We originally planned to book our air separately but when we realized how expensive it was going to be (we were getting quotes of about $1200 per person from LAX to Papeete), we thought we'd give Princess a shot at it. They came through with only $1,000 per person...still expensive, but can't hurt to save $400 and have the cruise line arrange everything. Since the connections are so limited into Tahiti, we figured it would be safe to be on the same flight as many of the other cruisers. At the airport, we found out this was the case since at check-in, everyone had those Princess luggage tags on. We were flying in on a Sunday, leaving LAX at noon and arriving in Tahiti at around 5:30 local time (after an 8.5 hour flight). This was actually our first day of the cruise, so we were going to miss out on our usual first day exploration of the ship and lunch/dinner onboard.
One of the best moments of the trip was coming down out of the clouds and first spotting Tahiti Iti in the distance. Slowly Tahiti Nui came into view and it just got more and more spectacular as we watched. Then we got a real treat...we flew right past Papeete, made a 270 degree turn which let us look out at Moorea (Moe-Oh-Ray-uh) which was the most spectacular island on our trip. It was truly amazing and I highly recommend having the port side window seat on the flight in. When we landed, it was amazing to see the locals off to the side of the runway watching the planes come in. There was even a guy on a motorcycle doing wheelies down a dirt road as we pulled around and made our way back down the runway to the "gate".
We waited for about 45 minutes to get through immigration, but once we got through and collected our bags which only took a few minutes, we made our way out of the airport and spotted an ATM. We put in our card and crossed our fingers and it worked. We decided to get 10,000 CFP (equivalent to about $125 USD) to last us for most of the trip since we don't usually buy much off the ship. Of course, this came out of the machine in a single bill so we were worried that a cab driver wouldn't have change. We probably would have been better off doing two transactions of 5,000 each (except for double the service charge). As it turned out, the cab driver had change and agreed to take us to the port for 1800 which was less than we had expected (most information says 2000). We ended up paying 2000 at the end, but it was worth it...we sailed to the port very quickly and beat everyone that was on the Princess transfer.
Embarkation was amazingly fast, within about 10 minutes of arriving at the port, we were on the ship and in our beautiful stateroom. The room was much larger than the typical Princess Balcony stateroom. Rather than simply having a desk and chair, our room had a love seat and desk. There was less closet space, but that was okay. This suited us perfectly. The duvet and bedding was good (although the bed was a little hard).
Throughout the cruise, we really enjoyed the small ship feel of Tahitian Princess. Getting to know the other passengers and interacting with the same staff everyday was much nicer than the impersonal larger ships. Having the same bartender at breakfast and lunch in the buffet every day really has its advantages. We also really enjoyed having the singers and dancers from the shows doubling as cruise staff although most of the activities were pretty sparsely attended on such a port intensive itinerary.
Our waiter was the best we've ever had on a cruise and everyone at our 10 person table (the only one on the ship apparently) looked forward to our dinners every night. Serving for a 10 person table and making sure that everyone was finishing their meal at the same time must be very difficult, but Salvador handled it expertly.
The food was also the best we've had on any Princess cruise. Everything was prepared perfectly. The beef dishes were especially good, but other standouts were the lamb chops and fettucine alfredo (available every night). The soups are always good on Princess as well, try the Philadelphia Pepper Pot on Embarkation/Disembarkation night...it's excellent!!
We also had the best room steward we've ever had. He would organize our shoes and books each day when we would leave them strewn around the room (after all, we're on vacation). One of the performers one night gave out glow sticks and we kept them in the room. After the glow went away on one stick, Allan even threw it away, but left the glowing one with us. Every day he would greet us in the morning when we were going out and before dinner he would wish us well.
Service on the ship was incredible overall. All of the staff on the ship seemed very relaxed and eager to please us. We eventually found out why when we met the captain. Captain Stefano Rivera was a real pleasure to meet and speak with (and was always around the ship and accessible). He really touted the teamwork that his staff had and how proud he was to command this ship and that attitude clearly spread throughout the crew.
Activities There was very little interest from passengers in trivia and other games. We love to play these games, but when we went, there were usually only a handful of other players. In fact, the first trivia we went to was just us. It was nice to be able to interact with the Cruise Staff who were the dancers from the shows. It's amazing the kind of work they do, every night before a production show, they spend 2-3 hours working out, then do two shows and are back on the following morning leading activities. They all seemed to really like getting to interact with the passengers and all were really friendly when you would see them around the ship.
