We recently returned from 21 nights aboard Paul Gauguin, doing 7-nite Society Islands b2b with 14-nite Marquesas and Tuamotus. It was spectacular in every way. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul Gauguin provides an incomparable way to experience the magic and unique culture of French Polynesia.
ARRIVAL AND PRE-CRUISE
We bought a PG air/hotel package that included flights (LAX-Papeete), transfers and 2 nites at Intercontinental Tahiti with breakfast. Our Air Tahiti Nui flight was delayed by over an hour in departing LAX and arrived late into Papeete. Nevertheless, arrival formalities were handled smoothly and pleasantly. IC Tahiti is a beautiful property with perfectly manicured grounds, an enticing infinity pool, a man-made lagoonarium and gorgeous views over Moorea. We enjoyed hanging about the pools, going for a swim/snorkel and generally easing onto Island time. Next day, we transferred to Paul Gauguin, but not before enjoying a sumptuous seafood buffet lunch that was included as part of our PG package. I'm not sure how many people are aware that they are entitled to lunch on embarkation day, but do take advantage of it if you have a PG air/hotel package.
We were welcomed onto Paul Gauguin with champagne and smiles. Everyone we met seemed genuinely happy and eager to assist. Shortly after boarding, our processing was complete and we were escorted to our 4th floor stateroom for our initial 7-nite cruise. Our room was bright and airy with simple decoration. A large stone tiki stood guard in the entrance to remind us that we were in French Polynesia. The bathroom was well laid out with generous cabinet storage and L'Occitane toiletries. Our mattress was very comfortable and bed linens were in excellent condition but we did ask to swap pillows. We moved to a 7th floor balcony room for our next 14-nite cruise. The room was identical in every respect to our initial room, but it felt larger due to the floor-to-ceiling windows and balcony. There was excellent privacy between neighboring balconies and we enjoyed using it immensely.
We had high expectations for dining aboard Paul Gauguin and we were not disappointed. All dining venues were excellent.
L'Etoile is the main dining room and is open for dinner only. Menus were interesting with ample choice for appetizers, soups, salads and mains. Cheese selections were exceptional and desserts were always yummy. Complimentary wines were quite acceptable and poured generously.
La Veranda is a touch more elegant than L'Etoile for dinner. It is by reservation only and we ate there often. La Veranda features a 7-course tasting menu inspired by the Apicius chef, as well as several a la carte choices. Complimentary wines are different than in L'Etoile and are chosen to match each specific menu. Notable musts include Mushroom Risotto, Pink Peppercorn Crusted Duck Breast, Black Cod and Tahitian Vanilla Crème Brule.
Le Grill is the most casual dining spot for dinner and is by reservation only. It's essentially an outdoor restaurant since most of the tables are actually in a breezeway. It can get very hot during the day since there's no AC, just fans. It can also be quite windy when the ship is underway. Le Grill specializes in Asian/Fusion cuisine with a focus on seafood. There is usually a fresh catch of the day which is cooked a la minute and is simply outstanding. We especially enjoyed Poisson Cru, Thai Lemongrass Broth, Fijian Prawn Curry and several Grilled Catch of the Day.
Paul Gauguin also offers Polynesian Night once per cruise. A 6-course menu featuring Tahitian specialties was available in both L'Etoile and La Veranda, while Le Grill was closed that evening. Broiled Lobster, Shrimp and Scallops with Tahaa Vanilla Sauce was a real winner.
Breakfast was buffet in both La Veranda and Le Grill with the usual suspects available. There is also a small fixed menu in La Veranda while La Palette has continental breakfast. We alternated between La Veranda and Le Grill for breakfast on sea days and choose Room Service on port days. Our only complaint was the cold beverages were at room temperature no matter where we ate breakfast.
There was no Sunday brunch during our b2b, even though our cruise included Easter Sunday. This was a bit surprising, since other non-luxury cruise lines do make the effort to put on special Sunday breakfast/lunch.
