Why again? This was our third cruise to French Polynesia, the first two being on Tahitian Princess in 2008 and Royal Princess in 2010. Simply put; we love these islands, their laid back atmosphere, the beautiful lagoon waters, the whole South Pacific atmosphere. And this time we would visit the Marquesas, which we had not seen before. In addition, we had cruised on Marina before, a TA from Rome to Miami in 2011, and thought it a marvelous ship.
This was a near disaster, but in no way attributable to Oceania. We therefore gave “Embarkation” a “4” for reasons we will explain.
Oceania provides air fare. The only way to get from Phoenix, AZ to Papeete to board the ship is to fly to LAX and use Air Tahiti Nui. (There are other airlines, but the cost is much higher.) Oceania had us scheduled for a 1:25 P.M. flight which is not on the Air Tahiti Nui schedule, so I believe it was a special charter for this cruise. They wanted us to fly out on a 7:05 A.M. flight from Phoenix, which would have meant getting up at 4:30 and then spending more than six hours in LAX. So I bought Southwest tickets for a reasonable flight time. When we were about to leave for the airport I saw an e-mail on my cell phone, and it was Southwest telling us the flight had been cancelled. The next flight we could get did not arrive until after 1:00 so there was no way we could have connected. We called Oceania, and they booked us on the regular Air Tahiti Nui 11:55 P.M. flight (for a $500.00 flight change charge). We then had a 12 hour wait in LAX and arrived in Papeete after 6:00 A. M. the next day. However Marina had sailed at 6:00. Fortunately its next port was Moorea, about 10 miles away, and we were able to catch the inter-island ferry at 7:45 to Moorea for about $35.00 for both of us. It is a sizeable ferry, carrying cars, trucks and locals, as well as the occasional tourist. It is a pleasant half hour trip, but lands at a pier on the south side of Moorea, and our ship was anchored on the north side. It took a $45.00 half hour cab ride to get there. The first tender had not yet arrived as the ship was doing its lifeboat drill, and we went on board about 9:30. The purser’s office forgot to tell the Oceania Club representative that we had arrived and they thought we were still missing, so we did not receive our invitations to the Meet and Greet and two Captain’s cocktail hours. Hence the 4 rating for Embarkation. But we were very much relieved to finally move into our stateroom.
Our Living Quarters
We had a “Concierge Level” but otherwise basic verandah cabin; 214 ft² plus the verandah. The walls were a pleasant cream color with dark walnut for the desk, trim, and closet doors. There was a convenient oval table with a handy shelf in front of the sofa. There was one side chair for the desk. The bathroom was quite attractive with marble tile surfaces on the walls and floors, a granite sink counter, a tub with a hand-held shower head, as well as a separate shower with both a rain shower head and another hand-held shower head option. As usual on board ship, there was more than enough storage space in both the bedroom and bathroom. Plenty of hangers were provided. We had a mini-bar with complimentary soft drinks and water. The large TV was wall mounted, and the desk had a laptop computer, which as far as we were concerned, merely took up space. The verandah had two faux wicker arm chairs with seat pads and a small table. Cabin lighting was excellent, each bed having, in addition to normal table lamps, goose neck halogen reading lights on each side. The cabin thermostat actually worked! All in all this was a first class stateroom which, for its size, would not be matched on any other ship. Our cabin number was 9116, one room aft of the aft elevator bank. It meant a fair walk to activities forward, including the “Concierge Lounge” available to us, which was forward of the main elevator bank.
