Summary: the islands and waters of French Polynesia are beautiful, exotic, and clean. The towns and roads are populated by people who are friendly, charming, inviting, and helpful. And I highly recommend you visit them on a cruise ship (especially if you are a scuba diver)…once alternatives to Paul Gauguin become available.
The M/S Paul Gauguin is a tired, clunky ship staffed by crew ranging from competent through lazy to actively obstructionist. I have been on many cruise lines, ranging from economy Norwegian to top-end ultraluxury Sea Dream (more expensive than Paul Gauguin…but just barely), and I can honestly say that I have never been on a cruise where so many times I have been told “no.” For example, when we discovered that the chef aboard the Sea Dream II was Polish, we asked half-jokingly if he would be making pierogies…and that night, freshly made pierogies were waiting for us. That’s service. On the much less expensive (but still luxurious in its own right) Regent Seven Seas Navigator when we asked for a glass of white port only to be told they had none, they had the requested wine FLOWN IN the next day. That's service.
I appreciate that Tahiti is much further from other population centers than the Caribbean (Sea Dream, Silverseas), Bermuda (Norwegian), or Alaska (Regent) and this makes certain requests for things they do not have on-hand impractical. But I was never told “no” to any reasonable request and the more upscale lines, and even Norwegian in most cases, bent over backwards to meet every guest request.
Not so with Paul Gauguin, whose onboard philosophy is less customer-centric than a cheap airport motel. Every day our experience was sullied by a refusal to do some minor thing that was easily within the staff’s ability. For example: I requested a particular drink at the pool bar that required ice cream. “We don’t have any ice cream,” says the barkeep. “But…” I stammer, confused that a passenger should have to explain basic customer service to a cruise employee, “there’s ice cream at the Le Grille.” I should explain that Le Grille is the group of tables constituting one of the three onboard restaurants when they close the doors at night, during the day it is the more-or-less open eating station for breakfast, and it is (surprise!) on the other side of the pool. And we’re not talking one of those Olympic pools aboard an 8,000 passenger superliner, but a walk of (I counted them) 42 steps. So, I walked those 42 steps, got some ice cream, walked the other 42 steps back, and told the bartender to make my drink. Which he did with an extra dollop of sullenness, although he had no other customers occupying his time. Speaking of ice cream, I became rather fond while aboard the Norwegian Dawn of their strawberry ice cream made on-board and which you could get at the pool any time of day; if they didn’t have any, they’d send for it. (On a similar note, once at the bar on the Silversea they didn't stock the particular alcohol at that one bar, but within minutes they had it sent over.) What was the answer when I asked for some on the Paul Gauguin at the evidently outrageous hour of 2 o’clock in the afternoon? No. Oh and the next day, I tried an experiment and asked for a toasted almond (which requires just milk, no ice cream) at the bar. “No, we don’t have any milk.” What!?
I realize that this sounds nitpicky. And perhaps it is. But I cannot stress just how expensive Paul Gauguin is…this is one of the most expensive luxury cruise lines IN THE WORLD. And this attitude of the guests being a burden and an inconvenience extends far beyond just the on-board experience and permeates every aspect of their business. Their vendors, for example, are simply unacceptable and company staff could not care less when informed that their vendors have made the most outrageous mistakes. When we arrived at LAX, a Paul Gauguin staffer met us and briefed us on what to expect upon arrival at Tahiti, and confirmed that our printed boarding paperwork included a hotel (a different hotel than what most guests stay at, but we didn’t know that at the time) and transfer information. Well, when we arrived at Tahiti, we quickly found the transfer vendor but she refused to allow us on the van because we weren’t on her list. We showed her our paperwork: her company, her van, and its destination. No. Can you please call Paul Gauguin, here’s the phone number? No. Can you at least CALL YOUR OWN OFFICE? No. And off the van drove, leaving us in a foreign country and no idea how to proceed. We eventually found a taxi that would provide a receipt, but the hotel turned out to be different than the usual one used by Paul Gauguin: much less nice and, important to us at that moment, not the one with a Paul Gauguin representative. I won’t tell you our woe of contracting food poisoning at that hotel, as I can’t in good faith blame that on Paul Gauguin, but it definitely didn’t add to the quality of the start of the voyage. The next day when we contacted Paul Gauguin at the correct hotel (the infinitely more delightful Intercontinental, which I may write a standalone review of) we were told that once onboard that Concierge would take care of everything. Except that took two hours of waiting and re-explaining to each new person we were passed off to (we never did see the person who Paul Gauguin customer service told us to specifically ask for), with each one humming and hawing about how this isn’t standard practice and they could give us credit for a future cruise and me having to show our receipt and the email from customer service yet again, just to get our $50 back. My goodness, Silversea or Regent would probably have fired their vendor and upgraded us to a suite right then and there.
