2016 Polynesian Cruise

Following the very pleasant “repositioning” cruise on the Paul Gauguin line, from Lisbon to Sint Maarten in December 2014, we signed up for another Gauguin experience, this time in their home territory of the South Pacific – Tahiti and the Society Isles.  The summer-rainy season timing meant that the price was low enough that we could afford it!

If your South Pacific geography is not quite up to scratch, Tahiti and the surrounding islands are way out east in the ocean from Chile, some 3000 miles from any continent.  They are part of a huge crescent of Polynesia island cultures, running from Hawaii to Easter Island (RapaNui in Polynesian).  French Polynesia includes 118 islands in five groups. Tahiti is part of the Society Islands. Given their small and very scattered population, there is not much manufacturing capacity.  So nearly everything is brought from somewhere else – New Zealand, Australia, the US, Japan…and the prices reflect that.  GDP per capita is roughly $20,000. Tourism is the economic driver, and many of the resort options are beyond most of our budgets.   ($2700 per night, two-night minimum, on Marlon Brando’s island, for example…) 

Polynesia is part of France, and “overseas collectivity, electing a deputy to the French parliament, and using currency (the French Polynesian franc) managed from Paris, as is the only university.  Education is in French, and there is a struggle to keep the Polynesian language alive through TV or radio programs.  Meantime you will hear a few words – hello, goodbye, thank you from the staff aboard your ship or in hotels.  For some, that may be all they know!  Over two-thirds of the population recently reported that they spoke only French at home.

Cruises in Polynesia begin and end at the port in Papeete, Tahiti, the capital of the island and the Society Isles. The Islands together have about 285,000 inhabitants, nearly 70% of which live on Tahiti, with some 134,000 in Papeete. Papeete has a great market – both for food and for crafts of all kinds.   Our hotel ran a shuttle to town (many km, way too far to walk) and we were glad we explored. 

We stayed in the Intercontinental hotel for nearly three days before boarding the ship – watching the incredible display of clouds across the bay over Moorea and getting our energy back after the long trip from LA.  It has a beautiful setting, with a large pool of various levels to accommodate “kids of all ages” as well as a salt-water lagoon.  Be prepared for sticker shock…a glass of wine might cost nearly $20.  Relax and enjoy…especially the staff, lovely people – and, amazingly, not only not looking for tips but really not expecting them, that is not part of their culture!

We boarded the Paul Gauguin in the late afternoon of a Wednesday, and unpacked so we could stow the suitcases under the bed – and then explored the ship.  On the top deck were a restaurant and a small lounge/bar/breakfast nook at the stern, which became a refuge most days.  Here the ship “Gauguines” (effectively, tour guides) gave late morning presentations on how to do various crafts, dance to Polynesian music, and the like.  One morning three passengers came in from an early dive and ordered Bloody Marys – at 8:15 a.m.!   There were three restaurants in all, two requiring reservations at night; we opted each time for the third one, where you could join a table and meet other passengers.  There was a couple renewing vows after thirty years of marriage, and a honeymooning couple from Brazil, both newly-minted doctors; a couple from Idaho whose parents and grandparents came from the Basque country in Spain; a Scottish couple and a newly retired lawyer who spent most of his time diving; an elderly pair from Bermuda. Sadly, we did not encounter the couple from Uzbekistan.

For two days we just relaxed onboard (passing up the opportunity to see the site of the “sacred blue-eyed eels” on the first island) and watched the energetic young men paddling their kayaks to ride the wave behind the ship’s tender.  The biggest problem was not spending all your time eating – if you weren’t interested in the breakfast and lunch buffets or the pool bar, room service was available 24/7 (except, curiously, French fries were not available from 11 pm to 6 am for “safety reasons”).  Then we arrived to Bora-Bora, where we took our first excursion – an underwater walk using large helmets connected to the boat for air supply.  Bags of bread crumbs attached to the bottom of the helmet attracted many fish (who knew they’d eat bread crumbs just like birds?  No gluten problems underwater…) A female sting-ray came up and appeared to seek being stroked (which we did, it’s the males that are dangerous).  The walk site was next to a small chunk of coral, where there were sea anemones (not safe to touch, unlike the sting-ray!) and a Moray eel.  The helmets weighed some 40 pounds, but were not installed on your shoulders until you had reached the bottom of the ladder on the back of the boat, and so in a sense floating, and becoming weightless.

The final stop was Moorea, not far from Tahiti, where the ship again anchored overnight.  We toured the island with a stop at the Belvedere where you could see some dramatic peaks – I’d forego this one if I returned, not very interesting.  Better to just take the tender to shore and wander around in the shops!  Then we went out dolphin watching, guided by a man who came out 27 years ago to do research for his doctorate at UC-Berkeley –and never left!  It was fascinating to see “Spinner Dolphins” do exactly that, hurling themselves out of the water and twirling several times.  

The next day we were moored in Papeete again, just two dozen miles away from Moorea, and we enjoyed our last communal dinner.  Late that evening we put our packed luggage outside the cabin, in preparation for disembarking the next day.  This was a long process, beginning about mid-day.  Rather than go directly to the small airport to wait for the midnight flight, we moved to the Pearl Resort hotel west of the town, and enjoyed a very pleasant room until time for dinner.  This one had a black sand beach that was quite spectacular.  Mid-evening we transferred to the airport and began the long trek home, nearly 24 hours – due in part to travel in Christmas week, with every flight delayed!  But enough about that.  The cruise itself and the islands were extremely enjoyable and we’re glad we had the chance to see a bit of the South Pacific.  

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.