Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Tahitian Princess
Sailing Date: January 23rd, 2003
Itinerary: Tahiti and Rarotonga
To begin with the BOTTOM LINE, this is a wonderful itinerary on a very enjoyable and well-run medium-sized ship, at an introductory price that was the best cruise value we have found in many years. This cruise can be HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, except possibly for the mobility impaired. Princess makes great efforts to meet special needs, but this is a tender-intense itinerary, making shore excursions impossible for some.
THIS REVIEW is designed for cruisers who are budget/value oriented and who want practical information without social chit-chat (this is a review, not a personal journal). I have given each section an all-caps header for those who wish to scroll down to a particular topic. I apologize in advance for any errors and omissions.
THIS REVIEWER has been semi-retired since 1990, is now in his mid-fifties, and is not a typical cruiser. My wife and I have six months scattered through each year for leisure travel, and we cruise once or twice annually. We have taken 12 cruises so far, most on Celebrity, some on Holland America, and one each (res ipse loquitor) on Carnival, Cunard, and Norwegian. This was our 7th trip to the South Pacific, but our first time there on a cruise ship. This was our first Princess cruise, and after our enjoyable experience on this cruise it certainly will not be our last.
THE ITINERARY centered on the Society Islands of French Polynesia, with a three day (two sea, one land) excursion southwest to one of the Cook Islands (Rarotonga). An alternate itinerary goes northeast to two of the Marquesas (Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa) instead of the Cooks, with "scenic cruising" (but unfortunately no stops) in the Tuamotu atolls along the way.
To orient you geographically, think of Tahiti and the other Society Islands as the mirror image of the Hawaiian Islands south of the equator. This means that the seasons are reversed -- austral summer (the wetter, warmer season) is December--February, and austral winter (the cooler, drier season) is June--August. Storms can occur at any time, but tend to be more frequent in the wet season. July, in the cooler season, has the bonus of cultural festivals throughout the South Pacific (check the web for annual dates and details of Heiva ceremonies in Tahiti and Constitution week celebrations in Rarotonga).
WEATHER on our particular January cruise was wet -- we had 7 completely overcast and rainy days, 2 partly sunny, and only one completely sunny. The cruise before ours was almost completely sunny. We saw saw only one sunrise and sunset (the last day), but instead were given some of the most beautiful rainbows we have ever seen (including doubles and complete circles). Rain is no major problem when the weather is warm (but bring a folding umbrella and positive attitude), and it certainly decreases the risk of sunburn when snorkeling or boating.
THE GEOGRAPHY of the Polynesian islands is quite different from that of the Caribbean islands (which are often low and almost desert dry) or the Hawaii islands (which are also lush and mountainous but usually lack the beautiful blue lagoons and surrounding barrier reefs). Those who enjoy lounging on wide sandy beaches will be disappointed that many of the Polynesian islands lack good beaches (one must take a water taxi to outlying motus/islets or a land taxi to the posh hotels which seem to surround the best beaches, although all such beaches are public access by law), but the beauty of the lagoons and fantastic snorkeling and diving along the reefs more than make up for this.
The mountains are dramatic (remember the image of fabled Bali Hai?) and offer some challenging hikes to those who are fit (but bring mosquito repellant for inland adventures, since Tahiti still has oaccasional cases of dengue/"break-bone" fever, a viral disease carried by mosquitos). Because these islands are so beautiful even from afar, this is one time (in addition to the Alaskan inside passage and Norwegian fjords) where an outside cabin is absolutely worth the price. Fortunately most Tahitian Princess cabins are outsides with balconies, at a very modest increase in price.
THE SOCIETY ISLANDS VISITED on this cruise are Tahiti, Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora, and Moorea. They are all Francophonic due to historic links with France. The islanders in the tourism industry speak English, but they all will appreciate your efforts to resurrect your high school French (it's fun, and you can always switch back to English). At least remember to greet with a "bonjour", excuse yourself with a "pardon", and thank with a "merci beaucoup". Big smiles will be your reward.
THE MONEY is the CFP (Polynesian franc), which is now fixed to the Euro rather than the French franc, at a rate of about 119 CFP/Euro. Since the Euro has rebounded and is now stronger than the USD, this translates to about 114 CFP/USD -- but check the web for current currency conversions! You may get less than this rate, and many tour operators offer parity (100CFP/USD) and pocket the difference. The best exchange is available through ATM's. Only the airport Banco Socredo (not Bank of Polynesia) ATM worked for us on arrival, and it is on the Cirrus (a mastercard product) network. We have found the Star (a VISA) network much less reliable in our third world travels. Check the back of your ATM card for the logos of your networks. Other ATM's in Papeete may not have worked because we tried them very early one Sunday morning. The ship cashier deals only in USD cash, and cannot even break large CFP bills for you. Of course, credit cards (MC and VISA) offer an excellent exchange rate and are now widely accepted by many, but not by the taxis, le trucks (public buses), or smaller tour operators and shopkeepers, so keep some local currency for convenience.
