Flights and first day: We flew from Washington DC area to LAX (American) and from LAX to Papeete (Air Tahiti Nui). I booked my own flights in order to get maximum flexibility with flight times and only one stop in LAX. My flights were only about $200 more (total) then the ones offered through Princess. I have read a lot of concerns on here about ATN's leg room/service/etc. and for me it just was not true. Our flight from DC to LAX on American was MUCH worse - old plane, cramped seats and non existent service on 5+hr flight. Air Tahiti in comparison is so much better, you get your own TV with choice of movies and games, nice little care package (socks, ear plugs, sleep mask, head phones, etc.), unlimited drinks and decent (for airplane) food. We flew in the day before the cruise, and stayed at Sofitel. Very nice hotel, I booked an oceanview room online for about $214 (with tax and conversion), the mountain view rooms were even cheaper. We liked the grounds and the room, no complaints there. Around noon, we checked out and shared a taxi to the pier with another couple ($30 total, $15 per couple).
Check in: Absolutely the easiest check in EVER. Dropped off luggage in the tent, signed medical forms and after brief run through the documents we had our room keys! Note: for the easiest check-in, use the credit card you actually want to put cruise charges on for your boarding passes online. Our friends changed cards at the pier and it caused a lot of confusion and was not done properly.
Stateroom: We had category BB balcony on 7th floor, about midship, close to launderette. Room was pretty spacious, nothing special. We got lucky with the balcony location and had great views of the approaching islands and while in harbors. I like the fridge in the room - kept my grapefruit (see below) and bottle of champagne nice and cold. I had to remind our room steward about the fruit basket and robes I have preordered online for the room. Other then that service was OK.
Public Areas: I absolutely LOVED the dEcor of this ship. Very elegant, nice art everywhere, overall relaxing and luxurious atmosphere. We didn't find the pool deck small, it was very adequate. I only once bought day passes to the spa deck and it was just to see the difference - in my opinion, not worth extra $$, chairs there do not recline fully and quite a pain to operate, also a lot of shade areas and no pool to cool off, just hot tub. The ship is small (I am used to the likes of Valor and Explorer), so it is easy to find your way around, but also quite easy to get bored. There was NOTHING to do between 5pm and about 7 pm daily - you are either out of port or sun (sea days), it is a bit early to start drinking (we had late dinner seating at 8pm) and aside from casino (not a gambler) nothing to do. There are only 2 shops on board (sundries/souvenirs and jewelry) with small selection. Boy, did I miss a Promenade deck!
Food: I was not impressed. Princess supposed to be a step above my favorite cruiseline (RCCL), but to me it was not so. Overall, on first 3 nights, every dish I ordered was oversalted to the point of inedible. After that I smartened up and started ordering 2 main courses, from which I was able to choose the least salty one. The only thing that was consistently good was beef dishes (my DH's staple), but I don't eat a lot of steak. All poultry dishes seemed to be boiled chicken, regardless of proposed on the menu method of cooking or variation of poultry. The only absolutely not to be missed dish was king crab legs served on first formal night. From specialty restaurants we only tried the Steakhouse and were thoroughly disappointed. The service was a snide and rude, my DH was convinced that maitre'd was making jokes with waitstaff about diners behind their backs. Steaks were drenched (and I mean it) with rosemary butter to the point that you can't taste the steak, overall, not worth $15pp. at least for me.
