Getting there and aboard
We let Princess do the transportation from Phoenix. They booked us on the later Air Tahiti Nui flight from LAX which left at 4:30 P.M., and with the two hour time zone difference, landed us in Papeete 8 1/2 hours later at 11:00 P.M. This small airline does a pretty good job with its passengers. The food in economy class was quite edible, and they, like all good Frenchmen, poured wine without charge. An efficient bus transfer and pretty rapid check in got us into our cabin just after midnight.
Tahitian Princess was one of the Renaissance ships number 1 through 7. When this cruise line folded after September 11, 2001, they were up for grabs. Oceania bought three, then Celebrity two others to form Azamara cruises. The Spanish company Pullmantur bought two, but sold them to Princess who renamed them Tahitian Princess and Island Princess. They are small, 32,227 grosstons, but neat, elegant and very conveniet to get around for the maximum 680 passenger capacity. We had sailed on Oceania's Insignia twice and Nautica once, so we were very familiar with it.
Our cabin was 7046. Decks 6 and 7 are mostly standard verandah cabins. Deck 8 is for mini-suites which are about 50% larger. Deck 4 has window cabins in addition to the passenger service desk and excursion booking desk, while 3 has 15 porthole cabins. Larger suites and a few inside cabins are scattered about. Deck 5 has the Cabaret Lounge, a low-tech showroom venue, forward and the main dining room aft with shops, a lounge and the small casino in between. Deck 9 has the spa and gym (with a private spa jacuzzi)forward, the pool area midships and the buffet aft. Deck 10 has a very nice lounge area forward with another dance floor and great viewing, a jogging track around the midships, and the lovely library found on all these ships, as well as the two specialty restaurats aft. There is a small open sun deck forward on Deck 11.
Where is Tahiti anyway?
French Polynesia consists of 5 island groups scattered over an area the size of Western Europe; that is, about 1300 miles east to west and 1100 miles north to south. Papeete is the capital and located on the island of Tahiti. It is about 4050 miles southwest of Los Angeles, 4640 miles due west of Peru, 2640 miles due south of Hawaii, 2480 miles northeast of New Zeeland, and 3870 miles slightly northeast of Sydney. In short, it is in the middle of a very, very big ocean. The actual land mass of all 118 island is small; 1544 square miles. The city of Los Angeles is 469 square miles by way of comparison. But then, all of French Polynesia only has a population of 280,000, 70% of whom live on Tahiti.
The 5 island groups include four which are volcanic uplift islands, much like Hawaii. These four are, the Society Islands which includes Tahiti, Bora Bora and most of the tourist spots; the Australs and the Gambier groups, south and east of Tahiti, and the Marquesas, about 875 miles north. The 5th group is the Tuamotu Archipelago, which are all atolls, coral reefs with small islands (motus) forming a central lagoon. The islands can have fairly high mountains, Mount Orohena on Tahiti is 7334 feet high; but the highest point on any atoll is about 10 feet.
The islands are definitely French. There is some local autonomy with a legislative body, but the people vote in French national elections, elect delegates to the French National Assembly, and are totally part of France when it comes to military affairs, the justice and court systems, education, tariffs and national taxes. French is the official language, spoken by all, but sunce the 1980's the teaching of Polynesian (Tahiti variety) has been taught in the schools and is used by many in addition to French. While nominal Polynesians comprise over 75% of the population, with Chinese and Vietnamese (brought here when that country was "Tonkin" French) about 12-13% and the rest French from France; the French attitude to relaxed integration makes the amalgem of races quite interesting. We were interested when we found out that two of our guides were a fairly young French girl and man who had come here from France in the past 12 years. The weather never varies much all year long, or during the day. It is much like Hawaii, always in the 70s or 80s with high humidity. Although we were supposed to be in the rainy season, we were affected by rain only once.
