I ADORE reading cruise ship reviews before I go on vacation, and the more detailed the better. I eagerly hunt down old and new passenger reviews and devour them, as well as the array of cruise guides, while anticipating my upcoming trip. So, for those of you who are like me, I hope you find this useful...
First off, my expectations for this cruise were huge and I looked forward to it with great anticipation for many months. All my hopes and dreams were realized, and then some!
Embarkation: Arrived at 3:30 p.m. in Papeete from Moorea (we stayed at the Moorea Hilton for three days) on Aramiti ferry. As we sailed into the harbour, we saw the lovely Paul Gauguin, anchored in the downtown area. The public areas around the port seem to have been improved since our last visit ten years ago. The Aramiti ferry docked right next to the PG, but a transfer (van) met us and loaded up our luggage to drive the thirty seconds to where the ship was docked.
The day before, while staying at the Hilton Moorea, we saw the ship anchored in adjacent Opunohu Bay, which was cool, and we kayaked near her, looking forward to boarding her the next day.
Completed a short health questionnaire ("Are you or your travelling companions ill?"), and strolled over to where several of Les Gauguines were singing. Were handed chilled towels and a tiare flower, posed for a quick pic and were whisked on board. No waiting, no line ups. How lovely! How civilized! We were taken to the Grand Salon and nobody was there - we had our pictures taken for security and were handed our cabin key cards within two minutes. A crew member gave us glasses of icy champagne and escorted us to our cabin - C750. A perfect location! Located right at the stairs/elevators but never noisy. One deck below the pool deck and La Palette, one deck above La Veranda and two decks above L'Etoile. Getting round this ship is so easy and quick!! It took us mere seconds to get from Point A to Point B...unlike the mega ships that require deck map consultation, a planned route, along with an alternate secondary route, and then ten minutes later (if you're lucky) you're there. No line ups - ever, anywhere. No waiting for elevators. No hassles. All in all, twenty minutes tops from the time we were standing on the ferry, until we were sitting on our cabin on the PG - amazing!
Our cabin was very nice, although it seemed a little on the small side. Although I knew exactly what to expect size-wise, it just felt a little tight. But it was perfectly adequate. Thrilled and very happy that we received an upgrade to a balcony stateroom! It was really nice to enjoy the outdoors from our cabin, while in port and while sailing. Two closets, each with hanging room and shelves. Four drawers (3 small and 1 larger) outside of the bathroom as you enter (under our Tiki statue). Ladies beware of the drawers - they stick (two freshly manicured fingernails were torn off within the first five minutes of being in our cabin). The sitting area has a very small love-seat which can accommodate two small people sitting side-by-side. There was a built-in console area for the refrigerator, bar area and some shallow cabinets. Fresh fruit and a bud vase with an orchid. There is a small vanity area between the two closets with several small drawers, separating the bed from the bathroom. The bathroom was fine - nice to have a tub instead of just a shower stall. The curtain seemed very flimsy and did not reach the full width of the tub, but it did a fine job of preventing any floods. Storage room in the bathroom was ample - cupboards under the sink, as well as small mirrored "medicine chests" above. The toiletries are L'Occitane (shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion) and although the soap was nice, I didn't use the other products.
If you can afford a balcony, go for it. This area of the world, of all places, must be appreciated from the outdoors as much as possible.
There is an electrical outlet at the vanity (and hairdryer) and one on the floor by the fridge cabinet, which I discovered late in the cruise. It's a good idea to bring a power bar or extension cord if you have camera batteries, ipod charger/speakers, etc. The electrical outlet in the bathroom is for razors only.
Our luggage - all 4 bags and 190 lbs of it (not including our two carry-ons and camera bag - really, I must learn how to pack lighter!) arrived within ten minutes, and all of the cases fit easily underneath the bed. I requested additional hangers which were delivered promptly.