Not quite a “no” but in the same spirit of not caring about passengers: don’t believe the final return time posted for the shore tenders. If it’s within a half hour of the posted time and the crew don’t see passengers walking towards them, they pack up and head back to the ship. Now you might think that’s impossible because they know if all the passengers are back, and on most cruises you’d be right. But Paul Gauguin only has the passenger ID card reader back on the ship, not at the tender tie-up, so they would not have a clue if somebody was missing when they start the engine and abandon the remaining passengers. On a side note, whilst on the Sea Dream II (again, only very slightly more expensive than Paul Gauguin), a couple missed the sailing due to a delayed flight and the captain HELD THE SHIP UP AT THE PORT so the inter-island puddle hopper could get them to the ship. That’s service; but being told that I could not make my own choice from the “complementary” wines is not. Once again, no. Oh but when I asked about this on the Regent, they actually manually typed up a list of all the complementary wines just for me so I could, if I wanted to, decide which wine I wanted for which meal. Again, service.
Our amidship cabin was satisfactory; it did have the usual minor creaks in the middle of the night common to older boats (the Regent Navigator, a converted Soviet research vessel, is notorious for this). In moderate seas the ship pitches quite a bit, so bring those seasickness patches* (then again, we were recovering from food poisoning). Curiously the ship doesn’t really roll, it only pitches; so there are certain areas like the Spa near the center of the ship where the movement of the boat isn’t noticeable. At either end of the ship, it becomes very evident: I took a video of the small pool sloshing back and forth like a tub of water being carried down a flight of steps. This becomes a real problem when it comes to the two restaurants located in the stern, and especially L’Etoile, which is not only at the end of the ship and therefore most subject to seesawing in the waves, but is directly over the engine room—and the engine struggles mightily with the waves.
*You can get seasickness medicine at the concierge. However, unlike other very small ships that are susceptible to waves even under moderate conditions, all they provide is over-the-counter Dramamine (which makes you drowsy); Sea Dream offers newer drugs that are much more effective assuming you take them in advance. The Seven Seas never left the protected waters of the Alaskan inside passage, Norwegian ships are too big to be affected by moderate seas, and I already had a patch on for the Silverseas; so I don’t know how those cruise lines deal with this.
Here’s a hint: if while at sea you sit in La Veranda or especially, no exceptions, L’Etoile, insist on a table along the perimeter of the dining room. They’ll all pitch up and down as the ship passes over the waves, but the tables in the middle of the area shake so badly that you can not only feel it in your bones, but silverware loudly clatters and glasses slowly vibrate their way across the tablecloth. By the way, two comments on the food and beverages:
1. There is only one upscale restaurant, that being L’Etoile, and the food is equivalent to one of the pay-per-person venues on a Norwegian or Princess. Very good, but not extraordinary (hint: adding foamed milk to everything on the menu does not automatically make it le repas extraordinaire). Le Veranda is good; think all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Le Grille, being only a part-time restaurant, breakfast nook, and eclectic and therefore confusing lunchtime “tea” corner, was very hit-and-miss. Nothing aboard compares to the very best (or for Seven Seas, ordinary) food of their competitors. Oh, and Le Veranda and Le Grille share menus to a large extent. I do appreciate that this ship is based literally thousands of miles from any major landmass and it must be a logistical juggling act to obtain provisions to provide several hundred good-to-excellent meals each day. But do not let that fool you into thinking you will dine on par with Maxine’s—or a Windstar clipper, for that matter.
