The South Pacific has always been on our list of places we wanted to visit, so when Paul Gauguin offered a deal where the third person in the cabin sailed for free, we decided to go. Our teenage son accompanied us and had a wonderful time, too.
We live in Canada so we knew that the journey was going to be a long one and, with that in mind, we decided to go a day early and stay one night in Papeete, both to recover from the lack of sleep and in case we hit bad weather on our way out. The journey was absolutely seamless. We booked our own flights to LAX on Air Canada and were first in line to check in to Air Tahiti Nui. We upgraded to business class and were very glad that we did as the wider seats and extra leg room meant that we could actually get some sleep - a first for me.
Arrival in Tahiti at 5:30 a.m. is a bit of a shock to the system and getting through immigration took a very long time. We have both British and Canadian passports and I usually carry both but, for the first time ever, I had only brought my Canadian ones. This was a big mistake as the line for European passport holders was through in about five minutes, whereas the rest of us queued for a very sweaty half an hour.
Once outside and garlanded with flowers, we were whisked away to the Intercontinental, Papeete. Our room was not likely to be ready until 2:00 p.m. (in fact it was ready by 11:00) so we spent the morning, swimming, exploring, and kayaking. We were very impressed by the hotel: the staff were friendly and accommodating; the facilities were spotless; and the pool by the Lotus restaurant was stunning, so much so that we didn't realise it was a pool at first.
We dined at Le Lotus (the Intercontinental's upscale restaurant) and had a fabulous meal. We had four days booked at the Intercontinental Mo'orea post-cruise, so we were looking forward to a similar standard there (more about that to come).
Boarding the ship the next day was a breeze. The van pulled up to the dock gates. Our luggage was removed and we were given a cursory health questionnaire to complete. We were then driven to the gangplank and five minutes later, glasses of champagne in hand, were being led to our suite by our butler, Abner.
Having a teenager in tow, we had opted for a Grand Suite, the same level of cabin we had had on our only other cruise on Regent's Navigator. To be honest, it didn't match up, but we had known that in advance and therefore weren't particularly disappointed. What made the suite, however, was the huge, private sun deck, furnished with loungers as well as a table and chairs. We made a lot of use of this, particularly when sailing into the lagoons on the islands we visited. The service in the suite, both by Abner and our stewardess, Daisy, was exemplary. We only had to ask for something and it appeared minutes later. Our son's only complaint was that the TV was very small for the size of the room and, unlike Regent did not have 300+ pre-loaded films. If this might sound an odd worry in such a beautiful place where you would expect to be outside exploring, he likes to watch films in the evenings after dinner, rather than attend the entertainment that the ship offers. He solved this problem by making use of the extensive video library at reception
We mainly took our evening meals in L'Etoile and were very impressed by the standard of the food there. My husband still raves about the moon fish he had one night. We normally ended up in a section with Hernie or Junar as our waiters and they were wonderful. My husband is wheat intolerant and instead of bread eats rye crackers. He asked for them on the first night and after that whenever we appeared Hernie would come a few minutes later with the crackers. He even did this on the one occasion when we were not seated in his section. It's this attention to detail that makes Paul Gauguin so special.
Our first dinner was quite amusing as the plane from LAX carrying roughly a third of the passengers was two hours late causing them to miss dinner and for L'Etoile to be very empty indeed. The waiters had very little to do and so were up for conversation. At one point we had four waiters chatting to us. They were very taken with our son and Hernie said he had something to show us. We were a little puzzled as he disappeared and then reappeared bringing another member of staff over (a member of the bar staff we later learned) called Efren whom he thought could be our son's older brother (my son is half Chinese). The resemblance was striking and caused much amusement throughout the cruise.
Breakfast we usually took in either Le Grill or Le Veranda and we thought the variety of foods offered to be good but not as extensive as on Regent. I love to eat fish for breakfast and whereas there was always smoked salmon, herrings only appeared one morning.
We tried Le Grill and Le Veranda in the evening and although the meals were fine, we were not impressed enough to forsake L'Etoile for second visits. We felt rushed in Le Grill and found the suckling pig overly sweet for our taste. Our son, however, loved his surf and turf.
