EVERY description of French Polynesia includes the word "paradise," and rightly so. This was a magical week. "Paradise" is also an apt term for the m/s Paul Gauguin kind of like a Four Seasons Resort afloat. Unparalleled service amidst undescribable and spectacular surroundings. My latest phrase for the ship is "unpretentious luxury" efficient, polite, and personal. Remember, gratuities are included, so the staff is providing excellent service without expectation of remuneration THAT is impressive!
Introduction This was a "vacation" ... NOT a "trip"
We have been very fortunate to travel to wonderful places ... most of those excursions were "trips" we have an unsatiable desire to see, experience, and learn. This was our 4th cruise (first in 17 years). In celebrating our 25th anniversary, we looked for an experience with the following characteristics: (1) peaceful and unhurried, (2) new to us, (3) hassle-free, (4) a bit of a splurge, and (5) a place we would not readily take our teenage children. This ship and the destination not only met these criteria, our expectations were far exceeded.
For the sake of shorthand, we told people that we were going to "Tahiti." That was easier than saying that our destination was the "Society Islands within French Polynesia." Tahiti is a wonderful island, but it is NOT the highlight of this trip. Rather, it is the island of convenience for the airport and port. Nevertheless, I will likely adopt the shorthand in this review.
DFW to Los Angeles
Radisson's travel program included an overnight stay at the Airport Hilton in Los Angeles. A Radisson representative met us at the gate and ushered us through baggage claim and onto the Hilton shuttle a very warm reception. Planning for a 5:00 arrival in LA, we had reservations to see "The Lion King" on stage in Hollywood (a GREAT production). We figured that we might as well push hard stateside to enjoy the rest of the cruise even more!
The Hilton is a clean, efficient airport hotel. The hotel and breakfast buffet were included in the Radisson package. We highly recommend a layover in LA.
Flight to Papeete, Tahiti
Air Tahiti Nui ("ATN") has business class and economy class on an Airbus 300. We booked economy seats, but were told by our travel agent that ATN would sell stand-by upgrades to business class for $600 each. ATN said that there airport counter would open at 10:00, so we were there by 9:30. Although we were not first in line, the upgrade was available. An unexpected benefit of this upgrade was complimentary use of the Qantas Airways business class departure lounge (a welcome treat for the wait before our 1:00 flight).
The flight is a little over 8 hours. We decided to upgrade because (1) it added to the celebration, (2) the upgrade amount is reasonable (compare it with Europe!), (3) we would be awake during the flight and could enjoy the benefits of business class, and (4) we thought it would help us be better rested for the cruise. Service was efficient, amenities (e.g., foot rests, wide seats, individual viewing screens) were pleasant, and the food service very good. All in all, money well spent.
There is "fatigue" with any 8-hour flight, but there is no real "jet lag" -- there is only 3 hours time difference between LA and Tahiti.
We returned from Papeete in economy class, and I know that we made the right decision to upgrade on the outbound segment the return leaves at 10:45 p.m. and we had no problem sleeping, even in coach. Yes, it's cramped like every coach section, but try counting islands and you'll go to sleep immediately.
Arrival and embarkation
We arrived about 6:30 p.m. July is during Tahiti's winter season and sunset was at about 5:45. Customs control and baggage claim were easy, but they were not a "breeze." In fact, it was rather sultry on arrival. But heck, who cared we were in Tahiti!
Radisson reps met us with a flower lei and escorted us to a waiting air- conditioned bus. We were taken directly to the ship where we were ship side by Les Gauguines, a group of Polynesian women who provided local music and hospitality throughout the cruise. After the obligatory embarkation photo, we were directed to the Grand Salon for check-in.
Wouldn't life be wonderful if every time you entered a hotel or restaurant you were greeted with smiles and champagne? THIS is service! Our photos were taken for the ship's records, all questions answered, and we were soon escorted (not merely "taken") to our stateroom.
Yes, this was a "stateroom," NOT a "cabin." We had booked a category "F" guarantee, and were upgraded several decks to category "D." The size of the rooms were identical, but we had a window in lieu of portholes and fewer stairs for most activities. I am sure that we would have enjoyed the balcony, but we opted to spend our money elsewhere.