Nice duvet and sheets. Pillows left a lot to be desired - the foam were very hard and the feather were extremely thin and provided no support at all. I requested different pillows several times and got them (as well as an extra blanket, because my husband likes air conditioning to feel like a meat locker), but frankly we were never satisfied with the pillows.
The fridge was stocked with assorted pop, water and canned beer. We didn't see our room stewardess for about a day and a half (just kept missing each other), but I left a note for her asking for our preferred beverages. I'd heard from numerous people that the room stewardess asks your liquor preferences, for a one-time bar set up in the cabin (I think two bottles of your choice are provided) but that did not happen to us. No big deal...the drinks are poured freely everywhere.
The small round table in front of the love seat can be moved, to make a bit more room (I didn't realize this until late in the cruise; thought it was anchored to the floor).
One of the only things I could complain about was the noise level of our air conditioning. It seemed quite loud (even when turned to a reasonable temperature). It kept me awake at night.
We tried out La Veranda for our first night's dinner and had no trouble getting reservations. A nice selection of appetizers, choice of two soups, and half a dozen entrees were offered, along with a dessert selection. The menu really appealed to my husband (the carnivore) - he ordered escargots as an appetizer and sea scallops. I (the vegetarian) enjoyed a goat cheese/mesclun salad, excellent mushroom soup and a parmesan/mushroom risotto. I'd read rave reviews for the Tahitian Vanilla Crème Brulee; my husband liked it but I wasn't as enamoured (a wee bit too thick and eggy). Service was amazing - fast, efficient and everyone worked like a well-oiled machine. That first night, we almost found it too fast. I'm certainly not complaining, but it seemed that the courses were just a tad rushed. However, I'd much rather that, than waiting for an eternity between courses, which can be the case on many ships.
I'm not much of an alcohol drinker but there were lots of nice selections which were tempting. I especially liked the Strawberry Daiquiris and Brown Cows.
That evening we sat in La Palette - a great little bar on Deck 8 at the stern of the ship, and the ship's band Siglo played, while it teemed rain. Siglo were terrific! I'd heard that they were good, and we were certainly impressed, especially considering some of the cheesy performers we've seen/heard on other cruises. These four guys have a wide repertoire - Clapton to Rod Stewart to Pink Floyd (they've mastered one song), along with 60's stuff, and some cabaret-type show numbers. Oddly, they were stumped when I requested an Elton song, but they gamely picked their way through Your Song.
All of the guests seemed very friendly. During our first afternoon and evening aboard people were approaching us and introducing themselves, and it's very easy to strike up conversations. We think there were approximately 280 people on board (and staff of 212). There is a friendly, casual vibe that I presume one finds on smaller ships like this, but which I've never experienced, having been on ships that held 680 - 2,000+ passengers). On this ship you really do see the same people again and again, and it's nice!
Itinerary: I should mention that our 11-night Cook Islands/Society Islands itinerary was significantly changed due to two cyclones - one that hit just before we arrived (Cyclone Oli) and one that was heading towards the Cook Islands less than a week later (Cyclone Pat). On day two of the cruise the Captain called a meeting and announced that he had to avoid the Cook Islands (Aitutaki and Rarotonga) which were south west and would head, instead, to the Tuamotus (north east) - the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. Weather-wise this turned out to be the right decision, as the Cook Islands were hit hard by the storm and there was lots of destruction. We couldn't get to Taha'a (private motu) because it had been badly damaged. Instead we went to Raiatea (had been there before, but it was nice). Also cancelled was the private beach day the Bora Bora motu - disappointing. The vast majority of passengers were understanding - the Captain can't control the weather! However...there are always a few, aren't there?! One woman complained at the meeting that since she'd had to purchase cancellation insurance, then surely the cruise line should have to do the same, to compensate guests when there is a change in itinerary. She was obviously dreaming in technicolour. She whined about how she'd already seen the Society Islands, and was looking forward to the Cook Islands. We were in exactly the same boat (pardon the pun) but how is a cruise line supposed to insure itself against weather?? A cyclone was heading for the Aitutaki and Rarotonga! God, be thankful that you're on this amazing vacation, and enjoy yourself!