Entertainment There were three production shows. I think we've seen all of them before on other ships, but the staging was more limited on the smaller ship. The upside, however, was that the team of 2 singers and 6 dancers were all excellent. Usually there are some weak links, but this time, none. Both singers were very good and one of the dancers that had a number was also really good. The shows were also staged better than we had seen on another ship with this type of stage layout (where the stage is really a dance floor in the club). On the other ship, everything was staged as if the entire audience was right out front, but this time they interacted with the audience on either side as well.
We also had a magician, singer and comedian who were all pretty good although a little standard, the production shows were much better. There were two main shows with locals coming on board (in Raiatea). In the afternoon it was a kids show which was really great, then late that evening was another show with adults which was also good.
Papeete For the second day of the cruise, we decided not to book an excursion because we would be back here on the last day waiting for our flight late in the evening. It turned out that we were right because while we took an island tour on the last day, some of our table mates said they had a very boring day on the ship. I think the available entertainment and services on that day is pretty limited (like any debarkation day would be) despite having both embarking and disembarking passengers onboard. So the first day we just walked through town and went to the international marketplace. There is really not a lot to see in Papeete within walking distance so we went back to the ship to enjoy the afternoon.
Huahine Pulling into the bay in the morning through the very close reefs on either side was beautiful. We had a morning snorkeling excursion, so after a brief and organized tender ride, we hopped into a boat and went across the divide between Huahine Iti and Huahine Nui and over to the bay on the other side and anchored off of a Motu. We weren't too impressed with the variety of fish or coral here, but the water was warm and refreshing. While in the water, I kept saying that the scenery out of the water is more beautiful than it is under the water. After the excursion we headed back to the ship for the afternoon and spent time watching some local singers and dancers perform by the pool and sitting on our balcony as the ship slowly drifted around in the bay. Every few minutes we would get a different view, so this was time well spent. We could also have taken a Le Truck to Fare, the main town on the island, but this usually doesn't interest us too much.
Rarotonga We made it into Rarotonga. We were worried that we would miss this port due to heavy seas so we didn't have an excursion booked. We got off the tender and went to a supermarket nearby to get some bottled water (knowing that this would be cheaper than French Polynesia) which would give us some New Zealand currency for use during the day. On the walk into town, we saw a sign for the cruise ship passengers that said they had cars for rent for $40, so we went for it. Driving is on the left and the cars are left hand drive so that was fun. We just spent the day driving around the island. We ran into some fellow passengers who were on the 4x4 excursions at a couple of different places.
Raiatea & Tahaa Here we had a morning excursion for the Drift Snorkel which was very good snorkeling, but seemed rather dangerous and we weren't given a lot of instruction on how close we were going to come to the rocks. Several people got scratched on rocks or coral and one person had an anemone spike in their foot. Knowing what to expect now, it would have been a lot more fun and the sea life and coral was really beautiful.
Bora Bora This felt more like a tourist trap to us after all of the other islands. We did a circle island tour in a Le Truck because we wanted to see the U.S. Navy guns, but it turned out we didn't get to see those on that tour. We needed to go on the 4x4 excursion to get close. Don't believe the information on the excursion from the ship on this one. We did finally get to sample some breadfruit on this trip, so that was worth it. The island is surrounded by locals in beat up shacks with resorts every half mile or so. The contrast between luxury resorts and what appeared to be slums was a little jarring. On the second day we did a Stingray and Snorkel excursion which had some good snorkeling in the rain and we got to feed stingrays and some Black-Tipped Reef Sharks which was pretty fun.
Moorea This island is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen. The jagged rocks meeting the lush green trees and deep blue bay were phenomenal. We had a morning excursion for a Motu Barbecue. We got to ride through the lagoon to a motu for lunch of mahi mahi, sausage, and chicken. We also got to take pictures with a stingray and snorkel freely in the channel between two motus.
Our host was very knowledgeable and was much more of a conservationist than all of the other guides we had had. He made you really appreciate the environment that we were in and how to keep the stingrays from becoming domesticated, etc. Merchandise by the pier where the tenders docked was much cheaper than anywhere in the islands, so stock up on your souvenirs here.
Papeete We spent the debarkation day on a bus tour around the north and east side of Tahiti. We lucked out and instead of being put onto a full size bus with 50 other passengers, we ended up in a mini-bus with only 6 others. The highlights of the tour were the James Norman Hall Museum and a spectacular waterfall along the west coast of the island. Just getting out of Papeete made this island seem much better than it had before.
Instead of doing the cruise line transfer to the airport, we took a cab (1,800 CFP) about a half hour before the first scheduled bus which turned out to be the right idea. We were first in line to check in for our flight and although we waited about an hour before the airline opened, we weren't in the middle of a sweaty crowd. The only thing I would recommend is that you don't take your bags directly to the screening after check-in because back at LAX it took us forever to get our bags (first in, last out I guess).
Overall, this was the best cruise ever, hands down!