For those contemplating a trip to exotic French Polynesia and taking a cruise on the m/s Paul Gauguin, I hope to provide you with some useful information in my review. Be sure to check out other reviews to get a more complete picture of the cruise. My wife and I wanted to stay in a romantic Over the Water Bungalow (OWB) for a week in French Polynesia. However, after we started pricing the cost of such a trip, we changed our approach. We decided it would be more cost-effective to go on a cruise with Paul Gauguin Cruises (PGC) and stay in an OWB as part of a pre-trip package. PGC would handle all the inter-island flights and transfers for the OWB part of the trip, at what appears to be a good price. And we would get to travel to several islands, including Bora Bora and Moorea.
Highlights of our trip: the friendly people we met, the scenic views in French Polynesia, a small ship (doesn't take long to get from one place to the next), drift snorkeling in Rangiroa, snorkeling near sharks and not panicking, and seeing dolphins and whales near the ship, Siglo (quartet) music group on the ship.
Low-lights: having any low-lights, dive boat trip back from a snorkel excursion, diving restrictions, safety issue with tender boat, security screening at Tahiti Papeete airport.
We decided on the 10-day Tuamotus & Society Islands cruise in mid-September. We would visit Tahiti (arrival, departure), Huahine, Bora Bora (2 days), Rangiroa (atoll in Tuamotus), Fakarava (atoll in Tuamotus), Taha'a, and Moorea (2 days). We decided to do a pre-trip stay. We had hoped at stay at Le Taha'a Resort, based upon a recommendation from our travel agent, but PGC stopped offering that place in 2012. Instead, it offers Vahine Island Private Island Resort, which we selected over places like Moorea and Bora Bora.
Airfare, between Los Angeles and Papeete, Tahiti, on Air Tahiti Nui, is included in the price of the cruise package with PGC. We upgraded to business class, because my wife does not tolerate long flights (8.5 hours to Tahiti from LAX). Although the business class seats do not recline a lot, they are more comfortable and spacious than coach class seats. Service was very good. Figure $2800 per person for the business class upgrade through PGC. We purchased our own tickets from our local airport to Los Angeles; PGC was charging a lot more.
We left Los Angeles at 4:30 pm and arrived in Tahiti about 10 pm. We were met at the airport by representatives of Tahiti Nui Travel. We boarded a bus and were taken to overnight lodging at the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti. I was very impressed with the hotel. The resort has a lot to offer, has scenic views, and very good food. We had an unlocked international cell phone, but it did not offer coverage in French Polynesia. We walked 15 minutes from the Intercontinental to a local supermarket and went to the Vini retail store. There, I purchased a sim card for the cell phone that worked throughout our trip. I could recharge it at post offices on several of the islands.
The next morning we were picked up by Tahiti Nui Travel and taken back to the airport to begin our trip to Vahine Island. We stored two bags for 4 days at a locker storage facility at the Papeete airport (5600 CFP = $62). For our international flight between the USA and Tahiti, we were allowed 32 kg (70 lbs) of checked luggage (times two, since we flew business class), 10 kg (22 lbs) for a carry-on, and a personal item. Because we had to fly between islands to get to our OWB resort, we had to cut down on our luggage. The weight restrictions for the inter-island flight on Air Tahiti were 20 kg (44 lbs) of checked luggage, and 3 kg (6.6 lbs) for a carry-on. Because I had my dive certification card with me, I was allowed an additional 5 kg (11 lbs) in my checked bag. The airline representatives seemed more concerned about the size of the carry-on bag (is it "small"?) than how much it weighed.
We left Papeete at 1:05 pm and arrived at 1:50 pm at the Raiatea airport. We were met by someone (arranged by PGC) who loaded our luggage onto a boat for a 35-minute boat trip to the Vahine Island Private Island Resort. We did have problems on the small boat; the gas fumes were a little too much for the first part of the boat trip.