2. Wine is TERRIBLE. I did not see a single bottle of complementary wine that I could not buy at home for under ten dollars, and in many cases it was a no-name that a quick Internet check showed retail prices of less then six dollars. This is part of a non-stop campaign to get you to upgrade to “premium” (meaning, drinkable) wines. This is a scheme that might belong on a bargain resort in the Dominican Republic (and I’d resent it there, too) but not aboard a luxury cruise ship. This simply inexcusable; on all of my cruises there have always been premium wines available at additional cost (Regent and Sea Dream included all but the very most expensive of spirits, so paying for an “upgrade” would mean a $300 twenty-year old single malt), but never before has a cruise deliberately given passengers wines that they know are simply awful to blatantly force them to pony up. Even on Norwegian, having gotten an upgrade that included the beverage package, had decent wines in the $12 to $25 category. During a voyage that cost A TENTH of the price. My advice: stick with the rosé, it’s hard to screw that up too badly. Or just sail with somebody else—more on that in a moment.
Speaking of upgrades: if you possibly can (i.e. you have enough shipboard credits to cover it), get the unlimited Internet plan. Not that it will go any faster—it won’t—but they use a system in which you must actively log out when finished (it’s actually called “logout.com”; Silversea uses this same dysfunctional system). Now, that already means that whoever is using whichever device must actively remember to log out. But there’s a much darker side to this: wireless on board the Paul Gauguin is both spotty and sporadic, and if your signal vanishes—and it does, regularly—you CANNOT LOG OFF. So your minutes keep ticking by, possibly without you even knowing (we used up our entire allotment overnight, when I logged out but did not wait for the confirmatory message “You are logged out”). Also, if you have two browser windows open and you log out of one, the other might still be clocking usage even if you do get the confirmation. If you can, just get the unlimited plan so you don’t have to worry about it. Or, just sail with somebody else—more on that, as I said, in a moment.
The Paul Gauguin has a decent little gym but lacks a jogging track or, to put it more generally, any sort of promenade deck (i.e. a deck that goes all the way around the ship). I have never been on any ship where it is impossible to go around the vessel, although on one I did have to climb up and down ladders (stairs). This confused me at first because there is certainly nothing to prevent it in the ship’s design, and then I realized that it is because there WAS a promenade deck, and then they installed rather clumsy-looking partitions to keep people from reaching the stern on that deck, which now constitutes the “balcony” of the suites. Instead, you could walk around the “solar” (sun) deck, which goes around the top-most bar just above the pool (it’s on top of the bar that refused to serve ice cream). Except, it’s exactly 1/20th of a mile around** (so you have to make a 90 degree turn every 20 yards) and more to the point, you can’t anyway, because that bar is ALWAYS closed; and since it’s closed, hey there’s no reason for passengers to go up there (i.e. the only place on the ship where you can actually WALK AROUND) so they keep the stairs roped off constantly. Just to stick the knife in a little deeper, they’ll post a sign on the rope announcing the hours that the deck will be open…but the rope stays there all day and night, day after day. I asked a crewmember if we could go up, since it was the time the sign said the rope would be removed. No. I asked, why? The crewmember shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Oh, and the one time we did get to go up, during the night, all the light are turned on, so there is not one place to view the night sky aboard. That was the single biggest disappointment of all, we were so looking forward to the prospect of seeing unfamiliar southern hemisphere constellations under the famous South Pacific crystal clear skies, and all we had were electric lights blazing. We couldn’t even skyview from shore, as the tenders always return before night (the was one exception, in Bora Bora, but we only had a small area of sky to view, alongside one of the busier streets in French Polynesia…and again, you do NOT want to wait until the posted final tender departure time).