We got up the next day to find our luggage outside. We unpacked in a liesurely manner after breakfast and then in the afternoon took a ship's tour of Papeete and part of the island of Tahiti. We visited the museum home of James Normal Hall, one of the "Mutiny on the Bounty" authors, a lovely waterfall slightly inland and a few other sights. Our guide had moved to Tahiti from Los Angeles about 15 years ago to marry a local girl. I am not sure if she is French or Polynesian. He provided a good deal of useful information on the history and present days status of these islands. Traffic in Papeete can be quite bad. This tour was a worthwhile introduction to the islands.
This was our first stop. We anchored in a beautiful bay separating the two parts of the island, and tendered ashore. We took a local form of transportation called "Le Truck" which basically is a medium sized truck with covered wooden benches in the back. It provides transportation, and serves sometimes as a school bus all over the islands. For $5.00 we went about fifteen miles to a small local town where some of the group went to the beach, and we strolled around the residential area, admiring the school and the neat, well cared for small homes, all with open doorways framed with colorful drapes. The crime rate in French Polynesia is very low. The inhabitants are froendly and relaxed. There is not much of a tourist industry on Huahine; the population engaged mostly in agriculture and fishing.
After a sea day we arrived at Rangiroa, a huge atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago whose lagoon is about 20 miles across and 40 miles long. There are about 240 islands (motus) along with the reef as the atoll is 175 miles around. The main island where we visited is only about 500 yards wide, although it does have an airport. We came into the lagoon through a pass, accessible at the afternnon high tide, and anchored a few hundred yards off the lagoon side shore. This atoll is a divers' and snorkelers' paradise. I participated in the latter activity the next day. The water is warm and unbelievably clear, and the fish population large and varied. Edith did take a van provided by one of the dockside vendors to a Black Pearl Farm, which was mostly a store. This is really a spectacular place and well worth the trip away from the other islands.
After a second, and last sea day, we arrived at Raitea. Like most of the Society Islands, it is surrounded by a coral reef which protects it from the ocean. This particular reef also encloses another island called Tahaa. The lagoon however is deep enough to allow docking at a pier so we could walk ashore into the town of Uturoa, which is the second largest city in French Polynesis, but still pretty small since the whole island only has 12,000 people. Here I did ship's drift snorkeling excursion off Tahaa in a pass between two small motus in the coral reef. One of the motus is privately owned and occupied by a Relais Chateaux Hotel with rates starting about 1100 Euros per day. We were caught in a rainstorm returning to Uturoa, but arrived without incident. Edith visited a true pearl farming operation and a vanilla farm. Black Pearls and vanilla are French Polynesia's principal exports, but fall behind tourism which provides about 25% of the cash income.
Again we stayed overnight and sailed the next morning to Bora Bora arriving about noon. This is a very beautiful island, marked with two steep twin peaks. It was the "model" for Bali Hi in James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" and the subsequent play and movie. The U.S. Navy had occupied Bora Bora during WWII and built the airfield there. Bora Bora has a large lagoon with a number of fairly good sized motus as part of the reef. These are the sites for several five star hotels, along with one or two on the main island. They make this island the center of the high end tourist trade, and the town into which we tendered, Viatape, had some first class jewelry and artifact stores to cater to these hotel guests. We had arranged for a tour on the internet which took us the next day completely around the island in the lagoon, with stops to snorkel, feed some sting rays, and have an "island lunch" on a motu. This was a five hour excursion, and very delightful. We sailed for Moorea at5:00 P.M. arriving the next day.
Moorea is very close to Tahiti, about 10 miles at the closest point. We tendered ashor and selected a peirside vendor for a FWD tour of the interior. It was marked by a trip up a hill with a magnificent view of two bays, and a trip to the local high school of agriculture, with its large, productive farm. We also visited a Polynesian "temple" whci is essentially a small square formed by a stone wall about 30 inches high. There are many of them scattered around the islands. Our guide was Polynesian, but spoke English pretty well and was friendly and informative. The price was quite reasonable also compared to a ship's tour.
