SUMMARY---The Paul Gauguin was a bucket-list cruise for me. We were able to afford to go on this cruise because of the offers of 2-for-1 cruise fare (drinks and gratuities included, free air from Los Angeles, and $250 per person on board credit.
Air Tahiti Nui--Embarkation: Boarding the Air Tahiti Nui flight in Los Angeles went smoothly but we took off about an hour late because they were waiting for luggage from a delayed Air France flight. It was a wide-body plane but not a big one with 2X4X2 seating and no walk-through aisles except at front and back of the plane. Individual movie screens are on back of seat in front of you and you can choose from a wide variety of movies or music to watch--the down side is when the person in front of you leans back the screen is very close to your face. Dinner was served early with complimentary wine. They don't come around often so it was wise to bring our own water on board for the 8 hour flight.
Upon arrival and after passing through customs/immigration we boarded buses for the pier and boarded the Paul Gauguin. Our cabin was on deck 6--very basic cruise ship cabin with a small balcony but plenty of closet and drawer storage and a full tub in the bathroom. The mini bar is stocked with pop, water, beer, and mixers--they also leave a fruit basket and will refill if you wish. Even though it was after 9pm we headed straight for the dining room and joined a nice group of people for our first meal.
Despite the label "luxury cruise" the ship itself is pretty plain compared to other cruise lines we have traveled--the carpet was stained and worn in many places and not much in the way of art work or fancy decor. The PG was due for renovations late 2011/early 12 so that should help.
The best thing about an all-inclusive cruise, other than having drinks and gratuities included, is that you don't have to listen to the bar staff constantly trying to sell you drinks. There are also very few loud speaker announcements about upcoming activities--every cabin receives the daily schedule as on all cruises and it is up to you to take advantage of various activities. We have no complaints about drink service.
The fitness center is very small but not that busy. The pool is small as well. The upper decks are not that useful for lounging in the sun because they don't have the solid railings so it is very windy. There is a marina/water sports deck at the back of the ship with kayaks etc. for use in most ports--we did not take the time to try out those activities but others we met enjoyed them.
Other than the show theater where they have a show most nights and several lectures during the day--there is the piano bar, a pool bar during the day, and the nightclub open late on the back of the top deck. I don't know how late the nightclub stays open but I presume as long as there are passengers present. The piano player stops around 11pm but the music continues later in the nightclub.
Entertainment--We attended and enjoyed many of the educational lectures given by an archeologist, anthropologist, professors, and other seasoned travelers about the islands, cultures, and people. The nightly show varies between crew member performances (music/comedy), the Les Gauguines dancing (Polynesian women who also sing and dance other times around the ship), and local dance troupes (up on the pool deck some nights). Some passengers complain about the lack of entertainment variety but we happen to enjoy Polynesian singing and dancing--especially when touring beautiful French Polynesia.
Dining--We are from the Midwest so we do not require much in the way of fancy foods--we were more interested in seafood and they always had a seafood option on the menu. The house dry red wine was fine but I didn't care for their sparkling wine. Overall we had no complaints about the quality, quantity, or variety of foods offered--the breakfast buffet at Le Grill did not change but includes many options. The lunch buffet in La Veranda had a daily theme and included a wide variety of foods. I especially enjoyed the dessert table and that is a big part of why I gained 5 lbs. on our 11-night cruise. They served a smaller more grill-oriented buffet up in Le Grill. If you miss lunch due to a shore excursion they serve a limited menu in Le Grill mid-afternoon. For dinner we primarily ate in the main dining room (L'Etoile) where we could sit and visit with 4-6 other passengers. The other two dinner options required reservations and had changing menus. We dined by ourselves in Le Grill one evening and it was okay if you prefer solitude. One night they serve the same Polynesian menu in all three restaurants and no reservations were required. We only ordered room service twice and had no complaints. (My only complaint about dining service was on the last night of the cruise we asked for a pie listed on the room service dessert menu in the main dining room and were told it could only be ordered through room service. When we tried later we were told it was not available--so if you want the bourbon pecan pie get it from room service earlier in the cruise).
AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS---A "drop-dead gorgeous" atoll--A lagoon tour is a must--We booked with Teking on our own and snorkeled 3 wonderful places and stopped on 4 of the lovely motus with a Polynesian lunch on one of them. The down side was that the tour requires payment in New Zealand dollars, which we obtained in advance at home (not available on ship), but it took a long time for others on the tour who had to visit a bank to sort out what they owed (drinks not included) and we were afraid we would not make it back to the dock for the last tender back to the ship--though I doubt they would have left with 25-30 passengers missing. Also, a woman in our boat was bitten by a large fish and the guide did not have any type of first aid kit on board--she later got stitches from the ship's doctor.
TAHA'A, FRENCH POLYNESIA---The focus of this port is the ship's private "Motu Mahana", which is a small piece paradise and worth every minute. They only offered two ship tours and we booked the pearl farm tour with snorkeling. The pearl farm visit was very educational and afterwards we snorkeled in a shallow coral garden area between two motus following a guide both ways through a winding path. It was a bit challenging but we escaped without any scrapes.
After the tour we were dropped off at the private motu where most of the other passengers were already enjoying the lovely beach, making it challenging to find two available beach chairs. We enjoyed the buffet lunch as well as the drinks in large coconut shells. After lunch we went snorkeling and then lounged on the beach until 430pm. The bar is open all day and there are restrooms. There are also private vendors selling jewelry.
PAPEETE, TAHITI--The only sights we saw on this island were on the bus tour after disembarkation. We were not given time to wander around the area near the docks or nearby.
Disembarkation Day/Return Flight: In the morning they served breakfast as well as an early lunch and even opened the bar from 10am until noon. Passengers began disembarking the ship around noon. We opted for the bus tour to see some of the sights of Tahiti--it was fine but by the end we really wanted to be at the resort hotel and instead had to tour the home of author James Norman Hall. When we finally arrived at the Radision Plaza resort and received a room assignment it was after 4pm. We quickly changed and sat by the pool for an hour or less to watch our last sunset before showering and waiting for buses to the airport. (If you skip the tour and go to the resort you will not get a room until later but have longer to enjoy the pool or beach).
The airport experience was a nightmare, which we hope we due to the Air Tahiti strike that was a surprise to us when we boarded the bus for the airport. We waited in very long lines for nearly two hours not knowing if we were getting on a plane or not. After checking in--it took another 30 mins. to get through immigration and security leaving us with no time to hit the souvenir shop before boarding began--just bought water and pop for the flight. We flew back to LAX on an Air New Zealand wide-body plane that was actually more comfortable than the Air Tahiti flight outbound--though I could not watch the video screen because it was too close to my face with the passenger in front of me leaning back. They served a full dinner even though it was after 1230am Tahiti time and they also served breakfast before arrival. Immigration and customs in LAX involved another long wait but that is probably par for the course--luckily we had more than 3 hrs. before our flight home.