Lunch was buffet in both La Veranda and Le Grill, with a selection of salads, deli, sandwiches, soup, pasta and a carving station. As well, there were hot items with a daily theme such as Greek, Pacific, Tahitian, World Curries and so on. Le Grill was open with a snack menu during mid to late afternoon.
Afternoon tea in La Palette was a big miss. Paper tea bags, coffee cups and self-serve buffet! Why bother?
We had an excellent line-up of regular and guest lecturers. Mark Eddowes, an archaeologist/anthropologist, was aboard for both cruises. His detailed presentations certainly added to our understanding of the peoples and cultures of French Polynesia. He is very interesting but has a tendency to be long-winded and repetitive. He seemed much more animated when leading treks than when giving lectures.
Bobbi Verdegaal is the on-board naturalist and she is simply outstanding. Her presentation style is engaging and thoughtful. I learned so much from her about the geology of the Islands and the formation of mountains, reefs and lagoons. Bobbi is also the go-to person for any questions about fish, coral or snorkeling.
Jon Bowermaster, a documentary film producer for National Geographic, was also with us. He screened several films about his travels in a sea kayak around the globe. A remarkable human being doing incredible work. Simply fascinating stuff.
There was also Arnaud de Sulle, a passionate student of Paul Gauguin, whose presentations gave interesting insights into the life and times of this legendary figure. He also was available for questions at the gravesites of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel when we visited Hiva Oa in Marquesas.
What can I say? These Tahitian hostesses are the heart and soul of Paul Gauguin and their presence was a constant reminder that we were not in Kansas anymore. They added a huge dimension to our cruise experience, whether performing on stage or offering insights on all things Polynesian through dance, song, traditional instruments and language. Their patience and grace knows no bounds! Don't miss the opportunity to get to know these gorgeous creatures and learn about their Polynesian culture.
Paul Gauguin relies heavily on its on-board staff for entertainment. We enjoyed performances by Cruise Director Michael, house band Siglo, pianist Sal and magician Devlin. Krew Kapers was a lot of fun and was worth it just to see the riveting performance by La Boutique Manager Emma. Les Gauguines were never far from the action and were always well received, whether on stage or when singing/dancing through the restaurants during dinner.
Local groups were brought on-board as evening entertainment at several ports, including Papeete, Moorea, Fakarava and Hiva Oa. Local children delighted us with their on-board shows at Raiatea and Tahaa, while local groups performed on-shore at Fakarava, Fatu Hiva and Huku Hiva. These performances were a wonderful addition to our cruise.
SHOPS ON BOARD
La Boutique is shopping central on Paul Gauguin. It has PG logo wear, Hinano branded stuff, pareos, monoi oil, vanilla, shell belts and purses, swimwear, flip flops, Polynesian shirts, sundresses and liquor. Prices are fair on some items and outrageous on others. Most stuff is not produced locally - in fact, labels mostly read Indonesia, Vietnam, China and USA. This is a huge oversight and PG really needs to source more local products.
Tahia Collins has a small boutique on-board. They presented a few seminars on black pearls and also hosted a fun Champagne and Pearls evening in the shop. They have some absolutely stunning pieces as well as some relatively inexpensive loose pearls.
The Photo Shop has a decent selection of digital cameras for sale. Oddly, none were waterproof but inventory may change over time.
We are independent travelers who usually arrange our own tours. However, we decided to avail of several PG shore excursions to use some of the generous OBC we had for both cruises. We didn't book any tours in advance and, with a single exception, were able to get what we wanted once on-board. For the most part, we were very happy with our choices.
Raiatea: PG Coral Gardens Drift Snorkel. Pleasant snorkeling between motus on the west coast of Tahaa. Moderate currents. Coral and fish were well below expectation. Average excursion.
Tahaa: Motu Mahana. Outstanding day on Paul Gauguin's private motu. Beautiful setting. Great BBQ, floating bar, wonderful activities hosted by Les Gauguines.
Tahaa: PG Exploration of Tahaa. Off-road adventure around entire Island. Visits to family-owned black pearl farm and vanilla plantation. Fun and informative. Superb excursion.
