Editor's note: Tahitian Princess sailed its final French Polynesia cruises in December 2008 and was renamed Ocean Princess in November 2009.
A solid wall of humidity slammed into me as soon as I exited the plane at Tahiti's Faaa Airport -- but so did the scent of fresh flowers as dark, voluptuous women with glistening skin beamed at the new crop of tourists and ringed our necks with leis. People throw the word "paradise" around -- a lot -- but in this case, as I walked toward an open-air terminal to collect luggage, clear customs and ultimately board a 10-night cruise on Tahitian Princess, I knew I was "there."
Tahiti may be in the same time zone as Hawaii, but it is still a nine-hour flight from Los Angeles -- and that's after the multi-hour trek folks from the Midwest and East Coast have to make! I traveled from the New York area's Newark Airport; with a layover, a few delays and a bus transfer from Tahiti's Faaa airport to the cruise terminal, my door-to-ship travel time was about 24 hours. But here's the thing: It's absolutely worth sacrificing a day to get to the isles of the South Pacific.
Show Cruise Prices
What also intrigued me about the South Pacific is its image as a fictional paradise. I knew of the islands' beauty through Pulitzer-prize winner James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," and of course the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" based on two short stories from that novel. You remember the tunes: "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "Bali Hai" ... you'll be singing "here am I your special island, come to me, come to me" under your breath before you even leave the airport. I imagined Tahiti and her islands, a phrase that generally encompasses much of French Polynesia, to be true paradises on earth, as romantic and idyllic as Bali Hai was in the story.
Like the Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesian ports all have different personalities, though you will have to dig a little deeper to find each island's own character. We overheard one beach bum say, "If you've seen one island, you've seen them all." And, to be sure, in every port you'll see gorgeous blue lagoons and towering mountainous interiors. A lot of activities are similar too, including snorkeling, shopping for black pearls and visiting vanilla plantations.
But beyond that there are historical and cultural distinctions. Raiatea is known as the "sacred isle" because it was the place for Polynesians to congregate for ceremonies, such as fire-walks, human sacrifices and funerals. Huahine's tiny fishing villages are sleepy and authentic while Bora Bora, dependent on tourism, is a little bit slicker with over a dozen luxury resorts gleaming on the lagoon and more gathering places for tourist hordes, such as the bar at the famous Bloody Mary's restaurant.
If you have never been to the region before -- and a lot of visitors are first-timers -- how do you know for sure which island is just right for you, not too slow, not too fast? For that reason, this is a perfect place to cruise. Lush Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia, is just the tip of the iceberg, with nearby islands promising exploration by 4WD safari vehicles and water sports in the crystal clear turquoise waters. A cruise is also a much cheaper option than staying on land. Those luscious over-the-water bungalows you see in glossy travel magazines average just shy of $1,000 a night. Yes, a night! Compare that to a deal we saw for our 10-night cruise, just a few weeks before the sail date, of $999 per person.
We also liked the fact that our cruise would allow us to venture outside the region as well; Tahitian Princess also sails to New Zealand's Cook Islands (we stopped at Rarotonga). Most of the French Polynesian ports are within a few hours of each other by cruise ship and so offer minimal sea days. Heading to Rarotonga, however, which is far enough away to warrant a sea day, there and back, adds time for onboard relaxation.
Choosing the ship was easy as there are only two mainstream vessels that sail here year-round: Princess' Tahitian Princess, one of that line's smallest ships inherited from the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Paul Gauguin. (Star Clippers will enter the market for the first time when it deploys Star Flyer to Tahiti year-round in December 2007.) We've sailed with Princess before -- on newer, larger ships like Sapphire and Crown Princess -- and were really intrigued by the chance to experience Princess in a different way.
Editor's Note: Princess Cruises has announced that as of 2008, Tahitian Princess will no longer be stationed year-round in the South Pacific. The ship will still sail French Polynesian itineraries throughout winter, spring and fall -- but will spend the summer in Alaska.
The Logistics of Paradise
The islands of the South Pacific are so paradisiacal and laid-back it almost seems counterintuitive to stress over planning one's trip. Yet that's my nature -- anything that can go wrong will, I say. The night before our flight I woke my fiance and travel companion Mike every 10 minutes with another burning question: "What if my luggage doesn't make it?" "What if we don't make it?" And, "Did you pack enough sunscreen?"
