perform local music at various venues around the ship. They proudly share Polynesian history and traditions with guests.
The ship also has its own musical band, Santa Rosa, that performs at the pool and in La Palette.
On our sailing, Cruise Director, Claudine Carle, presented a one-woman show that featured her tribute to famous singing "divas".
Guests can enjoy quite a few onboard activities when they are not off the ship exploring the beauty of the Society Islands. Les Gauguines conduct a variety of classes such as pareo tying, shell-jewelry making, hair-pick creations, Tahitian language lessons, dance classes and various other glimpses into the culture of French Polynesia.
The ship has a marina on Deck 4 aft where guests have complimentary use of a variety of water toys. Guests can kayak, paddleboard or wind surf when weather and local laws permit. Snorkel equipment is available at no charge for guests to use for the week.
Experienced and wannabe SCUBA divers will appreciate the ship's commitment to the sport. The m/s Paul Gauguin offers PADI certification on board. All dives offered are guided by a professional PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Dive Master/Instructor. Each is skilled in ensuring that guests have the best dive possible.
The ship is fully equipped with an onboard practice pool, a tank-filling station, and two inflatable dive boats with ladders. Each holds eight divers and two instructors. No tender to shore is needed—you simply leave from the marina platform of the ship and return to it after your dive, where a warm shower awaits.
One day, M/S Paul Gauguin shuttles guests to a small motu for a beach party and BBQ. You can read all about our day at the beach on our cruise blog.
There were several lectures conducted during our sailing. By far, the most interesting for us was an Indian Cooking Demonstration by Canadian Chef, Vikram Vij. This was a lecture meets cooking demonstration meets comedy show. Chef Vij is a celebrity chef in Canada having appeared on Top Chef Canada, Chopped Canada and Dragon's Den. He owns four highly-acclaimed Indian restaurants in Vancouver.
We have attended more than our share of cruise ship lectures in the past 15 years, but nothing like the one with Chef Vij. He was very entertaining.
Paul Gauguin is very popular with honeymooners and those celebrating their wedding anniversary. The crew goes out of their way to show special attention to those guests celebrating a special occasion.
One evening, a special "by invitation only" celebration is held in La Palette just for honeymooners and those celebrating their anniversaries. Attendees are greeted with a glass of champagne and Les Gauguines are on hand to entertain with Polynesian music and a special dance. Each couple is invited to have their photo taken with Bora Bora in the background, wrapped in a traditional Polynesian blanket that symbolizes love. For those celebrating a special day, Paul Gauguin helps make it a day they will not soon forget!
Repeat guests on Paul Gauguin were invited to a private function at Bar Du Soleil (Deck 9 forward). We were greeted by Hotel Director, Jacques Le Tallec, and had the opportunity to mingle with other senior staff while enjoying champagne and delicious canapés.
The Deep Nature Spa offers every possible type of treatment you could want.
The small fitness center is nicely equipped with LifeFitness machines, bicycles, treadmills and stair climbing machines.
Paul Gauguin Cruises is all about the destination, and the destination just happens to be one of the most beautiful and romantic places on Earth. During our 7-night Tahiti and Society Islands cruise, we participated in four different excursions, three of which were booked through Gauguin and one booked independently.
Half-Day Lagoon Excursion
Our first excursion in Bora Bora was with a local tour provider, which we booked directly over the Internet. The tour was identical to one the ship offers called Lagoon Excursion with Moahi Nui. The tour begins with an outrigger boat tour of Bora Bora followed by three stops. The first stop was to snorkel in the ocean with black tip reef sharks.
The second stop was at a shallow sandbar to snorkel with friendly stingrays. And, the third stop was at the coral garden where we enjoyed snorkeling with many different colorful fish.
Finally, we visit a tiny motu (island) for a fresh fruit snack before returning to the ship. This is a great tour and highly recommended. Also, the cost of the tour through the ship's shore excursion desk is the same as booking independently. On our tour, we had to spend about an hour for the outrigger to make several stops at various hotels to pick up other guests. This would not be an issue with the ship's tour, so you would likely get to spend more time at each stop.
Lagoonarium: Open-Air Aquarium Snorkeling Experience
This excursion is a unique snorkeling safari in an open-air aquarium. Once again, a ride in an outrigger canoe takes you to the small motu where the Lagoonarium is located.
The Lagoonarium offers an abundance of marine life and a beach with a beautiful view of the island. Here, we had an opportunity to swim/snorkel with lemon sharks, rays, parrot fish, and more. Snorkeling is in water ranging in depth from 3-10 feet.
After our time in the water, we were served fresh fruit, but there was no time to enjoy the beach. Some other guests with whom we spoke were a little disturbed by the idea of having marine life contained within the confines of the Lagoonarium. Personally, it did not bother me. After all, they are sharks! But, if the idea of swimming in what essentially is a big aquarium does not appeal to you, you can always opt for another excursion. The ship offers many excursions that include time in the amazingly beautiful, crystal clear waters surrounding the Society Islands.
Moorea by Catajet
We departed the pier for a boat transfer to a hotel beach where the Catajets (and Waverunners) are based. Upon arrival, we were given (very) brief instructions regarding safety and operation of the Catajets, then climbed aboard our two-seat, side-by-side watercraft.
Our first stop was a sandbar for snorkeling in the shallow waters with black tip reef sharks and stingrays.
Our second stop was a small motu where we had the opportunity to swim in some deeper waters, but we found the current a little to strong to really enjoy a swim. Refreshments consisting of water and sliced pineapple were served on the motu before we returned to the home base. We enjoyed this excursion, but felt that it was a little expensive ($299 for two people/one Catajet) for a two-hour tour. Also, half of the fun was driving the Catajet, and there really was little time to enjoy this as most of the time was spent in the water.
Slow-Paced Belvedere and Pinapple Valley by E-Bike
This slow-paced guided bicycle tour in Moorea was one of our favorite excursions. The tour began with a short introduction on how to use the E-bike.
The E-Bike has an electric motor that provides assistance at varying levels (that you can select). This should not be confused with a Mo-Ped since you are always required to pedal the bike. There are a few scenic stops along the way to the Belvedere Lookout point.
There is a lot of nice scenery along the twisty mountain road. The motor-assisted feature of the mountain bike made it easy to complete the tour, but I would recommend this for those who are at least in moderately good physical condition.
At $85 per person for the 3.5 hour tour, this excursion is the best value of all excursions we enjoyed. We prefer active excursions and this fit that description perfectly. It was really fun riding this unique bicycle!
Paul Gauguin Experience
The Paul Gauguin cruise experience is a romantic journey through one of the most beautiful places on Earth. No other cruise ship can deliver the South Pacific experience like Paul Gauguin. Life on board is very laid back, casual and relaxing. Leave your suit at home. All cocktails, beverages and bottled water are included in your cruise fare, so you never have to be inconvenienced with signing a check at the bar. All meals, even specialty restaurants, are also included to make this cruise an even better value. You will find adult guests of all ages on board ranging from 20s to 70s. But, you won't find many children. Take your kids and grandkids on Disney or Carnival in the Caribbean. Paul Gauguin Cruises is best when enjoyed by adults (of course, we don't have kids, so we are a bit biased). That said, Paul Gauguin Cruises does offer during the summer and Christmas holiday sailings.