Fourth of July adventure: Paul Gauguin Cruise Review by Skipper2
Overall Member Rating
Fourth of July adventure
Destination: South Pacific
Embarkation: Tahiti (Papeete)
EMBARKATION: We had booked our own air from DC to LAX, where we did an overnight near the airport. The airport hotels have set up a trolley service that runs to Manhattan Beach for a cost of $2/ea. If you're looking for a way to kill some time before you fly out. In theory it's great, but we experienced bus breakdowns on the outbound and an hour wait for the bus on the return. Still More cheaper than renting a cab. Alternately, you can take the Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica for 75 cents; longer route and somewhat rundown neighborhoods.
Our flight to Papeete was using Regent air - ATN 1pm flight out of LAX, which got us in around 6:30pm the day of departure. We were met at the ATN desk in LAX by a Regent rep who checked off our names. There is very little in the terminal after security in terms of food, so be forewarned. Most of the people on the plane were fellow cruise passengers. We were in coach and the seats got mighty uncomfortable after about 2-3 hours—very cramped, not good cushioning. Be prepared. Food was ok and wine was provided, plus people were in pretty good spirits which helped the flight! The movie system is very weird. You have to wait until the longest movie has finished playing until you can watch another one, and they are not on demand. There were no TV channels but there are games and music. Between that and a good book, you should be covered on the outbound. The return trip is another matter....
At the airport, we experienced a long, sweltering wait to get through Immigration. No AC, just fans. If there is any way you can maneuver yourself to be toward the front of this line, suggest doing so. They are very concerned about preventing H1N1 from entering the country. They give you a health questionnaire and use remote thermal scanning in the airport terminal to detect anyone with a fever. Bags were put out promptly and then we breezed through Customs (nothing to declare) and outside. There, RSSC was handing our flower leis and directing people to the buses. At that point our luggage was taken and we did not see it again until in our cabin.
The ship was beautiful in the Papeete harbor, all lit up. They directed us up to the Grand Salon where we completed a health questionnaire and had our pictures taken, and were issued our key cards. And given a glass of champagne. Then we were escorted to our rooms. Overall, the process was quick (5 minutes) and painless.
CABIN: We were in 738, a C category balcony room close to midship. The room, while not large, was clean and well laid out. For two people, it would have been considerably more comfortable. Three people created some logistical issues. First, there is good closet space for 2 people so we ended up storing DD's clothes in the hallway drawers. Bit tight but still doable. When the sofa bed is folded out, this blocks the balcony door—so if you're an early riser who likes to watch the sunrise, you will have to clamber over the sofa bed. The sofa bed itself, while narrow, was extremely comfortable. I found the main bed to be a bit too firm from what I'm used to, but linens were good, with feather comforter.
The in-room bar is stocked with beer, bottled water, and sodas. DH asked for Hinano beer instead of Heineken or Bud and the stewardess was happy to oblige. Despite knowing we could ask for bottles of spirits for the cabin, we found we really didn't want or need them since there are plenty of bars within easy reach and they were always generous with the wine at dinner.
Other useful things to know: There is a laundry line in the bathroom if you want to bring your own laundry soap. They also provide a sewing kit. The TV has limited channels; we mostly looked at the daily program and port summaries. The daily program includes the drink of the day, in case you want to try something different. (My favorite - Bora Bora Lagoon1) We made use of the DVD player in the evenings and on sea days. They have a pretty decent DVD library by Reception or you can bring your own. The furniture on the balcony appeared to be new and was in good condition.
SHIP: The ship has 3 restaurants, 3 bars, saltwater pool, spa, gift shop, and small casino. La Pallette reportedly gets hopping late at night! We did not make use of the spa or casino facilities. Check out snorkel equipment from the dive center early in the cruise; you will keep it for the duration of the trip and turn it back in before you leave.
We did not notice any issues with mustiness of carpets or condition of furniture as has been previously reported. This was likely resolved this past December during drydock.
Pet peeve: Despite the standing notice in the daily schedule telling people that anything left on chairs for more than 20 minutes would be picked up by the pool staff, there was a LOT of "chair saving" going on. Either that, or people would leave and not dispose of their used towel, so when other people came looking for a seat it was difficult to tell what was in use or not. Very tough to get a chair. This is something that needs more enforcement by pool staff so that everyone can enjoy. In hindsight, I wish I had commented about this on the comment card left early on, but it was early enough in that I had not really noticed it yet.