People: May be because this was a heavily discounted cruise, but we got the BEST mix of ages/nationalities on board. Of course, there were good amount of retirees and honeymooners, but overall I would say there were more just regular people on the cruise, not particularly celebrating anything, just enjoying French Polynesia. We have met absolutely wonderful people and are hoping to stay in touch. On our sailing there was not a lot of kids (less the 10) and they were very well behaved and attended by their parents at all times. However, we have witnessed a scuffle by the pool, where apparently the lady was offended by kids splashing and "taking over" the pool area. She started yelling at the parent of the kids in the pool (Australian family) who was there supervising the kids. Lady's DH joined in and the name calling started. Australian parent refused to escalate the fight (kudos). We were right there and didn't see anything wrong with kids behavior. This was an isolated incident, except that the same USA couple complained later of teenagers (2 total for the whole ship) taking over the disco. :)
Entertainment: Very nice for the small ship. The entertainment staff worked their behinds off and singers and dancers all had at least 3 or 4 different duties, aside from entertainment.Day 1 - Papeete: On a first day there are A LOT of people on the ship, so it seems a bit crowded, especially in buffet area. This is because people from the last cruise have not disembarked yet - no big deal, actually gave as a chance to chat up some past cruisers. After dropping our hand luggage off in the stateroom, we headed to La Marche. It is about a block away and definitely not to be missed! There we bought a gorgeous flower arrangement - it didn't last all 10 days, but survived a solid week. My biggest mistake was not to buy all the souvenirs I wanted right there and then. Out of ALL the islands La Marche has the best prices for pareos and trinkets. I ended up buying all this stuff on my last day and putting it in a carry-on. Also, if you want a quantity of anything, buy from 1 vendor, they will give you a discount - I bought 5 pareos for 9,000 XPF, by themselves they are 2,000 XPF each. Also, check out second floor, not all the people venture there. Aside from flowers on our first day we also bought a Pamlemousse (sp) it is Polynesian grapefruit and an absolute must try! I normally dislike grapefruits, but this was something else, it is quite big, so I had it for breakfast on the balcony for 4 days :). After coming back to the ship with all the goodies around 4 pm, our luggage was already delivered. The first day dinner is open seating at 6:15 pm to accommodate all the arriving/departing guests. We went to the dinner, but I would have rather skipped it and went to Le Trucks, if I new how good they were! They set up around 7 pm and on our night it was 4 of them. We ended up walking there around 8 pm just to check it out and couldn't stop ourselves from getting poisson cru (raw fish polynesian specialty) and guava jelly/banana crepe with tahitian vanilla ice cream. This was the best food from ENTIRE cruise! I would come back to Tahiti, just for the ice cream!!!
Day 2 - Moorea: We did the Motu Picnic tour through Princess. This was one of the highlights of our trip and one of the best tours ever. Guide was very knowledgeable and gave a nice overview of the island's history and geography on the way to the motu. Once there, he attracted some stingrays and everybody got a chance to have their picture taken with stingray on the lap! The motu itself didn't have much of the beach, but picnic area has plastic chairs we used as makeshift lounges. I highly advise wearing watershoes for this, as the beach/landing area has a lot of coral (after all motu is an atoll). Our friends went snorkeling and loved it. Also the guide did coconut husking/braking demonstration and pareo wearing demo. Lunch was nice and light with polynesian style chicken and fish dishes. Juice and water are free, they charge for soda and beer. Hinano on a beach is an absolute must! Beware: there are A LOT stray dogs and cats everywhere, this is true for all the islands actually. After the tour boat dropped us at the pier. There was not a lot to do right at the pier - some overpriced tent with local (read CHINA) trinkets, pretty church and a road. We hiked a bit up the road to go to post office to get stamps. This was a waste of time, they had only 1 type of stamp and you can get the same one and all the others available at the post office in Bora Bora, but who knew?
Day 3 - at Sea: Lounged around the pool deck, checked out the shops. Bored to death by 5 pm. This and next night and day was quite rocky, I was glad I brought my ginger pills and stack to my regimen ?. Also, this was first formal night with Captain's reception party.
Day 4 - at Sea: More of the same - pool deck and nothing… Nice tan, though :)
Day 5 - Hiva Oa/at Sea: As expected, upon arrival to Hiva Oa, the weather conditions were deemed unsuitable for landing (high winds) and we promptly departed for "scenic" cruising (read circling the island a few times). Since I knew about high likelihood of missing this port, I was not particularly upset, but some people were. My DH overheard an older gentlemen telling a buffet attendant (!) that "This is b****, I have seen higher waves in my bathtub!" :). This was the day I broke down and paid $15pp to go to spa deck just for a change of pace.