My anxiety aside, it really is important to think through all of the logistics when preparing for a cruise so far from home. In this case, it isn't exactly a breeze to get to Tahiti -- there are only a few carriers that operate flights from Los Angeles (Air Tahiti Nui, Air New Zealand and Air France are the major players), and departures are limited to one or two daily. So if you show up late or miss a connection somewhere along the way, you might be stuck until the next day.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn in planning my trip that passengers board Tahitian Princess on, say, a Sunday (actual embarkation days vary) -- but the ship doesn't actually depart until Monday evening. Between embarkation and sail away, passengers can come and go as they please as if staying at an on-land resort. Having the extra day at the start of the cruise is particularly beneficial on this itinerary because if you hit an air travel snag, at least you know your ship will still be there when you finally do arrive.
Well, not always. There was a huge snowstorm in the Midwest the week of our cruise, and so many passengers faced canceled or delayed flights. Yes, some arrived on the day we set sail, technically the second day of the 10-night cruise. But because the departures to Tahiti are so limited, we saw others finally reaching the ship a few days in, rolling their suitcases to the tender dock in Huahine or up the gangway in Raiatea.
Luckily, our flights were unaffected and we arrived as planned. But as a general rule of thumb, when you are cruising a region that's distant and not easily accessible by plane, it is best to plan to arrive in the city of embarkation a day or two early. This way, you allow yourself more time to explore; if you are flying all the way to Tahiti, you might as well see Tahiti! And if weather or another uncontrollable force delays you, you're less likely to miss the boat (so to speak).
Starting in Papeete
Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and the typical turnaround point for cruises, accounts for well over half of the island's overall population of 180,000. Papeete is also the most urban of the ports (it was here we encountered the region's only real city bus system), and numerous shops, attractions and cafes are within easy walking distance from the cruise ship dock.
We spent our afternoon on embarkation day covering the waterfront on foot, ducking into small shops and enjoying a seafood lunch at Jack Lobster atop the Vaima Center, a four-level shopping and dining complex. It was so close to our dock that we could see many of our shipmates returning from the Marche du Papeete, a fabulous market with a French feel, with flower arrangements for their cabins -- one of the more affordable items to pick up in this most expensive region.
Princess: "Boutique" Style
I think what surprised me most about the 680-passenger Tahitian Princess was that it didn't feel as different as I expected it to. Sure, you can explore the whole ship in the same amount of time it might take you to pop into just the restaurants on one of today's mega-ships, but the line has found space for its trademark activities, such as art auctions, bingo tournaments and, yes, the men's sexy legs competition -- similar to bigger vessels like the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess.
But the big difference is that because the spaces are so intimate in size there's a lot going on at once. While I painted a trinket box at Ceramics@Sea, in a covered part of the Lido deck, a couple played Ping-Pong just a few feet away (I didn't mind handing over stray balls every once in awhile); meanwhile, I could also participate in pool volleyball because a game was being announced nearby over the microphone by a very enthusiastic activities director.
I also didn't expect there to be such a separation between life ashore and life onboard. There are a few Polynesian influences onboard -- local fruit (pineapples, bananas and papaya) is brought in from ashore for use in the galley, and a Polynesian buffet is offered for lunch one day during the cruise. A special screening of the original "South Pacific" film was shown in the Cabaret Lounge, the main entertainment venue, and local performers boarded at sail away and in certain ports to put on poolside and evening shows. For the most part, though, the shipboard experience is distinctively Princess right down to the dining room menus that mirror what's available fleetwide.
Also, it is clear that this ship wasn't built for cruising in this destination. The decor, while classy and elegant, is dark and rich -- not exactly tropical. The flooring on the pool deck retains heat; walk barefoot at your own risk. Hallways were often humid, and the temperature in the stateroom was hard to maintain even though we had the A/C cranked as high as the dial could turn (and I'm usually freezing!). We would have loved to see some Polynesian-themed spa treatments and more special drinks and dishes.