Vahine Island is within the lagoon surrounding Taha'a and Raiatea. We were greeted by one of the co-managers as our boat arrived at the island. I can't say enough good things about our pre-cruise stay at the Vahine Island Private Island Resort. It was like a touch of paradise. There are only 9 bungalows on the island. My wife and I stayed in one of the 3 OWBs. Everything we had hoped for in an OWB was realized in a tranquil, picturesque setting. (Ask for the Fare Iva hut.) The managers and staff were wonderful. The other co-manager is an accomplished French chef! We felt spoiled. My wife and I quickly got into "vacation mode" by relaxing at this resort which lives up to its reputation as a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
For the return trip to Tahiti on a Wednesday, the only direct flight back was late in the afternoon at 6:15 pm. We were picked up by boat and taken back to the Raiatea airport. Be aware that there are no shoes to remove, and no liquids to worry about prior to boarding the flight, because there was no security screening at the airport. You just check in and wait for your flight. We arrived back at Papeete airport at 7 pm, picked up our luggage at the storage facility, and transferred by bus to the m/s Paul Gauguin. We showed our passport at the dock and boarded the ship. We went to the Reception Office on deck 4 to get our shipboard ID cards. By the time we got to our room, our luggage had arrived. We went to eat before the restaurant stopped serving dinner.
There are three restaurants on the ship: L'Etoile (back of ship, Deck 5), La Veranda (back of ship, Deck 6), and Le Grill (mid-ship, by the pool, Deck 8). Reservations are needed to eat at La Veranda and Le Grill. You can make reservations for 3 nights in advance. We found it most enjoyable to eat at Le Grill when the ship was docked in port for the night (Bora Bora, Moorea, or Tahiti [last night] for our cruise); you could enjoy the outside view without worrying about waves and lots of wind. You could eat at L'Etoile restaurant for any dinner meal. We liked open dining on the ship. We met quite a few couples on the cruise. We would have drinks at La Palette Lounge around sunset with one or more of the couples, and then go together for dinner, usually at L'Etoile Restaurant. Dining was casual. You never had to wear a jacket or sports coat. For Polynesian night, you were encouraged to wear something tropical or even a pareo. PGC did offer free wine and drinks at meals and at the bars. You could pay to get premium wine. My wife and I thought the free wine was good. Many nights, different free wines were available at the restaurants.
One reason I selected this cruise was the opportunity to go diving in Rangiroa and Fakarava. That was before I ran into the "process" onboard the ship. You could not sign up for these dive trips in advance, unlike other shore excursions. You had to talk to a member of the dive team in the lobby of deck 4. You were given a questionnaire to fill in. If you answered "yes" to any of the medical questions (e.g., do you now have, or have you ever had, allergies or an operation), you had to go see the ship's doctor to get cleared to go diving--at a cost of $75. It doesn't matter if you had no recent symptoms or had been previously cleared for diving by a competent physician; you had to pay for the privilege of getting cleared again. You were also told that you couldn't dive in Rangiroa unless you had had 40 previous dives, and you couldn't dive in Fakarava unless you had had 20 previous dives. Some divers likely did not conscientiously answer the questions. I ended up having sinus congestion on the trip and couldn't go diving in any case. I talked to some who did the diving, and they said they had fewer than 20 dives, and had no problems in either Rangiroa or Fakarava.
Our cabin was 733. The room was adequate in size (but smaller than the room on other ships we have been on). The suitcases did easily fit under the bed. There were plenty of drawers for storing clothes and odds and ends. The bathroom contained a combination bathtub and shower. There was a line that you could extend above the bathtub for drying out wet clothes. The outdoor deck only had two chairs and a table; there was not enough room for lounge chairs to lie down on. There were privacy panels between the adjacent outdoor decks.
The crew and staff on the ship were very friendly. Make the effort to learn the name of your cabin attendant, dining room stewards, and pool bar servers. They appreciate it, will greet you before you can say hello, and give you a little extra, attentive service. We saw the Captain more often than we did on other cruise ships we have been on.
At Huahine, we took the tender to the island and then "Le Truck", a local bus, to the town of Fare and walked around the small downtown area. We didn't want to do a shore excursion.
We spent two days at Bora Bora. We entered the lagoon surrounding Bora Bora and docked near the town of Vaitape. The fancy resorts (e.g., Intercontinental, Le Meridien, St Regis) were on the other side of the island, along the edge of the lagoon. We learned in the Port Talk that Avis rents bikes. So my wife and I rented 2 bikes and circumnavigated the island in about 4 hours. There were only 2 hills. We stopped at a local supermarket and bought some food and drinks. We made several stops around the island. When we took the tender from shore back to the ship, we noticed that several locals in outrigger canoes were following the tender and riding in its wake.
Some of the cruisers did their homework in advance. By doing research on CruiseCritic.com, they found the name of a local operator (Kristof??) who offers a private snorkeling tour in Bora Bora. The group diverted to see some whales in the area, something that would not have been possible with a PGC-arranged snorkel excursion.