A Floating Jewel
That is the best way to describe Marina as a ship. It starts with nice proportions, 66,000 gross tonnage [a measure of size, not weight] in a 785 foot length with 15 full (well almost full) decks. Attention is paid to the smallest details. Every floor surface is either excellent carpeting, fine wood or classic marble tile. Art is everywhere, and of a delightfully eclectic mixture, including much striking sculpture and glass art. The hallways (okay – companionways for the nautical stickler) have a decent display of prints. The elevator/stair banks are in art deco brushed stainless steel, etched glass and dark wood. Everything is maintained in a way that gives full effect to the term “ship shape”. The public rooms are – well – roomy. The furniture is first class, comfortable and varied in style and materials. The gym seemed large enough and had good attendance. We do not do spas, but it seemed to be a first class “Canyon Ranch” operation. The pool deck had comfortable looking lounge chairs. The show lounge is of a size proportionate to a ship carrying only 1250 passengers, but kept much too cold for comfort. The boutiques are small and pretty high-end with limited selections, except for the jewelry. The casino is on one side of deck six, and can easily be avoided. There did not seem to be any smoke escaping from it. The Horizon Room, forward on Deck 15 has good views forward and to either side, and served as a delightful place for receptions, activities and afternoon tea every day, accompanied by the string quartet. There is a small Deck 16 forward with a golf putting course, paddle tennis court and a sunning area with lounge chairs. The library is not as attractive as the beautiful rooms on the Regatta/Insignia/Nautica class ships, but it does have a good selection. The “Oceania @Sea” computer room has plenty of places, and did not seem as well used as on our Transatlantic on Marina in 2011, but perhaps this was due to the fact that in cabin laptops were added after that first trip.
Perhaps a key statistic is the space ratio of Marina. This describes the amount of room for each passenger. On most major cruise lines it runs in the 40s. NCL ships are in the high 30s. Super expensive “boutique” ships in the Silver Seas, Yachts of Seabourn class can hit 70. Marina has a space ratio of 52.85 – very high indeed, and for a ship its size, it is matched or exceeded only by the very large Disney ships, the comparably sized Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity and some of the smaller Regent Seven Seas vessels.
Marina has been described as a “foodies” ship; and there is good reason for this. Very few ships at all; and none this size and with this passenger complement of only 1250; offers the variety and style of dining, both as to venues and the overall experience. Of course there is the main Grand Dining room, and the Terrace Café buffet. But Marina offers four specialty dining rooms, with four distinct menus; all, in Oceania’s delightful tradition, at no extra cost. These are “Red Ginger” a superb Oriental venue, “Jacques”, an ornate and delightful French restaurant, “Toscana”, an Italian venue and the “Polo Grill” for steak and lobster lovers.
There are two other dining venues, ‘La Réserve” and “Privée”, very small private dining areas offering special wine coordinated meals at a rather high cost by reservation only. In addition there is the “Waves” outdoor grill and ice cream station, and the “Barista” coffee bar. The Executive Lounge on Deck 11 and Concierge Lounge on Deck 9 offer free coffee and snack service all day and early evening as a complimentary benefit for suite and “concierge class” passengers respectively. Dining in the four specialty restaurants requires reservations, which can be made (one per restaurant) online in advance. We did this for Red Ginger and Jacques. We were not successful in getting another chance at Red Ginger, since it is the most popular for a very good reason – it has a fabulous menu combined with a fine atmosphere and service. I especially love the waiter who comes by with a box containing a classy chopstick selection! Jacques is named after Oceania’s signature chef, Jacques Pepin, and the menu is classic French, as good as the restaurants we ate at on our Paris trip last summer. The main dining room serves its meals without set seating, and all you have to do is tell the maitre’d what kind of table you want. We always opted to seat with others since dinner conversations with fellow passengers are one of the reasons we love to cruise. The menu selection and service is matched only by Crystal in our experience. The Terrace Café is a far more upscale site than on any other ship (Crystal again excepted). The tables are set with nice china, feature comfortable seats, and are well served by a large wait staff. At dinner the tables have full tablecloths, nicer china and glassware and an excellent menu, with perhaps even wider and easier menu choices than the main dining room. A waiter or waitress is always handy to carry your selection back to your table. Your ability to pace your meal as you see fit makes it a choice that is only marred by the fact that you will dine by yourself. Breakfasts and lunches in the Terrace Café are excellent, with a wide fruit selection at breakfast, and good choices at lunch for either full or light meals. There was always a freshly made choice of pizzas at lunch for example. We ate once at the waves grill and the hamburger was delicious. The ice cream bar had extended hours.
All in all, the dining experience on Marina is as fine as one can expect on any cruise ship, anywhere, as to food, venue, atmosphere, appearance and service.
