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Wendy Harrison

Age: 51 to 60

Occupation:Technical Manager, Software

Number of Cruises: 2

Cruise Line: Regent Seven Seas

Ship: Paul Gauguin (transferred)

Sailing Date: n/a

Itinerary: Society Islands


Tahiti By Gauguin

This is a review of a cruise of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, aboard the Radisson Seven Seas Ship, the Paul Gauguin. The cruise departure date was May 20, 2000, from Papeete. It was our very first cruise.

Executive Summary

This cruise was superb in every way. Yes, it's certainly expensive, a lot more so than the competing Renaissance itinerary, but it was worth every penny. Service was very personalized, the ship intimate and very well run, the food was top-drawer. As first-time cruisers, not normally quite so extravagant, we are now totally spoiled by Radisson.

The destination, of course, is also a dream come true. If I could find a way to go and live in French Polynesia, I would certainly do it. And we would go back there in a heartbeat for another trip--in fact, we want to see the Marquesas next. And my favourite island in the Societies was Moorea--the mooring in Opunohu Bay was stunning.

Why we took this cruise

I started planning this trip, which coincided with our 20th wedding anniversary, early in the fall of 1999, about nine months before the actual departure date. I knew we wanted to go somewhere special, and splurge, but didn't know where. A cruise appealed because it was a special holiday, and I thought we should be pampered, and be free to relax, not worry about schlepping from hotel to hotel. And a caribbean resort vacation didn't appeal because of the time of year.

But we had several problems with the concept of a cruise:

* I am prone to motion sickness.
* We don't like dressing up.
* We don't like crowds, lineups, nightclubs or casinos.
* We like to be pampered.

The Paul Gauguin seemed to fit the bill. The trip around the Society Islands was sufficiently exotic, the seas promised to be reasonably calm, the ship is small, and the dress code is "country club casual"--no ties or jackets required, let alone tuxedos.

Before deciding, I did lots of research comparing the Paul Gauguin cruise to the Renaissance offerings. Here is why I chose the Paul Gauguin:

1. The ship was smaller, and promised better, more intimate service
2. All extras were included in the cost of the cruise, including
gratuities. No nickel-and-diming.
3. The cabins were larger.
4. More cosmopolitan atmosphere, mix of nationalities (not all American). 
5. Pre-cruise packages were offered, and since Tahiti is a long way to go (we're in Toronto), we wanted to stay a bit longer.

Here are some reasons why one might choose Renaissance instead, with my
rebuttals:

Longer cruise

There is an extra island visited, Huahine, which would definitely be nice. But much of the additional cruise time is spent docked at Papeete. Tahiti is the least interesting place to visit on this trip. Lower cost Yes, the Renaissance cruise costs less. We decided that the luxury and the intimacy made up for this, plus we spent nothing on the ship, aside from excursions. If you can't afford Radisson, do the Renaissance instead--the destination is worth it, regardless. Non-smoking We are non-smokers, but my husband is a former smoker. As nice as it would have been to be in a non-smoking environment, I think that this policy is pretty draconian--the last place I want to be is stuck with a bunch of anti-smoking zealots.

So, on with the trip

Pre-cruise Trip

I've been back from this cruise for over a month, and I'm still basking in the experience. The Society Islands themselves are lovely, the people are almost universally welcoming, and although the island residents make most of their income from tourism, there is no sense of the place being spoiled. This is partly due, I'm sure, to the fact that French Polynesia focuses on the high-end tourist trade.

We started our adventure with one of Radisson's pre-cruise packages, which was three days on the island of Manihi in the Tuomotu Archipelago, about 150 miles from Tahiti. This group of islands are coral atolls, just rings of coral fringed with palm trees, with beautiful lagoons in the middle. Manihi has a population of about 800 people, and a single resort hotel, called the Pearl Beach Hotel. Our three day stay there was wondrous in the extreme. The clientele was almost entirely French, and the staff were Polynesian. All the staff managed in English just fine. Aside from the beauty and luxury of the hotel itself, being in a French atmosphere was very pleasant. The French love their food, and the cuisine was a mix of fine French cooking and wonderful Polynesian fish and fruit.

The hotel has only about 45 rooms, all private bungalows. Some are over-water bungalows, others sit on the beach overlooking the lagoon. We chose the humbler beach-side abode, but I think I preferred it--we had the sounds of the palms swaying in the constant tradewinds, and our own private hammock in front of our own verandah. The room was exquisite in every detail, and the service was great. I loved that hotel, and would return to it again. Looking at the rack rates, we got a good deal through Radisson--$895 for three nights, including breakfast and airfare. We spent about $250 while we there, on lunches, dinners and an excursion.

Manihi is the largest pearl-producing island in French Polynesia, having close to a hundred individual pearl farms. We did a pearl farm tour which took us in a boat far across the lagoon, which is dotted with pearl farms sitting out in the water. Manihi is also well-known for diving and snorkeling, with a full dive center at the hotel. We contented ourselves with snorkeling in front of our hotel room! It's also a good place to buy pearls, since you're right at the source--we didn't come home empty-handed.

As with most of French Polynesia, there was no tipping. We tried to tip the very friendly bartender before we left, and she not only vehemently refused, but proceeded to buy us a going-away drink.

I would highly recommend a pre-cruise package to unwind from the stress of jet-lag, and just to get into the mood of the islands. Try to go somewhere other than Tahiti, if you can manage--Tahiti itself is much more touristy than the other islands. By the time we got onto the ship, we were completely mellowed-out, I'd bought my first pareo, and we were beginning to get a tan.