At 4:30 we sailed away to Tahiti, arriving at the pier in Papeete at 7:45. We skipped the entertainment that night to pack.
This was a unique experience. Our flight; which had many of our fellow passengers, did not leave until 11:30 P.M. So Princess provide space in one of the specialty restaurants to store our carry on bags, and allowed us to remain as guests on the ship all day, even though we had to vacate our cabin at 8:00. This allowed us to have a liesurely breakfast and the lunch at the buffet. It turn out we ate with a couple that had embarked earlier that day for the trip to Fort Lauderdale that would arrive on January 15. We actually got off in the morning to arrange for a FWD tour through the Tourist Office; which we boarded at 2:00 after lunch. We went deep into Tahiti, between the mountains into some beautiful valleys studded with waterfalls, along a river. Most of where we were was national park, but even the privately held land was untouched. Our guide was the young French man who had come to Tahiti about 10 years prior, and after he relaxed he was entertaining. There were six of us on the tour, including one couple from France. This was a very enjoyable trip. We got back to the ship in time for dinner in the buffet, and then picked up our carry on bags and went to the Cabaret Lounge at 7:30 to await transportation to the airport. When we got there we had to wait for a while before they opened the ticket counters. The check in was fairly easy, and the security a little more relaxed than in the US, even when it came to my steel hips. There was some wait of course until we boarded at 11:30; but we arrived at LAX on time and would have made our Phoenix connection easily; except for the fact that we we bounced from our flight and had to wait another three hours.
Entertainment on Board
There were four "Production" shows with two singers and six singer/dancers in the Cabaret Lounge, which provide a pretty close up view. For once the sound was well contriolled and enabled us to enjoy the music more than on many prior cruises. There was also a juggler comedian, a singer comedian, and a magician comedian; all reasonably okay. There was one folkloric show by natives from Riatea which was entertaining. There was a guest lecturer fro Moorea who was very informative and entertaining as well. He had moved with his father to N+Moorea when he was 10, in 1965.
Princess is pretty good in this department, although not quite up to Celebrity or Oceania, nor of course, Crystal. (Does anyone beat or even match Crystal?) The coffee is poor and the orange juice watered. The bakery department, headed by a young Swiss chef, was superb. There are two specialty restaurants, one Italian and one sort of a steak/chop house. They were open on alternate nights and had a $20.00 pp "cover charge". Reservations were suggested. This is in sharp contrast to Oceania, which has these restaurants open every night with no extra charge.
Service and care of the ship
Princess has always had a first class operation insofar as shipboard services and care of its ships are concerned, and Tahiti Princess was no exception but for the room temperature, which we felt was chilly and not subjet to thermostat control. The Master was always around the ship, often on the P.A. system, and of seemingly boundless enthusiasm for his job. That was a nice feeling. The cabin steward was quiet and efficient and our waiter, a young Italian, was very friendly, hardworking and generally efficient.
We missed having the daily satellite newspaper. We received satellite CNN (mostly poitical stuff), so I know of no technical reason why we could not have had a newspaper. We missed the string quartet or trio playing classical music. Even Carnival had this as do Celebrity, Oceania and Crystal.
We had only 620 passengers out of a possible 680, but a higher number of children than any cruise we could remember, even though these ships have no facilities for children, and there were no programs designed for them. There was one extended family group from Utah with 48 members, a number of them children and teen agers, but they were well behaved. In fact there were only two children who were annoying, running around the buffet area. We think the water activities available on the islands kept the children busy and happy. There were 28 nationalities among the passengers, so this was a cosmopolitan group, and also a fairly good number of young adult couples, some of whom were certainly honeymooners. All in all, it was as diverse as any cruise we have taken.
This was one of our more memorable cruises; attributable largely to the beauty and charm of the islands and the people. It is one we would want to repeat if we can locate one with a reasonable cost basis in the future.