The Ship’s Staff
The key to this category is the number 1.5. That is the ratio of crew to passengers. By contrast Princess ships run about 2.3/2.5; Celebrity, also a good operation is likewise at 2.3; the NCL and Royal Caribbean megaships are at 2.9 to 3.1. Only super luxury ships like Silver Seas or Europa 2 are lower. Since the number of crew members needed to navigate the ship and run the engine room does not change much with the size of the ship; this meant that there were a lot of service crew members to take care of us passengers. And they did a fine job! Almost every one of the crew seemed to have a smile and cheerful greeting. Of course it helps if you smile yourself, and greet them. But part of it is the fact that a high crew to passenger ratio means that the crew members simply have more time to do their jobs since there are more of them. This in all probability reduces job pressures somewhat, compared to the larger ships, and certainly the mega ships. The high space ratio undoubtedly assists the crew as well as the passengers in moving around the ship also. Our cabin attendant, Shierly, was extremely pleasant and efficient. All the dining staff were friendly and helpful, some more outgoing than others, with perhaps this being a factor of their individual language facility. Most of the wait staff were European, largely from Eastern Europe, but with a scattering of French and Italian also. The “business staff”, meaning the front desk, the Shore Excursion staff and the Concierge, were almost all European, with good English skills; and an appropriate welcoming and helpful attitude. The Cruise Director was a pleasant Californian, who kept his jokes to an acceptable level, and provided the usual information. The ship allows very few public announcements – no invitations to Bingo or Trivia contests thank you! The Captain was a fairly young Croatian with limited English. When we were on one of the motus on our Raiatea stop, he was snorkeling and late in getting back to our snorkel tour boat to return to the ship. I helped him, and his extensive diving equipment back on our small craft.
Our first port was Moorea. This island is, as we noted in our arrival description, only a few miles from Tahiti. We had planned on renting a car as we had in the past and driving around, but the whole flight delay experience left us too weary for that. We did return to the tender dock area where there were a number of local vendors with tents and wares to sell. We looked at a few things, and the nearby circular church and then returned.
Raiatea was next. One docks at this port, which actually serves two islands within the same lagoon, Raiatea proper and Taha’a. We had done lagoon tours on prior trips, so this time we chose the river trip up the only navigable river in Polynesia, the Faaroa. We booked this on land in the tourism center, which is dockside. The tour took place after lunch. Our captain, on a small boat holding about 20 people, was from South Africa, and gave a pretty good talk about the islands in general. The river is not large or long, and while it took about half an hour to get there, we were actually only in it, back and forth, for about another 20-30 minutes. While there is a downstream flow, the water was still tidal and brackish with a salt content. We saw some kayaks from the (expensive) ship’s tour, and their two person crews were working hard. On the way back most of us, but not my wife, got off at a motu. Motus are small islands which are part of the coral reefs surrounding the main islands we visited. Some people had brought snorkel gear, although I had not. I did not see much coral, and could not find any fish when I went swimming. The water was, as always, beautiful, warm and relaxing. There was not much to do there, although there was a house in which a local was living, complete with chickens and cats. When the river tour boat came back for us there was a delay while the boat operator (not the boat captain who gave us the river tour) went back on land to fetch one last person, who turned out to be the ship’s captain. He had arrived by some other motu tour boat.
Bora-Bora was next, and an overnight as before. We had done all day lagoon tours on prior trips, so this time we chose a “combo” tour; part lagoon and part 4x4 exploration of the island. This tour was one of many offered by Patrick Tairua under his business name Mauhi Nui. He has a well deserved reputation, and runs a tight ship for a Polynesian enterprise. His tours are not cheap, nor could they be for what is provided, but is seemed that his full day tours cost about as much as the 3 or 4 hour half-day ship’s tours. In any event, we started with the lagoon tour and several snorkel stops. His boats have good steps for getting in and out of the water, and his people make sure no one wanders too far away. (One of my habits by the way – I love to drift along chatting with the fish and not raising my head to see where I am.) We then landed on a motu for lunch, where Patrick showed up himself. We were shown the pit with the suckling pigs roasting. We also had great fresh fish, and a wonderful selection of island fruits and vegetables. When I say that this meal equaled anything provided by the ship, you know how good it was. Patrick chatted a lot with us. He has a large family that forms a substantial part of his employee base, and this would be typical. Extended families are the Polynesian norm. Children are cared for by whoever in the family is closest that day. This does not mean they stick around though. On our most recent prior visit we missed Patrick because he was visiting one child in Canada. He has others scattered around the world. The basic reason for this is that the economy of French Polynesia is not strong. It depends on tourism and the export of pearls, vanilla and now coconut. Tourism and pearls are luxury items and the economic downturn of the past few years has had its effect. Several major hotels have closed, their status clearly evident as the lagoon tours pass them by. The lunch served three of Patrick’s boats, but only eight of us went on the 4x4 trip, so we were returned to the main island to meet our driver and his vehicle, a modified Land Rover, and a tough vehicle as proved necessary. We went to some marae, stone bases for old temples. None of the buildings remain, only the bases.