PASSENGERS: There was an interesting mix of people—different nationalities and ages. There were some Aussies, French, and Americans. A crew member told me there were fewer French passengers than on past sailings to Hiva Oa, as many people like to make a pilgrimage of sorts to Paul Gauguin's resting place. There were retirees and honeymooners, and people in between. There were only a handful of children on the ship (10) even though they had a kid's program and there was a 3rd person sails free promo, which surprised me. But it's a long trip out and back, so understandable. More on the kid's program follows in a minute.
FOOD: Overall, we found the quality and variety of the food to be excellent. Breakfast always has the usual suspects of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns, fresh fruit, pastries, smoked fish, cereal, oatmeal, and the like. You can order pancakes (plain, blueberry, or banana), waffles, or a made-to-order omelet. The fresh-squeezed orange juice was definitely so. They make all their pastries and bread in-house, fresh. Very good. Coffee was the only thing a bit bleh; I did ok with it anyway, and you can order an espresso or cappuchino in la Pallette. In La Veranda, you can order eggs benedict or lamb chops; however, we usually ate in Le Grill since we found the service to be better and enjoyed the views.
Lunch is a buffet arrangement, with standard items available (salad bar, cheese display, pasta station, fruits, desserts) and themed hot items that change daily. For example, one day we had an excellent seafood paella in Le Grill. They also had themes of Italian, Asian, Polynesian, and International. I loved the curries and stews. In L'Etoile, a good tip is that you can also order grilled fish each day. A note on the fish: when we did a tour of the galley, they told us they buy the fish fresh in Papeete each week, then freeze and use as they go. Varieties included moonfish, wahoo, and tuna.
For dinner, you have an option of L'Etoile, Le Grill, or La Veranda, with dining starting at 7pm. Canapes are served in Ls Pallette and the Piano Bar at 6:30pm. Fresh local fish is always on the menu, particularly wahoo and moonfish; they also serve tuna and occasionally marlin, and as a special menu item once served lobster tails (these are spiny Tahitian lobsters so be prepared for them to be small). Le Grill and La Veranda are reservations-only; however, our experience was that we could always get a table in Le Grill (particularly if we went when they opened); we ate there 4-5 times and La Veranda twice during our 12-night cruise. While the food in L'Etoile was good, we found it a bit loud and it takes about 90 minutes to get through dinner. Not an issue for most travelers, but we were with a 7-year-old (very patient, but tough to last after a long day—she actually fell asleep on the table waiting for dessert one night!). Much faster in Le Grill. You can also get a great steak there.
Service was always excellent for us in Le Grill. They remembered our drink and lunch preferences and always were there to carry a plate, push in a chair, see if everything was ok. Great staff. In L'Etoille, wine poured liberally and water glasses refilled promptly. There were very long pauses between courses. We witnessed the table of 6 next to us wait, wait, wait for someone just to take their order; they had been seated at the same time and we were getting our entrees when they could finally flag down a waiter. Polynesian night was very lovely; special menu, room decorated in special linens.
We ate twice for dinner in La Veranda, once on the 3rd night of the cruise with no complaints, then again on the last night. I do not know if the waiter was spread across too many tables or what, but we did not have a great experience and it was a bit of a disappointing way to end the cruise. Specifically, our water glasses were not refilled (we had to ask), plates were not cleared (the maitre 'd finally stepped in and cleared them himself), the waiter did not check in on us, and when DH asked for the cheese tray he had a plate plopped in front of him with no explanation whereas the table next to us had the selection wheeled out, explained, and served. We actually felt ignored, not something I would expect on any cruise line let along a luxury one. I wondered if they were short staffed or burnt out at the end of the cruise. The only other problem we had was also in La Veranda at breakfast with a problem getting an eggs benedict order, not sure it was a coincidence. However, this experience was the exception to the norm for us. That said, I had similar (positive) service on Island Princess.
KIDS PROGRAM: This is not your typical cruise ship kids program, where you drop your kid off for babysitting. The kid's program on PG is one of the things we liked the most about our experience. Run by the Ocean Futures Society, it's led by two naturalists who encourage families to participate in the activities together. Some things are just for the kids. There were a half dozen kids who participated; some teenagers were onboard but were doing their own thing. They taught kids about ecology and biodiversity, who different types of marine life are important for the health of the ocean. They taught about coral structure and used microscopes to look at how coral and algae interrelate. The kids learned about types of fish and taxonomy. They also learned about cultural importance of tattooing, made their own seed bracelets and died pareos, got a tour of the galley winding up with milk and cookies, and toured the bridge as we came into port at Bora Bora at sunset. There were also port activities, such as a bike ride on Rangiroa, hikes on Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa, bodysurfing at Nuka Hiva's black sand beach (which didn't materialize due to high tide, but we still had fun), the sting ray safari in Bora Bora, and snorkeling in Moorea. The latter included another sting ray encounter and "diving for sunken tikis" - done off the "beacher boat" so be prepared to be hoisted back on! The water is much deeper here than in Bora Bora and they mostly circle underneath you, so if you want a really close encounter make sure to do the Bora Bora trip (the cost of which—for kids—is part of the cost of the kids' program so that's half the expense right there!). At the conclusion of the program, they give you a CD with pictures. The counselors, Bobbie and Jenn, were fabulous and great with the kids. They also led the shipwide enrichment lectures (topics included reefs, sharks, fishes, corals).