The rooms are immaculately appointed with woods and fabrics. Fresh flowers were waiting on our coffee table and robes and chocolates were placed on our turned- down bed. We went to dinner in L'Etoile and our baggage was waiting for us upon our return to the room.
While on the topic of the stateroom, let me give the quick inventory we all want/need to know what is there and what is missing:
TV/VCR (several free movie channels and videos available for check-out); safe; hair dryer; refrigerator stocked with canned sodas (one each of Coke, Diet Coke, and Seven-Up), bottled water, mixers (club soda and tonic water), beer (one Heineken and one Bud Light the beer was NOT replenished), and a small ice bucket (that was always replenished). There was also a form for your choice of a (regular size) bottle of liquor or wine (gin, vodka, scotch, white wine, or red wine).
The bathroom included a bathtub and had plenty or room. There were always plenty of towels, as well as two blue beach towels that were regularly replaced. The usual soaps and lotions were available, as well as q-tips and cotton balls. There was also a note that toiletries were available if you had forgotten yours.
Closet and drawer space was adequate (I am sure that we could have asked for more wooden hangers if we needed them). Plenty of room under the bed for the suitcases and carry-ons. Hat rack was just inside the stateroom door. Loveseat and a small chair were around the coffee table. I used the outlets without an adapter to recharge batteries for my digital camera and camcorder. Paula did not use an adapter for her curlers.
This space was efficiently designed. Somehow this was a "roomy" 200 sq. ft.
As our family is fond of saying in certain settings ... "this is not 'eating,' this is 'dining.'"
To quote my wife "the food was divine." What more could you ask for? The selections were varied and exquisitely prepared. Wine and beer are gratis at lunch and dinner. There were different white and red wines at every meal ... I cannot imagine asking to see a wine list (although it was available for those so inclined). Beers included the local "Hinano" as well as Heineken, Corona, and American domestics.
Three restaurants on board open seating at every meal.
L'Etoile is the main dining room. Lunch was served buffet style and each evening there was a new menu. No problem in getting a table for 2 at any time.
"The Grill" on the pool deck was like most pool-side grills friendly and casual. Nice standard fare for breakfast and lunch. We did not eat there for dinner (reservations required) and I did not hear any comments about it.
"La Veranda" was our favorite place for breakfast and lunch. We were ALWAYS able to be seated at a table on the deck outside the restaurant, usually alone on the deck we considered this area the best kept secret on the ship! I guess some folks thought it was only open for dinner. There are two alternating "set" menus for dinner at La Veranda. The menus are created by a renowned Parisian chef and are VERY continental. We loved the menus, but there were a number (most?) who preferred to have a variety of items from which to choose. E-mail me if you want a sample menu.
The cruise price is inclusive of beer and wine at meals, as well as all sodas, juices, and bottled water. There were iced bottles of water available at each bar or and restaurant. There was a special large ice chest with bottled water in the Grand Salon from which you could get unlimited water to take on excursions.
Free "Rum drinks" were available pool side or at an evening reception at least once each day. With these free drinks and the wine/beer at meals, the bars did minimal business in the interim.
ALL beverages were free during the "motu" days at Tahaa and Bora Bora.
Radisson boasts a "no coat and tie" policy that is welcomed by all. Their suggested "country club casual" was translated into "no shorts." I would characterize the passengers evening clothes as "tropical casual." Some folks got "dressed up" at night, but most were dressed nicely but nothing like "formal."
There were 302 passengers with us during our week on the m/s Paul Gauguin (capacity = 320). Although most were from the U.S. (primarily California), there were 40 were from France. Being summer (and a Radisson discount week), there were about 5 families with school-age children, and another 5 or so families with college-age kids. There was nothing ship-sponsored for the kids, but they seemed to have a good time. There were 7 honeymoon couples and a number of anniversary celebrations like us. I did not meet any first-time cruisers. These folks were well-traveled and gave glowing remarks to Radisson.