THE ONE COOK ISLAND VISITED is Rarotonga, the largest and the capital of the island chain. It is Anglophonic because of historic links with New Zealand, and the MONEY is the New Zealand dollar, which is worth a good deal less than the USD (again check the web for current exchange rates). More information about the ports of call, including low-cost/no cost alternatives to the ship's shore excursions is given below. Keep in mind that the two previous Tahitian Princess cruises to Rarotonga were not able to anchor or tender passengers ashore because of high seas. We were the first Tahitian Princess cruise to go ashore, and the tender staff did a great job with swells in the 3 foot range.
THE MARQUESA ISLANDS visited on the alternate (not our) itinerary are Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. Like tahiti, these are in French Polynesia. We have not seen them yet, but previous cruisers told us that they have less tourism infrastructure -- everyone and his brother hospitably showed up for the ship's arrival, to provide shore transportation. Previous cruisers said they enjoyed their visit very much.
WHAT TO BRING on the cruise depends on your travel style. My wife and I manage most cruises with only a regulation airline carry-on and no checked bags (for formal nights it is a packable black microfiber suit for me, and one or two microfiber cocktail dresses for my wife), but for cruises like this we add a checked dive-bag with wetsuits, snorkel gear, etc. Do remember a good sun hat (a crushable safari style with chin straps packs well), sun screen, photo supplies, a day pack and water bottle (we use a plastic coke bottle purchased locally and filled with the ship's tap water) for shore excursions, a money belt or fanny pack for valuables when ashore (leave passport, jewelry, etc. in your room safe, and no photo id is needed with the computerized Princess key cards), ATM and credit card, driver's license for any rentals, mosquito repellent if you venture into the mountains (we did not need any along the coasts), sunglasses, and lightweight long-sleeve shirt/slacks for sun protection. More information about dress codes is given below. Most of these items are available locally, but at much higher prices than in the US. Princess did not seem to mind when I brought a six pack of Hinano (excellent) beer and a small bottle of wine (terrible) aboard (which I bought in Papeete), but be discrete. They offer a corkage service for true wine buffs who bring their own collection (wines are expensive locally in spite of the French heritage -- only the wonderful baguettes are cheap and are baked fresh twice daily).
A GOOD GUIDE BOOK is as essential on this as on any other cruise. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet series "TAHITI & FRENCH POLYNESIA", which has excellent maps, historic and cultural background, and shore information. I make copies of the maps before departure so that I do not need to carry the guide ashore. I am always surprised how little some cruisers know about their ports of call, relying on the scant information (usually shopping and packaged-excursion data) provided by the cruise ships. A good guidebook is the best investment you will make on any vacation, even if it is completely pre-packaged cruise/tour.
AIR TRANSPORTATION from the US to Papeete is up to the individual. Princess offers a charter from LAX operated OMNI. We were told that the OMNI cabin crew tried very hard to please, but that it was 10-across seating on a packed DC-10, which some found uncomfortable and whined about embarrassingly. The Princess air price with ground transfers was just a bit under $800pp from LAX. For just a bit over $800pp we were able to book a charter through the French airline Corsair (dba Nouvelles Frontieres) which included most ground transfers, three pre-cruise nights in a basic non-AC seaside bungalow (Kaveka Hotel) on Moorea, and one post-cruise day and night in a pleasant old-style AC hotel room (Royal Tahitian) on a black sand beach on Tahiti. We booked this through Discover Wholesale Travel (they were reliable but seemed very disorganized to us, so let your travel agent deal with them if the package is commissionable). Corsair charters are on a once per week schedule, so you will have four extra nights in the islands, split depending on the day your 10 day cruise departs. Moorea is calmer and more beautiful than Tahiti, so it 3 and 1 night split worked well for us.
Similar packages and prices, also including ground transfers, are available through Air Tahiti Nui and their related Tahiti Vacations. Tahiti Nui travel service in Tahiti took care of the airport and Moorea ferry ground transfers in our package, and they were very reliable. However, if you do not have the vouchers for their services, you do not exist. Tahiti Nui brought an entire bus to transfer two voucher passengers from the Moorea ferry dock to the cruise ship in heavy rain but would not let a dozen of us non-voucher holders on board at any price (we got soaked). It should have been a short walk, but on our cruise the ship was bumped from the convenient Papeete waterfront dock near the tourist information booth to the container port across the harbor because the Windstar was in port. Similarly at the end of the cruise our ship was bumped to the container port because of the Paul Gauguin, but our ship transferred to the Papeete waterfront dock during the night before disembarkation. If you find the Tahitian Princess in the container port, simply take the free Princess shuttle bus (le truck style) from the waterfront to the container port and back. We did not know about the shuttle and spent 18USD for the two mile taxi ride pre-embarkation (taxis are very expensive in Polynesia).
