It's French Polynesia, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, so it's really hard to go wrong on this trip, whatever you do! A lot of what I learned from this site really helped me to become familiar with some of the can't miss places so hopefully my experiences will inspire someone else in the same way!
We booked our cruise straight through Princess. We booked almost a year in advance and they had the best deals at the time. We got a guarantee type balcony cabin so we wouldn't have our room number til later but we knew what area we would be in. We booked the air straight through Air Tahiti Nui. I wanted our seat assignments and flight information right away with no surprises and the price was almost the same as what Princess offered so we went for it and had no regrets. We booked several shore excursions ahead of time as well thanks to reviews from past cruisers, which I will talk about later in this review.
We arrived to LAX FIVE hours early for our non-stop flight to Papeete on October 20. Our plan was to check in early to request an exit row. After waiting four hours and the desk we were informed that because the flight was coming from France, all exit rows had been taken. It would have been nice to be informed of this ahead of time, but off we were to our previous assigned seats. The seats are definitely on the small side and leg room is pretty non-existent, but the worst part is how far the seats in front of you can recline. VERY FAR. When the person in front of you reclines back all the way your face is within inches of your t.v. screen and you definitely start feeling claustrophobic. The selection of movies was decent but most of the food was pretty inedible. It was like they tried to be cheap fancy instead of just cheap but tasty. It was great to have such a large selection of beverages but they only came around with the meals so if you wanted drinks you would constantly have to call someone over.
We got to Papeete late in the evening but luckily had booked Princess transfers which were VERY efficient. We had barely stepped foot off the plane when we were whisked away to a waiting bus and parted with our luggage for the short trip to the dock. The check-in process was very quick and before we knew it we were on the ship! They even had the embarking photo set up for us to take at that late hour! They also had a buffet set up for late comers.
Our room was definitely on the small side, but I think that's a reflection of the age and size of the ship. But we definitely found ways to be comfortable throughout the cruise. The balcony was a decent size but there are huge gaps so if you are leaning at the front of it you can see everyone else on both sides of you. If you stay in the middle you do have privacy though. Air conditioning worked great, as did the toilets. The shower was a nightmare. It was already tiny and the curtain blew inward so it was constantly sticking to you unless you turned the shower on it while you soaped up.
The ship as a whole is small but adequate. Smaller size means less people so you were still easily able to find privacy when you wanted it, but ran into a lot of the same people which made it easy to make friends and get to know the crew. The activities were definitely not as good or diverse as a larger ship but with the extensive port itinerary sea days were used to catch up on sleep anyway! They tended to have a lot of game competitions (like Pictionary and Scattergories) which were fun but tended to draw the same people each time. One thing we really liked were the Bingo odds! At times there were only about 20 people playing Bingo and the prize money is quite high!
The food was just average. It was actually quite difficult for someone who doesn't like "rich" foods to find a selection wide enough for 11 days. We only ate in the dining room twice because the only thing on the menu we could stomach was the Fettucine Alfredo (which was quite good but how much can you have that?) The rest of the menu had more fancy stuff like lobsters, duck and veal which I can't eat on principal. They had no "basic" or "simple" dishes. And the buffet option tended to have the same type of stuff for dinner so we had pizza or went hungry most nights. The breakfast buffet is very good as was the grill which served delicious french fries and mediocre hot dogs and hamburgers. The best time of day to eat for us was between 3 and 5 in the buffet area which had a make-your-own sandwich bar, homemade guacamole and homemade ice cream which changed everyday. It was all really delicious and we tried to fill up on that to be able to skip dinner. We got the coke card which we used SOOOO much and really got our moneys worth. If you drink coke at all, go for it. It's a great deal and very convenient, and unlike some other cruises I have been on, the bar staff happily stops what they are doing to get you the coke, rather than making you wait since you aren't paying for a drink.
The whole staff was pretty much amazing on this cruise. I have really not ever encountered one so friendly and helpful. They actually seemed to be enjoying their jobs and were so personable to cruisers. The gift shop selection was pretty awful, and since it was duty free there were a lot of times they weren't even open, so if you needed dramamine you were out of luck! They have a black pearl jewelry store, but I can't imagine buying them on the ship instead of in the ports. The only other shop had a lot of alcohol, perfumes and makeup, but very few trinket options. They didn't even have postcards, other than one of the ship and one of a generic island.