The Paul Gauguin

We were flown back from Manihi, and spent the afternoon at a nearby hotel on Papeete, awaiting embarkation. I was not impressed with this hotel, not after the Pearl Beach--it was very large, and reminded me of your average huge resort. Sorry, I can't remember which one it was, but I could probably be persuaded to remember. The most outstanding feature was a large, artificial rock formation, built in front of the pool, which completely blocked the natural, quite astounding view of Moorea. We saw very little of Papeete or Tahiti on this trip, and although I'm sure there's much to see, the other islands are so beautiful that I didn't really feel like I'd missed anything this way.

Embarkation was at 3 p.m., and although Tahiti Nui Travel, who are the local agents in Papeete were not flawless in their organizational skills, once we stepped off the bus at the dock, everything was as smooth as silk. We were photographed and given our room keys, whisked to the grand lounge for a welcome glass of champagne, then escorted individually to our rooms, where our bags were awaiting us. About 5 p.m. there was a party on the pool deck, with entertainment from the resident band and entertainers, while we sailed away from Papeete. This was one of the high points for me, it was thrilling. This was the first of many occasions when we had free drinks thrust into our hands.

The Ship and the Stateroom

The Paul Gauguin is a beautiful ship, inside and out. The appointments everywhere are first class. We had a humble D-class stateroom, which had a picture window, rather than a balcony. This was one of the compromises that we made to take the more expensive cruise. Our stateroom was great, no complaints. We had a queen-sized bed, large closets, a full-sized tub and vanity, lots of closet and drawer space.

I never did feel a twinge of sea-sickness. We had one very rough afternoon, while at Taha'a--the Paul Gauguin made a precipitous departure so that it could hide in the lee of Bora Bora, and we certainly rolled considerably on the way. I also heard that one of the ship's stabilizers is broken--don't know if this is true. The ship did have a roll to it, and there were quite a few passengers wearing scop' patches behind their ears, but I suspect they didn't really need them.

Fellow Passengers

There was a good mix of nationalities and ages. Apparently the national mix varies substantially from cruise-to-cruise--there was a huge group of American insurance agents on our cruise--the week before there had been a large corporate group from Canada. There were about 20 Canadians, 50 French, and most of the rest of the passengers appeared to be American. Age-wise, there were some lively senior citizens, lots of well-healed businessmen and their wives in their 50s and 60s (I called them "captains of industry"), quite a few honeymooners in their 20s, and a number of 30-something couples (looked like dotcom millionaires to me!) We ourselves are in our 50s, my husband's an academic, and I work in the computer software industry--so, except for the wealthy part, we were fairly typical passengers.

All and all it was a fairly sophisticated crowd, well-travelled, mostly wanting to relax, although we had our share of partiers who discoed the night away, and moped around with hangovers the next morning!

The Restaurants

The ship has three restaurants. We ate in them all, and liked the Grill for lunch best, since it was a buffet, and always included fresh local fish, and a casual indoor-outdoor atmosphere. There was always simple lunch items like hamburgers, always two kinds of fresh grilled fish, a pasta made fresh for you, lots of salads, and a selection of about ten desserts!

The main restaurant, L'étoile had wonderful long French menus every night, plus plainer fare for sensitive tummies and dieters. We feasted on foie gras and caviar, wonderful multi-course meals with a nouveau cuisine slant. The wine was poured like water. The first night my husband made the mistake of trying to empty his wine glass--but every time he turned his head it was re-filled. Wine and beer are complimentary with lunch and dinner in all restaurants.

The Veranda is referred to as "the alternate dining experience", and has two set menus alternate nights. The meal that we had there was fantastic, especially the lobster dim sum. We rolled ourselves directly into bed after that one.

There was also high tea in the afternoon, early morning coffee and croissants for the early risers. Full room service was available at any time at no charge.

Entertainment

There were lots of organized events aboard ship--we participated in only a few of them, but we enjoyed everything we did. Lots of poolside parties with music, demonstrations, local folk performances, all with the drinks flowing. It was very difficult to actually pay for a drink on this ship.

The resident band was a group of Filipinos called Siglo. They played all kinds of different music throughout the cruise, and were a very talented, versatile bunch. In addition, there was a troupe of Polynesian girls called the Gauguines. They danced the Polynesian dances, sang the songs, and played guitar and ukelele. They also served as assistant social directors, marshalling guests for excursions, convening informal talks on local customs and history. Each night at dinner, a pair of them wandered through the dining rooms, one singing and playing guitar, the other dancing the slower, more sinuous of the traditional dances. All straight male eyes popped out of heads at this point.

Excursions

I won't say much about specific excursions--there have been plenty of other reviews of these, and I'm sure they don't vary much between Radisson and Renaissance, since they are all provided locally. But the organization of excursions was handled very well, tendering to and from shore was well-run, and there was never any sense of being herded around, since numbers were always small. I will say that my favourite excursion was a sunset cruise along the coast of Moorea, aboard a 100-foot schooner, with a crew of beautiful young Polynesians.

There were three complimentary motu visits--one was an entire day on a private motu, including lunch, bar, snorkeling tour and kayaking. This was idyllic, sybaritic in the extreme. There were also two afternoon visits to a motu in Bora Bora, also with complimentary bar. I would highly recommend at least one afternoon on the motu at Bora Bora--the view of the island is stunning.

Services

All of the shipboard staff were friendly and very service-oriented. On our trip, the guest-to-staff ratio was almost 1-1, since there were only 250 guests aboard. All the guests were treated like millionaires, even those of us who weren't. Our cabin stewardess was attentive, and our mini-bar got refreshed daily with soft drinks, bottled water and beer. We were stocked with three pints of liquor at the beginning of the cruise, at no charge. In fact, my husband decided he was morally obligated to incur a bar bill on the trip, and spent a princely $3.50 for the entire cruise--free drinks flowed at motu picnics, pool parties and meals.

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