THE LAX AIRPORT is a the hub you will probably be using, and their Bradley international terminal can be jammed. To assure a safe connection, we arrived mid-day on a commercial flight for a midnight departure on our charter flight (be aware of the date -- if your charter leaves shortly after midnight, your inbound flight must be the day before!). LAX no longer allows stored baggage and it would have cost us $45 to store two dive bags and two small carry-ons for nine hours (!) through the bag service in the Bradley terminal, with the bag return limited to a set time. We simply rented a car for the day for 17USD (it was a week-end), stored the bags in the trunk, and spent the afternoon at the Getty Museum (they do not accept parking reservations and their inadequate parking shuttle took one hour of waiting in line each way -- go to the Venice or Santa Monica waterfront or pier instead of the Getty if it is a week-end).
EMBARKATION was the fastest and easiest in memory. Once we got to the container port it took only a quick look at our passports and an imprint of the credit cards we used on our accounts. We were aboard in a record two minutes, partly because we had pre-registered using the forms we got with our cruise documents, we arrived on our own, had hand luggage only, and were not on one of the large buses used to transfer passengers from the airport. Pre-registration is definitely the way to go.
THE TAHITIAN PRINCESS is the former Renaissance R4 (her sister ship the Pacific Princess, which will be cruising Alaska next summer, is the former R3). It was interesting that several of the passengers we met on our cruise had cruised (and enjoyed) Renaissance previously and found the ship decor little-changed (although it was thoroughly cleaned and repaired inside and repainted all white outside), but a few passengers were caught in theRenaissance bankruptcy. One gentleman said that shortly after they embarked on the R4 in Papeete, they were told that the cruise line was bankrupt and the passengers had to leave the ship. The bankruptcy court forced Renaissance to make good on their air charter home, and the Tahitian government provided transfers and other services. Once cleared, the R4 was moved to the container port and its fuel was off-loaded to recoup some of the loss. Unfortunately, not all passengers received refunds, although those who had paid with certain credit cards got immediate refunds.
The Tahitian Princess is a medium-sized ship (32,277 gross tons, normal passenger capacity 680), which is about a third the size of the ships one is currently used to. It was built and decorated in France in 1999. We had always wanted to cruise with Renaissance, in Europe and Tahiti, but were never comfortable with their pricing and business practices. Since Princess took over the R3 and R4, we now have the best of both worlds -- great ships and a fine, reliable operator.
The smaller size of the ship is a definite plus on this itinerary since most ports (except Tahiti and Raiatea) are tender -dependent. On larger ships there is always the hassle of tender passes and long lines, with preference given to shore excurision groups. On the Tahitian Princess there were no tender tickets and no waits of more than a few minutes, even just after anchoring. The Princess tender crews were wonderfully polite and skillful, and the cruise line was very generous with the frequency of the tender service and free shoreside shuttles when needed (from the Papeete container port and Huahine tender port).
The smaller size of the ship also promoted better social interaction. Although every day (even at disembarkation) brought faces one had never seen before, one seemed to meet a core of two or three dozen passengers over and over, and formed more friendships as a result. Surprisingly, the size of the ship did not preclude amenties found on larger ships, although the swimming pool was small and the small caberet stage was a challenge for the entertainers.
Would we choose this size ship again? Yes, in a heartbeat! And the marvelous thing is that cruise prices on this ship (which is comparable in size to high-end ships like the Paul Gauguin) are as reasonable (or better during the current introductory season) than on the mass-market Caribbean megaships.
THE DECOR of the ship is a pleasant and uniform French Provincial throughout, with none of the stark post-modern touches or over-the-top Las Vegas excess seen on some current ships. Colors are muted (cabins are beige with blue), woodwork is dark (faux walnut), artwork is accessible (mostly botanical and nautical prints), and public areas are clean and fresh (smoking is not as much a problem as on European or other "exotic" cruises, perhaps because smokers die off before they reach the age of our fellow passengers). Seating is sometimes inadequate in the smaller Club and Casino lounges, but the theater always had at least a few seats available. Seating at meals was never a problem, and even the alternative (surcharged) restaurants advertised reserved-space availability during the cruise.