Day 6 - Nuku Hiva: After 3 days at sea everyone was quite restless ?. I have prebooked online the scenic drive tour for the morning. The drive was very nice, lots of scenic places. We got lucky and our guide actually spoke some English and our car mates (there are only 4 people per car) spoke French, so among all of us we were able to get quite a lot of info. My favorite fun fact was that for total of 400 people on the island, they had 2 bishops. At the end of the trip they bring you by a nice bay with the tent set up selling local wares and offering local fruit snacks (free). I finally had breadfruit! Our friends took 4x4 tour and the difference was that 4x4 included a hike to marae and didn't include fruit snack, otherwise same views and roads. On the way back from the tour we chose not to come back to the pier, but leave in town and walk to the Pearl Lounge Resort on the other side of the bay. It was quite a hike, shuttle buses do run, but they are quite infrequent and walking was kind of fun after being couped up on the ship for 3 days. Pearl Lounge was very nice, I love the location and the view (some of the best pictures we did throughout the trip). A lot of people complained that it was overpriced, we have not ordered any mixed drinks, just Hinano and the prices were the same as in Papeete. After couple beers we hiked back to the dock. There was a little marketplace set up for cruise passengers with local crafts. The woodcarvings are quite expensive, BUT they are local, not from China or Indonesia, like in La Marche. So if you are in the market for woodcarving, buy it here. I was not, so I bought all the souvenirs in Papeete.
Day 7 - at Sea: Same old - pool deck and nap. This is the second formal night.
Day 8 - Rangiroa: This was the most disappointing island for me, but it was my own fault. I do not snorkel, so I decided not to do anything through the ship and just go find a beach to lounge on. BIG MISTAKE. The easily accessible beach is nothing but littered strip of mostly coral in front of people's houses. Nice part of the beach is a hotel property and we were advised in Patters that ship passengers were not allowed to use that hotel's facilities. I understood it as not using their property, e.i. beach area. Some people figured out it is OK to use beach, but not chairs, and other that it is OK to use everything except restrooms. So after sitting around on coral for about an hour, we headed back to the dock. Supposedly there was a shuttle bus to one village and water taxi to another. Never seen a shuttle bus, we ended up catching a water taxi to the nearby island and "main" village. Got ripped on the fare of in the process, but this is my own fault for listening to shore excursions guy. In the "main" village there supposed to be post office/market. Have not found either, the place was DEAD. We walked into mayor's office to get directions - all desks are empty, fans blaring, stacks of bills and official stamps on the desks - not a soul in sight. After this, as soon as I've seen first taxi boat, we were on it! FYI ride back was half price of the ride there. Note: the prices are posted on the board to the left side of the dock and were also posted inside the boat on the ride back. Other people went snorkeling and LOVED it, they have seen sharks and swam with them, also tons of fish and moray eels. My own fault for not doing this. Also, there was a free shuttle to Pearl farm on the dock, we didn't go, since we had a pearl farm tour scheduled for next day, but heard from people that went it was very educational.
Day 9 - Raiatea and Tahaa: Late arrival - noon. Loved this island. First of all you actually dock, so no tenders! Second, they have a nice center set up with info desks on different tours and nice shopping area with boutiques and stands. By the time we got there I was STARVED for some shopping! Also right in front of the center local ladies sell garlands and head dresses for the island night on the ship. I didn't get mine till we came back around 5 pm and selection was quite small, you can also get one in the morning and the ladies will put it on ice for you, people we know did it and it survived beautifully. On this island we did Pearl Farm and Motu excursion through Princess. Pearl farm has a beautiful location. The lady explained how the whole process works and did a demo for us. The boutique is way overpriced, which didn't stop people from buying tons of goodies ?. I bought my necklace on the dock later (certified pearl from the same farm) for about half price they were asking. The Motu was gorgeous! Best beach from all the islands, nice water. For snorkelers they even had a fish trap set up to look at all the fish. It was not enough time though, I wish we skipped the pearl farm all together and just went to the Motu. Did some shopping at the pier, while DH was relaxing at the dock restaurant chatting up Captain and the crew. As I have mentioned that night was island night. We missed the children show, due to "island time" in running the boats from Motu, but did catch the later adult show. This is an ABSOLUTE must!
