We just returned from 10 days on the Ocean Princess sailing on February 19, 2014 from Papeete to Papeete. I would say this has to be the most economical way to go to 6 islands in French Polynesia.
We love to travel and we have been to many nice places, but we are not wealthy people and now retired, so I try to get as much bang for my buck as possible, and not blow all our travel dollars on one trip. Would I have rather stayed in an over water bungalow for 5 nights in Moorea and 5 nights in Bora Bora, probably. We met one couple from Canada who did that (for 9 nights) which cost them $13,000, including flights but not including food which is extremely expensive in these islands. Our 10 day cruise to 6 islands cost us $605 each, before taxes and gratuities, and of course the cruise includes your food. This is about the cost of one night in an over water bungalow. I heard one couple on our ship spent one night in Bora Bora in an over water bungalow while our ship was docked there for 2 days which cost $1,500 for one night, and this is not even the high season. The $605 was a great price for this cruise, and was for an inside cabin, but we got a complimentary upgrade to an outside cabin. However, to find that price, I was checking in most every day and that price was there for 2 days until it sold out, and I did not see any other sailings that low. I will write this review of the cruise with the added perspective on what one might do to save dollars along the way.
Also, I would add that we did this same cruise 13 years ago, on this very same ship which at that point was owned by Renaissance Cruises. (The only difference was the first cruise went to Tahaa and this one went to Rangiora) The ship still has the same look as it did 13 years ago, although I noticed a few changes. It still looks good. It had the same hand painted murals on the ceiling in the dining room, same beautiful black wrought iron staircase. Last time, we had a balcony cabin, but this time it was just an outside cabin.
The ship only takes about 650 passengers, which we liked. The only downside to the smaller sized ship is, we felt, the buffet has limited selections. I thought the food in the formal dining room at night was for the most part very good, and better than at the buffet. My husband has dietary restrictions, so he is limited in what he can eat, so the limited buffet was more of a problem for him than me.
In Papeete, be sure to go to the market. You can buy beautiful flower arrangements of tropical flowers to place in your room for around $10 or $15. Also, ladies you can buy a beautiful, handmade floral garland to wear around your head for $10. They were doing the same thing there 13 years ago. Papeete will be your best place to shop, so make sure you get your shopping in here. Also, be aware that the market and alot of the shops close early on Saturday, (shortly after noon) and are closed on Sunday. So don't make the same mistake I made of putting off your shopping until you get off the boat, which was a Saturday, and I had very limited time to shop.
Huahine: It rained pretty hard that morning, so my view of Huahine is a little tainted. Luckily, our tour was in the afternoon after the rain. I had read that this was an island where there would not be tour operators waiting at the dock, so I booked a tour ahead of time through the ship, which I don't normally do for $85 each. I did the tour called Sacred Sites & Legendary Places. It had been listed on Trip Advisor as the number one thing to do in Huahine and it got rave reviews. I tried to book it before we left directly with the tour provider, Island Eco Tours, but he is hooked in with Princess so if you do this on your day when Ocean Princess is in port, you have to do it through Princess. The tour guide was nice and knowledgeable, he is an anthropologist and archeologist, but I had had enough of it after an hour or so. Several other people on the tour felt the same way. We saw religious archeological sites, went to a "vanilla plantation" which was nothing more than a small house where they were drying vanilla beans on tables, went to a river and saw some blue eels which he roused by throwing them food, and that was about it. It was my least favorite tour on the trip in that I felt like he was trying to teach a class when what I really wanted was to see the island. There was a lady there when we got off the ship who had a van and was offering a tour of the island and she seemed nice. Of course it cost less than half what we paid with Princess. I think I would have preferred to do that, or just go to a Motu to the beach, in Huahine.
Rangiora: This was our first time there. Rangiora is just a coral atoll and there is not a lot there. Don't waste money on touring the island as there is not much to see. This is the place to snorkel. There will be plenty of people on shore who can take you to the Aquarium to snorkel, for less than half of what Princess will charge you. We found someone who also took us out for an hour of dolphin watching before the Aquarium snorkel, which was nice, for $70, which was all still less than what Princess charged for their snorkel trip to the Aquarium, $109. I had read before I went that the number one thing to do on Rangiora was go to the Blue Lagoon. This requires an hour ride over and an hour back. I discussed this with the tour office person on board, and he tried to discourage it, telling you how bumpy it was getting there, what if you miss the boat, etc. Princess did not offer this as a tour option, now doubt, because you go over in a boat of 6 or 8 people and it is an all day affair. I tried to arrange this before the trip, but could never get through to anyone. There was someone there doing the Blue Lagoon for $100 each. I wanted to do this, but it is an all day thing, and I didn't think my husband would want to be gone all day. I am kicking myself now that we did not do this. The snorkel and dolphin watch was nice, but the snorkeling in Bora Bora was much better, and I heard the Blue Lagoon was fabulous. We also paid another $20 each in the afternoon to tour the island which was pretty weak. Go to the Blue Lagoon if you are good in the water. You don't need to pay Princess $109 to take you to the Aquarium for 1 1/2 hours, there will be plenty of people on shore who will do it for less than half.