THE CABINS on decks 6 and 7 are the usual compact but comfortable size (about 9 feet wide and 20 feet long, with an additional 5 feet of balcony). Wall mirrors increase the perceived cabin space, as on most ships. Deck 4 has similar-sized window cabins. There are a few inside cabins on each deck. Deck 8 has balcony cabins which are about 50% wider than those on decks 6&7. Several suites with separate living/sleeping areas are available, predominantly in the corners of each deck.
The standard bathrooms are bit small in size, especially the showers (where my shoulders touched the wall on one side and the curtain on the other), but are otherwise standard. Storage space is adequate for a mostly informal cruise. The closet is about 3 feet wide with many (more than 30) wooden hangers (which conveniently fit the AC ceiling grill if you need to dry a damp garment -- a self-service launderette with dryers is available on deck 7). The 4 drawers are small, but there is additional storage in each of the bedside tables, the room safe cabinet, and the desk/vanity.
There is good TV service, with the usual shipboard information, live CNN news, movie channels, and some music only stations. There is no minibar, but ice is easily available. The deck 6&7 balconies have serviceable plastic chairs (no recliners) and a small table. Some passengers spruce up their cabins with a large 5USD bouquet of exotic flowers (ginger, bird of paradise, etc.) purchased in the Papeete general market a few blocks from the waterfront. These last more than a week and look great, although a good vase may be difficult to improvise.
The best part of most cabins is the balcony -- my wife read and relaxed there frequently in her terry robe (which arrives late the first day because of laundry turnover), and we had our own private drinks there every evening. Since the ship often anchors in gorgeous lagoons, your balcony will provide the some of the best-remembered views of the cruise, and it is a great place to dry dive/snorkel gear (keep that sand out of the plumbing!).
STARBOARD balconies seemed to provide the best views, since the ship tended to approach and leave islands in a clockwise direction, and port side was port side in Papeete and Raiatea. Given a choice, starboard is what I would select.
THE LIBRARY is exceptionally pleasant and well-stocked for a ship this size (only the QE2 library seemed as nice), and the honor system of checking out and returning books was a welcome relief from the usual dunning notices and fines threatened on other ships. The decor is like a winter garden in a European home.
THE GYM/SPA offers the usual amount of exercise equipment (surprising for a ship this size) and yoga/pilates/fitness classes with a pleasant health coordinator. The changing rooms include free steam rooms, and are well-maintained and well-stocked with bath items. Beauty and massage treatments are as exhorbitantly priced as on other cruises (I do not understand why a cruise passenger spends as much on a single treatment to feed his/her insecurities as an entire third world village spends to feed its children). In any case, the staff seemed pleasant, although (as you can guess) I had little ineraction with them. For a $15 per day surcharge, the enclosed whirlpool and sundeck forward of the spa are available, but I never saw a single person use it during the entire cruise. The gym/spa does not open until 7am, so early bird exercisers are out of luck unless they want to use the smallish jogging track. It is open until 10pm, which seems unusually late.
THE OPEN DECK SALTWATER POOL is small but refreshing. The two adjacent whirlpools are wonderfully hot and are usually available. Deck lounges are adequate for the size of the ship, with fewer chair hogs than on most ships (perhaps because of our overcast weather). The deck grill/bar is conveniently availble for pool-side snacks.
THE INTERNET ROOM and GAME ROOM are near the spa. Internet service is expensive (0.50USD per minute), as on most ships, and is about three times the land rate in the islands. However the ship service is three times faster and almost always reliable, so it is preferable to searching for interet access ashore. In addition, Princess has the best perk for frequent cruises (more than 5 previous) that I have ever encountered -- free unlimited internet access. I wish other cruise lines would wake up and offer similar, meaningful perks. (We have "elite" status on other lines and end up being the last to disembark anyway since we make our own travel arrangements, even though we have no luggage and are supposedly given priority disembarkation as "elite" passengers -- so we never book a morning flight home). Internet service is fastest and most reliable at odd hours, when few others are using it.
THE LAUNDERETTE is a great amenity which was heavily used. Again, odd hours provide the best access. The usual washers and dryers operated on tokens available at the front desk. Irons and ironing boards were free.
THE CASINO was open when the ship is not in port. Some passengers seemed to enjoy it. One departing passenger recommended the cheaper slots as being the most generous. However, my impression of casinos and cruise gamblers (although they are a great income stream which sunsidizes the rest of us) is what you might think.
THE PHOTO SERVICE is low key and no more expensive than on other ships. Some of the best entertainment on board is provided by simply sitting in the lounge watching the photographers do portraits on formal nights. The photographers are wonderfully polite, and never seemed intrusive.
