Ever since enjoying "South Pacific" and "Mutiny on the Bounty", a trip to the south Pacific has been one of my strongest driving desires. Going on a cruise seemed to be the best approach since French Polynesia is as wildly expensive as almost everyone warns. That said, a ten day cruise on Princess line's Ocean Princess seemed to be the near perfect solution for us during January, 2012.
To me and many of the cruise mates, the OP may be the perfect size ship. At about 650 guests, it provided everything a larger ship does without the feeling that you are just a number in a large crowd. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that the large ships of Royal Caribbean seem to handle the large numbers very, very well and ship size would not stop me from sailing on a mega ship if I liked the itinerary).
Flying from the east coast to Papeete, Tahiti where the ship was docked was a bit of a challenge just because of the long hours in the air but Air Tahiti Nui does its best to make that leg enjoyable. The layout of the plane with two four two seating means that every traveling couple has an aisle seat that allows some plane movement during the 8.5 hour trip. Some people came a day or two early and that probably was the best approach as jet lag on a 14.5 hour trip can be threatening. This brings up the first problem for east coasters to tackle. A south pacific cruise will involve money and time that a Caribbean, Mexican or even European cruise will not. It is over 6500 miles from NJ to Tahiti and the air fare is consequently expensive. Staying a day or two in advance in Tahiti or Moorea (probably a better choice) adds a substantial expense so save up your money and be prepared to spend it to make the trip the most enjoyable. We choose to do all our flying in one day. The good side is that we went from the cold of winter to Tahiti in 20 hours. The worst part for us was LAX. There is a ton of construction and the whole layout just doesn't seem convenient. You can't check your luggage right though to Tahiti (or home on the way back) and we had to retrieve our luggage, leave the domestic terminal and walk about 10-12 minutes to the international terminal, re-check bags and go through security again. A decent restaurant was difficult to find in the terminal. The airline employees seem to understand the challenges and everyone we met from Continental and Air Tahiti was very kind and professional. Just for the record, I am beginning to appreciate Terminal C in Newark Liberty more and more!
When you are finally on Air Tahiti, expect food, movies, eye shades, booties, pleasant employees and even a little sticker that tells them to wake you for food. So, we arrived in Tahiti at 11:30 PM on a Saturday (the cruise was leaving Sunday at 5 PM). The large plane overwhelms the terminal and the staff so be prepared for a substantial wait on line. There were musicians there and because you were in paradise's airport, everyone seemed to endure the process with good humor. Princess, of course, is ready for you when you get through customs with a bus to take you the short distance. They had many outside kiosks ready for your check in at past midnight! Go on board, and once again, Princess had a buffet going upstairs and everyone greeting you pleasantly as if it were noon! It was a nice way to greet weary travelers. Allow me to go off on a positive tangent -- I think the operation of the OP showed real forethought to the ship's guests and made many accommodations that a smaller, luxury line does, Kudos!
OK, the rooms. We had a mini-suite. If you can swing it, do it! This was our home for 10 days and the extra room was truly worth it. The balcony was a bit larger than the balcony cabins and in the south Pacific proved to be a favorite place to relax. The regular balcony cabins seemed more like the norm and of course, the ocean-view cabins without the balcony provided a bit more space since you don't lose the balcony. We were shown one of the larger suites - wow, but I am not sure the extra space with a dining room and wrap around balcony would be worth the large expenditure. The odd numbered mini-suites on the 8th level and the starboard (I think) side are under the buffet and in fact, this causes three things to happen -- 1) you will smell the food being prepared above in the corridor, 2) you will hear the food carts rolling up to the buffet starting early in the morning, light sleepers may want to factor this in, 3) you will be in a very convenient part of the boat to run up for an early cup of coffee.
Food. I would say I am a slightly finicky eater and the food on this voyage was consistently very good to excellent. The dining room was always top notch. We went there for breakfast about half the time as it was always uncrowded. Food choices, preparation and service were wonderful and when you wanted to sit at a table for two and plan your day, they were always accommodating. For dinner, I would put the food, service and preparation at the highest level of Princess, RCCL, Celebrity ships. We were a table of eight that thoroughly enjoyed each meal. At each dinner there was usually one dish or course that was exceptional, one night a fish dinner, another an appetizer and almost always desserts. We did try both specialty restaurants and, in truth, they just were not that special over the dining room to warrant the extra charges of $20 and a dinner away from our dinner mates. The steakhouse food was a bit uneven and the Italian restaurant was a bit better but, again, not up to say, NYC standards in either category. Service was especially attentive but then so again was the service in the main dining room. Maybe, this is my prejudice but they try to serve too much food.
The buffet was very good and this comes from a person who hates buffets. For breakfast you could order fresh cooked eggs or omelets and eating healthy was easy with many, many choices. Lunch was also terrific with one day's whole cooked salmon being one of the best I have ever had. There is a back deck to enjoy your meal with the most spectacular views of the South Pacific imaginable. Beverage service here and pool side, however, may have been the weakest aspect of the ship's abilities. If you ordered wine or beer it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to come so that we almost always finished our meals before the wine arrived. Pool side I always got up and went to the bar for a drink as roving beverage servers were in short supply and seemed more interested in walking then taking orders. One other weak (no pun intended here) link for me was the coffee on the ship. It was just not good -- don't know whether it was the brand or the weakness of the brew but a real coffee drinker like me basically had to be satisfied with weak coffee. Now, they are selling a coffee package of fresh brewed coffee but I refused to opt in on principle alone.