Raiatea: This island has the second biggest city in French Polynesia so there are more shops here than other islands, although not alot. This was one of our best days. Most of the best beaches are on the Motus. We got a water taxi to take us to the Motu, and they provided snorkel gear, for $25 which we arranged on the shore. Like being on your own little island. It actually had pretty good snorkeling and fantastic views. They came back and forth through out the day. It was one of our best days and our cheapest activity.
Bora Bora: I splurged here and arranged a 1/2 day snorkel trip before we left for the trip with a company which I read was one of the best, Reef Discovery, and they were good, for $120 each. This cost as much or more as the snorkel trips with Princess. However, our tour guide said he was taking us to a place where no other company could take you, because it is so shallow, you have to go very fast and in a certain kind of boat to get there. I don't know if that is true or not. The snorkeling there was fantastic, especially the corals. We had only 8 on the trip, and the guide, Renaldo, was excellent and he was very good with my husband who is not great in the water. We also went to a point where we were snorkeling with black tipped sharks all around which was interesting, then another point where there were fish galore. I would recommend this company. This was the best excursion we did on the trip, although I am thinking the Blue Lagoon in Rangiora may have ranked right up there had we done it. The second day in Bora Bora, we took a short island tour, and they left us at a beach near the Bora Bora Intercontinental which was very nice. We managed to get inside the hotel just to look around and it was fabulous. (My tip would be don't take your blue princess bag or blue and white princess towels which they all recognize if you want to go into the hotel) She also then dropped us at Bloody Mary's for an over priced drink. lf I had it to do over again, I would have just skipped the island tour and gone to the beach. Also, I wish I had done the 4 by 4 safari tour up the mountain which I heard was fabulous. I'm talking the one that goes just up the mountain and goes pretty far up, not the one that just goes up a little way along with your island tour. But you may want to book that with a company before you leave as I am not sure whether there were any companies on shore offering this trip. But I heard it was great. Also, Princess did not offer it as one of their excursions, I don't think. Also, note that all the islands are expensive, but Bora Bora is the most expensive, so this is not the best place to shop if you are concerned about price. Plus, I was surprised at how few shops there were on Bora Bora.
Moorea: Moorea was my favorite island 13 years ago when we did this cruise. I felt like I did not get enough of a Moorea fix on this cruise and do very much wish that we had spent a few extra days there either before or after the cruise. It is a short ferry ride from Tahiti. We had less time at this port than any of the ports on this cruise, which I do not understand. We had a wonderful day. We had a taxi take us to the Intercontinental Hotel and spent 5 hours or so there on the beach. The hotel was not crowded at all. We did not take any of our princess bags or towels, and we had no problem using their beach. However, we were waiting for our taxi to come back, and walked out the front of the hotel to some shops across the street, and when we were walking back, there was a guard asking if we were staying at the hotel. He was very nice but said we could not come back in. By this point, there were several other people from the ship who were attempting to walk in with Princess bags, which I think caused the problem. So we waited there for our taxi. So if you want to go here, take a taxi to the front door, don't take any Princess stuff, and don't leave the premises. It is a beautiful resort (although not nearly as beautiful as the Bora Bora Intercontinental in my opinion) and they have an area there where customers can schedule a time to play with the dolphins. We had a great time just watching the dolphins there.
Papeete: When you disembark in Papeete, the tourism office is right there and you can book a tour of the island there if you have a late flight out. We did this and had a very nice 5 1/2 hour island tour with Dave's Tahiti VIP Tours. Dave is an American guy from Hawaii, married to a local polynesian lady, and was great. I would highly recommend him. His half day tour was $55 and well worth it. Just ask for Dave's number in the tour office. He does morning and afternoon tours with about 8 or fewer people in his van.
Another tip is that if you do not get Princess transfers to the airport, you are expected to leave the ship that morning and you can't get back on. I was under the mistaken impression that we had access to the boat all day, but that is only if you have Princess transfers. So this is one time you may want to get Princess transfers if you have a late flight, so you can have lunch and dinner on the ship. Plus, they had two great movies for the passengers to watch in the lounge area. I think the Princess transfers to the airport were $29 each, so having access to the boat for the day makes it well worth the price.
In conclusion, we had a great cruise at a great price. I would do it again it a heartbeat. Dollar for dollar, I think it is the best way to see these islands on a limited budget.