Rangiroa: We arrived at noon on Day 2, departing at noon on Day 3. Be up on deck 9 for the entry through the pass, as this is a good time to look for dolphins, This huge atoll is jam packed with marine life. We took the glass-bottom boat ride our first afternoon. They throw chunks of bread to attract fish, which swarm like piranhas. We saw all kinds of fish, a white tipped reef shark, and a free-swimming moray eel.
The next day, we decided to go exploring and take the tender to the beach. Be forewarned, the beach is not right there as you get off the boat. You will have to walk about a mile or so to get there. We had no idea where we were going and ended up following others for part of the way, then cut over to the shoreline (some nice guy let us cut through his yard, we obviously looked pitiful and lost!) and followed it until we got to something that looked like public beach. Wonderful water, warm and clear. If you don't want to do this, if you go into town, there is not much there either. The attractions here are in the water.
Hiva Oa: After a 2-day sail, we arrived at Hiva Oa, a beautiful mountainous island rising out of the Pacific. This is most famous as resting place of Paul Gauguin. We took the ship's 4WD tour in the morning, which took us up to a huge, ancient marae and tiki. This required a bit of a climb through slippery rocks, but the guides were right there to assist people and there were no falls, amazingly. Bring mosquito repellent, they are not kidding about this! Lots of wild chickens, stray dogs everywhere. Check out the fern-like plants that grow by the roadside that curl up when you touch them!
In the afternoon, we met up with the kids and parents for body surfing at the black sand beach. Unfortunately, the tides were not cooperating and there was no beach, only rocks and surf, but the kids (being kids) still managed to have fun looking at fish in the tide pools and getting splashed by the surf spray.
Nuka Hiva: We were given a warm greeting at the dock by drummers and given flower leis. Shortly after the pier, there are several buildings housing local crafts including jewelry, carvings, and tapa cloth. It may seem expensive but after comparing quality and value to what we saw in the market in Papeete, I highly recommend doing your purchases here. It still requires some careful shopping but we wound up with some high quality carvings for a decent price.
We took a 4WD tour to Taipavai Valley—the place where Melville deserted his ship for several weeks and was the setting for Typee. Very dramatic, mountainous (and treacherous) road. You look off to one side of the valley and see the site of the ancient village along the river where houses still stand; to the other side is one of the "Survivor" camps! This valley is full of site after site of old ruins of marae, it's quite overwhelming to see one after another after another.
That evening, we had a special treat—they brought on a fantastic troupe of drummers and dancers. Marquesan dancing is unique and very aggressive and passionate. They gave a long performance including dancing of the famous "pig dance"—seeing this was one of the highlights of our trip. DO NOT MISS THIS if you have the same opportunity!
Bora Bora: The captain "gunned it" to do the crossing to Bora Bora. We were due in 2 days after leaving Nuka Hiva, but we did the trip in a day and a half—the fastest they'd ever done it. This got us in around 4:30pm the evening before. BONUS: The kids and parents had their bridge tour scheduled originally for 3pm, but the captain moved it up to coincide with arrival into port. Nothing better than seeing the view of Bora Bora at sunset from the bridge of the PG as we head into port! The early arrival allowed passengers to tender ashore for the evening to watch the singing and dancing at the Heiva festival which runs in July each year.
The next day, we did the Sting Ray Ballet and Snorkel Safari. The stingray feeding takes place in waist-high water; we did not actually feed them ourselves, the naturalist did so, since if you do it the wrong way you can get your fingers pinched. The sound of the boat is like a dinner bell to them, and they swarm around and "climb" you looking for fish. Everyone had a great time. Following the stingray feeding, they take you to the coral gardens for snorkeling. Lots of fish and colorful corals, but currents and waves were a bit strong while we were there.
In the afternoon, we took the tender to the Bora Bora motu for a few hours. The tender for this runs every hour, as opposed to every half-hour, so make sure to check the schedule and be down there a few minutes early. This is a lovely beach, lots of big palms. No chairs, so bring the beach towel provided in your cabin. They have a bar with limited supplies—beers, sodas, water, rum punch—and snacks (peanuts and chips). It's very relaxing to spend a few hours here with a book or just enjoying the view and water.