PGC did offer a tender to a private motu in Bora Bora. Beer, rum punch, and soft drinks were available, but there were no bathroom facilities. Kayaks were available.
One of the highlights of the trip was the entrance to Rangiroa. Ships enter the atoll through one of two passes. The currents are quite strong in these areas. We entered at the Tiputa Pass and were amazed to see all the dolphins, and one shark, in the water swimming alongside the ship. We took a PGC snorkel excursion called "drift snorkeling". A boat took us outside the Lagoon of Rangiroa. We got out and drifted with the current into the lagoon while looking for fish. We repeated this three times at different positions in the pass.
The next day we visited the atoll at Fakarava. We went through a pass and anchored just inside the lagoon. We watched the dolphins swimming around the ship. Our snorkel trip was changed, possibly because of the choppy waves in the lagoon. We instead took one of the ship's dive boats in the afternoon to a coral garden near the center of the lagoon. We saw a few yellow-tipped and black-tipped sharks swimming around the area, and did not panic. You see them for a few moments, and then they're gone. You wonder where they went (cue the music for the movie "Jaws"). You quickly realize you're a visitor in their world, and they're not interested in getting close to you (whew!).
I would recommend a full wetsuit for snorkelers who easily get cold in the water, especially if you're tall and skinny. It would have helped on the trip back to the ship from the coral area. My wife and I were asked to move to the very back of the dive boat. That made us more exposed to the wind and waves. I got soaked on the trip back, and the water was cold. It was not a pleasant experience. The snorkel guide and boat captain did not appear to care.
Again some of the cruisers did their homework in advance. By doing research on CruiseCritic.com, they found the name of a local operator (Atoo??) who offers a private snorkeling tour in Fakarava. They reported having a great time. One of the passengers told me that you could do a Cruise Critic Roll Call of people signed up for a cruise to find others who are interested in doing a private tour at one of the destinations. In this way, you can locate enough people to meet the minimum tour requirement.
The next day we traveled towards Taha'a and spent the day at sea. Many passengers booked spa appointments. My wife and I did 90-minute massages on the second day at Bora Bora. She did an Oriental massage. I did the volcanic hot stone massage. The massages were above average, not superb. You can pre-book shorter duration massages before you cruise. We booked ours on the morning after we left Tahiti.
We did the Exploration of Taha'a shore excursion on the morning of our arrival at Taha'a. Others went to PGC's private beach off the island of Taha'a (and a few miles from Vahine Island). We took an off-road vehicle (8 passengers each) and drove up one of the mountains on a muddy, pitted dirt road (it had just rained). We stopped at the top for a scenic view, enjoyed some local fruit and musical entertainment. Then we visited a small black pearl farm and a vanilla farm. We arrived back on the ship, changed clothes, and caught a tender to the private Motu Mahana. We arrived at the end of the BBQ lunch (sorry, no hamburgers left). There were bathroom facilities. Although the last tender from the Motu to the ship was at 5 pm, kayaks were removed starting at 3 pm. The bar started shutting down about 4 pm. The availability of drinks became limited. It was hard to chill out and enjoy the last hour at the Motu. Tip: some of the ship dining staff arrived early on the island and cut up coconut shells to serve drinks in; be sure to ask for one when you arrive (early) on the Motu.
Be very careful getting on and off the tender to the private Motu. The tender has a ramp that lowers to let you off the boat in the shallow water off the beach at the Motu. There is a hand crank that lowers the ramp. As my wife passed by the crank, it apparently released and smacked the top of her arm and gave her a hematoma. Fortunately there was no bruising or contact with bone. I reported the incident later to the ship's Safety Officer.
Be aware that you have to take one of the three shore excursions if you want to go the island of Taha'a. The ship did not offer any tenders to Taha'a, only to the Motu.
The next stop was 2 days in Moorea. I found it one of the prettier islands on the trip, not so commercialized as Bora Bora. My wife and I booked our cruise through a Virtuoso travel agent. During the cruise, the Virtuoso travelers got to attend a special cocktail reception. And on the first day in Moorea, we got a half-day bus tour of the island. We visited Opunohu Valley, stopped for a scenic view on Mount Belvedere, visited an ancient archaeological dig, heard about community projects at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station, had lunch at the Intercontinental Resort Moorea, and then visited the Kellum House and Gardens. At this last place, we got to meet and chat with Kellum's daughter and famous archeologist, Marimari. I learned that the m/s Paul Gauguin is the only cruise ship to visit Moorea and several of the other islands in French Polynesia on a regular basis. Cruise lines such as Princess and Celebrity have stopped coming, according to one local.