Service: We've been on a dozen cruises - all "mainstream" including Celebrity, Oceania, Princess, Renaissance, NCL, Carnival, etc. We were blown away by the service on the Paul Gauguin. It was fabulous. All the crew and staff were extremely attentive and friendly - always smiling (and it seemed very genuine). I can't adequately express how nice it was to not be "nickled and dimed" for all of our beverages, and not have to sign for anything. It was wonderful to constantly have our glasses refilled (as soon as my husband's wine glass was at the ½ or 1/3 level, it was refilled), and very rarely did we actually have to ask. The staff really seem to anticipate your wants/needs. In all of the bars we would walk in and one (or two!) waiters would ask what we wanted to drink. The beverage list was very extensive and great quality drinks were served. Pool bar staff were very attentive, often coming around offering cold bottled water, and the drinks of the day. And again, no line ups!! I'd place my drink order at the pool bar, and invariably would be told to sit down, and it arrived moments later, always with a smile.
I have never experienced service (hotel or cruise) like that of the Paul Gauguin. I thought we'd been to some pretty nice places, but this was par excellence. Every single request and inquiry met with a very prompt and courteous response and action. And it was like that 100% of the time - all the crew were consistently good and very friendly.
We developed a leak in our cabin's ceiling (water was coming down the walls in two places). I called reception and the head of housekeeping was there in like 45 seconds, apologizing, and offering to move us to another cabin if the problem could not be fixed. They were able to repair the issue by the next day, and champagne and chocolate covered strawberries showed up with a nice note. There were follow up calls from the Guest Relations Manager and inquiries to our well-being. That's how it should be, but often you wouldn't get that kind of prompt and personal attention.
Tendering is a breeze on this ship - we tendered in every port, except for one. There is no nonsense like having to get tender tickets ahead of time and corralling in public rooms, to wait your turn. You just show up at the tender door and away you go. Most of the tenders have an open-air upper deck, which is nice.
Ship: I'd read that the ship is low-key in terms of dEcor, and that's true. It's actually very plain and even austere in some areas. But that's just an observation, not a criticism. (I don't need Carnival glitz oozing around me.) In the South Pacific you are constantly surrounded by unparalleled beauty, so perhaps the ship was designed so as to not compete with Mother Nature - smart plan. The historical sketches and paintings throughout the ship were very interesting and added to the Polynesian flavour.
The pool area is nice with lots of loungers. Very few shady spots however. I adore the sun and want to soak it up as much as possible, but it was incredibly intense, and there are times you absolutely have to take a break from it. People who wanted to stay out of the sun often clustered around the small bar (always closed on our cruise) on Deck 9, but space was a premium. There is a small shady area beside the pool bar on Deck 8, but again, space is limited. The small salt-water pool is re-filled nightly. No hot tubs, but you definitely don't want them in the South Pacific!
The "library" is merely a small collection of book shelves along one of the hallways, and the selection was dismal. Don't expect to find good reading materials there - bring your own. There are a few board games (Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary) and cards. We didn't go to the teeny-tiny casino.
The boutique is quite nice - lovely black pearl jewellery, but not much in the way of clothing (PG t-shirts and Hinano brand stuff - the local beer), and reef shoes and crocs. Some of the usual kitschy stuff - shot glasses, bottle openers, place mats, soaps, sweets, cookies, etc. Only a limited selection of postcards. Although I didn't purchase anything there in the way of toiletries (just suntan lotion), their selection was quite small. Bring what you need.
I used the spa once and it was a nice, relaxing spot. Manuela (Spa Manager) gave me a great manicure and pedicure. Not inexpensive, but on a par with what you'd pay on all ships.
