I’ve traveled twice with the M/S Paul Gauguin, and in my experiences it has been a world apart. That’s its strength and its weakness.
When it comes to Tahiti and the Society Islands, PG has a legendary reputation and nearly a cult following for the quality of the experience it provides. As evidence of this, more than half the travelers on my recent cruise were “repeaters.” PG’s Tahiti reputation is hard earned and well deserved on several fronts.
As a floating restaurant, PG mixes quality, style, elegance, and informality into a unique brew. There is an endless variety of food, the option to order “off menu” at every meal, and choices for restaurants — all at no extra charge. No matter what dining option you choose, the wait staff is attentive, enthusiastic, and responsive to your needs.
This is not to say the food service couldn’t be tweaked. For example, I don’t really need Mexican, Italian, or America-themed lunch buffets. I’m in the South Pacific for heaven’s sake. How about local-themed buffets every day?
As a hotel, the service excels at every level. When calling Reception for assistance with everything from an uncooperative safe to the services of a tailor to a need for an extension cord, I never waited more than five minutes to have a person at my door.
As with any hotel, there are some glitches like the lingering smell of mildew in some of the cabin corridors or the inability to get air conditioning to work consistently — or at all — in some cabins.
In all of these areas the staff is more than willing to do everything they can to ensure your satisfaction. With PG you are in a world apart and they brings their full attention to every aspect of your food and lodging.
Unfortunately, PG does not do a very good job of connecting with the world beyond Tahiti. When PG steps outside its geographic sphere of familiarity, it stumbles. This is true in matters both small and great. And it has been true for me twice.
For example, on my recent cruise we went to Vanuatu, Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea, and Cairns. Nonetheless, the ship’s program ran as if we were in Tahiti.
The ship offered language lessons in Tahitian and French even though no locals within a thousand miles of our itinerary spoke those languages. How hard would it have been to have classes teach a few words in the dialects of the people we visited?
We also had the opportunity to learn how to tie — pareos which no one in the area wears — and to buy postcards picturing Tahiti. How hard would it have been to stock some more relevant postcards in the Boutique?
We were traveling through an area rich in World War II history, but were treated to lectures about Paul Gauguin. Don’t get me wrong, these lectures were great. If we had been in Tahiti, they would have been phenomenal, but we were in Papua New Guinea.
Of course, there were wonderful — and on point lectures— by Cousteau, and a guest was allowed to give an impromptu lecture on Guadalcanal, but there had been no advance effort to connect the ship’s lectures to its itinerary.
A further disappointment was the replacement of the promised anthropologist with some combination of a magician and a performance artist. These acts would have been better left in third-tier Vegas lounges.
Though this lack of effort to intersect with a world beyond Tahiti was merely somewhat odd in most cases, in others it was a major problem. The ship’s programs are well-honed for PG’s standard itineraries, but there didn’t seem to have been any inclination to connect to what was a new world for it to travel through.
For example, when traveling in the Society Islands, the ship will exchange money for its guests. This was not done — except after vociferous complaint, and then only for a few stops — on this trip. Surely the need for local currency could have been anticipated.
As a result, passengers were often in situations where their money was not accepted and where there were no ATMs or banks. The saddest thing about this was the local craftspeople who went without sales.
Perhaps the worst of the failures concerned shore excursions.
The port talks were abysmal. There was no more information or accuracy from the presenter — and frequently there was much less — than a person could get on the web.
I can understand, I suppose, that the person in charge of shore excursions hadn’t been to the particular ports we visited. But I can’t understand not doing a better job of learning about them.
For example, people would ask, “Is there good snorkeling nearby?” or, “Are US dollars accepted?” or, “What’s the shopping like?” In all cases, the answer was some variation of “I don’t know?”
The shore excursions themselves were poorly researched, uneven at best, and flat out unsafe at worst. Even if the ship hadn’t been to these ports previously, surely there are experts who could have informed the planning.
Excursions took guests to swimming holes at low tide when they were closed, to a museum that wasn’t open, to a promised three-hour walking tour with snack that lasted 25 minutes without a snack, and to a snorkeling experience that was an exercise in staying alive in the water.
PG was responsive to most of the shortcomings and refunded all or a portion of the cost for some of the most egregious excursions, but people who are paying a premium for a cruise should not be expected to serve as guinea pigs.
Finally, there was great unhappiness among many of the divers on board. For a host of reasons, many who had traveled thousands of miles just to dive were unable to sign up because all the spots were taken.
This was not because people were late in trying to sign up. It was because all the spots were taken before everyone had even been processed for embarkation and allowed to sign up.
Again, the staff did what it could to open more spots, but they should have known in advance that the large number of divers on board would not be compatible with the limited spots available.
To be fair, I have to add that this trip included the most remarkable shore excursion I’ve ever taken. We were the first cruise ship to visit Bougainville in decades and we received a carnival celebration of a welcome. Wave after wave of dancers surrounded us and invited us into their community. We were literally immersed in an unaffected local culture.
The last matter of concern for me was the itinerary. It changed at the last minute and Port Moresby was substituted for Rabaul. Port Moresby is a town that virtually no cruise ships or tourists go to because of concerns about violence and instability. Guests on the Port Moresby excursion weren’t even allowed to get off the tour buses at the main viewpoint because it was judged unsafe.
In addition, we stayed in Port Moresby for far longer than any other port. We were also told not to get off the ship after dark. We were informed that this itinerary change was because of the ship’s need to refuel. Really? It wasn’t possible to figure this out before advertising a much more attractive port stop?
I’d suggest that radical changes in itinerary such as this be accompanied by an option to cancel reservations at no charge.
Finally, you can trust PG to provide full value for your lodging and dining dollars, but their charges for pre/post lodging and transfers were at least 30% higher than it was possible to book independently.
The bottom line for me is that if I travel with PG again — and I would like to — I would only book an established itinerary that the ship has traveled multiple times over many years. When PG tries to go outside its comfort zone, passengers can become most uncomfortable.