On a scale of 1-10, my wife and I would rate our December 2-13 (2017) Paul Gauguin cruise to French Polynesia a 9.9. Our central goal was to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary in style, and we set high expectations for our trip. This cruise exceeded our expectations in nearly every respect. The few issues we encountered we’re minor but we’re more than happy to share our general impressions and recommendations with you.
Because we wanted this trip to be “extra special,” and as worry-free as we could make it, we chose to make all of our travel arrangements through Paul Gauguin, including roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles to and from Papeete, arrangements for our vow renewal ceremony, and a two-night stay in an overwater bungalow at the end of the cruise in Tahiti. Trip arrangements and transfers were flawless. We’re glad we made this decision. But this brings us to a couple of recommendations to consider. The flight on Tahiti Nui to Papeete is scheduled to get you in quite late (10:55 p.m. in our case.) Our particular flight was delayed in LA and as smooth as the transfers were, we didn’t board the ship until nearly 1:00 a.m. The ship actually began to pull out of the dock before we had our cabin keys in hand. It made for a very short first night on board the MS Paul Gauguin. We would highly recommend that you arrange to arrive one day before you embark. This will also give you the advantage of boarding early, unpacking, having a nice “first dinner” on the PG, making your dinner reservations at La Veranda and Le Grill, and getting a good first night sleep. Also, consider saving the over-the-water bungalow experience for Bora Bora or Moorea. We do recommend that you conclude your trip with an additional night or two back in Tahiti.
This was our second cruise but our first “small ship” experience—and our first trip on the MS Paul Gauguin. What a difference! This is a ship that strikes a perfect balance between informal and formal. PG describes it as “country club casual.” By day, just about anything goes and you’ll see shorts and sandals. Think Tommy Bahama at night… slacks or khakis and tropical shirts for the men and sun dresses for the ladies. Don’t pack the jeans and dinner jackets for this voyage. (And probably leave the kids home for this one.)
We were assigned Stateroom 615 (Category D) with a balcony that made our living space feel brighter and more spacious. The layout of our cabin was generally well thought out and there is ample storage room. We used the balcony to store our snorkel gear and reef shoes. Now for the bad news: There are two standard electrical plugs in the cabin (one by the vanity at bedside and one underneath the television). None in the bathroom. We’d suggest you pack one or two “multi-plugs” or powerstrips. And internet service is hit and miss and numbingly slow. That’s it! We would be hard pressed to identify another complaint or concern about life onboard the Paul Gauguin. It’s that good.
The over-all ship layout is terrific. Everything is quickly accessible but think “downsize” in comparison to larger cruise ships. The smallish swimming pool, Le Grill, and the La Palette Lounge are on Deck 8… La Veranda, the spa, a decent sized fitness center, boutique, a small library, a jigsaw puzzle table are on Deck 6… the small casino (one blackjack table and 13 slot machines), comfortable piano bar, the internet café, photo shop, and the multi-functional Le Grand Salon where you’ll enjoy evening performances in a comfortable, casual, and close-up setting… the reception desk, dive desk, and concierge are on Deck 4… and an innovative watersports “marina” is on Deck 3. We didn’t choose to scuba dive on our trip but fellow passengers who did so, raved about it. On the downside, there’s no hot tub, sauna, or jogging course on board.
Service is impeccable… really. Almost over-the-top at times. (Did I really need someone to carry my breakfast plate back to the table for me?) You’ll be on a first name basis with wait staff in a short period of time and you’ll probably have one or two favorites who seem to keep an eye out for you. My wife has wheat and dairy intolerances and we couldn’t believe how well she was taken care of during this trip.
Dining options are great as well. All three restaurants offer the same fare at breakfast and lunch. I’d personally rate the breakfast and lunch buffets as very good but not great… maybe B+. If time is pressing (e.g. you have a morning excursion scheduled), the buffet is the perfect answer. If you have the time, you might have a slightly better experience ordering off of the menu. For dinner, L’Etoile on Deck 5 is the ship’s principal restaurant and reservations are not required. Reservations ARE required on the two smaller more specialized restaurants (La Veranda on Deck 6 featuring French cuisine and Le Grill on Deck 8 with more of a Polynesian flare). All were terrific. Consider making your dinner reservations on your first day for the two smaller restaurants. The rule of thumb is that you are limited to a total four reservations—two at each. Near the end of the cruise PG schedules a Polynesian Night and the menus are the same in all three restaurants. You might want to verify when this is scheduled and avoid using a reservation for this particular event. On those days when you don’t have an onboard dining reservation, consider trying one of the island restaurants. We had a great dinner with two other couples at the St. James Restaurant in Bora Bora and experienced a great dinner and the best sunset viewing of our trip.
You’ll receive a daily La Orana newsletter that will detail shipboard activities. Typically there are port talks and guest lectures in the Grand Salon… a range of onboard Polynesian activities led by Les Gauguines & Gauguins… and good (but not great) evening entertainment in the Grand Salon that typically run from 9:30 to about 10:15.
We would highly recommend that you book your “must do” excursions in advance of your cruise. Some fill up pretty quickly. Excursions are pretty subjective things. Our favorite experiences were the Lagoon Cruise with Beach Break on Aitutaki (our favorite stopover)… the Pa tour on Rarotonga… the Sharks and Stingrays Encounter on Bora Bora… and the Sunset Sail on Moorea. We’d also suggest that you make a point of getting down to the ship marina the first day at sea to check out your snorkeling gear.
With a maximum of 332 guests, you will get to know a good many fairly quickly. There is a feeling of community that you won’t find on larger ships. On this particular sail, most of the passengers were about our age… in their 50’s and 60’s. A significant number (maybe a third) were French-speaking. Other than a fun block party on one of the first few days where the ship organizes cocktail parties in hallways for passengers to meet their “cabin neighbors,” PG doesn’t need to work at getting people together. It just happens. By the end of the cruise, you’ll be on at least a face-recognition basis with nearly everyone, and you’ll likely make some good new friends along the way.
Our Paul Gauguin experience was a wonderful one. It will not be the cheapest traveling you’ll ever do but it will be among your best. And we can’t think of a better way to celebrate a special occasion… like a 50th wedding anniversary.