On some islands we did our own thing, but we used the excursion desk a few times, too. The staff were incredibly helpful, especially Pia and Vahine, and we enjoyed all the ship organised excursions we took. The highlight for us was a privately arranged tour with Patrick's firm in Bora Bora. Unfortunately and ironically Patrick was in Canada over Christmas, so we had Moretto as our guide. He certainly supplied some local colour, but was less forthcoming in terms of describing what was going on until we learned that if you asked him directly then he would describe things in more detail. The swimming with stingrays and the lunch on the private motu were very lovely.
We enjoyed the watersports offered on board and at Motu Mana. My husband likes to windsurf and was looking forward to doing this but sadly although the weather was beautiful for the cruise, the winds were never favourable.
We stayed at the Intercontinental Mo'orea and this was our least favourite part of the trip. The hotel has recently undergone renovations and the new pool area is quite lovely. On site is the sea turtle rescue centre and the Dolphinarium both of which were interesting. We had booked an overwater bungalow (a long held dream of my husband) and were looking forward to swimming and snorkeling off our own deck. This never happened. We were in bungalow 522 which faced out to sea rather than on to the lagoon. Even on sunny days, there was such a strong wind that it made the sea very rough. For two people the room would have been adequate but for three it was cramped. In the main living area there was a desk and chair, one armchair and a sofa which was attached to a wall. This was where our son slept and it was permanently made up as a bed making it difficult to use as a sofa. Normally, this would not have presented a problem as we do not spend much time in the room, but for the last two days we had terrible weather with driving rain and strong winds (our only bad weather on the trip, so I should not really complain) and by the end of the second day we were glad that we were leaving. We also found the bungalow quite damp and not as clean as it should have been. On our first day we noticed a stream of tiny ants on the bathroom counter. I mentioned this to reception who said that they would deal with it and that they came from the flowers used as decoration in the room. We asked them not to leave flowers artistically arranged on the counter and tables in future and they did not, but the ant problem never went away. I am happy to report that none of them made it home to Canada with us, not after I cleaned them out of my son's wash bag. They seemed to like Burt's Bees Lip Balm!
The restaurants at the Mo'orea Intercontinental were a huge disappointment especially when compared to those at its sister hotel in Papeete. The lunch time menu never varied and had no daily specials. The upscale restaurant for the evening was very mundane. We only ate there once, choosing to eat in local restaurants instead. Most restaurants will send a van or taxi to pick you up free of charge and we made full used of this arranging it through the concierge, Josianne, who was wonderfully helpful.
Aito, run by a Corsican, Jean-Baptiste, and his Tahitian wife was touted in our Lonely Planet guide book as the place to eat. Do not believe this. It may have been once upon a time, but now it is like something out of a Monty Python sketch. J-B sits at the front of the restaurant and greets guests. Once seated, absolutely nothing happened for nearly 45 minutes - no menus, no water, no offer of drinks, no interaction at all, in fact, with any member of staff. I finally managed to get the attention of a server and asked for a bottle of water. 20 minutes later it arrived. We were told that the board of specials was being used but would be brought to us. It never came. In the end, I managed to get the regular menu by going and asking the owner for it. After another twenty minutes we managed to order some wine. The owner came to open it and expressed surprise that we had wine as we had only just arrived. Smothering our giggles, we told him we would like to order and he called a server over (not one of the regular wait staff) by the woman who had been providing the live music. Since we were not the only customers on the brink of mutiny she had been press-ganged into service. We ordered the simplest meal we could - just one course each - as we couldn't bear to be there longer than necessary. It came. It was expensive but adequate. Witnessing the 30 minute wait that others were having to pay with credit cards, we paid cash and left as soon as we had eaten.
Le Mayflower where we ate twice was Aito's opposite: attentive staff, beautiful food. We would strongly recommend going there - the raviolis de langouste were tremendous.
We loved the Paul Gauguin. Would we go again - in a heartbeat.
Would we stay at the Intercontintal Mo'orea again - most definitely not. We would either stay at the Hilton or travel back to Ta'ha and stay there post-cruise.