This is our 5th trip to French Polynesia, 4th on the Paul Gauguin. We continue to be drawn back every other year because of the natural beauty and the colors of the waters throughout. The snorkeling opportunities and relaxing on the beach continues to be the biggest draw for us.
That said, the latest trip we took on the Paul Gauguin continues the tradition of enhancing the relaxation part of the trip to the islands to the next level. The review that follows is intended to not be all inclusive, as many others have written about many of the details on this board and we continue to thank them for their hints and tricks and tips, but rather to add yet another perspective on areas not typically addressed as much, often most useful to those about to go and to increase the excitement about their upcoming trips.
In that we were celebrating our 30th anniversary, we decided to go all out and upgrade to business class on Air Tahiti Nui. The worst part of the trip in the past were the flights over and back as they are long (8.5 hours from LAX) and really hard on the body especially as we age.
The upgrade allowed us to check in at the business class line which was no benefit as there were few in line for economy. But it did result in priority tags for our luggage and when we landed, our bags were the first out. While that was an advantage, we still waited on the transfer bus in Papeete for Â½ hour for others to load up the bus to our pre-cruise room. Note: if you do upgrade, bite the bullet and take a taxi to the Intercontinental; it is right next to the airport and you will be there Â½ hour before everyone else.
We chose to fly out at 4:30p arriving at 10pm so that we could go right to the hotel and then sleep vs those that left on the red-eye, arriving at 5am. While they got to sleep also in the day room at the Intercontinental, this gave us extra time to relax at the pool in the morning, easily make the breakfast buffet (which closes at 10:30) and all for only $10. Why wouldn't you do this?
The plane that we were on was older and the business class cabin was not near as nice as the one coming home. The foot rest was very narrow and was hard to keep your legs on it when elevated. The seat controls were nearly impossible to use (again on the way home, they were much better designed) and the remote control would not come out of the socket. I was surprised that no sooner dinner ended, that everyone wanted to go to sleep! It was like 7pm! Maybe they were east coast travelers or beyond... We enjoyed a few movies and were good and tired to sleep at the bed in the hotel afterwards.
Food on the plane was decent as airline food goes. I fly business/first all the time for my job, but Air Tahiti Nui, however, ranks at the low end of business class cabins. The flight attendants are nice and friendly and helpful, but the 150 degree reclining seat (180 degrees in first class) and inadequate controls, small footrest and the degree the seats recline in front of you onto your lap made it much less favorable than any other business class we have been on. And for a $1400 increase per person each way over the included coach airfare by PG, this was a disappointment. The cabin was full so I think some others may have upgraded at the gate. We just didn't want to risk it so we booked in advance. Note that our flight home was better, but if you are on a window seat, it is nearly impossible to get out of the seat to walk around or use the restroom when the person in front of you reclined! Note to self: if you are flying business class, book the center seats so you both have an aisle and it is much easier to get out.
Pre-cruise day room
We like the Intercontinental Tahiti much more than the nearby Sofitel Tahiti or the previously used Le Meridian. The grounds are nice, we had no problems with bugs and the pool is relaxing and beautiful. Drinks by the pool were reasonable cost wise and the buffet adequate. We had a chance to sleep for 8 hours doing the 10pm arrival the night before and had a leisurely breakfast and sat and read by the pool until we lined up to be transferred about 2:30p (and for only $10 more? Come on!). Expect a bit of chaos getting on the bus as everyone crowds their way to the front, many avoiding all form of manners. Further, they checked us off to get on the bus using our IC room number, not our last name nor our ship cabin number. A last name sort would have sped up the process greatly (PG, take note).
Arrival was painless and enjoyable with a huge smile from our cruise director (Michael Shapiro; PG do NOT let him go; he is the BEST) and check in was efficient. It is nice to have your room ready when you arrive. And our bags arrived no more than an hour later. This gave us time to book spa reservations, add reservations for alternative dining, and sign up for excursions. We then had a leisurely "snack" at Le Grill.
We lucked out the entire week with probably the best weather ever for our past 4 trips to Tahiti. While we had some clouds, we had very little rain and the heat/humidity was never to unbearable as it has happened in past trips.
We quickly discovered that many of the staff have been on the ship, in some cases, for over 10 years. So for us, it was like "old times"! Further, MANY of them recognized us and made our trip extra special the entire week. This is something we have always noticed about the PG experience: the people are amazing. I have rarely had so many of the staff ever remember your name and greet you personally. They are warm, friendly, extremely helpful, and make the entire experience a big "ahhhhh...." Special call outs to Elmo, Glenn, Jon-Michael in the bar/wine service and Hernie and Shane in the dining room. Remy, the Matre'd was exceptional and helpful and our head waiter, remembered from past cruises, was Caesar who also did everything you wanted and much more. The staff truly made this a magical and relaxing week. It is really hard to "quantify" this part of the experience on the PG or any cruise ship, but it sure is easy to spot when you are treated exceptionally well. And the staff on the PG does it right.