THE THEATER is small in comparison to the triple-deck super-computerized theaters we have seen on some current ships, but it provides a pleasant atmosphere for the entertainment. The theater sight-lines are not the greatest (the bar stools at the back help if you are late), and the sound systems were almost always unbearably loud in the theater, dance lounge, and pool-side (we are aging but not deaf yet).
THE MAIN DINING ROOMM is also on a single deck and is very pleasant. Tables near the entrance are arranged in a linear, dormitory dining hall fashion and seem crowded together. We found the round, staggered tables in the rest of the room more enjoyable. The pianist plays in the far corner from the entrance, which area you might request if you are more a listener than talker at mealtime. There are a reasonable number of fours, but few twos. Your table assignment is printed on the corner of your cabin keycard. The high-backed dining chairs are elegant and comfortable, but provided the serving staff with an extra challenge (which they overcame with style).
THE ALTERNATIVE DINING ROOMS (the beefy Grill Room and Italian seafood-oriented Sabatini's) each seat about 80 diners and are pleasantly theme-decorated (nothing over-the-top), with large surrounding windows, but probably no views since dining was usually after sunset. We found the food and service in the main (Club) dining room so good that there was little temptation for us to try the alternatives, although we heard good comments from our fellow passengers who did dine there. Be aware that it can be a 3 hour feeding extravaganza, which some enjoy but is not to our taste.
THE DRESS CODE is 8 nights "smart casual" (what you would see on nice country club patio, with many Hawaiian shirts on men and sun dresses or slacks on women). The 2 formal nights were surprisingly formal, with most men in tuxes or dinner jackets, and some in dark business suits. There were few evening gowns on women, but the dresses/evening suits were quite stylish. There were almost no sport jackets on men on casual or formal nights. Those who prefer not to dress up do not have an evening buffet alternative, but one couple I saw had a great time at the pizza station with champagne on ice. Do not worry about being under-dressed on formal night. The fashionistas care more about how they look than what you are wearing. Just relax and enjoy the fashion parade.
During the day, T-shirts and shorts are common, and jogging shoes or waterproof sandals are necessary, especially for wet decks, tender transfers, and shore excursions. Light jackets or sweaters are sometimes useful on cool evenings and in cool lounges. Remember that the pool and whirlpools are heavily chlorinated and will fade the colors and kill the lycra of a good bathing suit -- take an old one. Don't worry how you look, this is not a Speedo crowd.
THE FOOD was surprisingly good -- especially considering how difficult it is to provision a ship thousands of miles from the nearest resources. Food is amazingly expensive in Tahiti, even in the markets where a small watermelon costs 10USD and a head of cabbage 3USD. It is easy to spend 50USD on a very ordinary meal in Tahiti. I think that the food alone would have cost as much ashore as the entire cruise cost, and it would not have been as good and varied as it was on the ship.
In spite of the isolated Polynesian location, all of the usual cruise food options were available -- formal dining at all three meals, buffet breakfast and lunch, and pizza/snacks/room service throughout the day and night. Princess provides more around-the-clock dining than we are used to on cruises, and it was all good to excellent. The fruit was fresh and extensive, the salads crisp and attractive, the main courses good to excellent with the pleasant option of an alternate fixed menu at each dinner which included grilled salmon, chicken, prime beef, etc. We especially enjoyed taking a pizza to our cabin balcony for early evening cocktails.
As I mentioned above, we did not try the Grill Room (8USD surcharge) or Sabatini's (15USD surcharge) alternative dining. We have done that on other cruises and found the dining process overdrawn. The surcharges are reasonable (little more than a tip in comparable restaurants) and the menus offered prime items from sevruga caviar to lobster tails.
The only dining shortcoming was the relative lack of inventive vegetarian entrees for our vegetarian tablemates (there is only so much that can be done with tofu and pasta) and the relative lack of non-fat alternative items such as true skim milk (they offer 2%) and fat-free dressing at the buffet (it is available at dinner).
SERVICE STAFF were uniformly excellent. Our waiter Nestor from the Philippines was very professional and efficient without being intrusive or overly familiar. His assistant Jaypak from Thailand anticipated our needs. Our cabin steward Tomasz from Poland cleaned/refreshed the cabin several times per day but never interrupted us (use the clean now/do not disturb door tag, it makes the steward's job much easier). As usual on cruises, the staff all worked marathon days with little shore time or time off, but they all remained cordial and helpful. The only disappointment in regard to service was the lack of an escort to one's cabin at embarkation. I knew our cabin location from an old R4 deck plan, but Princess did not provide the personal escort to the cabin on embarkation which we have come to expect on other lines.