Tahitian Princess really was our floating hotel. After re-boarding in each port, I'd climb the grand staircase all the while admiring the delicate molding along the walls, or collapse into one of the antique-y blue couches in the lobby to chat with new friends or write postcards. It felt more like staying at an English country house than on a modern pieced-together cruise ship -- except that in the mornings, I'd draw the curtains to see a new tropical paradise on the horizon.
Kick Back, Relax and Enjoy Huahine
If French Polynesia is regaled as a relaxed place, Huahine is the inspiration. When we stepped off of our tender boat and onto terra firma in Huahine, I felt at odds with myself. The impulse to "go, go, go" was squelched by an overwhelming sense of calm and a somewhat deafening silence. There were no cars or taxis zipping along the one slim road fronting the tender pier; just my fellow cruise passengers and I in awe of the lush jungle-like foliage creeping up the steep mountains.
This is how small Huahine, population 5,000, really is, at least according to ship lore: A passenger chatted with a local longing for something from the states -- beef jerky. The passenger offered to send some and was instructed to address the package this simply: her name, Huahine, French Polynesia. The jerky got there, no address required! It was this port in particular that gave us a sense of "old" Polynesia, not something fabricated for tourists.
Around the island, you'll see 400-year-old stone fish traps that the locals still use today (mahi mahi, marlin and tuna are abundant here). Some of Polynesia's coolest archeological sites -- stone and coral temples -- are on Huahine; the town of Maeva was once a seat of ancient Polynesian government. There's a lookout point called Belevedere, where panoramic views of Maroe Bay took my breath away; from here there's a clear view of the ship at anchor, looking for the entire world like a tiny tub toy in the vast aqua water, but fog prevented a great photo.
After a ship-sponsored tour, which included a stop at a museum in a hut over the water, Mike and I grabbed Princess' $5 shuttle into Fare, Huahine's main town (it's too far to walk, and public transportation is extremely limited). There are a few shops here selling colorful pareos (silk wraps) and vanilla beans, a pretty beach within walking distance, and an oceanfront restaurant where we had grilled mahi mahi sandwiches and Tahiti-brewed Hinano beer -- the first of many seafood lunches and cold brews we'd enjoy ashore.
Bringing Something New to the Table
If you have sailed with Princess before you know what to expect in onboard dining: lobster night, beef Wellington night and plenty of al dente pasta. Our loveliest onboard dining experience was our Ultimate Balcony Dinner; we were tired from a busy day onshore in Raiatea, and also ready for a change from the formal dinners that were such a stark contrast to the casualness in port. We had many impromptu hot dogs at the grill, and took advantage of the fact that the buffet's pizzeria is open during dinnertime as a casual alternative to the main dining room.
But I wanted to dine on something sumptuous amid tropical breezes, and -- if the mood struck -- with my shoes kicked off under the table.
The Ultimate Balcony Dinner offers a special meal that is served course by course on your verandah. Though it rained the night of our dinner, we braved the elements (our waiter told us passengers having balcony dinners that evening on the starboard side of the ship had to move their meals indoors because the wind was blowing the rain toward them). On the port side, the wind was fortunately blowing the rain away from the ship; whenever my bread plate would start to get wet we'd scoot our table a little further from the railing.
The meal consists of four courses: a crab cake appetizer, a crisp salad with creamy goat cheese, the main entree of lobster (or steak, or both), and four mousses for dessert (chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and more chocolate). All are served by a waiter -- as is Champagne and a cocktail or glass of wine of your choice. As part of the package, the ship sends a photographer to the room to take an 8x10 photograph.
We were still docked that evening, so between courses we spied on the folks sitting under umbrellas at the waterside restaurants. Some local musicians scheduled to perform on the ship that evening played drums on the dock first, so we even had dinner entertainment. Thankfully the downpour stopped before our main course.
Balcony dining is available to any passenger with a balcony cabin and costs an extra $100 per couple. It was worth every penny -- leisurely (read: several hours of eating and don't expect to go dancing afterward) and very conducive to whispered conversations and hand-holding over the bread basket....
