We always wanted to visit Tahiti and Bora Bora, but air travel from the East Coast is prohibitive in terms of cost as well as time in the air. Also, once you arrive in French Polynesia food, lodging and transportation can be very expensive. Really what we wanted was just a nice taste of these exotic places, and that is what we received.
The price we paid for a guaranteed ocean view stateroom on Holland America's Statendam was a bargain, and luckily we were upgraded 6 categories, from HH (obstructed porthole) to C (large oceanview). Our cabin was very nicely appointed with a tasteful color scheme, comfortable bed, plenty of closet space, flatscreen TV with DVD player, a nice deep soaking tub, granite bathroom counter, and Grohe faucet. It was kept immaculate by our cabin stewards.
Unlike many cruise lines, Holland America takes a very civilized approach to liquor : they allow you to bring your own wine aboard. And you can order a bottle of spirits from Room Service for approximately the cost you would pay at a liquor store.
Another feature that makes Holland America stand out is educational programs : informative lectures, cooking classes, even a book club. Reading "South Pacific" on the way to that very destination with a group of interesting, well-traveled friends did a lot to enrich my wife's experience.
The food was very good, nice selection, excellent dining staff, both in the restaurants and the Lido buffet. The only thing that wasn't good was the coffee, so we did patronize the Espresso bar every morning.
Captain Jan Schoonderbeek was a pleasure to sail with. We had to miss three ports due to rough seas (Christmas Island Kiribati, Raiatea, and Rangiroa) but I believe he did his best, so no hard feelings. His daily weather report was always fun to listen to ("the Vind and the Vaves are very strong today!") and his lectures on the history of cruise lines were first-rate.
The staff onboard the ship were uniformly hardworking and friendly, and I felt a sense of camaderie among them that was refreshing. The public areas of the ship were very nice and well-maintained, and I appreciated little touches such as fresh flowers in public areas and individual cloth towels in common area restrooms.
The entertainment was good. The cruise director, Anthony Choice, was a real asset to the cruise: the kind of guy who never allows there to be a dull moment, even on a cruise filled with seniors!
Suggestions for improvement :
(1) arrange for people who have mobility issues (walkers/scooters/wheelchairs) to be directed to a specific area for disembarcation where they would receive the assistance they need from the crew in an orderly fashion, rather than just jumping in line with everyone else and hope 2 (or 3 or 4) strong guys will appear at the right moment and knock people over attempting to assist them.
(2) give us more time in the good ports! In Hilo, Hawaii we should have been able to spend the entire day and have dinner ashore, which a 5 pm departure did not allow. In Moorea, there was a Polynesian dinner show at Tiki Village which no one could attend because of the very early 5 pm departure time. I could not believe you scheduled 21 hours in an inferior port like Papeete but just 10 hours in a fascinating place like Hilo, 9 hours in a once-in-a-lifetime paradise like Moorea, and a measly 6 hours in an extremely interesting place like Nuku Hiva.
(3) make sure the Port Consultant actually has detailed knowledge about each port : this is her JOB. She ought to be able to convey the magic and history of each destination, not just the local weather and currency exchange rate and how to say "hello" in the local language.
(4) Enrichment suggestions : It was great that the librarian has us reading "Tales of the South Pacific" as a book club. For even more pertinent and informative lectures, why not have retired English professors lecture on important works of literature that have a direct bearing on the ports to be visited? James Michener's "Hawaii", Herman Melville's "Typee" (about Nuku Hiva), and The "Bounty" Trilogy add so much to the appreciation of the various ports we visited. The movie "Hawaii" was shown on board...why not "South Pacific", the original "Mutiny on the Bounty", and "Hawaii Part II, The Hawaiians" as well?
Here I will comment on Port #7, Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, which is a very rare place to be able to visit and does not even appear among ports listed in the pulldown menu. It was just incredible! Not a tourist place, no sandy beaches or luxury hotels, but a land that time forgot, with truly amazing landforms and ancient ruins where many natives are able to live largely off the land and sea. My wife was reading Herman Melville's "Typee" detailing the 3 months Melville spent here among the natives in the 1840s. Imagine how interesting it was for us and another couple to receive a private tour of the island by a local guide, Richard Deane, who is a descendant of those very natives.