TIPS are largely taken care of by a 10USD per person per day debited automatically to one's shipboard account. This comes to the standard 3.50/2.50/3.50/.50 split suggested on other cruise lines for waiter/assistant/steward/maitre d' respectively. We gave each more in envelopes (provided on request by the front desk) at the end of the cruise, and they were appreciative. We first experienced the automatic tips on Cunard and wondered if the correct staff ever really got them, but it is probably better than being stiffed by a "tipping is optional" policy on some cruise lines, which may penalize the staff.
ENTERTAINMENT is surprisingly good and varied for a ship of only 680 passengers, comparable to that on much larger ships. To be honest, we skipped most of the evening shows because of the (for us) late hour and the excessively loud amplification (I wore ear plugs on formal nights and fingers-in-my-ears on not-so-smart-casual nights, the few times we did attend).
There is a troupe of six talented young singer/dancers, largely from Australia, along with two (M&F) talented vocalists, also from Oz. Their stage shows got good reviews. There was a very witty New York-style comedian, a magician/comedian, and a banjoist/musician, all of whom got good to excellent reviews.
Our favorites were the three classical musicians -- one pianist in the casino bar, one pianist in the dining room and atrium, and one guitarist in the Club bar. Two of them gave real (unamplified) recitals which unfortunately were well-hidden (the guitarist performed in the library but when we went there the door had a sign saying "closed for private function", which we later learned was the concert, which we missed) or poorly scheduled (one pianist played the first afternoon at Bora Bora instead of playing while at the ship was at sea). Classical concerts by unamplified musicians are a great, readily available entertainment alternative if Princess would only realize it. Also, a lecture series on Polynesian geography, history, and customs would probably be a hit, as are the naturalist programs in Alaska, if only Princess would realize it.
The ship's orchestra directed by Dan Reed not only played for the stage shows, but also provided traditional dance music between dinner and showtime. They did a great job with this, and watching the semi-professional dancing passengers do their thing was great entertainment.
In addition, there where two vocal/electric guitar duos, one in the deck 10 lounge (Australians with great current pop music but over-amplified) and one pool-side each afternoon (country and western style but again over-amplified). I felt sorry for the pool-side duo in the often-bad weather. I think the pool-side should be a quiet retreat, except for sail-away festivities. The duo should have been given a venue with better acoustics and a more attentive crowd.
THE CRUISE DIRECTOR,, Chris Nichol, did a great job, due in part to his quick wit and outgoing personality. He even entertained us one evening with a surprisingly good singing voice. The social director, Joy Casaru, had a typically dry British wit and was very funny during the liar's club presentation (see below), although we rarely saw her (I think she TLC's the elite cruisers). The dancers did double duty as assistants to the cruise director since the ship staff is small, and they too did a fine job.
THE BEST OF THE ENTERTAINMENT for us occurred on island days/nights in Raiatea and Bora Bora, when on three occasions local dance troops (school age and adult) sang and danced to traditional Polynesian music in traditional (but post-missionary) costumes. These shows are unique to this itinerary and are not to be missed. They also provide excellent photo opportunities, and if you sit in the front row for the Bora Bora school kids, you may well receive a fresh flower lei or flower head ornament, as well as being asked to dance with the group.
Also great were the at-sea daytime entertainments -- the cooking demonstration (the French chef and Italian maitre d' are born comedians) and the liar's club (a word definition game with great impromptu humor by the professional entertainers and slyly witty social director). The galley tour was over-crowded and understaffed -- not worth the time if you have done it on other ships. The bridge tour was for interested mariner types only (some cruise lines no longer allow this for security reasons).
SHORE EXCURSIONS come in three flavors -- those offered by the ship (which can be booked pre-cruise), those organized in advance on the web directly with local operators (one passenger pre-arranged this on each island for about a dozen people she met on a net chat room), and activities booked impromptu dockside or done independently (the latter at low or no cost) when coming ashore. As a rule of thumb, almost any excursion on the islands offered by the cruise lines is available in some form at lower prices dockside.
We prefer to entertain ourselves when ashore, and use guides like the Lonely Planet mentioned above to make plans in advance. Our suggestions for each island follow, but mix and match them with other offerings as you prefer.