The Pursuit of Romance in Paradise
Speaking of romance, when Mike and I announced to our friends and family that we were taking a cruise to the South Pacific, we saw a lot of raised eyebrows and heard this more than once: "Why don't you save that kind of trip for your honeymoon?"
It was a valid question. We are getting married next year, and these islands are famed as a honeymoon destination for good reason. Gorgeous landscapes and sultry weather make for a most romantic atmosphere; it's secluded and steamy, and if you need a true aphrodisiac, noni -- a bitter local juice (I didn't taste it but the smell was pungent) -- is believed to stroke the libido. And let's not forget the French food with its decadent, though hip-widening, sauces. What most people didn't know, though, was that we did actually consider getting married while we were there. However, our bright idea came a little too late and we learned pretty quickly that advance planning is once again imperative.
Princess would be a perfect choice for a shipboard wedding. It's the only North American cruise company that offers at-sea ceremonies, and its captains are legally able to marry passengers. But because the ships are registered in Bermuda, couples need to apply there for their license at least a few weeks before, and an announcement must run in the local paper there -- so eloping is just not an option. If you are tying the knot, you might also consider arriving in Tahiti a few days early to swap vows ashore (then use the cruise as a true honeymoon, no guests allowed!) -- but again, you'll need to set these wheels in motion ahead of time.
Which Island Fits Your Personality?
Each island is different, with its own history, scenery and characteristics -- and excursions. Rarotonga is all about nature; because the island is so green and lush, and because there are no natural predators, hiking through local plantations and low-lying forest is a must-do (fellow cruisers raved about a local tour guide named Pa, who points out local herbal medicines along the way). There's a bird sanctuary that can be explored as well.
History buffs, meanwhile, can visit multiple maraes -- outdoor ancient worship temples used in old Polynesia for ceremonial purposes. Many were destroyed or abandoned with the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century, but there are still high concentrations on Huahine and Raiatea.
Raiatea is the only island from which you can take a tour of another island. We loved our excursion from Raiatea to Tahaa, a smaller, quieter island that shares the same lagoon. After our boat transfer we saw a woman fishing for lunch while her two skinny dogs, cat and kids ran around playing in the dirt (one of the kids was completely naked, to the delight of the camera-toting tourists -- the kids didn't seem to mind the attention, either). On Tahaa, most people don't work; they simply live off the land, fishing for their daily meals much like this mother was.
One of the main reasons I wanted to get to Tahaa is because I am an avid baker -- and Tahaa is known as the vanilla island. Three-quarters of all Tahitian vanilla is produced there, and we visited a family-run plantation where you can see where and how the beans are grown, and then purchase some to take home. I expected to see the leathery brown ribbons I see chefs slicing down the middle on the Food Network to procure sweet vanilla seeds. But when vanilla is on the vine, the beans are bright green and plump like string beans (vanilla is part of the orchard family; the vines wrap around a "host" plant -- anything tall and leafy).
I sniffed around the plants and couldn't smell the vanilla; turns out the beans don't really become fragrant until they are dried in the sun. As soon as we walked into the barn-like open-air shopping area, however, the perfume of vanilla was thick and warm like cake just out of the oven.
Now I know why that tiny bottle of McCormick's extract in my local supermarket is nearly $7. From start to finish, the vanilla takes a lengthy year and half to be cultivated and prepared for the marketplace -- and it needs to be pollinated by hand. (It is the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.) Thankfully, we learned how to make our own extract at the farm: buy a cheap bottle of rum and soak 10 Tahitian vanilla beans in there for three months. Back home, I'm not-so-patiently watching my "tub" of homemade vanilla extract develop its dark brown and delicious finish.
Our off-the-beaten-path travel style has proven interesting for us on trips that aren't necessarily geared to our demographic. We were definitely the youngest couple onboard a South America voyage last year. Tahitian Princess appeals to a sizeable number of honeymooners because of the romantic locale, but for the most part it attracts somewhat more mature travelers -- folks who are retired and now have the time to see world at their leisure.