We then went up a steep and difficult trail and came out of the brush to see two large coastal artillery cannons. In 1942 US armed forces arrived in Bora Bora to forestall any further Japanese advances and especially to protect the Panama Canal. More than 4500 troops arrived to forever change what had been a sleepy and unspoiled tropic home to Polynesians and a few French who functioned without roads or public utilities. One reason for the choice of Bora Bora is its very large, deep harbor capable of holding a decent sized fleet. To protect this harbor seven inch coastal artillery cannons, eight guns all told, were installed in the hills facing out to sea and the only large ship passageway through the coral reefs and motus. The guns were never fired in anger, but it was easy to see why they were placed where they were, with a magnificent view of the main lagoon. We could also see the motu where Navy Sea Bees (from C.B. or Construction Battalion) built the air strip, in 1943, that for years was Polynesia’s only full sized airfield for Trans-Pacific flights, and still is in use today, flying tourists to the many hotels as well as local traffic. Bora Bora is 165 miles from Tahiti, and the only way to reach it is by plane or charter boat. There is no regular ferry service to Papeete, Tahiti.
Our guide for this land portion was a long time associate of Patrick. He had actually been born on Easter Island, his mother coming from there and his father being French Polynesian. His knowledge of the islands, the intricate family based social structure, and complex family land ownership rules and practices, was enlightening, if somewhat difficult for us to fully grasp. As in our own Native American cultures, the Polynesian world still reflects an outlook on life dominated by family relationships, oral histories, and an abiding relationship to the land, (and here at least, the sea), which provided all sources of life for most of their history.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at Bloody Mary’s, a unique and famous restaurant featuring a sand dining room floor and a list of many famous or nearly famous guests. It actually is owned by a former Arizonan, and its name of course is traced to James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” and the Tonkinese lady entrepreneur. The French colonial empire included what was once called “Tonkin China” and later became the northern part of “Indo-China” and later, Viet Nam. The French wanted to work the copra plantations using the local coconuts. But had difficulty persuading the Polynesians, who were quite satisfied with the less strenuous way of life they had lived for centuries, to work very hard on plantations. So an attempt was made to bring in Tonkinese. Chinese had also been persuaded to move there for the same reason, and they remain as a vital part of the local culture, with a fairly high degree of assimilation. Polynesia resembles Hawaii somewhat in this respect. Our stop at this restaurant was only to see and not to dine, although a few of our group bought souvenirs. We were back on board at about 4:30 having enjoyed a very delightful day.
The next day was Sunday, with a 3:00 P.M. sailing, so we simply tendered in to Vaitape, which is the largest town, and enjoyed local sightseeing. There are a number of very high end stores, mostly featuring “Black” Tahitian pearls; but some stores have museum quality crafts and art work. We have learned a lot about pearls on out prior trips, and we learned this time how much prices have risen! All in all, it was fun to compare the wares, confirm our growing knowledge concerning pearl quality, and chat with the store owners and personnel.
After a sea day Nuku Hiva was our next port. This island is the largest of the Marquesas group.
French Polynesia really is a collection of island groups. The Friendly or Society Islands contain Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea.Taha’a and Bora Bora as the main locations. The Tuamotu group, roughly 210 miles northeast of Tahiti, contains only atolls, including Rangiroa and Fakarava, In addition to Nuku Hiva, the Marquesas include Hiva Oa and other islands. They lie over 500 miles northeast of the Tuamotus. The Australs are a group of 5 small inhabited and 1 uninhabited island about 375 miles east and south of Tahiti, with a total population of 6000. The Gambier Islands are volcanic like the Marquesas, and are about 500 miles east of the Australs, with a population of less than 2000.
