Who are we?: We took a much deserved family trip on board the Paul Gauguin. Our group consisted of me, my husband, my sister (all mid-30s) my mother (mid-50's) and our 15 year old daughter.
What sold us on this trip?: We are warm weather people that live in a cold weather area. We have been to Hawaii many times, and it's become so incredibly touristy and expensive, we weren't wanting to go back. The Bahamas and Caribbean did not sound inviting. When we discovered that Tahiti is just a couple hours past Hawaii on the flight, we were sold. There is a 7 night cruise that would work nicely with our busy schedules, but we opted for a little longer cruise at 11 nights, as we haven't had a vacation in a while and really wanted to relish the time with our family and seriously unwind.
When looking at hotels, the pricing was very expensive and much like Hawaii, everything you buy such as food and drinks is astronomical. But we were determined to find the best deal. When we found the Paul Gauguin and saw that everything is included (with the exception of optional tours and spa) When I saw that the fare included airfare from LAX I was floored. Pricing it out myself was a great anxiety and this made the price point much more attractive. Plus, I have never seen a cruise line that included alcohol and other beverages. It's not fun when you get to the end of your cruise, that you paid a minimal amount for and you have a ridiculous bill for your childs soda. That always makes me leave my vacation feeling icky. So the Paul Gauguin came out a clear winner. When I saw they had a kids program sponsored by the Cousteau family, that was an added bonus!
Embarkation: Immediately when you step off the plane and that humid air hits you, you relax. You feel warm and satisfied that you have made the right decision by coming to Tahiti. You are greeted by flowers and music, our bags were taken and we were given chilled towels and champagne in return! And very warmly greeted by our incredible Cruise Director, Michael Shapiro and the group of hostesses on board named the Gauguines.
A brief check-in and we were given our key cards that link to our account and act as ID for getting on and off the vessel. That night consisted of a welcome party and dancing. But what I liked most about it was there was no pressure to do anything but relax, have a drink and enjoy your surroundings. This set the precedent for the rest of the trip.
The Ship in General: After an exploration of the ship on the first night it is easily navigable. I really liked the layout, clear direction, and the fact that the ship is large enough to feel substantial, but not so huge that you get lost. We have sailed on very small ships (100 or less guests) and very large (1000+) and this really was the perfect size at 330 guests. My husband and I were in an A Suite and everyone else had C staterooms. Both were really roomy and exquisite, with balcony and stocked fridge. Our suite was bigger then our room at home! And came complete with mini-bar and butler service. Our butler and our stewardess were so very sweet and accommodating. My husband was sea sick one evening when we hit open-ocean, and when I saw them in the hall I let them know. They rushed down to see what he needed and if there was anything they could do to make him feel better. Turns out all he needed was a Dramamine that first night, then he was fine the rest of the cruise. I do recommend taking motion sickness meds, you may need them and you may not. I felt great the whole time without them!
THE FOOD!: Our first meal there was dinner and it was amazing. I had a Tahitian Wok dish with pork, sauce made from coconut milk. My husband who is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy was very happy with his steak. Then we topped it off with delicious desert and the best cappuccino I've ever had in my life (I had one every night after that!). WARNING: Do not go on this cruise with any other expectation then gaining 5+ lbs. The food here is amazing! Some of my other favorites included Chicken Stir-Fry, Greek Lamb, Beef Wellington, Lobster in Tahitian Vanilla cream sauce, and the best Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee and Cheesecake. My mom, who is diabetic even got desert every night, as there is always a sugar free option! I will also mention the drinks are included and poured freely. And we're not talking about watered down drinks and cheap wine. It was nothing but the best! They do charge for some top name brand stuff, but nothing we ever drink.
Service: Don't lift a finger! When I read that there is a staff member for every 1.5 guests, I couldn't imagine what that would be like. How about awesome! I'd load up my plate at the buffet and my good friend and waiter Michael was right behind me to take it to my table. Drinks by the pool in the afternoon, don't get up, they bring them to you! Your wine glass doesn't get past half empty unless you want it to. And they all remembered each of our names, and what we liked to drink. I really felt a clear connection between the guests and the staff that I've never felt before. Usually there is a clear divide. But the staff members on this ship are all genuinely cheerful and happy to help, without the feel of them being labored. They even put on a talent show for us, which was probably my favorite show of the whole cruise.
The Spa: I booked a very expensive massage that I probably shouldn't have, but I was on vacation. And let me tell you, that was the most WONDERFUL massage I have ever had in my life. If you go on this trip and make an apt., you must ask for Ivy. She also did my moms body scrub and wrap which she informed me was also heavenly.