Still, this itinerary struck me at first as being a bit unfriendly for, say, seniors with limited mobility. There are no jet ways at the airport in Papeete; passengers must be able to walk up and down stairs to exit and board the aircraft, or make special arrangements. Also, almost all of the ports require anchoring and tendering except Papeete and Raiatea. Rarotonga is notorious for rough seas and calls are often canceled because ships cannot safely anchor; the day we arrived, the tender was bopping up and down like a rubber duckie. Its platform never did quite line up with the gangway leaving a scary step at least a foot or so in either direction -- but admittedly, no one in this well-traveled crowd seemed fazed by this!
Old or moderately young, athletic or not, fellow passengers told me that this was their once-in-a-lifetime trip -- so distant and such a splurge -- and that they wouldn't even consider staying behind. Who knew we'd meet the same people on active excursions like helmet diving and safari drives?
Bora Bora: Living Up to the Hype?
I have to confess: We were prepared not to like Bora Bora. I know that sounds insane, but I chalk it up to too much of a good thing -- I read too many travel articles online by jaded writers who condemned it the most tourist-y of the Polynesian ports due to crowded bars and restaurants, and overpriced bungalows. And quite frankly I couldn't care less where Nicole Kidman spent her honeymoon. But I couldn't have been more wrong....
Besides a day in Papeete at the beginning and end of the voyage, the ship only overnights in two ports -- Raiatea and Bora Bora -- but it leaves Raiatea early on the second morning, whereas it doesn't depart Bora Bora until late in the afternoon on the second day. So, because we essentially had two full days, we booked a pair of ship-sponsored excursions.
The first day, we took a 4WD island tour; we were fortunate to be the last of our group off the tender, and ended up having a safari vehicle all to ourselves (they usually hold about 10). The ride is bumpy -- we were warned of that ahead of time -- but the fact that there were no bodies cushioning us on either side of the wooden benches also meant that for each sharp turn or dirt pile, my behind would slide to and fro, or bounce clear off the seat. It was great fun, even though my arms were sore the next day from holding on for dear life!
On day two, we did a helmet dive, which has piqued my interest in learning to scuba. You don't even need to know how to swim to participate in this tour; the idea is to give you a scuba experience -- definitely up close and personal, as they say, with the underwater world -- without having to become certified or learn any new techniques. Each helmet supplies oxygen so you can breathe normally, and best of all, your hair doesn't even get wet.
After a short ride on a motorboat, one by one we walked down a ladder into the water. Once the water is about chest-high, the weighted helmet is lowered onto your shoulders; then you descend the ladder (about 15 ft.) until reaching the sea floor at which point all you have to do was walk around and enjoy the view of the fish and coral! The helmet is heavy -- about 70 pounds -- but once you are beneath the surface you don't feel it.
Mike and I, in awe of a particularly plump yellow and blue fish, kept passing our underwater camera back and forth to snap shots. However, the glass of the mask distorted distance a bit (things that looked dangerously close, like sharp coral rocks, were still quite a ways away), and I missed the strap on one pass and accidentally let go of the camera. In a flash, it floated up to the surface and started bobbing away from where our boat was anchored. Our guide Jean Paul, in his dive gear, rescued it for us -- and took a snapshot of us together in our outfits.
In addition to saving our camera, Jean Paul was incredibly professional and a lot of fun. Each person gets a chunk of a French baguette to feed the fish; he took my soggy bread and rubbed it all over the front viewing panel of my helmet. I'll never forget seeing what had to be a hundred bright striped fish dive-bombing my head for a snack. Thankfully, nobody could hear me laughing and shrieking inside of my helmet but me.
Whether you choose to venture into the water as we did or relax on Bora Bora's beaches, don't miss a visit to Bloody Mary's bar and restaurant, named after a character in James Michener's novel and the subsequent "South Pacific" musical. The institution is famous in part as a hangout for the elite. When you pull up (you'll need to take a $5 per-person taxi or shuttle, as it is not within walking distance) there are two huge wooden boards printed up with the names of celebrities who've been there, from Rod Stewart to Jimmy Buffett.
But beyond that, it's truly earned its bragging rights for being a really fun place. The sand floor is tropical and casual, and you can check your shoes at the front door if you want to feel it between your toes. Even the bathrooms are an attraction. They are al fresco, though you go in private thanks to "walls" of bamboo and foliage; in the women's room, there's a gorgeous waterfall sink and in the men's, a funny phallic toilet flusher (yes, I peeked in!).
