After a very comfortable flight at the pointy end of the plane from Los Angeles to Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui, we spent 3 nights in the Intercontinental Papeete in a Panorama room overlooking the sand bottomed swimming pool - We just could not justify the over $600 for an over-water bungalow as we were going on a cruise. This hotel was rated 4.5 - 5 stars. I would suggest after experiencing the hotel that some major work needs to be done on the resort, as it is very "tired" in appearance. Our room was in need of renovation and a few other people that we spoke to around the pool commented similarly. We ate breakfast in the hotel one day which was awful and extremely expensive at $50 a head! Our rating for this hotel = 3.5. Oh by the way, my wife was unhappy at having to pay over $50 in the spa for a nail varnish colour change, something that costs her at most $15 at home.
We ate dinner in the "gourmet" Le Lotus restaurant, we are foodies and were looking forward to this - This meal was a joke! Startlingly expensive for overly fussy, pretentious, reasonably presented but failed miserably to deliver in almost every aspect except the setting. My wife's meal was truly dreadful, mine slightly less dreadful - We didn't ask for dessert! You can dress up a dog to look good but in the end it is still a dog! The best food we had in Tahiti was in the Roulottes, downtown with a truly memorable introduction to Poisson Cru sampled at a simple food van followed by well prepared and very tasty Steak Frites! Other samplings were done during the trip but none came close to that one. The food at the Roulottes venue, whilst not cheap was certainly very affordable and enjoyable.
On to the main event - The MS Paul Gauguin - Our butler veranda stateroom was very nice indeed with a super comfortable bed. The cabin was meticulously maintained/serviced at least twice a day by Herlin (what an angel) every day. As far as the much vaunted butler service was concerned - I was disappointed with it, I have to say and suggest that it is not worth the extra expense. Room service would have been just as quick without the butler.
The ship as a whole had some minor internal cosmetic issues - watermarked carpets (first thing that you see when you board the ship), cabin fixtures were dinged and scraped, bathroom fixtures such as the sink, toilet, tiles were cracked and scraped. Overall though these deficiencies did not detract from our experience.
The service in the restaurants, bars and poolside was truly excellent with waiting staff remembering your names and drink preferences. The Maitre' d's in the restaurants, especially Ivan in the Veranda were truly excellent. Oscar on the pool deck was also excellent and attentive. Thomas, one of the sommeliers was so attentive that he was responsible for me breaking out into the premium wine list!
Overall the food was very good, although a little repetitive with menu items switching between restaurants as well as the whole menu changing halfway through the cruise. Shellfish menu items were very seldom seen. For dinner, the best food we found to be in Etoile with the Veranda providing nicely presented fare which didn't deliver on flavour (a bit pretentious). The Grill on the top deck we only visited once and were slightly disappointed. Room service was also excellent. The wine selection available throughout the cruise was very good.
Maybe it was just me, but the staff manning the reception and excursion/tour desk were very snooty, replete with an attitude that really aggravated me, giving me incorrect information on more than one occasion. They usually seemed to be "bothered" when fielding our questions! The ships officers were very friendly and accommodating.
One major point as far as I was concerned - I had completed the Paul Gauguin website form asking for what we wanted stocked in our stateroom bar, what pillows we wanted and if we were celebrating an event, such as anniversary, honeymoon etc (it was our 25th wedding anniversary) - Unfortunately, none of this information made its way to the ship. When commented on this to the Hotel Manager whose name escapes me (I am sorry whoever you are), he made up for it by placing a nice chilled bottle of champagne in our suite - thank you.
The Gauguine's were good to look at but their singing and entertainment became very repetitive with every song sounding pretty much the same. My wife felt that a few male, scantily dressed, Gauguine's would have been much better! :-)
I would suggest that if you are not into SCUBA that the Tuomotus should be left off your cruise itinerary as there is absolutely nothing to do on Rangiroa or Fakarava otherwise and we felt that these islands did not enrich our experience or warrant getting on or off the tender to shore.
There is also the stability issue of a shallow draft ship in open ocean - my wife was seasick on the two open ocean (as opposed to what I call inter island or just within the Society group of islands) nights. She could not eat for two nights because of this unfortunately - no ones fault! The rest of the time she was fine. In short, if you are prone to seasickness then suffice it to say that you will probably be seasick on this ship if it is on one of those long distance legs, eg., Tuamotus, Marquesas or Cook Islands. She was not the only one, by the way, as some 20 stateroom occupants were similarly afflicted as well as a significant number of the staff. I was told this on a couple of occasions by one or two of the staff in casual conversation.
We had opted for the Paul Gauguin organised transfer to a day room in the Radisson for 4 hours or so along with the final transfer to the airport. I was glad that I didn't have to spend any longer in this dingy hotel than that ($9 for a regular bottle of Tahitian water, come on...) - enough said!
To wrap up, we really enjoyed our time in French Polynesia and would visit again with a different itinerary - Moorea was our favourite island by a long way, we would stay in a resort there for four or so days. We would do the Paul Gauguin again but only on a 7 day cruise and only within one set of islands (because of the reason mentioned above), i.e., The Society islands. Our brief visit to Huahine was probably enough but enjoyable nonetheless. Bora Bora, whilst amazing to view from the ocean was disappointing in itself - The lagoon is impossibly beautiful with the ring of motus surrounding. I realise now why all the high end resorts are on these motus..... so that the lucky guests can view Bora Bora at its finest, from a distance! I have covered Rangiroa and Fakarava above (how its possible for people to live their lives on these tiny ribbons of land miles from anywhere is beyond me). Taha'a would have been nice to see, but we spent all our time at Paul Gauguin's private motu during a great day.
Oh, and make sure that you have lots of room on your credit card for your trip to French Polynesia!