My wife and I didn't know it, but we were in French Polynesia during whale season. One of the shore excursions offered by PGC in Moorea was a Dolphin Watching Expedition. We learned at a Port Talk that it was being expanded to include whale watching. We tried to sign up, but the excursion was already fully booked for the day we wanted. We got on the wait list, but to no avail. PGC brought onboard a local expert, Dr. Michael Poole, to lead the tour.
At the time we were in Moorea, a momma whale and her baby had taken up temporary residence in the area, swimming back and forth between two bays. Several small boats would get up close to the whales. One of boats, probably the PGC tour, got snorkelers in the water to swim near the whales. Not getting on that tour was one of the regrets of our wonderful vacation. However my wife and I spent several hours in the morning watching the whales (we brought binoculars which were very useful).
We also went kayaking off the marina platform (back of the ship, Deck 4). This is a benefit offered by Paul Gauguin Cruises. You can't swim or snorkel in this area, but you can take the kayaks out for an hour at a time.
On the last night, as we sailed back to Tahiti, PGC brought a local folkloric dance troupe on board to provide the evening entertainment ("Showtime") in the Grand Salon theater. Before dinner that night on the ship, guests could make leis and other flower arrangements. Lesson learned: get one early, because they will run out before you are ready for dinner. You do have a chance to get a lei at Showtime.
We docked at Tahiti by 7 pm. You were asked to put your luggage (for checking at the airport) outside your cabin by 11 pm. The next morning, breakfast was served in L'Etoile from 7-9 am. You were asked to vacate your cabin by 9:30 am. The pool bar opened at 10 am for guests who were still on board. Depending on your post-cruise arrangements, you were assigned a time to depart the ship.
My wife and I had an 11:15 pm flight from Papeete to Los Angeles. We disembarked the ship around 12:30 pm. PGC graciously arranged a several-hour bus tour of the eastern part of Tahiti for us, before we could check in to our dayroom prior to our evening flight. Our luggage was loaded on buses for us. We visited a lighthouse and famous park, waterfalls, and the James Norman Hall Museum. James Hall was a co-author of the Bounty trilogy--"Mutiny on the Bounty," "Man Against the Sea" and "Pitcairn's Island" and helped make Tahiti famous. At the museum, we got to meet Hall's daughter Nancy.
Then we were dropped off at our dayroom at the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva. We were originally supposed to stay at the Intercontinental, but they ran out of rooms and PGC moved us to the Sofitel. I would never recommend staying at the Sofitel. The bed was uncomfortable. My wife found a bloodstain on her pillow. The beach area, in a cove near a marina, was not very big or inviting. The tour guide on our bus tour of Tahiti mentioned that the hotel might close down within the next few months. At the airport we talked to passengers from the cruise who stayed at two other hotels for their dayroom (Intercontinental, Radisson). They spoke highly of their hotels. The same cannot be said for the Sofitel.
Although we had all of our luggage at the Sofitel, we had to take our luggage (to be checked at the airport) to the lobby a couple of hours before our pick-up time. Tahiti Nui Travel picked up the luggage and took it on to the airport.
We were picked up in the evening at 7:30 pm for our 11:15 pm flight back to the USA. The hotel is only about 10 minutes from the airport. We were dropped off at one end and located our luggage. Then we went to check in. If you are flying in coach class, expect to wait in a long line to check in.
Then expect some overly conservative security screeners. My wife had a pair of tweezers and manicure scissors confiscated by a screener. She protested, to no avail, that even the security screeners in the USA allow these items. Another passenger had a small craft tool confiscated; she was very unhappy about that. Your travel agent should warn you about this behavior.
We had purchased some pearls on one of the islands. The shop did not charge us the VAT tax, but, in return, we had to get some paperwork stamped at the duty free office at the airport and have it mailed to the store (can mail at the airport, stamp was provided by the store). There are several flights departing Papeete in the evening. The duty free office did not open until about 9 pm, because the person working in that office was also helping with the departure of one of the flights. Expect to wait in line to get your duty free stamp. It doesn't take long--show the paperwork and the item you purchased (do not put it in your checked luggage!) and then get two pieces of paper stamped--but there are lots of people in line.
The Paul Gauguin Cruise allowed my wife and I to visit picturesque and exotic islands in French Polynesia. Our OWB bungalow pre-trip stay was memorable and very romantic. Overall, this was a wonderful vacation. We recommend the trip to other adventurous travelers.