Once we finally were able to disembark, we were pleasantly surprised to receive beautiful orchid leis -- courtesy of the cruise line. Nice touch, Holland America! We found the Aloha Tower area to be very good for souvenir shopping but very bad for finding transportation -- we received a lot of conflicting information about where to get a bus, and finally ended up sharing a cab to the hotel area. There we picked up our shuttle to the Paradise Cove Luau, which we booked privately. It was about an hour's drive through rush-hour traffic to get to Paradise Cove, but our bus captain kept us entertained with his lively banter and before we knew it, we were being greeted with yet another orchid lei and a fresh Mai Tai. We were led to our preferred seating area and given vouchers for a second drink. While waiting for the dinner show to begin, we were invited to observe various traditional activities, such as net fishing, sarong tying, and picking and enjoying a fresh coconut right from the tree, by some of the most beautiful young Polynesians we had ever seen. A group of men were picked from the audience to don grass skirts and form two competing teams to dance, shout, and haul fishnets out of the water at the beautiful cove as the sun was setting. The blowing of a conch shell signaled it was time to observe the whole roast pig being removed from the "imu" -- the fire pit, and a to form a line for the traditional buffet. The food was just OK, but the show was fantastic. A large group of extremely talented and attractive young Polynesians performed dances from the various regions of the Pacific. They even had a young fire dancer who performed the difficult moves of Tahitian/Samoan warriors. The show was just exhilarating. On the way back, as arranged, the bus made a special stop to drop us off at the port.
The next morning we called Enterprise, picked up the convertible we had reserved, and also a real gem -- a GyPSy guide, a special GPS that is programmed to act as your personal tour guide, pointing out landmarks and offering you choices while you drive around. This is obtained from a private company for $39 a day. We drove to Haunama Bay where I experienced some amazing snorkelling -- I felt like Jacques Cousteau! Next we drove to the Kailua area. TripAdvisor's Hawaii app directed us to a great spot for takeout food (delicious) which we ate at an ancient Heiau (temple site) tucked behind a YMCA in a residential neighborhood. We then proceeded to the Kailua Beach area and beautiful Lanikai beach, where we agreed we could spend the rest of our days and have no regrets. The GPS explained all the ins and outs of parking and beach access. We drove back, returned the car and GPS, and did some souvenir shopping at the Aloha Tower. We will definitely return to Oahu.
Tendered into old Lahaina, what a great spot. Victorian architecture with Hawaiian flair, inviting shops and restaurants, beautiful native plants and flowers everywhere, including Banyan trees that take up an entire city block! We picked up our convertible and another GyPSy guide (special GPS programmed to be your tour guide). Because of time limitations we decided to confine our exploring to the west section of Maui, and it was fabulous. We drove up the western coast and saw gorgeous rocky beaches and ocean so rough and so blue in the Kapalua area. You could just stand and stare at the natural beauty. We saw the blowhole at Nokolele Point and drove down a very narrow coastal road, basically taking our lives in our hands, to reach Iao State Park. What a beautiful place -- the Iao Needle landform is amazing, and it was a very enjoyable short hike through lush rainforest to view it. We headed back to Lahaina, turned in the car and GPS, and got dropped off at the Old Lahaina Luau.
What an elegant setting. Delicious drinks (open bar), and the food was wonderful. Standouts included Ahi Poke (marinated tuna with seaweed), creamy taro leaf salad with coconut milk, and fabulous pohole (fern root) salad.
The show, though, was overlong, featuring many forms of hula which seem to have developed as concessions to Victorian ideas of modesty, rather than for any aesthetic or entertainment value, and frankly are quite boring. The opening number featured a solo dancer clothed in a sarong that reached to her ankles. Another number featured male and female dancers in what looked like Victorian ladies' bathing costumes. One hula was even performed by girls seated in chairs, with only the arms and upper body telling the story. Another disappointment was the fact that many of the dancers in this Polynesian show were not Polynesian at all, nor was any attempt made to make them appear so. One young female dancer, obviously new to the show, had her entire extended family in the audience. They shouted encouragement whenever she appeared on stage in a very inappropriate and distracting way. I strongly suggest that the choreographer visit Paradise Cove Luau in Oahu to see how enjoyable a Polynesian dance show can be -- and maybe Paradise Cove can send their head chef and bartender to Old Lahaina Luau to see how delicious Hawaiian food and drink can be : sort of an inter-island cultural exchange.
Stopped off in Lahaina for some souvenir shopping before tendering back to the ship. My wife got some cute Hawaiian dresses and jewelry she wore all during the rest of the cruise, which made it fun. We will definitely come back to Maui.