We didn't attend any shows but I heard they were not very good. The type of people on the ship actually surprised me a little! I expected it to be all honeymooners or seniors but it seemed to me the majority of the people were in their 40s or 50s with lots of families and groups of friends traveling together! It made for a very interesting time. There were only about 6 kids we saw total and they were always well behaved and respectful.
It is definitely true about what people say of the reasons you are on this cruise... it's all for the ports. My advice would be to definitely book something at every port. Even renting a car may not take you to the prettiest parts of each island or give you the full experience. We never saw the crystal blue water until we got off the beaten path or took excursions.
Our first port was Papeete, our port of embarkation. We scheduled the 4x4 excursion to the Papenoo Valley through the ship and had a great time experience all the lush greenery and rivers and waterfalls. We went offroading, saw eels and swam in a refreshing river. I highly recommend doing this your first day rather than just walking around Papeete. Definitely bring your bug spray. You'll need it here! After the tour we walked around the city a bit which is noisy and dirty and full of the few rude people in all of French Polynesia. The city is not beautiful so don't waste your time with a walking tour. We did go to the market and were a bit surprised by it at first! It's actually a little hidden which I didn't expect and when we entered it we were struck with how similar it was to the International Marketplace in Honolulu for those that have been. It's just rows and rows of the same type of merchandise and merchants jumping all over you vying for your business. Do what we did and head right upstairs. Things are a little more quiet up there so you can get your bearings. By the time we shopped around up there and went downstairs we felt much more comfortable. We had already seen lots of merchandise so we had a better idea of what we were looking for. A shotglass costs about $10 so that will give you an idea of the typical souvenir prices. We did look at the flowers which were certainly beautiful, but cabin space was a premium for us and we simply had no spare places to put such huge bouquets.
Our next port was Huahine which ended up being one of my favorite. We did Marc's Motu Picnic, and if you only do one excursion NOT through the ship, make it this one! We got to go on tour with Marc himself which was a lot of fun. He took us to Marae's (ancient restored archeological sites), a vanilla plantation (which was just a few tables set up at someone's house) and to feed the blue-eyed eels which unfortunately had just been fed by tons of other tour groups so were not hungry at all by the time we got there. But we still had a great time. The tour ends up on a motu which was probably the prettiest place we saw in all of Polynesia. The water was crystal blue and so inviting. It was surprisingly salty though so expect that! He quickly takes anyone interested to a place to snorkel, but if you are going to be snorkeling anywhere else in the islands, my recommendation would be to just spend the time swimming at the picnic site instead since the coral spot was not that spectacular and you have to jump off the boat. The entertainment was fun and the food was amazing and delicious. I would highly recommend this tour. We had a sea day and then arrived at Rangiroa. We had booked a glass bottom boat tour and then a snorkel tour through the ship. Both were expensive and went to the same site. I would not recommend the glass bottom boat tour. We went to one spot and stayed there the whole time. The fish were plentiful but the view did not change. Then some of the tour guides jump into the water to spear beautiful parrotfish to lure the sharks. It was so awful seeing these amazing fish killed in front of our eyes. A few sharks did come which the guides catch with their hands and haul out of the water for the tourist to see. It may have been impressive but the poor sharks looked miserable. None of the guides seemed to have much respect for the ocean life from which they make their living! The snorkeling was SO much better. We were taken to the same spot but let around the reef so we got to see it all! We saw giant eels, clams, sharks and every kind of fish you could imagine. Our guide would even take our cameras to swim down and take up close pictures of the sharks and eels! This was some of the best snorkeling I have ever done in my life. The tour was incredible and I highly recommend it. This was also one of my favorite ports to shop. The locals set up stands that had a huge variety of things to buy. After the tour and shopping we walked straight back to the opposite side of the atoll which was only a short walk and took us straight to the Tiputa Pass. We got to stand right next to it and witness dolphins leaping, spinning and twisting right in front of us. It was magical and I recommend doing this as well.
After another sea day we arrived in Raitea which was one of the more disappointing of the ports. The snorkeling we booked through the ship was canceled last minute and with no alternatives provided we left the ship to attempt to find one. This is one of the best ports to be stranded though because there is a building which fills up with tour operators about 8a.m. so you have many options. We booked one that took us up the Faaroa River. The river itself was absolutely amazingly beautiful. It was like being in the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland but real (and without the elephants!) The ride over and back to it you get soaked on the boat though. After that we were taken to a motu with some pens with a turtle, sharks and ray. The pens were tiny and the animals looked miserable. It was so sad. Next they took us to a very average motu to snorkel. The sand was infested with ants and the snorkeling was just average. Next time I would book an all day adventure to go further up the river. Perhaps by the kayak option that was provided. All the huts set up to shop in basically sold the same shell type jewelry, but we found a few fun pieces to add to our collection. It was Sunday so the rest of the city was closed.