Marina: The water marina off the back of the ship is pretty cool. I haven't seen anything quite like it. We went down to get our snorkel gear that we checked out for the whole cruise. You can windsurf and kayak off the back of the ship (if the stabilizers aren't on in inclimate weather). Pretty sweet.
Gym: There isn't much to the gym, it's well enough equipped for a good workout. I peeked inside but didn't bother with a workout. If you're in a place like this, why are you going to go to the gym?
SCUBA Diving: I have always wanted to SCUBA but no one else in my party wanted to do it with me. Out of curiosity I went down to the dive desk the first night to chat with the dive master, Laurent. When I told him about my interest he was very excited and passionate about teaching me what he knew, we became instant friends and it didn't feel as though I was going to be alone on my adventures. We did a 2 hour class in the pool, where about 10 of us (both new divers and those who haven't dived in a while) learned the basics and had our pool time. I felt totally safe the whole time and it came pretty naturally with the help of Laurent and Thierry, the other dive master. With the completion of this class I was eligible for 2 beginner dives, Bora Bora Lagoon and Moorea Shark Dive.
Dive 1 Bora Bora Lagoon: Arg! I was so nervous, this in not the pool! I let Laurent know I was feeling apprehensive and he just smiled and said to breathe (and gave the hand sign for "breathe" that we had learned in class) Assured me that with them and it was the safest thing in the world. He was right, I was silly to be nervous. There were only 3 of us on that first dive and we went in with Thierry while Laurent stayed on the surface in the dive boat as look out. Thierry was just as amazing of a guide and teacher as Laurent, patient and kind. I've heard horror stories from friends about how they learned to dive and how short and unclear their guides and instructors had been. I Thanked my lucky stars for the dive team of the Gauguin. We explored the bottom of the lagoon at 20 ft and saw so many amazing things! I couldn't believe it, I was diving, and in one of the most beautiful places on Earth! The water is warm, clear and blue, you can see everything. After about 40 minutes we surfaced, no problem.
Dive 2 Moorea Shark Gallery: I'm nervous again! I'm a pro at diving but now I have to do it with sharks. I actually really love sharks and I'm not too afraid of them, I have snorkeled with them in Costa Rica. But now I'm going to have all this equipment on me at 40ft down, what if they sneak up behind me? The first thing that was said when I came onto the marina was "there is no danger in diving with the sharks here". Phew! Well I have to say the scariest part was pulling up and seeing the sharks from above the water in the boat. Once I got in the water I felt totally at ease. There were lots of sharks and other really gorgeous fish, anemone, sea stars and the most brightly colored clams. This is another world. This time I was diving with David as our guide since there were 7 of us on this one, we split into 2 groups. There was even an 8 year old boy diving with us, and he did great! I love that Gauguin Dive Team, that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And easier then I ever would have thought. If you are thinking about diving, do it here!
Youth Program: The Ambassadors of the Environment Youth program was really great and added to my daughter experience tremendously. There were other kids to hang out with and she didn't have to hang with us lame adults if she didn't want to. The program is sponsored by Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, which made me feel better about pulling her out of school a little early. At least I knew she'd learn something! The leaders of the program were Megan and Bobbi, both are super smart and very easy to get along with. They made the kids feel right at home and got them talking to one another by playing games and doing crafts. They usually had one excursion planned a day (and it's optional for the adults to go on as well, they just pay the fee for the excursion. Either me or my sister went with her most days, as did allot of other parents.) The kids and the adult learned so much from these amazing ladies about French Polynesia above and below the water, culture, anthropology and environment, and it felt like our own little private group. This is really great if you have kids. Also they gave them certificates for completing the program, which won't hurt on my daughters college application!
Shore Excursions: The Travel Concierge team on board is lovely. Our ladies were Pia, Sandy and Christina. You can book your excursion before you leave on the website, but we wanted to see shat to expect before we made any plans. The easiest thing for us, since there were 5 of us, was getting together for lunch and seeing what excursions were offered the next day. Then after lunch go down to the travel desk and book. There were never any space issues that we weren't able to book, and the girls there were incredibly helpful.
Nightlife: After dark is pretty tame on board. There is always some kind of show featuring the Cruise Director and the Gauguines. Then after we usually hung out at La Pallete Lounge. The bartender knew our names and knew what we wanted by the 3rd night, and there was the most amazing bad called "Siglo" that covered everything from Journey to 80's classics. There is a small dance floor and when the band is done the DJ starts. It was the best time being able to dance the night away with my 15 year old. It has a night club feel but I didn't have to worry about sneaking her in or them serving her since they knew how old she is. There was also the Piano bar which has a very relaxing vibe. And there is a black jack tourney in the Casino every night which sounded so fun! We always planned on getting in on the action but never got around to it. Next time!