Day 10 - Bora Bora: Another MUST - helmet dive. You have to register quite early for this, as it is always sold out. We did the early morning one, so we were the first in. The crew of the dive boat is very nice and patient, we had an older lady who was quite scared of the whole thing, but with enough patience, she was in and LOVED it. Over all, the only put about 6 people in the water at any time, you can snorkel around the boat while you are waiting your turn. They will also provide suitable water shoes, if you don't have any. The process starts with you going down the ladder off the boat and when the water is about chest high, the helmet goes on (heavy!), then the dive master guides you down with frequent breaks for earpopping. As soon as you are down, you are surrounded by fish and stingrays - it is absolutely magical! They all know you have a piece of bread tied to helmet and are all waiting for a treat. I ran out of film in my underwater camera in like 5 minutes! After 30 min in water (it was more then enough for me, I was getting cold) it is time to go up, again guided by dive master. We were back on the dock by 10 am and had time to go back to the ship and change. My DH wanted to see the WWII gun site on Bora Bora, but by the time we came back the only official tours left that visited the sites were starting at 1 pm ending at 4pm and with last tender at 4:30pm, I just didn't feel comfortable. So we decided to just go to Matira beach. This was quite nice, we were dropped off in front of Intercontinental and they let you use their restroom to change. While on the beach I spotted 4x4 and asked a random person, if he knew whose it was. The Rover turned out to be his and he agreed to take us to the gunsites for $60 (quite steep, I know, but my DH REALLY wanted it). We ended up on the ride of our lives! I highly suspect that in order to save time and be back by 1 pm to pick up his next "official" excursion he took us to the closest to pier site (there are 4 on the island). This was four wheeling at it's best - mud, skidding back, everything, to be honest the road didn't look like a road, but more like former river. I talked to the other people on "official" 4x4 tours and they said their ride was quite different. Overall, my DH was thrilled and for being such a good wife through the ride from hell, I got a pearl ring (nice shop in the center a little away from the dock, duty free too!).
Day 11 - Papeete: I wanted to do a tour of Tahiti itself on the last day, so we booked a 4x4 tour of the Papenoo valley. I booked this tour, because it was only a half day and left me plenty of time to shop in the afternoon for souvenirs. It was a great tour, but in hindsight, I would have rather went with circle island full day one. The best part of the tour was our tour guide - very knowledgeable, great English and he was playing ukulele for us at every stop. The 4x4 was nothing like the Bora Bora experience - the ride was very smooth, no big bumps. My biggest disappointment was that we didn't actually get close to any waterfalls and the swim part was quite a joke. It was advertised as swimming in waterfall/natural sinkhole and we got to swim of the manmade dam - quite a difference there. After the tour we freshened up in the spa showers (another controversy there, per cruise director EVERYONE departing was allowed to use spa shower, but the spa stuff decided to impose their own rules and only allowed people on princess tours to use the showers and also were quite rude about it) and went shopping. After all said and done, we just waited in Tahitian Lounge with our friends for the departures, we all bought princess transfers.
Check out/Departure: Check out for us was non existent. The whole departure was quite uneventful, until we got to the airport. Lines were LONG, on the other hand, time you spend in line, you don't spend lounging in the waiting area. Overall, by the time we went through all the lines, got the duty free paperwork for my ring stamped and mailed and spent our last XPFs in the duty free shop, it was time to board. We got lucky and even though the flight was full, we had an empty sit between us, so we had a bit more room. We had 5 hr layover and LAX and bought day pass to AA Eagle Lounge ($75 per couple), well worth the money to avoid Xmas travel crowds, take a shower and just lounge with friends over drinks. And after 5 terrible hours on the AA flight with a baby from hell (actually he was a toddler who started his high pitched whining and screaming right after we boarded) we were back to DC.
Other: Just couple quick notes: 1) The crew is awesome and since it is small ship, you will get to know them quite well. 2) Bring you Bonine and/or ginger, you will need it 3) EVERYTHING (and I mean it!) is expensive, so be prepared 4) Bring a ton of sunblock and aftersun lotion, everyone gets burned :) 5) If you are particular about what tours you want, prebook them online. Tours sell out very quickly 6) Enjoy the Paradise!