The biggest food disappointment for me was the BBQ grill on Deck Nine. In concept a great idea but I found the hamburgers and hot dogs near tasteless so this opportunity for a quick meal in your bathing suit was wasted for me. Once again, the grill on the Serenade of the Seas was light years better. Sorry!
Entertainment. This ship has lots to do like the mega ships and the professionalism of the entertainers was especially strong. The two shows (one of which debuted on the voyage) were very good. The dancers in both shows received strong applause. The comedian was funny, the trivia contests interesting and fun and all in all, there was something to satisfy everyone. By the way, the library was very well stocked and a delightful place to be on days at sea. One night's deck party with the requisite champagne pour (is this really necessary?) was wonderful with great music, decorations , etc. It was a night when many stayed up late and enjoyed music under the stars. Pretty fabulous. By the way, the entertainment staff is high energy, fun and just plain terrific, especially our Jersey girl, Ali!
When the local entertainers are brought on board, stake out a good spot and get ready to really enjoy yourself. The polynesian dancers were wonderful, especially the children. Speaking of entertainment, just watching the ship enter and sail away from these islands is a near experience of a lifetime. Don't miss the entrances to Rangiroa, Bora Bora and Moorea!
I went to a wine tasting, very well done for the $9.50.
If you are in the South Pacific and Douglas Pearson is on board, go to his presentations (or watch them on the tv). The man is a true treasure and will go out of his way to help you enjoy French Polynesia.
Facilities. The shops on board were fine although when you are below the Equator don't run out of high numbered sun screen. Conversely all their other prices were way below shops on land. The casino was smallish but still very enjoyable, especially the table games. I saw no one happy after playing the slots, I wonder how these slots match up in payout against AC and Vegas?
The fitness center is well equipped and well used. The staff seemed a little aloof but maybe that was just me comparing them to stateside folks. My travel partner used the Spa and loved it. It seemed beautiful and that staff was very nice. They have a quiet, relaxing room up front of the spa that you have to pay extra to use. With our balcony we didn't feel the need to use it but the extra charge was annoying to me. Is it me or are the extra charges for coffee, drink packages, soft drink packages, special areas of the ship starting to change what cruising's appeal was?
The internet center is typical of internet service at sea, understand that and accept it. If you do opt on, try to do it the first day as you can receive some bonus minutes and you will need them with the slow e-mail.
The pool and hot tubs were clean and never seemed overcrowded. Finding shade seats could be a little problematic around the pool but when we found them with the nicer deck chairs on Deck Five, problem solved.
All the lounges were attractive and pleasant. Since the cruise occurred during the NFL playoffs, the ship's staff took great pains to get and show one of the games in the Casino lounge and even served "football" food during the Giant victory. This was a particularly nice touch and showed the care and concern for about the 50 to 60 people who wanted to watch the game in a public setting, especially since there are few tvs in the public areas. (At this point I did miss the sports bar on the Serenade of the Seas but I was grateful for the staff's efforts to provide a touch of home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)
Excursions. It's the south Pacific, how could they be anything but wonderful? Bear in mind that these are really small islands. One island only had three taxis! Quick review. Rangiroa has a beach on both the atoll and ocean side, we just relaxed on the beach though there were locals running boat trips with snorkeling. Huahine had a great excursion to a lagoon, lunch in the water, dancing, and great fun with a wonderful family. Raiatea has a small town to walk around and we went on the Pearl Farm Reef and snorkel excursion. It was wonderful, about 8 people learning about the black pearls and some magnificent snorkeling. You may pay more here but quality is assured and you will receive a certificate of authenticity. Bora Bora is just beautiful and you can arrange your own excursions either on the Internet or when you get there. The Aqua Safari Helmet Dive is a once in a lifetime experience as was the snorkeling with sting rays and sharks! The ship overnighted in Bora Bora. Finally we enlisted a local to drive us around the island of Moorea to see that beautiful island. A tip: exchange money on the ship for Polynesian Francs and you get better prices for purchases or taxis. The ship overnights in Tahiti and disembarkation was a breeze. One really terrific thing that this ship allows is for passengers to vacate their state room but remain on the ship as late as 10 PM with the use of the Spa, luggage storage and the buffet. Nice gesture since most flights leave late at night.
Minor concerns. I don't know when this ship was last refurbished but there were a couple of signs of needed maintenance, i. e. my bathroom vanity had a couple of chips missing, the shower stall needed new grouting. Also, the ship ran out of some things I was surprised by, i. e. particular wines, some beers. Finally, those folks running the beverage service might try a cruise on another line and pick up some pointers as I saw more than a few people poolside who gave up on flagging down a beverage server.
Finally. This ship and its staff from captain down are VERY safety conscious and I don't believe it is a new concern after the Costa tragedy. The captain does a daily walk about and speaks to guests with ease and he is not above speaking to someone if the situation warrants. I felt very, very comfortable on the ship and sensed that the staff was constantly working to provide the best product.