Temperatures ranged from lows of 75 to highs of 85 each day. We had brief showers a couple of days. It was humid, but never hot. However, the sun was intense at this latitude and we were careful to wear sunscreen. There is minimal shaded area around the swimming pool.
Get a good book, strike up a conversation, or work on the jigsaw puzzle outside the boutique on deck 6. That's about the extent of what's offered. Not even shuffleboard or bingo. The emphasis is on the islands and serenity. If you're looking for "stuff" on the ship to keep you occupied, you are out of luck. No one complained; in fact, many of the passengers remarked how this was the type of cruise they had dreamed of.
The ship has a water sports platform from which you can kayak or windsurf. This is also where you can pick up complimentary snorkeling equipment.
There was "some" singing and dancing, but no Broadway shows here. Two very good local dance groups came on board a children's group performed while the ship was anchored at Raiatea and a professional group performed the final evening. They were both entertaining. The pianist/songstress in the La Palette lounge was wonderful and the cruise director had an evening cabaret show. However, this is NOT a late-night ship.
There were rarely more than 10 people in the casino. The local government does not allow Radisson to operate the slot machines.
There was only one shop on board and it had the requisite personal sundries as well as cruise-wear and Tahitian jewelry. The best shopping we found outside of Papeete was on Moorea (t-shirts, pareus, etc.)
We cannot tell you about the following areas because we never made use of them:
Spa Operated by Carita Spa from Paris; folks were pleased with the salon services and massages.
Fitness center Small and busy early in the day. We wanted to use it, but we were too busy at breakfast. We substituted the ship's stairs for stairmaster.
Connoisseur Club Cigar bar.
The Radisson materials gave full descriptions and pricing of excursions in advance of the cruise. I also reviewed message boards and websites for suggestions of activities and tour providers. We decided to book all of our excursions via Radisson on the first night of the cruise. The prices were a bit more expensive than the local operators, but the convenience of one-stop shopping and certainty of schedule won us over. We were VERY impressed with the professionalism, courtesy, and efficiency of the tour operators affiliated with Radisson.
On to the islands .....
We confess that we stayed on board the ship this day. We were "too relaxed" to move, and we knew that there were "active" excursions awaiting us in Bora Bora. A children's dance troupe performed poolside and some locals sold their handicrafts on board. The "best" excursion reported by other passengers was a combo tour with a 4x4 ride and outrigger canoe tour. We were pleased with our decision to lounge by the pool and read.
THIS was paradise. The tender took us to Radisson's private island where we were greeted with a floating bar, lounge chairs, beach umbrellas, open bar, and full BBQ. When did you last have a Pina Colada or Mai Tai made IN a fresh coconut? For those so inclined there was superb snorkeling and 2-person kayaks. The area was small enough to be convenient to the amenities, yet spacious enough to find a secluded spot. We took the first tender over and the last tender back. Life gets NO better than this.
Haven't you always imagined the remoteness and ruggedness of Bora Bora? Well, the island will NOT disappoint you. Day 1 was our busiest day of the cruise. We spent the morning on a 4x4 tour with Carl, the BEST guide we have ever had. Our Land Rover held 8 guests and we climbed roads that no other vehicle could handle. Highlights included stops at the American WWII gun placements, a pineapple plantation, several lookouts (with fresh pineapple and coconut), and a drink at Bloody Mary's. We scurried back to the ship for lunch and a change into swimsuits for our trek on waverunners. This excursion is summarized in one word "FUN!" We traveled 3/4 way around the island and then stopped on a motu to rest the machines and have a snack. It was great to see the places we had seen during the 4x4 tour, and the views of the resorts, ships, reefs, and lagoons was spectacular.
Day 2 began with a tour of shark and sting ray feeding. Our guide fed the sharks (3-4 foot long) BEFORE we entered the water to "mingle" with the rays. The sting rays were like loving "puppies" snuggling up to you for attention. We then snorkeled in the reef/coral garden and saw hundreds of different fish and a "living" reef with clams, etc. Our guide found an octopus and, after capturing him, showed him to our whole group. We passed it around and THEN he put the octopus on my head (guess he looked for the person with the least hair!). Another unique experience.