I'm glad we went to Bloody Mary's for lunch as opposed to dinner -- I saw a lobster entree on the menu for 6,500 francs, about $65! I was continuously reminded, and shocked, by how expensive everything on these islands really can be. Aside from fish and some local produce like bananas and coconuts, everything (beef, grain) is imported, mostly from France and Australia, both some distance away.
But hitting up fancier eateries for lunch instead of dinner is a great way to experience local favorites without blowing your food and souvenir budget in one fell swoop. My cheeseburger with the restaurant's "special sauce" was much more reasonable and hit the spot after eating nothing but fish, fish and more fish ashore. All tastes best washed down with a super spicy Bloody Mary, the apropos house drink.
Harking back to "South Pacific," it is often said that the fictional island in the musical -- Bali Hai -- was based on Moorea, and the island is as idyllic as any set designer could dream up: soft sand beaches, clear azure water and jagged mountains that appear to pierce right through cottony clouds. I was amazed by how pristine the landscape is -- even the power cables are buried underground so as not to mar Moorea's natural beauty.
You can swim or snorkel right from the shore, but we decided to take in the atmosphere on the ship's secluded motu (small island) "beach break" excursion because it all but promised a stingray encounter without the crowds and hype of, say, Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Indeed, a very friendly stingray swam right up to Mike and me while we were floating in the bathtub-warm water off the motu. I thought I'd be scared; as gentle as they seem who can forget what happened to Steve Irwin, the gutsy host of the wildlife documentary series "The Crocodile Hunter" who died after a stingray attack in Australia while filming a show. But Irwin's case was rare and with a different type of creature.
This stingray tickled my leg as he passed by -- which made me giggle and squirm -- but I have to say I never was certain if it was actually his body that touched me or simply a current of water conducted by his motion. I was impressed by how graceful they are underwater, gliding around the docked boats and human visitors, getting so close without ever bumping into anything. It's like they are equipped with mini GPS systems!
Our swim was topped off by a barbecue lunch: a feast of chicken, fish, sausages and fresh fruit. It was one of the most relaxing days -- and tours -- of the trip. In hindsight, this was the one port where we wished we'd had time to do even more, such as hiking through the island's unspoiled rainforest or parasailing above its craggy peaks and duo of picturesque bays.
After 10 days on this ship and in this region of the world, we returned tan, relaxed -- and with changed perceptions. The small-ship experience wasn't as different as we expected. I never felt confined and got to participate in all of my favorite activities. Mike often couldn't find me because I was peeking in on dance classes and pearl shopping seminars, or brushing another coat of paint on my teal and yellow ceramic box, now proudly displayed on my dresser. We were also thrilled to relive familiar meals from past trips on modern Princess ships at Sabatini's (eating more seafood cioppino, cannelloni and fried cheese than we thought humanly possible).
There was one difference, though, and it was positive: With fewer people onboard, we really got to know staff members. The lido deck bartender knew us, and when we'd sit down for our afternoon snack at the grill, he'd hook us up immediately with diet Cokes (and even kicked back a few on the house); that personal interaction more than anything else sets this ship apart from its fleet mates.
And the destination? Well, after reading a book about a place, or seeing a play, it never turns out to be exactly how you pictured it in your head. But in this case, reality was pretty close to fiction: breathtaking, idyllic and relaxing. I'd never seen water so blue; the Caribbean is greenish and the ocean off the Jersey shore where I live is (sadly) gray. The bays and lagoons surrounding the islands of the South Pacific are colors I've only seen in the Crayola 64 box of crayons: cerulean, turquoise, aquamarine. But beyond the typically stunning landscape, we bounced up a hill in Bora Bora in a 4WD vehicle to see giant World War II cannons, walked on the bottom of the ocean with just a helmet and a loaf of bread -- and, in today's busy world, found time to really talk to each other over mahi mahi burgers and beer on Huahine.
Who knows? ... maybe we'll be back as newlyweds.
--Images of ship in Papeete, Hinano beer, balcony dinner, Tahaa, 4WD tour and Bloody Mary's bar and restaurant appear courtesy of Michael Paloti.