Food: Food quality and selection was fabulous - really great. I was very impressed with the selection at the breakfast and lunch buffets (La Veranda and Le Grill), and we enjoyed all of our dinners. Afternoon Tea (served in La Palette) was lovely, with finger sandwiches, a selection of desserts, and of course, warm scones with cream and jams.
Dined in La Veranda three times and really enjoyed it. All other dinners in L'Etoile - very nice but a larger venue, and a little noisier due to that. Never dined at Le Grill for dinner.
We had room service once for lunch and twice for breakfast - always quick, on-time and everything was there (on many other cruises, it's a crap shoot as to whether you receive everything that you order, quite often you don't).
One suggestion - it would be nice to be able to review the restaurants' daily menus on the TV
Guest Lecturers & Entertainment: Mark Eddowes is an excellent lecturer who is an archaeologist / anthropologist from New Zealand. I'd read reviews about him from past cruise passengers and he was riveting. This man is a font of knowledge and he exudes passion for his life's work. Do not miss his lectures, especially the one about the Mutiny on the Bounty and what happened on Pit Cairn Island in the aftermath. We attended three of his lectures and went on a tour with him in Moorea.
Marine Biologist Bobbi was very knowledgeable and gave some good lectures on marine life, island flora and fauna, and the geophysical creation of the islands.
The eight Gauguines were beautiful, talented and entertaining - great dancers. They provided some interesting lectures and hands-on activities (i.e. making bracelets, weaving baskets, discussions about traditional Polynesian life).
The pianist on board was Salvatore Pumo - not our cup of tea. A typical cruise lounge act who seemed to be quite dated in terms of his repertoire and was cheesy. But I'm sure there were people on board (older) who enjoyed his musical tinklings.
The Krew Kapers - the talent show put on by the crew was entertaining and they obviously work really hard at it, which is a challenge considering their hours.
Weather: In total we had three days of rain (and some rain at night, which didn't matter) and felt lucky, as the previous 10-day cruise had constant rain, and the ship was literally stuck in a lagoon for three days due to the cyclone, and everyone (passengers and crew) were really ill.
The heat and sun were unbelievable. During this time of year you can't lay out in it for more than 5 or 10 minutes, or you feel like your skin may ignite (but I'm not complaining). And the humidity was extreme. The locals were complaining about the heat and humidity - it was too much for them! I only vacation in tropical places, and never use anything more than an 8 or 15 SPF (max). But here you need more protection. You can burn even when it's overcast, so be careful. I reveled in the heat and thought about the long cold winters at home, but was really sweaty most of the time!
Islands and Excursions:
Huahine - Took Le Truck shuttle into town and walked to a local beach (quite rocky with coral, and a strong current).
Raiatea - Docked here and walked around town, and along the waterfront. Beautiful sunny and breezy day. Saw huge eels in some of the canals running by the main streets. Had done a tour of the maraes (temples) on this island on our first visit here ten years ago. Interestingly we saw the Tu Moana and the Tia Moana - 2 small yacht type cruise ships, anchored next to our ship. They hold 60 passengers each. I'd actually looked into them last year, and they were horrendously expensive. We found out that they were both up for sale and most of the crew was long gone! A mere $25 M each!
Rangiroa & Fakarava (Tuamotus) - Rangiroa and Fakarava were at one time volcanic islands, but they have long since sunk into the ocean. All that remains are huge lagoons, surrounding by thin, coral rings. Not much to see on land, and the snorkeling off the beach was disappointing (we should have scheduled a tour). It was nice to be on deck, at the bow, when entering the lagoons, and we saw a number of dolphins.
Rangiroa - We snorkeled at a local beach (walked from the pier). I had snorkeling equipment from the ship, and while walking back to the tender, I got the snorkeling net bag caught on some barbed wire. Try as I might, I was unable to get the bag untangled from the barbed wire and had to leave it behind. I retrieved the mask, snorkel and fins, and rushed to make the tender. When I went to the ship's marina to confess my loss, I was told not to worry and that accidents happen. He was very pleasant. He misunderstood me, and thought that I'd left all of the equipment behind, and yet he didn't ask me to reimburse them (most ships would have made up a bill for me to sign). When I gave him the equipment, and told him that I'd only sacrificed the net bag, he just laughed and told me that it was no problem whatsoever. We snorkeled off a local beach but the water quality and marine life wasn't good. Plan an organized tour if you go to the Tuamotus.
