French Polynesia has long been the center of the universe for romantics looking for the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vacation. Adventure-seekers are equally drawn to this chain of 118 islands and motus (little islands) and make the long-haul trip to dive, snorkel, hike and swim with sea turtles, black-tipped sharks and stingrays. Enter Paul Gauguin Cruises, whose flagship of the same name was purpose-built for the region. In a destination that truly is the draw, this luxury vessel provides a comfortable, all-inclusive cruise experience, where the ship, appropriately, serves as a background to the scenery.
Service onboard is among the best we've experienced on any ship, with 214 crewmembers anticipating every need. (We had to laugh when, while attempting to get a cup of tea from the self-service station, three waiters intervened, instructing us to sit down while they served us.) Crew seem genuinely happy performing their jobs; the proof is in the number of crew who have impressively long tenures with the ship, according to Paul Gauguin's hotel director.
For that reason, crewmembers know these islands intimately and pass along that expertise to you. You'll learn about the Polynesian islands from residents themselves, as well as from renowned archaeologists and marine biologists. You'll go ashore with highly rated guides and tour operators, and pre- and post-cruise partner hotels -- Pacific Beachcomber operates six mid-level and luxury resorts on the islands -- will wow you.
Dining options are excellent, with fresh-caught seafood and over-the-top French cuisine, as well as Polynesian standards that will have you eagerly anticipating your next meal. Wines, cocktails, spirits, juices and soft drinks are included in the cruise fares and available all day.
Paul Gauguin's marina, which opens to the lagoons in various ports, is a fun chance to play on the water without needing a tender to leave the ship.
Paul Gauguin is meticulously maintained, though it doesn't have the bells and whistles of newer ships. It doesn't need them. Those searching for a vacation that combines some lazy days with more active outdoor pursuits will be hard-pressed to find a better fit in French Polynesia than Paul Gauguin.
The average passenger age is 55 to 60 years old, but you'll get a solid smattering of younger passengers. A bucket-list destination, French Polynesia -- and Paul Gauguin in particular -- also draws a number of honeymooners. Travelers come mostly from the United States and France, but it's not unusual to find you're traveling with people from Australia, the U.K., Japan and China. Passengers tend to be well traveled. They're also loyal. A good number of people return to the ship again and again; it's common that 40 to 50 passengers on each voyage are "repeaters." Passengers also are fairly active, spending time in the fitness center and snorkeling or scuba diving at the various port stops. Announcements onboard are typically made in English first, then French.
These tropical itineraries call for casual attire by day and country-club or elegant resortwear clothing by night. During the day, you'll need bathing suits, cover-ups, shorts, shoes that are comfortable for walking or hiking, and reef shoes, a must for the private island experiences, where rocks, broken bits of coral and sea cucumbers can make for an uncomfortable walk. Bug spray with DEET is also a necessity in the lush, tropical environment.
At night, women traditionally wear skirts or slacks or capris with blouses, and men go for trousers and short-sleeved collared shirts. (Think "Tommy Bahama," rather than golf shirts.) On Tahitian Night, which occurs once a cruise, women are encouraged to wear pareos (Tahitian wraparound skirts, which are available ashore at the various ports or in the ship's gift shop), and men don Polynesian shirts. Fill your suitcase with lightweight clothes made of natural fibers (cotton, linen and silk), and you'll have everything you need.
Gratuities are included in the cruise fares. If you wish to acknowledge above-and-beyond service, tip staff members directly. An 18 percent gratuity is added to spa services. The U.S. dollar is the ship's currency. While not required, tipping a dollar or two for room service is appreciated.