TAHITI itself has few good beaches but good public transport. Walk from the waterfront a few blocks to the cenral market to see fresh produce and fish downstairs and tourist crafts upstairs. This is where you can buy a great 5USD bouquet for your cabin. Public buses (old fashioned le trucks and modern transit types) are readily available every day but Sunday. Most pass near the waterfront and/or central market and cost only 200 to 400CFP (less than 2 to 4USD) per long distance ride. We took one from the waterfront 20 minutes to the enjoyable 600CFP Museum of Tahiti (Musee de Tahiti et des Iles) on the west coast, where we saw tour groups who spent much more for the same trip. Five minutes walk south of the museum is one of the few Tahiti beaches, at the Meridien Hotel (public access is by a walkway at the north end of the beach, adequate shade but no facilities unless you go to the hotel for a meal or drink). Combining the museum and a swim is a great way to spend the extra day in Papeete.
HUAHINE is the least developed of the islands. The ship anchors in a harbor (Maroe Bay) with a free Princess shuttle to the main town (tiny) of Fare. There is essentially no public transport (the one taxi had a two-hour waitlist and all cars had been internet rented beforehand), so from Fare the only reachable beach is the small but pleasant old Bali Hai hotel beach (the hotel is gone after a typhoon destroyed it). It is a five minute walk north through shallow water, or 15 minutes via the circuitous highway (turn toward the beach at the car rental office north of town). The bottom is sandy and there is no good snorkeling here. The best shoreside snorkeling is reputed to be at the Sofitel hotel's nearby Coral Garden, which is public access if you can get there by taxi (traffic is light and locals said we would not be able to hitch hike there). We couldn't get there for love or money. If you are a snorkeler, you may want to buy a motu or round-island excursion on this island.
RAIATEA also has few beaches except for those on the motus (sandy islets) of nearby Tahaa Island. The ship docks at a pleasant new ship terminal in the main town of Utaroa, which has good tourist facilities. An open-ended trip to a motu is available in the terminal for 25USD. The water taxi drops you off and you can stay as long as you like. There is a local woman who watches your possessions (petty beach theft is common in Polynesia but not as bad as in the Caribbean) and provides fresh fruit (free) and drinks (expensive). The best snorkeling (excellent in fact) was around the coral heads on the seaward side of the motu, the opposite side from the boat landing. Stay away from any open reef passages, since tidal currents can be strong.
Since the shipped is docked at Utaroa, you will have a chance to return shoreside in the afternoon. There is a very pleasant walk (allow two hours round-trip and take water) to the top of Mt. Tapioi above the town, which offers supreme views of neighboring Tahaa (which you cruise-by early the next morning) and distant Bora Bora (northwest) and Huahine (east). The trail is a dirt service road which winds up the hill to the communications relay tower at the top. The road begins at the west end of town between the post office and the gendarmarie. Swing to the right around the assembly hall and farther up swing left and step over the chain which closes the road to vehicular traffic. You will walk among huge pigs, intact bulls (including horns, but docile), and beautiful horses (when we were there, two mares had just had newborns on the trail which were so young they were still wobbly on their long legs).
This is the first island whose (amateur) dancers entertain and sell crafts on the ship -- do not miss this show, it is a highlight.
RAROTONGA (Cook Islands) is a pleasant change since English is the local language. It has improved tourist facilities and shopping options (prices are reputedly lower than in French Polynesia) greatly since our last visit there 12 years ago. There is now a circle island bus (two actually, one in each direction) which leaves from the Cook's Corner shop one block behind the Avis (I think) car rental toward the east end of town. The fare is 3NZD whether you go around the entire island or stop along the way. A day pass (unlimited stops) is 9NZD. New Zealand dollars are easily available for US cash at the banks (we changed only 10USD and did fine. The local ATM was not yet working. Pearl shops are plentiful here, and there is a good grocery and a large T-shirt factory.
Perhaps the best Cook Island souvenir is the packet of (postmarked) local stamps available from the philatelic office near the main post office (near the traffic circle) for 5NZD. Cook Island stamps are famous for their beauty, and you may want to send your post cards home from here.
The ship anchors near Avarua harbor and it is a 5 minute walk east into the main town. As I mentioned, we were the first of three Tahitian Princess cruises to make landfall here, so do not be disappointed if seas are too rough when you arrive.
The Rarotonga lagoon is narrow and shallow around almost the entire island. The best swimming (although poor snorkeling) is at Titikaveka at the south center of the island (directly opposite side from the the ship's anchorage, the bus will drop you here, and there is a small snack bar across the street). At low tide the water is at least 4 feet deep here, when it is only knee deep elsewhere around the island. If you are lucky to arrive at high tide, Muri beach on the southeast side is swimmable and has a pleasant sandy bottom and shoreline.
BORA BORA is the quintessential tropical island, with the world's most beautiful lagoon (and some of its most expensive hotels with over-water bungalows). The ship anchors off the main town of Vaitape, where cheap (3USD or 300CFP) le trucks are available to shuttle you to the beautiful, calm, and shallow Matira Point beach at the southern tip of the island. The public beach facilites at Matira are outstanding, with a large shaded and tiled area, clean free toilets, and freshwater showers. The clear lagoon water is a joy and is safe for small children. The nearby kite surfers are an adrenalin rush to watch.