Taha'a Motu: Great day! There is a really good reason to be on the first tender out. There are lots of chairs but not many LOUNGE chairs. A waiter warned us about this and he was right. We were first on the tender but last ones off (the load off the steps, not the water landing ramp as on Bora Bora) so it's actually ok to be toward the back on the boat. We had to scramble to find loungers as it was. Another good tip from someone else in line: As you face the island, the right side of the island is the windward side and is subsequently cooler. The left side, while by the beach, is more crowded and hotter with less breeze.
The motu day is well organized, and it's a bit of a feat considering what they need to organize. There is a full bar, serving a range of drinks (option to have in a coconut!) or you can have a fresh-split coconut and drink the coconut water. The buffet included poisson cru, salads, burgers, hot dogs, grilled fish, fish kabobs, grilled chicken, baked potatoes, fruit, and desserts. There are kayaks available, volleyball, and snorkeling. Activities included crown-weaving, pareo dying, and a talk about vanilla farming and uses by the vanilla vendor. There are also crafts for sale, including the aforementioned vanilla and related products, I bought some nice pareos here, unlike the pareo I bought in Bora Bora that was beautiful but turned me blue! Suggest you check for colorfastness when you buy things before turning into a smurf like me. It was pretty funny, though.
Moorea: This island has absolutely beautiful scenery—gorgeous! We took part in the morning Dolphin & Whale Watch excursion with Dr. Poole. Though the tickets say this is not a swim-with-the-dolphins excursion, be sure to bring your swimsuit and snorkel gear. Fortunately we wore our swimsuits; others did not and regretted it. After much searching, we did not see a single dolphin. Disappointment but it happens, though rarely. Then suddenly he brought the boat to a halt—we had found the first whale of the season! It was a young humpback, who was quite curious about us and the boat. He circled the boat and dove right under it the boat. Dr. Poole instructed several of us how to enter the water quietly and he collected floating skin samples from the whale, which he uses in his research. The group was awed by this magnificent creature, which approached us repeatedly, lay on its side right next to the boat—just several feet away. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching a whale dive directly underneath you, becoming smaller smaller smaller in the depths. It was truly a lifetime experience we felt privileged to share. Through the kids' program, in the afternoon we did the afternoon stingray & tiki snorkel safari, then checked out the vendor booths just off the dock that had a nice variety of crafts.
After departing Moorea, we had a brief sail along the coast, enjoying a beautiful sunset while a selection of tapas were served on the pool deck, before arriving back into Papeete.
DISEMBARKATION: In sum, everything is great until you get to the airport. But if you want details, here's what I suggest you do. Have a light breakfast and get off the boat for a while—walk over to the Papeete market and check out the produce and crafts. I was reassured our woodcarving purchases from the Marquesas were MUCH better quality than anything sold here, and did not buy anything, but we did pick up some vanilla. If you have time before the cruise, there are some wonderful flower arrangements for minimal cost here. The market is very hot, so we ended up cutting it a bit short. After the market, you can return to the ship for a nice brunch before disembarking when your group is called.
We had opted for the 2 ½ hour bus and museum tour. It was fine, but I ended up regretting it. Should have gone straight to the hotel (Radisson) to relax before what was ahead. The hotel itself is wonderful, set on a black sand beach. Our dayroom was HUGE. Really wonderful, as was the pool. Unfortunately, we were so hot and tired after the tour that we just had energy to cool down and rest before dinner, so we did not get to enjoy either the beach or pool, a major shame. The restaurant has a nice view of the beach and is open-air with a large domed ceiling. But both the service and the price tags were a shock (the latter I expected, especially after being on the PG, but we had to wait nearly an hour for burgers). There was a huge crowd waiting for the buses. We ended up on the last one, with plenty of seats, but then of course were last in line at the airport. And what a line! Make sure to get a cart for your bags, otherwise it's an extra excruciating crawl. When we finally did get on the plane, someone passed out several rows back from us (probably from the heat) but we did eventually take off. Here's something else to be prepared for. The plane takes off at 11:30pm. They then keep all the main cabin lights on until they serve dinner several hours later. By the time you land—-even assuming you are able to sleep at all—-you will most likely feel like death warmed over. In sum, everything is great until the airport!
Our family had a great trip, and I would love to make the trek again eventually someday. For the price, however, I am not convinced we could not have an equivalent experience for slightly less money, even with extra expenses, on another cruise line—although the kids' club experience couldn't be replicated, which for us (at this point in our lives) was a major part of this trip. The small size of PG is terrific, however, so that's a tough trade off I might not want to make. We hope others who plan to sail PG will find information provided here useful. Less
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