Perhaps no destination sparks images of romance and tropical beauty more perfectly than French Polynesia. Yet for all its fame as a honeymoon destination, most people know little about this chain of 118 islands beyond Tahiti, Bora Bora and the over-the-water bungalows that dominate our collective imagination.
Enter Paul Gauguin. The 330-passenger ship, owned by the French cruise line Ponant since 2019, is purpose-built for the region, with a shallow draft that allows it to visit smaller atolls and ports. The ship has been around for 25 years, offering relaxed luxury with island flair.
Investment from Ponant has transformed the ship, both literally – a 2021 refurbishment touched almost every aspect of the 25-year-old vessel – and culturally. There’s a slightly more pronounced French vibe that comes through in the food, the wine and the passenger mix (although the ship is primarily full of Americans on its seven-day itineraries). The move was better for the crew, too, we’ve been told – and as a result, Paul Gauguin is a happy ship, with veteran staff that go out of their way to make your trip fun and enjoyable, never stuffy.
The indigenous entertainment troupe, Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, add a special touch to Paul Gauguin. The Polynesian staff serve not only as entertainers but also as the ship’s activity staff. Former Gauguines and Gauguins often come back as staff at the front desk, the excursion team and the boutique; it’s a dedication to the region that makes Paul Gauguin a treasured institution in the region. That pays off in an outstanding shore excursion program with lots of choices and the best guides.
If you’re looking to explore a variety of French Polynesian islands – and you really should, as each are different – you need to be on a small ship. It’s hard to do better, and with more included in your fare, than Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin is full of places to relax, even more so since the 2021 renovation. The line took out the casino to expand the Piano Bar into a larger space, with a book nook and more places for pre- and after-dinner drinks.
The renovation also improved two entertainment spaces: Le Grand Salon, which serves as the ship’s main theater and gathering place, and La Palette, a convivial indoor/outdoor lounge on Deck 8. Both now have better light and sound systems, in case dancing breaks out (and with an international passenger base on our trip, this did occur).
Some noise from Le Grand Salon on Deck 5 carries into the rooms above the space on Deck 6. It wasn’t too loud, however, and entertainment is over by 10:30 p.m. Still, if you’re someone who goes to bed really early (and we sometimes did, after days full of active excursions), study the deck plan to make sure your room is a bit farther away.
The pool deck on Paul Gauguin seems small at first glance; the square pool doesn’t seem like it would fit the demand. But we found that it was never crowded, as people spent a lot of time off the ship snorkeling at various beaches or on excursions. The renovation improved the quality of the loungers not only at the pool deck but outdoor seating around the ship. Oddly, there’s no hot tub, which seems like a miss in a tropical destination where being outside is paramount.
The 165 rooms on Paul Gauguin were also given a refresh during the 2021 refurbishment, and attractive tropical pastels complement the nautical wood cabinets. There is plenty of storage for two people, thanks to smartly designed closets and drawers.
We do wish the ship would have redone the electric to put USB and power outlets near the beds. Make sure you bring international chargers and converters as well as long cords if you want to scroll while you’re in bed.
Because the ship is older, there are a wide variety of cabins, including those with portholes and picture windows, in addition to balcony rooms and a handful of suites. Balconies are on the small side in the standard veranda rooms.
Still, you’ll find everything you need in a standard cabin. All bathrooms have a tub with the shower – a rarity on cruise ships these days – and a range of amenities, including a replenished minibar. A few notes for bed snobs: although extremely comfy, the beds are queen size (not king), and not all of them can be configured as twins. You’ll have to study the deck plan if you’re traveling with friends or non-partners.
The dining on Paul Gauguin is delicious and enticing; this is one cruise ship where caloric temptations lurk in every corner (although the restaurants do provide lighter menu options). Ponant has invested significant money in improving the dining onboard, and it shows in French butter, French wines and a wide array of cheeses, both French and otherwise, that go way beyond Brie.
There are three restaurants onboard: L’Etoile, which serves as the main dining room with a bevy of options each night; La Veranda, the ship’s French restaurant (although we’d argue that the entire ship leans Gallic in its cuisine); and Le Grill, a more casual option that has a Polynesian nightly menu.
You need dinner reservations for both La Veranda and Le Grill. These can be hard to get, so it’s advisable to plan out your meals in these restaurants ahead of time so you can book soon after you board. Because Le Grill is the only casual option and it’s usually full, room service is your only option on those nights when you return from excursions and just don’t want to deal with dressing up. Luckily, for women this can be as easy as throwing on a sun dress (no T-shirts or shorts for men at dinner anywhere other than Le Grill).
Breakfast and lunch on Paul Gauguin are elaborate buffets, with a daily theme (although you can also order items off the menu if you want). These were remarkable in their choice and execution. Pastries and croissants are offered at every meal. Dessert lovers won’t want to miss the teatime spread at Le Grill; it’s buffet style, as opposed a three-tiered server, but decadent nonetheless.
Alcoholic drinks, beer, soda and wine (aside from premium offerings)
Entertainment and enrichment
24-hour room service
In-room minibar (water, beer and soda)
Use of the marina toys (such as kayaks and paddleboards
Beach towel use
Boutique and photo purchases
Scuba certifications and dives
Paul Gauguin attracts an international passenger base, although Americans, Canadians and French are the prime audience. Announcements are made in French and English. On a weeklong sailing, the cruises are 75% North American and 25% French and international, we were told, with those ratios reversing when the ship makes longer sailings to the Marquesas and islands farther afield.
The ship does not have specific meetups for different nationalities or LGBTQ+ passengers. Groups – either with a certain travel agent or affinity organizations – are common on Paul Gauguin. As a result, and also because the ship is so international, it can be a bit harder to strike up conversations with strangers than on other cruise ships, as people tend to stick to the groups they came with. Still, like any ship, it’s hard to feel lonely, as the staff go out of their way to create a friendly atmosphere.
Paul Gauguin has a robust scuba program that attracts veterans and newbies. If you love scuba or want to learn, you’ll be in good company (See the Activities tab for more on the ship’s scuba offerings).
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.
An incredible exploration of the Tuamotus, Marquesas and Society Islands