As promised, the Alamo shuttle was waiting at the port to take us to the airport to pick up the convertible we had reserved. We had to use our own GPS, no GyPSy guides for the Big Island. We began with Volcanoes National Park and were able to experience the lush rain forest and the amazing Thurston Lava Tube in complete privacy, before the tour buses arrived. The Kilauea Iki crater which erupted in 1959 was fascinating to see. We took a drive along the Hamakua coast, choosing the Onomea scenic drive, which had fabulous scenery. We obtained a chilled green coconut at a roadside restaurant with a straw drilled into it, and enjoyed about two cups of delicious coconut water. Akaka Falls was beautiful with a short hike through a beautifully landscaped area of rainforest where the Royals would worship at a heiau near a rushing stream. Rainbow Falls unfortunately had dried up to just a trickle when were were there in early December, and I wish we knew there were thermal pools we could have seen just up the road. Some people from our ship had found a thermal pool on the Puna coast that was connected to the ocean and they had a fabulous time there, with refreshments obtained at a bed and breakfast there. We will definitely return to the Big Island for spectacular scenery.
As we pulled up to Bora Bora my wife cued up our "South Pacific" DVD to Bloody Mary intoning, "Bali Hai....where the sky meets the sea...Here am I, your special island...come to me, come to me..." It was quite a moment.
Bora Bora is an amazing sight. The water is its very own shade of turquoise.
However, it is a Third World country. There are natural beauty and friendly natives. There are beautiful resorts, and there is poverty and lack of infrastructure. Wild dogs roam around and breed at will. Most stores and restaurants charge astronomical prices, and transportation is likewise at a premium. There is a reason cars are rented out by the hour!
Unfortunately the famous Bloody Mary's restaurant was temporarily closed, a disappointment to everyone.
We had opted to spend our overnight stay at the Sofitel Resort, and we were glad we did. $250 got us a just-overwater beach bungalow in a lush and beautiful setting. We enjoyed it very much. The snorkelling right outside our bungalow was excellent. We were very glad of the 11 pm departure, because the second evening we were there, the hotel had a fabulous Polynesian dinner show, which surpassed both shows in Hawaii. The native dancers were spectacular and the food was delectable. Breadfruit, we discovered, is like pototoes but has its own special flavor and texture.
Because the sea was too rough to tender at Raiatea (big disappointment but had to agree with the Captain's decision), we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti in time to spend an extra evening ashore.
Papeete is sort of like Ensenada, Mexico. Third world, but felt pretty safe. We took a cab with some other folks to the InterContinental (very nice but again, very expensive) hoping for the Polynesian show promised by the local glossy magazine "Tahiti Beach Press" but no such luck. Stayed for awhile in the tiki-themed bar/restaurant, listened to a pretty good salsa band, paid twice as much for drinks and appetizers as we would at a similar place at home, and took an expensive taxi ride back to the port.
Next morning, as we had prearranged with Holland America, we took overnight bags and caught the fast ferry (30 min) to stay overnight in Moorea, a much nicer island, and our next port.
Moorea is simply lovely. The fast ferry from Papeete, Tahiti let us off just a short $2 public bus ride from the Sofitel Ia Ora resort, where we had spent $350 to reserve a beachfront bungalow which was just fabulous. Again, that beautiful turquoise ocean. Sadly since it was a Tuesday there was no Polynesian show, not even at the Tiki Village. We had a quiet and very delicious dinner at our resort, and the next morning we just lazed around and enjoyed the fabulous setting and the snorkelling. We were even able to try paddling an outrigger canoe -- very hard to steer!
We had wanted to to Tiki Village, but it was all the way on the other side of the island, probably an hour and 20 minute drive, and the second day our ship departed at 5 pm. Tiki Village has the greatest video of an authentic Tahitian wedding on their website. I think it is this video that truly inspired my wife to book this cruise for us. She kept joking that she had reserved a re-commitment ceremony for us there, and if we had more time in Moorea, she probably would have!
We packed up and got a cab to take us to the port (Cook's Bay) and realized to our dismay that our ship was not there -- it had dropped anchor in Opunihu Bay instead! This required an additional 30 minutes of travel time and and additional $35 in cab fare, and we made it just in time for the very last (crew only) tender. Ooops! I wish someone from the ship had emailed us the port change, or that someone at the hotel or the cab company had known about it, but hey, at least the ship didn't leave without us.
During our whirlwind cab ride racing from one bay to the other, Moorea did not give the impression of being a third-world country at all, it was more like Hawaii, and quite beautiful. I think we might just take this entire cruise again.