Fakarava - The ship's staff and crew attempted to provide us with an experience comparable to the private motu days (which had been cancelled for Taha'a and in Bora Bora, due to cyclone damage), and organized a beach picnic. Le Truck bussed us to a beach about 20 minutes away (you could also go directly there by tender) and local foods were cooked in a traditional earth oven. Even though it poured rain much of the time, many of the guests seemed to enjoy this day. However, I did not enjoy it. It was crowded (pretty much all the passengers were there), and as a vegetarian, I had no interest in the huge, whole roasted pigs. It never fails to amaze me at outings such as this, that people go crazy for food!! We'd all been really well wined and dined for days, and yet as soon as people got off the tender or off the bus, they rushed to line up for the BBQ. You'd think they were starving contestants on Survivor, and it was Day 38. Geesh.
Bora Bora (2 days) - Did the Stingray Ballet and Coral Garden Snorkel and it was fabulous. The water colours in Bora Bora are absolutely unbelievable. Swam with beautiful, graceful stingrays in shallow water, along with black-tipped reef sharks (harmless). Our guide fed the rays and if you want, they will swim right up to (and on) you. Magic!
2.5 hours Le Truck tour of the island - this was okay, but I would recommend the 4 X 4 (with guide). Exhilarating, vertical off-road climbs up mountains and stunning vistas.
Moorea (2 days) - Excellent tour with anthropologist/archaeologist Mark Eddowes - "Trail of the Ancients". A short stop at an agricultural school, a visit to Belvedere Lookout (a must see, especially if it's a clear day) and a fabulous walk down a mountain through the rain forest, stopping at various maraes (temples), with Mark's excellent commentary along the way. The tour ends as we walk out of the forest and into a pineapple plantation, and have a stunning view of Mr. Rotui (which sits between Opunohu and Cooks Bays).
Highly recommend Dr. Michael Poole's dolphin watching expedition (and whales, in season). He too is a fascinating and very knowledgeable person who has been doing marine research for well over two decades and knows the individual animals around Moorea. We did his tour tens years ago, and I wish we'd done it again this time.
On our last day on the ship, it was very rainy and our catamaran/snorkeling tour was cancelled, which was disappointing. Hung out on the ship, ate, drank, relaxed, packed (?), and prepared to leave paradise.
Sea Days (2) - Our days at sea were lovely, relaxing and a great time to unwind. Drink a little, eat a little, get some sun, snooze.
Disembarkation: We had to leave the ship very early (5:50 a.m.) for our 8:00 a.m. Air France flight to LA. Air Canada dinged for $150 in extra baggage weight on the return trip home. We tried to weigh our luggage on the ship, but the scale wasn't accurate. We were quite pleased with Air France in terms of food and service. However, the seating is really tight. Can't recall if Air Tahiti Nui was any better when we flew it ten years ago. Note to Canadians - Air Canada is worse than ever. What a miserable airline! They now have the gall to charge $3 for a pillow & blanket, not to mention their over-priced and crappy food.
Overall Impressions: My husband and I adored this cruise experience! I can't imagine returning to main-stream cruises. I've now spent 108 days on cruise ships, and have experienced 11 ships. The Paul Gauguin is wonderful and the perfect way to see the islands of French Polynesia. Service was unbelievable - I had high expectations which were exceeded, all of the time. Restaurants were fabulous. No lines ever, anywhere. Cozy yet spacious feel. Very friendly and attentive crew and staff. Felt very pampered and spoiled. Wish I were back on the ship!!! ~ sigh ~