The ship looks great. The recent dry dock in January really freshened the ship and the colors are lively and yet peaceful. We didn't find any area that needed attention, with one exception: the air conditioning in our room. We could never get the room cool enough despite numerous requests to our cabin steward/ess and then ultimately to guest relations. The latter did offer to move us half way through the cruise but we declined due to the hassle factor. Note to self: if you have problems with your room, it is better to notify guest relations immediately vs bringing this up to the cabin steward/ess. Then a record is made of the issue and follow up is more complete.
Always a personal matter, but we continue to be amazed at how wonderful the food is on the PG. And I'm a self-proclaimed foodie having written one cookbook and nearly complete on my second. Exec Chef Paul, who must be all of 31 years old, is incredible. The dishes are imaginative, beautifully presented and delicious. Sure, as others have said, the lunch time buffet leaves a little to be desired, but dinner in the dining rooms, all three of them, were always excellent.
Don't miss out on Le Grill just because it is outside. The setting was wonderful and the light breeze while we were moving made it very nice. And the food was some of the best on the ship! The tuna tartare on won tons was sublime. And the New York pepper steak scrumptious. Very pleased for our one outing here.
We had an enjoyable meal at La Veranda, which is much more "upscale" but we don't think it beat the day-after-day excellence of the main dining room, L'Etoile. Part of this "experience" may have had to do with our excellent waiter and the great "1A" table in the corner for two, but the food really shined. One night, every course we had just kept getting better! A gnocchi with pesto and soft goat cheese is not to be missed. And the moonfish, that the chef carved at Le Grill in an exhibition earlier that day, was incredible with the rocket salad, sauteed onions and parsley sauce. Yum. I really noticed a general upgrade in the amount of money devoted to food vs when this ship was under Regent rule (and staff onboard confirmed this). So thank you new ownership!
We always had our wine glasses full thanks to Elmo and Jon-Michael. They always made sure we had a wine we enjoyed. And while we greatly appreciate everything they did, we did find that the quality of the wines, in general, have gone downhill a bit since Regent ownership days. We saw a lot of people keep trying alternate wines and often seemed to be less than thoroughly pleased with the offerings. I would love to see a little more attention paid to this area if I had a say (and doesn't have to mean more $'s). The optional wine list was very extensive and would please most discerning palates.
Raiatea is a bit of a bust on a Sunday. The town is closed. This has been the way it has been in all four previous trips on the PG. You would think they would go to Taha'a, the beach day first and then go to Raiatea on Monday since they are so close to one another. We did a drift snorkel that we were pleased still ran with only 6 of us! It was exceptional as to the fish and coral seen. You must bring an underwater camera for this! We had done this several years ago through a private excursion (Bruno, often mentioned on these boards) but alas, we couldn't get enough people together on the cruise in advance to book a Bruno excursion, which is much more inclusive (great lunch) as to food and stops and only $20 more. Oh well, the six of us still had a great time.
Taha'a: what can I say, this continues to be the reason we sail the PG. It is the most amazing, relaxing, beautiful spot on earth. I really mean that. Sure the drinks in the coconut, the floating bar and the good food are great, but just relaxing in the water, snorkeling (and running into Tara and Jeff, cruise critic contributors) completely at random while swimming makes for an amazing day. We ended up being one of the first on the island (be sure to line up 20 minutes in advance of when the first tender leaves) and one of the last to leave. It really is hard to go back to the ship, and reality, after such a perfect day.
Bora Bora -- we did a half day snorkeling excursion with Reef Discovery and were met on pier by a nice new speed boat and the skipper was extremely accommodating. Also an exceptional day as we snorkeled in 4 different spots (including being able to see clown fish which are all but extinct at the Great Barrier Reef due to overfishing for people's aquariums due to "that movie!") A great day and we planned it just right as soon as we returned to ship, it started raining. 2nd day we went to the "private beach" of the PG. This always is a bit of a letdown after Taha'a as there are no bathrooms, no chairs and limited drinks. But you still get to go in the water and take in all that the island's beauty has to offer. I found it interesting that they no longer move the ship on the overnight in Bora Bora, putting the ship much closer to the private beach on the 2nd day. Not sure why. But the tender trip is much longer as a result to the private beach.