Snorkelers will find good coral heads and nearly tame (used to being fed) colorful fish along the beach at the famous Bora Bora hotel, on a point just before the Matira beach (ask the le truck driver to drop you off near the Bora Dive Center south of the hotel). Unlike other island hotels, especially on Moorea, which seem to welcome day visitors, Bora Bora hotels seem uniformly snooty and protective of what should be public beach. Just enter the water near the dive center and snorkel north to the hotel over-water bungalows, where the fish are friendlier than the people.
There is a poorly marked and steeply dangerous trail behind Vaitape town to the summit of Mt. Pahia, but I strongly recommend against trying it -- it is overgrown and does not offer views within a safe distance of the town.
Again, Bora Bora offers great Polynesian dancers aboard the ship -- school children in the afternoon and adults in the evening, followed by a pool-side island night. This is one of the best days of the cruise and should not be missed.
MOOREA is our favorite island, and we have stayed there three times. The lagoon is not as awesome as in Bora Bora, but the people seem friendlier and the island excursions/ belvedere overlook are great. If you simply want to snorkel on your own, the easiest access is just north of the tender pier, from the end of the Top Dive shop pier. Make certain you head north (toward the ocean) to stay out of the way of the tenders (Princess may stop snorkelers here if they are too frequent). The shoreline is a 40 foot tall wall of coral with reasonably good fish and moderately good visibility (rain run-off may cloud it a bit).
The best beaches are associated with the better hotels (the Sofitel Ia Ora on the northeast, the ?Hyatt on the north, and the Beachcomber Parkroyal on the northwest, near the motus). These should be user-friendly, especially if you use the bar or restaurant (prices are high). Another great option on this island (as on Bora Bora) is the shark and ray feeding expedition. We had great luck on previous Moorea visits with this.
There is essentially no bus transport on Moorea, and taxis are expensive. Rental cars are available at the tender dock. Special shuttles may also be available at the tender dock, but we did not investigate this since we had seen the island thoroughly on previous trips.
HEALTH AND SAFETY issues are uncommon. There is essentially no violent crime, but beach petty theft does occur -- unless you are at a hotel or on a tour do not leave belongings unattended -- true paradise does not exist. I mentioned (uncommon but not absent) dengue fever above.
There was no outbreak of Norwalk virus on our cruise, but I was surprised that the buffet was self-serve. Think about it -- the tongs and serving spoons have been handled by several hundred people before you, so consider washing your hands again after you reach your table, before you eat. Restrooms are conveniently near and a wastebasket near the door allows you to open the door with a paper towel (this sounds paranoid but is simply good public health). I wonder if Princess will change the buffet to assisted service in the future.
One plus on this cruise was the feeling of shipboard security. On one (highly esteemed) cruise line my wife lost her bag and a cashmere sweater to a thief while she jogged (alone except for cleaning crew) on deck. On the same cruise line on another cruise, one acquaintance lost his wallet from his bedside table and another lost her (and her infant daughter's) passport from a cabin shelf. Ships are like small towns, and in some cases one is no longer completely safe on them. We never had or heard of any such pronlems on this cruise.
DISEMBARKATION like embarkation is somewhat complicated by the fact that most passengers arrive by charter flight in the morning but previous cruisers do not depart until late in the evening. This means that on the turnaround day there are twice as many passengers on board. Princess is very generous in letting departing passengers maintain their cabins until 11 am (although some Princess flights require a morning trip to the airport to check bags through security, followed by a return to the ship for a later final departure). Princess is also very generous in providing all meals to all overlapping passengers. We felt happy to disembark after lunch and spend an extra day at a hotel near Papeete, flying out the next evening after the Princess chart flights.
CRUISE VALUE in this case cannot be over-emphasized. We booked this cruise with the help of our wonderful Galaxsea agent Pat Webb, who emailed us as soon as it was made public (several months before the first departure), and we were able to get a balcony cabin at just under 1000USD, including all taxes, port charges, and a 100USD per cabin credit. I believe the cruise now runs 20-30% higher than that, but it still is a bargain at that price, considering the quality of the ship and the beauty of the itinerary. Our independent LAX air/4 night hotel package with transfers came to just over 800USD, which was a good alternative to the Princess LAX air charter and separate transfers which cost almost as much without the extra hotel nights.
FINAL THOUGHT-- vacation on your vacation, and do not to worry about the details. You will have a great time!