**By way of comparison: the Norwegian Dawn (considered a small ship by modern standards) has a promenade deck that is a quarter of a mile around, and on the Harmony of the Sea (pretty much the opposite of the Paul Gauguin or any of its brethren!) it only takes 2.7 laps to burn up a mile. Yes, the Paul Gauguin is a small ship…but TWENTY YARDS?
Not that it matters, since they won’t let you up there anyway.
Very nice little spa connected to the gym. The stern recreation launch is, for most people, more of a gimmick than useful, as there are no motorized sports (Sea Dream has waverunners) and although in theory they stock sailboards, paddle boards, etc., as a practical matter they never allot time—and certainly never advertise time—to use them, because that time is devoted to pay-per-use SCUBA training. If you are certifying in SCUBA at additional cost, then it may be genuinely useful…if, of course, you can live with the guilt that the additional costs you are paying is resulting in the other passengers not being able to utilize the supposedly free swimming equipment they were promised.
(“No swimming from the stern platform!” says the sign. Again, another NO! I asked why and was told it was for my safety. “But if I pay for SCUBA, I can swim. Why is it dangerous for a snorkeler but not for a scuba diver?” Again, a shrug.)
I would be remiss if I did not mention the islands. Tahiti itself is very similar to Hawaii; think Kauai not Oahu. Also, the water is really shallow, so you will see only miniature ships everywhere (I’ll talk about this in my summation)—container ships loaded with fifty containers instead of five hundred and oil tankers the size of ferry boats. This of course is a major reason why everything is so expensive; not only does everything have to be brought in from literally thousands of miles away (um, including the beef we got food poisoning from), but they can’t even be brought in aboard large, economically efficient vessels.
Bora Bora is just too big to even begin to see much of anything, which is a shame; it’s the place with the most things to see and do. Moorea, practically within kayaking distance of Tahiti, is likely where the Paul Gauguin will dock overnight just before your return, and there are two beautiful inlets with mountain routes leading into the hills. The ship posted a schedule saying we would move overnight from one inlet to the other, and we had done a lot of planning about where we would explore the next day; but when we woke up we were still anchored in the same spot.
The other islands were mostly forgettable. Not because they are not beautiful—they are!—but because the ship remains there for so little time you can’t really see anything.
Do not pay extra to take the extended voyage to the big atolls (when I say big, I mean BIG—you cannot see to the other side of the lagoon) like Rangiroa unless you are specifically going on a paid SCUBA or, possibly, drift snorkel excursion***. The atolls are breathtakingly beautiful but they are so big and you have so little time that you will at best see a tiny percentage of them. Be aware that if you snorkel or scuba at the famous passes you will, by all accounts (my wife was too anxious and refused to go, but then she won’t go on rollercoasters, either), come across sharks. Big ones. Lots of them. I would have been worried but then I also know that statistics say that the commercial excursions are incredibly safe even if you are being circled by a dozen hammerheads. But if all you are going to do is swim or snorkel from the shore, stick with the shorter cruises around the Tahitian island chain proper. The lagoon beaches are definitely beautiful, but not exceeding Tahitian beaches.
***Warning! While I suppose there is no law against it (then again, there might be), you cannot drift snorkel (or scuba, probably) the atolls on your own. The way these atolls work is they are bathtubs the size of Connecticut with only a few ways for the water to get in and out. So every time the tide changes, so does the irresistible currents flowing first one way, then the other way. I saw a zodiac in a pass loaded with tourists watching dolphins jumping out of the water and each time he pulled up his anchor, he had to gun his 150 horsepower engine to make any headway. A swimmer wouldn’t have a chance, so you NEED A TOUR OPERATOR who will drop you off and pick you up at predetermined spots on either side of the passes.
There are two “private” beaches used by Paul Gauguin. The first one is just that, a tiny strip of a beach on somebody else’s land. Almost not worth taking the tender. The other is an entire island—actually a “motu” (a piece of the surrounding atoll separated by a channel of sea from its neighbor)—and that was a lot of fun, although you can walk around the entire “island” in five minutes.