Nuku Hiva is a volcanic island without a reef, and therefore resembles the Hawaiian Islands more than Tahiti or the others in the Society Island group. It has a deep harbor where we could dock. We had a fellow passenger who set up a tour run by Claude, which we joined. We never met Claude, but found our tour with Phil from London who ran the tour. There were 24 of us in six 4x4 vehicles, and off we set shortly after landing at 12:00 noon. Nuku Hiva consists of several mountains ranging up to about 2500 feet. The roads all lead around the mountains. The island is spectacularly beautiful, and the road trip afforded many stunning vistas of the valleys and bays leading in off the ocean. Essentially we crossed two mountain ranges with the Taipivai Valley in between this range and the northern coast shore on the other side of the second range. The valley supposedly contained the home where Herman Melville lived in 1842 after jumping ship. His novel ‘Typee” is purportedly based on the people who lived in that part of Nuku Hiva. We did not try to reach the airport on the north shore (we docked on the south shore) although the road actually runs entirely around the island, and could be done in one day. However we stopped at several archeological sites as well as the view points, walked on the shore, and had to allow time for dinner, so we essentially returned on the same route we had taken. Dinner was provided at a family owned open air restaurant near the shore on the north side in a town called Hatiheu, and was pretty good, with excellent fresh fish. The owners ran a small craft operation, and Edith bought a very nice little bone tiki brooch for about $10.00. After dinner it was getting dark, so we drove straight back and boarded the ship at 8:00 P.M. This was a full day to say the least. The cost was about $145.00 per person, but given the length of the tour, over 8 hours, and the dinner, it certainly was a bargain by cruise ship excursion standards. Nuku Hiva was a new Polynesian excursion for us, and we really enjoyed it.
The next day we were scheduled for another of the Marquesas, Hiva Oa, noted as the burial place of Paul Gaugin. However this was to be a tender port and high winds were forecast. Since Hiva Oa is also a volcanic island with no protective lagoon, the captain opted to sail to Fakarava instead.
After another sea day we arrived at Fakarava. This is an atoll in the Tuamotu group along with our final stop, Rangiroa. Fakarava is a large, roughly rectangular atoll 33 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a total population of 800, mostly on the one motu which held our tender dock, in a town called Rotava. There was not much to do here, but there were a number of small, nice beaches on the lagoon side, and we actually wore our bathing suits into town and went swimming after visiting the pretty little church. We also walked out to the ocean side where Edith picked up some nice coral pieces; so the Fakarava trip turned out alright, although we were disappointed at missing Hiva Oa.
Rangiroa was our last port before disembarkation. It is a huge atoll, I believe the second largest in the world. The entrance is between two motus, each with one town near the pass between the motus. These towns contain most of the population of the entire atoll. It is a great place for diving and snorkeling, but since I had done that twice before, this time we opted for a tour of the Gaugin Pearl Farm, a few miles down the motu where we landed and past the airstrip. This farm is a pretty good sized operation, and the tour was educational, although we had seen similar, smaller farms on other islands on prior tours. It was fascinating to actually watch the workers carefully place the “starter”, a small round piece of mollusk from the Mississippi River, and then follow it with a very tiny piece of “mantle”, organic material from the shell of another oyster. In two or three years the oyster is opened and the pearl either removed, or reinserted to grow larger. This may happen one or two more times to achieve the largest possible pearl. After we returned we wandered around a short while before re-boarding. This was a pretty quiet day.
Sailing out between the two motus is exciting. The actual width from shore to shore is slightly over a thousand feet, and the Beam (width) of Marina is 105 feet, but is seemed as though we were only fifty or so feet from the eastern motu. I am sure the captain was on the bridge for that stretch of sailing.
The next day we returned to Papeete for disembarkation. As on our prior trips, our flight home left at 11:00 P.M. Princess Cruises had allowed its passengers to stay on board, and provided them with a place to store their luggage. Oceania did not do this, but offered two options. One was to go to a local hotel and wait in a large room, with your luggage until flight time. The other was to book, through Oceania at a reduced rate, a hotel room overnight. We chose this since it seemed like less of a hassle, and gave us some breathing room before the flight. The hotel was the Radisson Resort Hotel, north and east of Papeete proper by about six or so miles, and on the ocean. I have posted a full review of this place on tripadvisor.com. We did an island tour the next day, also reviewed on tripadvisor; and then went to the airport and flew home. We believe that the Princess method is better, as long as your port day is not Sunday. The only thing open in Papeete on Sunday is the open air market, mainly for locals, from 5:30 A.M to whenever the vendors decide to close up and go home.
