May I suggest that you book Princess' pre-tour package, the one that offers one night at the Papeete Intercontinental and three nights in an over-water bungalow at the Sheraton Moorea Lagoon. This package also contains all transfers to and from the airport (yes, even at the end of the cruise, transfers to and from the ferries to Moorea, and the meet and greet arrangements at the airport. At $1099 per person, this represents terrific value if you consider the actual rack rate of $2500 per person if the package were booked independently. (I believe the package will be $1149 for the final months this year.) Once settled into the Intercontinental, you will probably wish you had booked an extra night. This can actually be done, and once again with Princess. To amortize the $46 continental breakfast rate, order just one to share. I guarantee you that one is more than enough for two hungry individuals. Try to be as creative at the Sheraton as well--there is no need to spend a fortune in the formal dining room as the lesser restaurants offer very good food at reasonable rates ($20 for fresh mahi mahi on a Cesar Salad). Your price includes tax and service.
Because we booked directly with our travel agent, a tropical bouquet was already waiting for us in our mini-suite. Actually this is more of a large stateroom, as it does not have the larger dimensions of mini-suites in other Princess ships. Nice blue tones and very clean. In fact, cleanliness is the hallmark of the ships these days, especially with the scares of norovirus. Our friends had a mini-suite on the starboard side so we could exchange views from both sides. One of the individuals did in fact come down with a bug (I think you know what I mean) and was in fact quarantined for two full days. Princess was absolutely professional in handling the situation as well as assuring the individual that all would be taken care of, from doctor's visit to in-room meal service. There was NO additional charge. Princess stated that it was grateful that the report was made. Yes, the beds are firm. Ask for the egg-crate covering ahead of time and make a copy of the confirmation.
The following day, while still in Papeete, we took Princess' half island tour that included the James Norman Hall Museum, where a beautiful Tahitian docent gave a remarkable account of the writer who collaborated in writing Mutiny on the Bounty. Our own guide, who called himself "Mike," was rather disagreeable in making several off-color remarks. He even had the nerve to solicit openly for gratuities, the only example of non-Tahitian behavior ("Mike" was American). After returning to our ship, we got ready for our first assigned seating dinner, and, yes, with Toma and Attila, who have now become legends. By the way, Toma will be continuing with Princess later on, while Attila, who is still in his probationary phase, will be returning to his native Hungary for two months and will await his assignment at the end of that time.
I would like to mention the entertainment aspect at this point. We found the three shows to be filled with energy and joviality, even if the same cast performed in all three musicals. Paul Carroll has a decent voice and was one of the two principals allowed to sing. (The others lip-synched!).But the overall effect was wholesome and good fun provided that one not take them too seriously. I would like to recommend the area where the lighting technician operates for the best seating. This is the only raised platform. The front row is too close. Besides, if you must leave before the end of the show, you are just steps from the door. Why the juggler had such a bad attitude is a puzzlement; perhaps he was homesick? The magician, who came on board upon our disembarkation, was all rested up and ready for the next cruise!
Dining can also be fun, again, if you don't take it too seriously. There always seems to be fish available and even though it is usually frozen, it is well prepared. The only puzzlement is the spa menu. One night I decided to order the fish preparation on the spa menu; it was supposed to be served without sauce and other complications. When Toma brought the dish, he confided that the kitchen doesn't know any better. I suppose I could have asked him to instruct the kitchen, but ended up just scraping off the light sauce. My suggestion is to order the simplest preparations. We did the same with the Panorama Room buffet and were always pleased. We did try the Sterling Steakhouse (aka The Grill). Probably the worst service we have ever experienced. Steaks were either overdone or bleeding rare. One of the staff chastised a member of our table for putting her purse on the wrong side of the chair (public humiliation is not a good idea).
At this point, I need to point out the formal nights. Although I never wear cut-offs or tattered garments as suggested by a previous CC reviewer, I chose not to bring any kind of formal or even informal wear. This is ridiculous. We are in the tropics. It is warm and humid. Polynesians do not wear formal clothing. The airport at Papeete is jammed with oversized suitcases that house tuxes, suits, formal gowns. I enjoyed dinner immensely at the Panorama lounge one night and at the Pizzeria the next. The following evening both Toma and Attila commiserated and said we should have come to dinner there anyway. I did promise my wife that I would bring a jacket and tie for our next cruise (no formal wear, however). I am pleased to note that more and more cruise lines use the phrase "optional," although these tend to be for more expensive cruises!
We allowed Princess to handle all excursions except for the ones during our pre-tour extension in Moorea, where we contacted Albert Tours and Tiki Village directly on line and made fine arrangements. The benefit in dealing with Princess is that in case of any problems with the tours, the ship will always be there and if a tour is canceled for any reason, the charge is immediately dropped. Except for the abysmal tour guide in Papeete, our guides were very good to excellent. We even got the three-star (Frommer's)Paul Attalah of the Eco Tours in Huahine. (One fellow cruiser confessed to trying to book him on-line only to have him respond that he was on assignment that day with Princess!) His passion is cultural anthropology, as his meticulous lecture will attest. There will be more than enough time to explore the marae (ancient stone structures)on your own. Tip: in the museum toward the back you will find the island pottery for sale. But you have to look carefully! Our favorite guide was a Maori from Raratonga, who is currently restoring an outrigger canoe that he used to make a rite-of-passage trip from New Zealand to Raratonga. We also loved the fauna and lush mountain scenery. This is the last time Princess will be stopping there (to be replaced by Rangiroa). The island tour of Raitea is fine as is the same for Bora Bora. But the most exciting aspect for us was the Aqua Safari in Bora Bora, during which we are transported to another boat along a reef. After donning square helmets (your hair is dry and you can wear glasses), you are lowered 15 feet to walk along the bottom to see coral, fish, and more friendly manta than you'll ever expect. They are smooth and silken. Bloody Mary's (from the song in South Pacific)--three tour buses plus more tourists. Enough said.
Disembarkation is not covered by too many CC writers except to mention the madhouse at the airport. This is true. If, however, you have arranged to have Princess transport you to the airport, everything is handled. Your bags will be waiting for you in a secure area just outside the terminal. A porter will pick up your bags, put them on a cart for you, and direct you to check-in. Before this, however, you will indeed have most of the day ashore or on board. Hint: the library is the quietest and least congested of the holding tanks for those waiting for the 5:00 PM transfers. And the dining room is open for lunch and breakfast that day. Very few people seemed to be aware of the arrangement. The return flight was on an older airbus with erratic temperature extremes. Very strange sounds from the ceiling, something like Chip and Dale hurling hundreds of acorns (I don't know how else to describe it). Our bags arrived promptly in LAX, mine without the outside strap and with a broken handle. Perhaps this was the reentry to civilization. We booked a day room at the Hilton Garden Inn for $80 to rest up for our 5:30 PM flight back home.
Thanks Princess, for a job well done. I will promise to bring a jacket next time.