Moorea -- the first day we decided to do what we like to do best, absolutely nothing! We hung out by the pool, read, drank, ate, and repeated same. The weather was nice and who could beat the beautiful views. The 2nd day we caught a taxi to the Hilton Moorea for a day pass. As others have said, this is extremely reasonable: a 2000 xpf taxi ride ($21 -- note that the exchange rate was very favorable while we were there; definitely hit the ATM in Papeete when you land so you can pay in local currency and take advantage of this big difference in exchange rates as there is an ATM right there) and then 6000xpf ($61) per person for access to the beach, towel, pool, kayak, etc. AND lunch at the beach restaurant. This was the big surprise. The food there was excellent. We had the traditional poisson cru (local raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, celery, onions, yum) and tuna sashimi as appetizers. Either/both could have served as an entire meal they were so large and again, the quality was excellent. We had a burger and a pizza for the two of us as entrees, both excellent. If you were to add these up, you would be at close to 4000 xpf so you essentially get the rest of the facility for $20. It was a nice day of relaxing. When the taxi drops you off, be sure to get a phone number and the concierge at the hotel will call a pickup which took about 10 minutes. And we ended up sharing a ride with someone else to the PG so the trip was only 1000 xpf ($10)!
Our favorite show has always been the cabaret when Michael Shapiro performs and this time it did not disappoint. I don't understand why he hasn't been picked up on Broadway or other as he is an excellent singer/performer. I really enjoyed this show and if you like music, it is not to be missed. He invited us to his dinner table one night and is such a great host / cruise director / person; really a joy to be around.
We also saw the Krew Kapers where the local staff put on a show. We have seen these before on other cruise lines and did not enjoy them. This was not the case on the PG. The staff did an amazing job with some very imaginative work: the best being the Matrix Ping Pong!
Finally, we were so pleased to have a new pianist on board, Rueben. He was awesome. Every night before dinner and/or after we would listen to him tinkle the piano keys. Incredible! His range of songs was great and when we requested a song, he went off and did the research and returned the next day playing it when we arrived. Wow. His passion when he plays really comes out in his own show on board one night where he played a couple of Argentinean Tangos -- AND -- Bohemian Rhapsody alongside the ever talented Siglo. I can't tell you how much we are pleased of the emphasis by PG on piano music (and playing the piano vs the often poor "singing" that the pianist tries and never succeeds at like the former pianist Hal did on board). This has gotten lost or relegated to a lounge act and only once before dinner on other cruise lines. My only comment on Rueben is he plays less than the 45 minute sets he is scheduled for. Not sure why but each set seems to last 35-40 minutes. Hey when someone is that good, you want him to play the full time!
What about all the other local shows offered? We have seen them all several times before so we decided to do something else during these times. They have always have been good, colorful and energetic along with adding to the local ambiance of the islands.
We participated in the anniversary ceremony given this was our 30th and I always find this very well done by cruise director and others. Very touching, a nice song and a few choice words and then a lovely picture of the two of us wrapped in a traditional Tahitian blanket that would have been typically provided by your family and friends on your wedding day, all to the beautiful backdrop of Bora Bora. Not to be missed. They introduced us to a new song we hadn't heard that sums it all up: "The Road that Never Ends" by Keali'I Reichel that can be found on iTunes. Listen to the words....
Always tough to leave the ship but again, PG does it well; you have breakfast, vacate your room by 9:30 latest, walk around the town including Le Marche for knick knacks and souvenirs, return to ship for lunch 11:00-12:30 and then disembark depending on where you are going. We got off at 12:20 as we went straight to the day room at the Radisson. I would have much rather stayed at the Intercontinental but we missed the window when this was only $40 per person (60 days or more prior to cruising) as it went to $135 or so per person, prohibitive for the 6-7 hours you spend there.
What I was pleased to see was that it was much better organized when we arrived, including having our room ready (normally, if you skip the included island tour, your room isn't ready until approximately when the tour returns, or 2:30pm vs 1:00pm. The pool water is still cold as ever but we read with the included free internet (didn't have an iPad last time I was there and that was a relief to have free wifi) and had a light snack. The hotel is a bit of a letdown; again, after the experience on the PG and that it is farther from the airport.
But alas, when we did get to the airport, the business class line greatly cut down our wait (from one person in front of us vs the already 100+ in trying to check in the economy line). The departure area has been upgraded since we were last there but we quickly went upstairs to the air conditioned, free wifi, snacks, drinks -- business class lounge. The sofas and chairs made the two hour wait extremely comfortable. So it is a bit more than just the seat on the airplane you upgrade for, this was a nice treat at the end of a long day and in advance of the long flight home.
Our trip was a huge success but on so many fronts: the staff and the ship along with the food and entertainment make this really hard to beat vs, say an overwater bungalow which we considered and have done in the past. The quality of the overall product that the PG delivers is exceptional.
We are excited about their new 90 person ship coming online this winter and anxious to try it given the attention to detail in every area that the PG ship provides. This area of the world continues to be one of the most beautiful and relaxing places on the planet -- as evidenced by it being our fifth trip here! We will return again in two years to the PG!