Getting There -- We flew on Air Tahiti (as part of the package with Princess) from L.A. The flight is about 8 hrs. and the Airbus 340 is very comfortable and the service is good. Avoid the charter that Princess uses, Omni. We heard more horror stories from people that had flown on Omni. We stayed over a few extra days at the end of the cruise so that prevents you from flying on the charter.
The Ship -- We have cruised several times and this is the smallest ship we have been on. It holds about 650 passengers, which I think is a nice size. We rented a mini-suite which is well worth the extra money. The cabin is about twice the size of normal cabins and the balcony is also about twice the size of other balconies.
The pool is tiny and they should get rid of the hot tubs and expand the pool a bit. Hot tubs in this climate seem crazy, but they were used a lot.
The exercise room is excellent and it was never crowded. The casino is small and they allow smoking so it gets very unpleasant when there are lots of smokers.
Eating -- The food in the dining room was about average for Princess. It was good, but gets somewhat boring after 10 dinners. We ate pizza a couple of nights at the pizza place. We did not eat at the Steak House or Italian restaurants since they cost an extra $15-20 and didn't seem worth it to us. The buffets for breakfast and lunch were ok, nothing special.
The Cruise -- There are 2 different cruises that they make out of Papeete. We took the one that visits the Cook Islands (rather than the Marquesas Islands). All of the other island stops are the same for both trips.
Papeete -- You fly into Papeete and get there about 7:30 p.m. After spending the night on the ship you have a day in Papeete. We didn't book a trip for this day and mainly wandered around town. Be sure to visit the main market which has lots of tourist stuff plus fresh fish and produce and lots of locals.
The exchange rate is not good. $1 would get you 122 Pacific Francs last year, but only about 92 this year. Good t-shirts will run you $20. We had a couple of beers at an outdoor cafe and it cost over $20, so pay attention. French is the main language spoken and most of the menus are in French, so be prepared.
Huahine -- We didn't have a land trip booked so we just freelanced. This is a small island with only about 5000 people and most of them don't appear too interested in tourists. We hooked up with Gary (an American) and his Land Rover. He gave 6 of us a 2 hr. tour and dropped us on the beach. Doing land trips on your own is about half the price of something booked on the ship. French Polynesia doesn't get too much cruise traffic. We were the only ship in port on all of the islands. Actually we usually dropped anchor in the bay and shuttled into shore.
Anyway Gary had sailed to French Polynesia 30 years ago and married a native girl and has been here ever since. He gave us a good trip. Don't miss the blue-eyed eels!! The snorkeling was very good considering the beach is just a few hundred yards from the main town. You can walk to town after sunning/swimming. They have a good grocery store with lots of cold beer (Hinano is the local brew) that you can haul back to the ship.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands -- This is about a 600 mile trip so it takes 2 nights and a full day at sea. The Cook Islands are under New Zealand administration so you have to deal with NZ money for a day. We wandered into town in the morning. The shopping was fairly good and most places were an easy walk. We booked a trip thru the ship and went on a snorkel trip in Muri Lagoon and had a lunch cooked on a small island. Salt water chicken (tuna) was the main course. The guys running the trip were fun and showed us how to open a coconut with a sharp stick. Lots of people rented cars and scooters here which were pretty reasonable and the island doesn't have too much traffic. The only downside is you are supposed to get a local driver's license and the line was pretty long at the police station.
Raiatea -- This is the place to do serious shopping. Everything is within a few blocks of the pier and the prices are good. This stop also had the best snorkel trip of the cruise. Book it through the ship. It is the "Tahaa Coral Gardens Drift Snorkel." They only take 12 people (morning and afternoon). It's about a 30 min. boat ride near Tahaa. You float between 2 islands with a fairly good current over the best coral I have seen since the Great Barrier Reef. There is so little clearance between the coral and the surface of the water that you can't use your fins, so you have to drift along behind a guide (some places don't have enough clearance to get over the coral). This isn't for beginner snorkelers. You float over hundreds of sea urchins within a couple of feet of your belly button so it's important not to panic!!
You spend the night in Raiatea and then cruise by Tahaa the next morning on your way to Bora Bora.
Bora Bora -- You arrive in Bora Bora at noon. We did another snorkel trip in the afternoon. We stopped to feed the rays and then snorkeled along the reef. Snorkeling with the rays was fun (if you don't mind them swimming around your feet). Pretty good coral here and a fair number of fish.
You spend the night here and have another full day to play. Unfortunately it rained all day. We rented a car and wandered around the island. There is almost no beach anyway. Other than the few resorts clustered together, the island is amazingly undeveloped. Everyone wanted to stop at Bloody Mary's (a famous restaurant). They give rides from the dock, although there's not much to do here other than eat lunch. There isn't too much shopping within walking distance of the dock.
Moorea -- The next morning you wake up in Moorea. It quit raining for a few hours. We rented a car and wandered around the island. There are plenty of cars to rent where they drop you off at the dock. We paid about $70 for a car all day. There are also plenty of other tour options at the dock, so I wouldn't sign up for anything through the ship. A storm blew in about 11 a.m. and it rained the rest of the day. Circling the island in a car takes a couple of hours. Be sure and drive up to the Belvedere (lookout). It's a great view and would be even better if it wasn't raining. This is the best looking island of them all. Powerlines are underground and it sure makes a difference. Good roads and fairly good shopping, although a bit expensive.
Back to Papeete -- Papeete is only 20 miles from Moorea so you dock there for your last night. You have to be out of your cabin by 11 a.m. Your flight doesn't leave until 10 p.m. so you have lots of time to kill. If you're flying on Omni you have to go out to the airport to check in your bags and then you are brought back to the ship. If you're flying Air Tahiti you don't have to do that.
We stayed over for 3 nights at the Sheraton Tahiti. They hauled us to the hotel and checked in at 1 p.m. and spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool. They have a wonderful pool here!! We ended up in a suite our last 2 nights which was wonderful (2 balconies!!). We spent lots of time in the pool and rented a car for a couple of days. They'll bring your rental car to the hotel. We wandered around the island one day, hitting the Gauguin Museum (it was unbelievably hot in there with no a/c or fans running) and a few other stops.
The Sheraton is a little too far to walk downtown, but you can catch a cab or ride Le Truck. We drove our car which was much more convenient. On our last day our flight home didn't leave until 10 p.m. and the Sheraton will let you check out at 6 p.m. (if you ask) which is great since you can hang out by the pool all day and take a shower before dinner.
Highlight Drift snorkeling off of Tahaa.
Lowlight Smoking on the ship. Although there are some areas off limits, it's pretty much a free for all. One day there were 5 guys smoking cigars and drinking beers IN the pool. Ugh!!
Final Thoughts This is a great way to see French Polynesia. You get to visit lots of different islands and the price of the cruise is very reasonable. This is the first time that buying drinks on the ship seemed like a good deal!