Ironically, I would have to say that the highlight of our cruise was the hotel we finished up at (and which most Paul Gauguin guests stay at both before and after the cruise), the Intercontinental. This is close by both the ship pier and the airport (the other hotel we were put at our first night, whose name I will not disclose, is on the other side of the island). Great place, excellent rooms, great (but REALLY pricey) food, and an absolutely brilliant split pool with conventional filtered water on one side, and the ocean spilling through underwater fences on the other side so sealife can and does swim right in; they even have some coral reefs growing in the pool, separated from guests by more screens. The fish—some pretty big ones, too, ranging from four feet long down to tiny colorful aquarium pets—swim freely to and from the ocean, and to and from the artificial reef and the swim area. The irony of this is that the best snorkeling I had, in fact perhaps the most enjoyment I had, during the entire Paul Gauguin cruise…was at the hotel.
Final thoughts: for years, Paul Gauguin has had a monopoly on French Polynesia. I read these gushing five-star reviews, including right here on Cruise Critic, and ask “have these people—including some who claim to be professional cruise critics—ever been on an actual luxury cruise ship in a location where it has competition and has to remain on the top of its game in every way to justify charging these huge ticket prices?” Well, the good news is that as of late 2019, competition is indeed on its way; Regent and Windstar have announced they will be bringing their brand of best-in-class service on their own ships, and Sea Dream is launching a new vessel that may eventually rotate there. On the economy end, the tired old Norwegian Pride of America—hopefully with some much-needed upgrades—will start including Tahiti and some surrounding islands as part of its time-honored circumnavigation of the Hawaiian chain, and it will be joined by the Pacific Princess, similar in size to Regent vessels. Due to the shallow seabed you won’t be seeing any mega-ships arriving (and that's definitely a good thing, as unleashing 6,000 passengers on the islands would ruin them), but you will be seeing competition at long last. Which is great news, because the islands and reefs are gorgeous, the people are friendly (even if you don’t speak French!), and the beaches are clean not because some resort is combing them twice a day but because they actually are clean. French Polynesia deserves better representatives of their tourism industry than the lazy and indifferent monopoly held by Paul Gauguin…and so do you.
Quiet, away from the elevators and the service/laundry station. Drape hardware and balcony door creaks when underway. Bath fixtures worn. Outlet in front of stateroom mirror (i.e. the only outlet; there's another in the bath but it is for electric razors only) needs replacing and plugs don't stay securely in. Ask your steward/ess to stock up the fridge with bottled water so you have something to take ashore with you.
My two-star opinion of Tahiti is meant for Americans/Canadians only, for the simple reason that Hawaii is so much closer, so much less expensive (Kaui is very similar), and you don't need to know French. Aussies/Kiwis, instead of Hawaii, go to Tahiti instead. By the way, a LOT of Ozzies aboard the Paul Gauguin, I'd say about 20-25% of the passengers.
We were in and out and had to take the spine-shattering ride in a shell on the pack of a oversized pickup truck with no shocks. By the time you arrive at the beach - the only place the free vendor goes - it's time to come back. Hardly the island's fault.
OMG, Bora Bora is beautiful. And big. And that's the problem; youll only see a tiny fraction of it. If I were to do it again, I'd do a combined Bora Bora and Fiji airplane vacation and spend a week here to do it right.
I give Rangiroa three stars "by default" because I honestly don't know how to be objective here. DON'T GO TO RANGIROA if you aren't booking a tour. If all you are going to do is find a beach and swim, go on a shorter cruise and save a fortune. If you do book a tour, understand in advance that you will personally encounter lots of very big, very dangerous fish. If that makes you uncomfortable, go for it anyway (by all accounts they may look scary but they stay safely away). On the other hand, if that may make you panic and rip your mask off...maybe stick to the lagoon beach after all.