Bora Bora: 4x4 Safari with Lagoon Discovery and Motu Picnic with Maohi Nui. Mixed experience. Terrific off-road adventure with Patrick. So-so lagoon excursion with Moreto. Average food on motu. Decent but not outstanding snorkeling. Water activities rushed. An OK excursion but not a trip highlight.
Bora Bora: PG private beach. Paradise.
Bora Bora: Reef Discovery with Christophe. Best snorkeling of entire trip! Focused on less visited parts of lagoon. Spectacular coral and tropical fish. Enthusiastic and considerate guide who is a former dive instructor. Swanky boat with white leather seats! Outstanding excursion.
Moorea: PG Aito Off-Road Safari. Fantastic way to hit the key spots of Belvedere, Agricultural School, Juice Factory. Great orientation to the Island. Fun excursion.
Moorea: Day pass at Hilton Moorea. World class snorkeling.
Moorea: PG Dolphin Watching Expedition with Dr. Michael Poole. Educational tour with 95% hit rate in spotting spinner dolphins. Excellent commentary, albeit somewhat condescending in attitude. OK excursion.
Huahine: PG Sacred Sites and Legendary Places. Interesting tour through the royal village of Maeva and Matairea Hill led by archaeologist Paul Attolah. Fed the famous blue-eyed eels. Good excursion.
Papeete: Le Grand Marche. Rambled through this massive market. Good prices on pareos, monoi oil, vanilla, wood carvings and other items from many Islands. Well worth a visit.
Papeete: Les Roulettes. Great fun to eat at these mobile food vans on the waterfront. Carnival-type atmosphere. Fabulous crepes with Tahitian ice cream!
Fakarava: Missed out on PG Pinnacle Snorkeling. Best to book this in advance as boat capacity is only 12 pax. Found a lovely spot to snorkel on our own off the beach along the main road. Very good!
Fatu Hiva: PG Omoa Petroglyphs Walk. Easy walk but trails were muddy and rocks were slippery with the rain. Excellent guiding by archaeologist/anthropologist Mark Eddowes. Fantastic selection of rosewood carvings at artisan centre.
Hiva Oa: PG Atuona to Taaoa. Combo of 4x4 drive and walk to Upeke archaeological site. Guiding by Eddowes. Visits to gravesites of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel. Fabulous bone carvings and other crafts at artisan centre.
Ua Huka: With regret, missed Island due to high winds and strong currents.
Nuku Hiva: Heavy rains forced cancellation of PG Visit to Taipivai Valley. Took Le Truck on circle ride to Notre Dame Cathedral, Piki Vehine Pae Pae archaeological site and Rose Coulter Museum. Average selection of artisan products at higher prices.
After 21 nites, it was tough to say good-bye to Paul Gauguin. We really felt embraced by this happy little ship and its wonderful staff and crew. But sadly, the time had come.
Since we had a PG air package, we could remain on the ship until 12:30 pm before we were transferred to a day room at the Radisson. Passengers with independent arrangements were asked to be off the ship no later than 10:00 am. We vacated our room by 9:30 am and then hung out on the ship, taking last minutes pictures and generally feeling melancholy. Maybe it was the beginning of the PG flu. We lingered over lunch in La Veranda and then swiped our sea pass for the last time. We decided to take the optional tour en route to the Radisson. It included a visit to the Ron Norman Hall Museum, Venus Point Lighthouse and waterfalls on the east coast of the Island. We enjoyed the tour very much. We arrived at the Radisson about 3:00 pm and checked into an incredibly gorgeous suite overlooking a stunning black sand beach with views to Moorea. We had a quick snack, freshened up and then did nothing till it was time to board the transfer bus to the airport about 7:30 pm. This was the worst part of the whole trip, marked by crowds, line-ups and interminable waiting. Our Air Tahiti Nui flight departed on time and soon we landed at LAX with precious memories of a wonderful cruise. We would happily sail Paul Gauguin again.