We finished the day at another private beach. Open bar, but no food. We snorkeled, read, and snoozed.
We sailed into Cook's Bay in the morning and took the first tender at 12:30. We opted to drive the island on our own Avis and EuropCar were at the dock and a 4- hour rental was about $60. We circled the island, stopping at lookouts, pearl shops, and a couple of the resorts. The final stop was Belvedere lookout. A beautiful viewpoint overlooking both of Moorea's bays. The weather was cloudy/drizzly, but that added a special magic to the setting.
That evening we attended a 1-hour lecture by Dr. Michael Poole, a renowned American researcher who has been studying the "spinner dolphins" and humpback whales of Moorea for almost 20 years. The lecture was the perfect backdrop for our Day 2 excursion, a dolphin-watching outing with Dr. Poole. There are about 160 dolphins at Moorea, and we saw about 45-50 of them! The 30 of us on the boat were mesmerized by the beauty and wonder of these creatures. This was a chance to LEARN about and OBSERVE dolphins in THEIR natural state. We spent over an hour just watching the dolphins surface, leap, and spin as Dr. Poole explained the environment and answered all of our questions. He only "observes" the dolphins and does not communicate with them or disturb their environment. This was the BEST excursion on any of our cruises to date ... learning + fun = appreciation. I highly recommend this excursion.
This is a port city ... enough said. After a smooth disembarkation, we opted "out" of the island tour that stopped at the Gauguin museum. We took the motorcoach directly to the InterContinental Resort where Radisson had a room reserved for us. We could not check in until 2:00, so we spent the morning in Papeete shopping for pearls and souvenirs (visit the local market --VERY colorful. The island "taxi/shuttle" only costs $1.20 each and the ride to the hotel took only 5-10 minutes. The hotel served a buffet lunch, which was adequate but not up to ship standards! We lounged around the hotel pool all afternoon, walked the grounds, and looked longingly at Moorea (a short 20-minute ferry ride away). We were on our own for dinner and went back into town for one last meal in Polynesia.
Our flight was scheduled for 10:45 p.m. and the motorcoach picked us up at the hotel at 9:30. Another efficient operation by Radisson.
Pre- or post-cruise stays in French Polynesia
Several folks did pre-cruise stays on one of the islands. That's a great idea for creating an extended vacation, but it is not necessary to beat the jet lag (from the U.S.) or even the jet fatigue. I would not recommend a post-cruise stay on the islands. I think most of us were sufficiently spoiled by the service, food, and amenities of the m/s Paul Gauguin. In addition, the resorts (while idyllic-looking) are VERY expensive.
Suggestions for the ship
Our "comment" card to Radisson included only a few recommendations for improvement: (1) installing a few clocks in the public areas (especially around the pool), (2) providing a clock in the stateroom, (3) providing music choices in the stateroom (either via the TV, a cd-player, or stereo channels), (3) a few more in-room movie channels would be nice (nice video library is available), and (4) a request for no organized evening receptions/events before 6:30.
These are all trivial items, but there is always room for improvement.
For more information
Radisson has a separate brochure and video for this cruise. The words and pictures present an accurate depiction of the ship and itinerary. The Radisson website provides excellent details on the ship and excursions.
There are a number of websites from which I gathered information (apart from those focused on the cruise-happy folks):
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises http://www.rssc.com Air Tahiti Nui http://www.airtahitinui-usa.com Polynesian Islands http://polynesianislands.com Tahiti Explorer (information and message boards) http://www.tahiti-explorer.com Weather http://www.weather.com/weather/local/FPXX0001 Papeete webcam http://www.borabora.com/webcam/index.htm
Thanks to everyone who has posted information on websites and message boards about this cruise. Your factual details and subjective opinions facilitated our planning and heightened our enjoyment of this experience. This is my first attempt at a cruise review, and I will attempt to have something for everyone interested. If I fail to address your inquiry or curiosity, send me a message and I will try to help.