Right off the bat I should say, we had a marvelous time. The pluses of a Paul Gauguin Cruise ares the following, in no particular order:
The location (Polynesia) is truly breath-taking and the people on the islands are genuinely un-jaded and super welcoming... and oh so gorgeous. The whole itinerary was a feast for the eyes.
The dive program is world-class. We had the famous Jean-Michel Cousteau on board on our sailing which, of course, added a special note to the dive program but, that aside, the whole team, Regis, Alexandre, Clement and Marc, are simply fantastic. The dives are worth every penny. The ease with which you are transported from the lower deck by the ship's own dive boats makes the experience an addictive breeze.
The Filipino wait-staff - great, great, great. They take a day or two to warm up to you. We were used to the great European staff on Sea Dream so we were disappointed initially in the rather rote and listless manner of the waiters but came to soon realize that they wait for you to take the lead in how you want to communicate. When they saw that we were friendly they returned that attitude ten-fold. Special thanks to Ariel, Brian, Josephino and Juben for making us feel ultra pampered and welcome. We found it very hard not to tip these fellows at the end of the trip but there is no formula in place to do this and the literature on board says there is no tipping.
The Gauguin and Gaugines (the Poynesian hosts) add a very nice and authentic touch to the cruise which I have never experienced on any other ship. They are gorgeous for starters but they are also total class acts.
They dance, sing, teach traditional arts and crafts, and just generally add a lovely visual touch to all the day's gatherings. They tend to interact most with the french-speaking passengers on board.
The excursions, the ones I took at least, were all very worthwhile. I thoroughly enjoyed the 3 Coconut Trail hike and wish there had been more of this type of semi-challenging island excursions rather than the predominantly sedentary ones they offer. Given that the passenger ages range between late 50s to early 80s I'm not surprised however. On our trip one of the 6 to participate in the hike complained a lot of the way to the lookout and most of the way back! My daughter and I LOVED it!
The snorkeling tours in Moorea were a highlight as well (stingrays and sharks and more variety of tropical fish than you ever imagined).
We thought the selection of pearl jewelry in the ship gift store was better than anything we saw on shore. I'm sure the prices are steeper but at least you really know what you're paying for and the design was really first rate.
The food in La Veranda is really about as good as any restaurant can be on land in a major city. I'm in the fine dining business and make it my business to eat in the top restaurants in SF and NYC, London and Paris, among other places, several times a year, and I was duly impressed by what they are able to present at sea, many many miles away from reliable food providers. Here's the glitch: they won't let you book at the restaurant more that two or three times during a 10 day cruise.
We loved being able to eat outside for every breakfast and lunch. This older crowd loves its air conditioning so there were always tables free outside which made for exceptional moments eating to the sound of the ocean and the views of the other-worldy Tahitian landscapes.
Wines were good and PLENTIFUL!
On the negative side:
We read on these boards that you don't need to book a cabin with balcony as you are out of your room most of the time. This can be true if you don't hit rain, which we did for the first three days of our cruise. Also the the rooms TINY (at least ours was ) and a bit tired feeling so I think the balcony would have really helped things. However, we hit really, really rough seas two nights and being on a lower deck I think helped considerably with the motion.
Our chamber maid, Maria, was really listless and took FOREVER to clean our room (many days we went to our cabin after lunch and the room was still not attended to). I think this is an understaffing issue for the cheaper cabins like ours rather than our maid being a bad apple. Compared to Seadream, this was a C minus aspect to the cruise.
The food was pretty hit-and-miss. Sometimes the lunches were great but often they were very ordinary. Desserts were usually pretty high quality (the oatmeal cookies in particular!) but I would have preferred better fresh, raw savory selections rather than great desserts! Judging by the waistlines of my fellow passengers, we would have all benefited by it!
The real and very important problem with Paul Gauguin is the embarkation and disembarkation. Listen, nobody loves flying 9 hours in economy on a red-eye but to get to Tahiti one is willing to put up with that inconvenience. Paul Gauguin, however, compounds the difficult part of this journey ten-fold. How?
I find it very hard to believe that this is entirely unavoidable by the cruise line. THe plane was at least 75% full of Paul Gauguin cruisers and the flight arrangements were all taken care of by the cruise line and part of the cruise fee- clearly they have a very solid relationship with Tahiti Nui, the airline. So why, do we board the flight in LAX at midnight and then get sent to a hotel wait out our first day until 3PM? By the way, you get thrown out of your room at 11AM and are forced to wait, hot and exhausted in the hotel lobby for 4 hours before you are ferried onto a bus and then taken en masse to a completely impersonal and charmless check-in (take a page our of Seadream's process which is a thing of beauty: your cruise starts the instant you see the ship).
Then to make matters worse, this is how you disembark: you are given a time at which you must be out of your room (9:30 AM) and a time at which you are allowed to disembark (no negotiation on this point: 12:30 PM), you are then taken on a tour of Papeete (we opted for this but even the passenger who opted out were given a tour against their wishes!) and then dropped once again at a hotel to wait once again until the midnight flight (compulsory check-out time 7PM). We then arrived en masse (with passengers from a Princess Cruise to compound the problem) and spend 2 hours in a line to check - in for our flight, all of us completely exhausted and disgruntled by the entire rigmarole of the day, and many people vowing to write angry letter to the cruise line and to never cruise on Paul Gauguin again.
Everyone in hospitality knows, or should know, that first and last impressions are the most important. On this point, Paul Gauguin fails miserably.
And surely it is entirely avoidable.
How about this idea? We arrive at 6 or 7 AM as our flight did and are taken directly to the ship. The passenger from the previous cruise will have been taken to their midnight flight back to the US around 9PM after a farewell dinner. Crew gets the evening to clean and prepare ship for next guests. Unnecessary and highly unpleasant transit time is eliminated and there is no time spent in holding pen hotels and waiting about the ship without a cabin.
Something tells me their is some sort of nasty financial advantage for one or more of the players in this situation but I can tell you that my informal survey of the passengers on that last day does not bode well for this cruise lines future in the business.
What a shame to ruin the carefully created goodwill all the staff created on our ten-day trip!
I for one would never go through that again.