Honestly, this is one of the best decisions we've made for travel plans. When we got our bill at the end of the cruise I couldn't believe that was all I spent. With everything being included and only paying for excursions and spa treatments, it was minimal. Even with 11 days, I still didn't get to fit in everything I wanted to do. So we're planning another cruise with them in 2013! Aitutaki (this port so remote it's not offered as option to pick) - This was my favorite port. It tiny and everyone is friendly. We went on a hike with the youth group to a private beach and went snorkeling. The we did the 4x4 Safari, which we visited an ancient site and learned so much about this island from our local guides. we went to the very the top of the island where you could see all the way around, breath-taking! Then we stopped and visited a small resort, had a beer and a snack and watched the most gorgeous lagoon I've ever seen. You have to do this tour! But bring bug repellent as the mosquitoes are thick in the hills. Taha'a (Motu Mahana Private Island) - This was probably my favorite day. We started out about 10am and the first tender was so full we missed it. Everyone wanted to get over to that private island! We found our perfect spots under the shade of a palm tree in front of the lagoon and staked our claim. I was brought a margarita in a coconut, yum! We were also very blessed to be able to witness a couple celebrating their 30th anniversary and renewing their vows with a ceremony right on the beach, set up by the staff. It was so beautiful I cried and I don't even know the couple! Later on we dyed Pareos with the Gauguines (who serenaded us with music all day by the way!) and ate the most delicious BBQ lunch. We finished up the afternoon with a nice long snorkel, witnessing some great sea life. I didn't want to leave, but we caught the last group back.
A Category Veranda Suite: Our cabin was great! Walking in, directly to the right is the large bathroom with full tub and shower, stocked with L'Occitane toiletries. There was plenty of cabinet space that I could unpack my goodies and not have to worry about living out of my suitcase. The closets were huge, more then enough room for everything. We also received cotton slippers and bathrobes which was nice. We had a king bed and flat screen TV with movies and all the days activities on a loop. Well stocked fridge and mini bar. This suite comes with butler who is amazing. We received all of our room service delivered by him (Richard) and afternoon appetizers at 5pm everyday, as well as fresh ice in our mini bar twice a day. There were other services he offered that we didn't take him up on, like unpacking us or booking our shore excursions, we can do all that ourselves. Veranda was spacious, we had morning coffee out there every day.
We spent our first night at the InterContinental Tahiti. I had read not to arrive at the ship before 3pm on departure day, so we had a late check out and had the whole next day to explore. We were planning on going to the market, by the InterContinental has an ambiance and we didn't want to leave. So we didn't. We wondered the grounds and the pools. Ate lunch and had some beers. The bill just for lunch was about $50 per person, and that was just a sandwich and 2 beers. I couldn't wait to get on the ship where I wouldn't have to pay for a beer! I knew I made the best decision on the value of what I was paying for on the Gauguin.
Since this was a Sunday everything on the Island was closed. I had my diving class to we just went on for a little exploration. It is a really beautiful place, with the most amazing coral reef! Actually it was nice not to be thrown into anything super heavy on the first full day. But I would have liked to see some shops and what not.
Rarotonga is pretty great, you can walk for miles and miles. We went to the local market and picked up some fresh cut coconuts for drinking the milk. We walked around and shopped and just generally took it easy while we enjoyed the town. This island is allot more populated then Aitutaki and had a little more of a metropolitan feel, with the lush mountain backdrop.
When we pulled into Bora Bora at Sunrise it was just like the postcard! A very lazy vibe first thing in the AM. We tendered over and found out there was a festival so the streets were packed with locals. We went to local shops and watched the dance competition at night. The tour we took here was a local Le Truck tour. We had a very informative local guide and navigated the whole island. Stopping at the very cool and famous Bloody Mary's, where we fittingly drank bloody marys. We also visited the private beach, which was nice and relaxing.
I thought Bora Bora was gorgeous, and let me tell you it's nothing compared to Moorea. This was hands down the most beautiful island. With jagged peaks all around, and lush green mountains it was so lovely. We hiked up to the top of the mountain with on board archaeologist Michael Poole. and we visited some ancient sites and saw much of the forest. We stopped at a tattoo artist well known on the island to get commemorative Polynesian tattoos, which he designed right there with a few ideas of what we wanted. They are gorgeous and a proud reminder of our time in Polynesia.