This is not a strong point for Oceania. Their three original ships, all former Renaissance vessels, only hold 680 passengers, and the show lounge area is small and limited in the type of production which can be staged. While Marina, and its sister ship Riviera are twice as large, the Marina Lounge is somewhat limited, and does not permit any of the high tech razzle dazzle Las Vegas type productions now common at sea. An effort was made however to raise the quality of the acts, and the production shows, with singers and dancers, were well done and showed some talent. The two main problems we had were the timing and the temperature. The shows all typically started at 9:45 P.M. That is simply too late for us. We saw two production shows and the ventriloquist, but not the “illusionists”. In Nuku Hiva we were treated to a show by locals who came on board. We did not sail until almost 11:00 P.M. They were different, well outfitted and energetic. The Lounge was also far too cold. (We have given up complaining about the sound being far too loud – that’s just the way it is and the way it is going to be!)
The entertainment we greatly enjoyed was provided by the Bellissimo String Quartet; four young ladies from the Ukraine playing largely classical music, not only in the Horizon Room at tea time, but in the Grand Bar area pretty steadily from 6:30 to 9:30 every day. This venue led into the main dining room, so we often sat there prior to dinner. As in the case of almost all such sites for these seaboard groups, passengers walking by provided some distraction, but we enjoyed the players, and their change of outfits, every night. The quality and selection of music was quite good.
There were a few “enrichment” lectures, mostly about the atolls, marine life and the theories concerning how Polynesia was originally settled and by whom. This last subject left you in awe as to how these people sailed their outrigger canoes over thousands of miles of open water to unknown destinations. Hawaii is 2400 miles north of the Marquesas, with absolutely nothing in between. New Zealand is a similar distance from Tahiti, with nothing in between. Yet Polynesians located and became the first settlers in both these places.
There also was a lecturer on astronomy, and she included a stargazing session at night. As usual, these sessions were confined mostly to sea days. Given the limited time, these were pretty decent offerings.
Typically, most of our fellow passengers were Medicare qualified, although there were a number of Boomer age – not quite seniors. Oceania makes absolutely no effort to attract or even encourage children, and there were very few on board, although I think they could enjoy the water activities on the islands. As I noted, we like to dine with different people, but nonetheless managed to find a few couples whom we would join again from time to time. By and large this was an experienced group of cruisers. We spent a lot of time comparing ports where we had been. We did run into several people who had boarded the ship in Valparaiso, Chile, and sailed to Easter Island and Pitcairn Island and two stops in Polynesia before docking in Papeete. They mentioned that at Pitcairn Island they could not land as there is no pier large enough for Marina and the water was too rough for tendering. But, that captain invited the entire population of the island and all 65 of them boarded the ship and talked to the passengers. They all spoke English as their first language since they are all descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers who settled the island in 1790.
This is a cruise which is highly recommended, despite the travel complications. The ship is simply beautiful, easy to get around, quiet, spacious and fitted out with what are quite possibly the best dining arrangements at sea. The staterooms are reasonably roomy and comfortable. The crew is a delight. The food is first class. Thus itinerary was better than the seven day trips we previously took, although we were sorry we had to trade Fakarava for Hiva Oa. It helps if you love these enchanted islands as much as we do; but everyone should experience them at least once.
So, for the considerations that matter most on a cruise, this one came out extremely well. Our major complaints concerned the cold Marina Lounge, not being allowed to remain on the ship, with our luggage until time to go to the airport; and the cost of the excursions. Oceania is one of the highest priced cruise lines in this area, especially if you compare it to Crystal, an expensive cruise line, but in some ways more sensitive to its passengers than Oceania. We were very experienced, as were some of our fellow passengers, in arranging our own shore excursions, so this did not bother us, but others should be aware of this aspect of cruising with Oceania. Once past these minor drawbacks, any prospective cruiser can look forward to a thoroughly delightful cruise to Paradise.