Next up was Bora Bora, the most beautiful place on Earth. Our ship was docked there overnight so we booked an overwater bungalow at Le Meridian Bora Bora. We got off the ship and headed right over. On our way over we received a call from the hotel saying a movie production had reserved most the rooms and to make a long story short, they had given our room away. They instead offered us a room at their luxury line hotel called Bora Bora Nui. Without knowing anything about the hotel we were on our way. It was Paradise. The huts were HUGE with a walk in rain shower, and the toilet room even had a bidet! The decks alone were the size of our cruise room and had privacy walls and a dock you could jump off into the crystal blue water. The room had glass bottom panels and there was so much coral that there were thousands of fish! And because they were used to being fed, when we snorkeled they followed us everywhere! The time passed way too quickly. It's very expensive but consider doing this. It was the absolute highlight of the whole trip and the complete Polynesian experience. It also came at the perfect time in the trip when we were getting a little tired of ship life and ship food. It was hard to leave.
Our last port was Moorea which we had high hopes for after reading the reviews. We booked an ATV adventure on our own which was a lot of fun to start the day. We saw a lot of pretty view points but driving an ATV was a lot harder than I expected especially on the terrain we were on! I felt like my arms and hands were very sore and always like I was going to crash. After we were done we headed to the Intercontinental hotel where we had booked the underwater helmet walk excursion on our own. Unfortunately Princess made the last tender back at 4 which was way earlier than we expected so we had no time to do the tour! The staff recommended a visit to the Tiki Village which we did and which was just okay considering everything else we could have done. It's very authentic but there isn't much to do. The show was a lot of fun and the cheeseburger and fries we ate were among the best I've ever had, although I ended up giving most to an adorable little black which was wandering around by our feet looking very hungry. They also take you out in a canoe to see they oysters they are harvesting and tell you a little about how to select pearls which was interesting. The receptionist had said there was snorkeling and swimming available but the water seemed very dirty and was lacking coral so we didn't step foot in it. A lot of people loved Moorea but I felt like we didn't really get a chance to see or explore it. Next time I'd consider just renting a car or doing a water excursion. Don't rent a scooter, the roads are a little scary at times.
We ended up at Papeete which is where we started. We had to be out of our rooms at 8, so we had breakfast and found a quiet lounge to play games in until 1p.m. when we had decided to get off the ship. The dining rooms were packed but all the lounges were open and almost empty so there is lots of room to hang around. How we spend our last day was perfect and I would highly recommend it to everyone. We contacted Carl's Taxi service in Papeete. He also operates in Moorea. For 15000 francs, he took us on a private tour of the island for 4 hours in an air conditioned van. It was the perfect way to end our vacation. He showed us the blowhole, lighthouse, black sand beaches, historical places and the most amazing waterfall I have ever seen. He speaks perfect English and French and is absolutely delightful and wonderful. The best part is that since it's a private tour you can linger any place you want. By our request he dropped us off at the airport 5 hours before our flight.
The airport is outside and very hot though it is covered. We stood in line for 2 hours until the counter opened and were able to switch seats to get the bulkhead seats which were so much nicer than the regular seats! We had a delicious turkey sandwich there on french bread which I recommend. They also have a last minute duty free shop and large chairs to lounge in while waiting for your flight. Overall the trip was perfect. We normally are the type to stay up late, but like the rest of the ship tended to wake up very early and go to bed very early instead. This is really one of the most beautiful places to experience and I loved getting to see so many islands. I'd love to spend more time in the overwater bungalows in Bora Bora. Away from the tourist places however, there is lots of poverty which took me aback. The stray dog population is a huge problem as the poor creatures just look miserable and are ignored by the population as a whole. The most touching moment for me was seeing the cruise staff feeding them scraps and giving them water.
I'm really not sure if I would do the cruise again but I enjoyed every second of it this time around. I know there are a lot of rumors about the fate of the Tahitian Princess. From my understanding it will be renamed the "Ocean Princess" at the end of this year, but will probably continuing sailing in Tahiti. I hope this helped and I know you will enjoy your cruise! Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions.