French Polynesia has long been the center of the universe for romantics looking for the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vacation. Adventure-seekers are equally drawn to this chain of 118 islands and motus (little islands) and make the long-haul trip to dive, snorkel, hike and swim with sea turtles, black-tipped sharks and stingrays. Enter Paul Gauguin Cruises, whose flagship of the same name was purpose-built for the region. In a destination that truly is the draw, this luxury vessel provides a comfortable, all-inclusive cruise experience, where the ship, appropriately, serves as a background to the scenery.
Service onboard is among the best we've experienced on any ship, with 214 crewmembers anticipating every need. (We had to laugh when, while attempting to get a cup of tea from the self-service station, three waiters intervened, instructing us to sit down while they served us.) Crew seem genuinely happy performing their jobs; the proof is in the number of crew who have impressively long tenures with the ship, according to Paul Gauguin's hotel director.
For that reason, crewmembers know these islands intimately and pass along that expertise to you. You'll learn about the Polynesian islands from residents themselves, as well as from renowned archaeologists and marine biologists. You'll go ashore with highly rated guides and tour operators, and pre- and post-cruise partner hotels -- Pacific Beachcomber operates six mid-level and luxury resorts on the islands -- will wow you.
Dining options are excellent, with fresh-caught seafood and over-the-top French cuisine, as well as Polynesian standards that will have you eagerly anticipating your next meal. Wines, cocktails, spirits, juices and soft drinks are included in the cruise fares and available all day.
Paul Gauguin's marina, which opens to the lagoons in various ports, is a fun chance to play on the water without needing a tender to leave the ship.
Paul Gauguin is meticulously maintained, though it doesn't have the bells and whistles of newer ships. It doesn't need them. Those searching for a vacation that combines some lazy days with more active outdoor pursuits will be hard-pressed to find a better fit in French Polynesia than Paul Gauguin.
These tropical itineraries call for casual attire by day and country-club or elegant resortwear clothing by night. During the day, you'll need bathing suits, cover-ups, shorts, shoes that are comfortable for walking or hiking, and reef shoes, a must for the private island experiences, where rocks, broken bits of coral and sea cucumbers can make for an uncomfortable walk. Bug spray with DEET is also a necessity in the lush, tropical environment.
At night, women traditionally wear skirts or slacks or capris with blouses, and men go for trousers and short-sleeved collared shirts. (Think "Tommy Bahama," rather than golf shirts.) On Tahitian Night, which occurs once a cruise, women are encouraged to wear pareos (Tahitian wraparound skirts, which are available ashore at the various ports or in the ship's gift shop), and men don Polynesian shirts. Fill your suitcase with lightweight clothes made of natural fibers (cotton, linen and silk), and you'll have everything you need.
When it comes to entertainment, time off the ship is nearly as important as time on it. Paul Gauguin's itineraries vary little, so most cruises will include two stops at the line's private motus (little islands).
Paul Gauguin's beach BBQ day, hosted on Motu Mahana, a tiny island off Taha'a, is legendary. The beach is perfection, with powdery white sand and snorkeling for those who want a little more activity. The Marina staff bring over the ship's kayaks so you can explore the area before and after enjoying a buffet spread for lunch. There's an open bar on land and a floating bar if you can't bring yourself to leave the water. You'll also get a chance to participate in a game of volleyball or a session on coconuts, the most important crop in French Polynesia. Beach chairs are set up for day use, and picnic tables are available (with umbrellas) for lunch.
Paul Gauguin Cruises also maintains a motu in Bora Bora, but it's more basic and doesn't have the facilities you'll come to know and love at Motu Mahana. There are no bathrooms or beach chairs on this motu, though a small bar is set up where you can order from a limited drink menu that includes rum punch, soft drinks and beer. Snorkeling there means battling some current, but if you're comfortable in the water, the payoff is gorgeous coral, schools of colorful fish and stingrays. The beach itself is glorious, and palm trees provide shade; just be aware of the dangers of falling coconuts.
For the main islands, shore excursions, which aren't included in the cruise fares, generally take place in small groups and include everything from hiking, diving and snorkeling to visiting pearl farms and swimming with stingrays. The majority of ship-sponsored tours are priced per person between $55 (think Le Truck island tours) and $120 (for options like the AquaSafari Underwater Walk and various scuba opportunities). Excursions like horseback-riding and a WaveRunner/ATV combo are more expensive. Private excursions, such as rental of a fishing boat, can also be arranged.
Back on the ship, central meeting places before and after dinner are the Piano Bar and Grand Salon (both on Deck 5) and La Palette lounge on Deck 8, aft. Live music is featured nightly at both the Piano Bar and La Palette, and you'll find the Grand Salon is a comfortable venue from which to enjoy shows like "Viva Polynesia," featuring the ship's Tahitian hostesses, Les Gauguines, and an evening of most-requested songs.
A small casino onboard features two gaming tables and several slot machines. If you feel like playing some Caribbean poker but find the casino empty, simply ring the bell on the gaming table, and a dealer will come running. (Because of local laws, the casino is only open when the ship is at sea.)
Once you've won a few dollars, head to La Boutique, which is stocked with black pearls (a signature of the region), tropical clothing and Paul Gauguin logo merchandise.
Virtually all entertainment and enrichment onboard revolves around French Polynesia and its colorful people. That has the potential to get kitschy but instead is fascinating and endearing. For example, Paul Gauguin is unique in that a group of talented Tahitian women and men travel with the ship to teach passengers about French Polynesia, as well as to sing, dance and tell the lore of their homeland. These young ladies and gentlemen add a dimension to the cruise that can't be experienced elsewhere.
The cruise line also emphasizes its enrichment series and invites some of the most fascinating lecturers around to speak about French Polynesian culture and the local eco-system.
Other activities onboard during the day are appropriately subdued. Passengers can catch a Polynesian "zumba" class in the morning, learn French or Polynesian games, make leis or show off their knowledge with a game of trivia.
For straight-up relaxing, passengers can head outdoors to the ship's aft on Deck 8, adjacent to La Palette, where there's a couple of wicker couches, along with some tables and chairs. This spot is a quiet one from which to watch sailaway. Be warned, though, that despite constant cleaning from the crew, soot is an issue there. If you're wearing light-colored clothing, you could walk away a bit smudged. A better option, which is somewhat more secluded, is located outside on Deck 6, aft (behind La Veranda), where a number of tables for four are located. There, the views are just as good, but there's an awning that catches any soot.
Bar du Soleil, located on Deck 9, has lovely views but was rarely open during our sailing except to host private functions.
Paul Gauguin has a small spa, Deep Nature Spa by Algotherm, where passengers can partake in an assortment of treatments, such as a 30-minute body scrub ($80), 45-minute facial ($150) or 40-minute aroma steam bath ($140). Unique Polynesian-inspired spa treatments like Monoi oil massages ($80 for 25 minutes) and the signature Bora Bora Deep Blue Massage ($240 for 90 minutes) are also available. A steam room is complimentary for all passengers, though those with spa appointments are given priority during busy periods.
You can book traditional hair-styling ($135 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry) and nail services ($25 for a polish change) at the adjacent salon.
There's also a small fitness center with free weights up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds), stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Keep in mind, most cardio machines track in kilometers. It also offers a universal weight machine, two machines for back exercises, and mats and balls for stretching and abdominal work. The space is tight, though, with little room for spreading out. It's busiest around 7 a.m. each day, so plan to exercise at off times if you need more space. The ship lacks an outdoor jogging track, and that's a disappointment for many cruisers, though passengers who want to take it outside can walk around the sun deck on Deck 9; 20 laps equal a mile. Running isn't permitted on the sun deck.
A hallmark of Paul Gauguin is its retractable aft marina. When sea and weather conditions cooperate, the marina is the venue for complimentary water sports. Those who opt to windsurf should have experience, but novices are welcome to try standup paddleboarding or kayaking. The marina is also the spot where you can borrow snorkeling equipment to use throughout the cruise, but passengers can't swim or snorkel from the marina platform.
There is also a comprehensive scuba program onboard. Refresher, referral and certification courses are offered. Up to three dives per day are scheduled and led by the ship's onboard dive instructors. The per-person price for most single-tank day dives is $95. A full open-water certification will cost $750.
If you're looking for something a bit more passive, try the pool on Deck 8; it's the only one onboard, but it's deep and seldom crowded. The pool deck, with its wonderful teak planks, has very little shade for lounging, so plan to lather on the sunscreen.
The generous passenger-to-space ratio is one of Paul Gauguin's calling cards. This ship feels intimate, yet never crowded, and numerous venues appeal for those looking to relax with friends.
Head to the Internet Center on Deck 5 to check your email or surf the web. Internet plans are available based on the amount of data used, not the amount of time spent online. The small package costs $29 and offers 100 MB of data, while the medium package costs $49 and provides 250 MB of data. For those who want to share data or stream anything, the large package costs $99 and provides 750 MB of data. You can also pay per MB at a rate of 40 cents. Wi-Fi is available in some cabins, as well, although connectivity speed can be disappointing in certain areas of the ship.
On Deck 6, check out the small Fare Tahiti art exhibit in front of La Veranda restaurant, as well as the library, which stocks a few shelves of mostly English-language books. You'll also find a small selection of games, such as Scrabble or Life.
Reception and the travel concierge desks are located on Deck 4, as is the scuba desk, where enthusiasts of the underwater sport or those looking to learn can book excursions and instruction. Passengers can also book excursions with the travel concierge. If you don't want to book a ship excursion, visit the travel concierge each day for an island map and suggestions on what to do in port. Staff are accommodating and knowledgeable.
Dining is clearly a spot where Paul Gauguin Cruises has invested a significant amount of its resources. Across the board, dishes are imaginative and perfectly crafted; it's hard to believe they can reproduce the high quality on a large scale.
Meals are served in three restaurants.
L'Etoile is the main dining room on Deck 5 aft; it's open only from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and serves a variety of cuisine with a Polynesian flare. The room has high ceilings, inset lighting, blond and dark wood finishes, and light blue chairs. Windows line three sides of the dining room, while the fourth wall features shelves that show off more than a dozen ornate vases and dinner platters.
Food is served in several courses, generally with a hot and cold appetizer option as well as a soup, pasta course, palate-cleansing sorbet and entree. Appetizers are stellar, with items like tuna tartare and suckling pig as standouts for both creativity and perfect preparation. Chicken cordon bleu, with a light breading and lots of gooey cheese, is excellent, while you can't go wrong with fish options, like almond-crusted mahi mahi. Low-sodium and sugar-free choices are highlighted on the menu, and always-available items include favorites like New York strip and New Zealand salmon. Virtually any special dietary requests (vegan and gluten free, for example) can be accommodated, though Paul Gauguin suggests notifying your booking agent or the cruise line directly ahead of time.
The cruise fares include all meals, nonalcoholic beverages, house wines (think Dry Creek, L'Enclos de Saint Jacques and Cline Cellars) and spirits. You also can purchase wines from an extensive cellar list; bottles start at $30.
The casual vibe onboard lends itself to open seating, and it's equally easy to secure a romantic table for two or join other travelers for a convivial dinner.
The waitstaff is attentive but not intrusive, and the sommelier fills your glass all evening, whether you're drinking wine or a nonalcoholic beverage like iced tea. Reservations are not necessary.
Located on Deck 8, Le Grill is a hybrid alfresco dining option for breakfast (7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.), lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) and dinner (6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.). Diners can sit under cover or out on the pool deck. Floor-to-ceiling windows along both sides of the ship provide breathtaking views of the lush scenery, and glass doors leading to the pool can be opened to let in a breeze or closed when weather isn't perfect. Tables for four or more are available.
At breakfast, you can make selections at the extensive buffets. Buffet items include pastries, breads, cold cuts, muesli, cereal, yogurt, smoked salmon, fresh fruit, French toast and pancakes. There's also a made-to-order egg station, and fresh juices are available; you can ask the ultra-efficient waiters to bring you a Bloody Mary or mimosa if you're so inclined.
Daily lunch buffets are themed to various cuisines -- including French, Pacific, Greek, Asian and Italian -- so you likely won't have the same thing twice. Cold buffet items are generally excellent, with pasta salads, soups (a cold and hot option), and cold cuts and cheese. Each day, there's also some kind of made-to-order station (pasta for Italian day and stir-fry for Asian, for example). The hot buffet includes proteins and traditional cultural dishes like moussaka on Greek day or fresh fish on the French Polynesian menu. We loved the inventive options, such as the surprisingly fresh-tasting coconut-crusted wahoo and sweet-and-sour chicken with a tropical twist.
If you don't find something that appeals on the buffet, you can order from a set menu, which doesn't change. The daily lunch menu includes sliders, burgers and our favorite, the devil's wrap -- a slightly spicy chicken-filled Mexican wrap. Of course, there's an extensive dessert bar with sweets like a tiny chocolate-dipped cannoli or baklava. A sugar-free option (such as poached pears) is available each day.
Afternoon tea is served in Le Grill every day from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. While it doesn't include white-glove service, it does include traditional high tea items like clotted cream, scones and biscuits. Ice cream is served with the tea, as well.
For dinner (6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily), Le Grill becomes a full-service sit-down restaurant that serves Pacific specialties, fresh local fish, seafood and steak. Reservations are required, though there is no cost. Make your reservations for the first day if you hope to get a seat at Le Grill, as this spot is ultra-popular, and bookings fill up quickly. The suckling pig with pumpkin ravioli appetizer is a blissful mix of sweet and savory, while the seafood crochette, with its rich vanilla sauce, provides a taste of French Polynesia. The atmosphere, whether the ship is anchored in port or sailing the azure sea, is pure vacation bliss, complete with tropical breezes at your back.
Like Le Grill, La Veranda on Deck 6 serves breakfast (7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.), lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) and dinner (6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.), and reservations are required for dinner. Make them early to assure you get at least one chance to eat dinner at this spot, where you'll try French delicacies.
Breakfast and lunch at La Veranda duplicate the buffet served at Le Grill, though the atmosphere at La Veranda is slightly more formal because of its indoor location. At night, it focuses on French food, and it does so expertly. The set menu includes creative dishes, such as foie gras with sashimi (a strange combination that somehow works perfectly together), a leek terrine with grilled shrimp and a buttery steamed mahi mahi with a to-die-for mushroom sauce.
Room service is available 24 hours a day. Choose from items like steak sandwiches, pizza or Reubens. At night, you can order items from the L'Etoile menu and have them delivered to your room. There's no fee for room service, but a tip for the crewmember who delivers it is always appreciated.
French Polynesia is far away from just about everywhere, and the entire reason people go there generally is to enjoy the beauty of nature. No one wants to be cooped up inside, so it's good news that all Paul Gauguin cabins have ocean views and that almost 70 percent are equipped with balconies. Cabins are quite comfortable and well appointed, though they feel a bit dated when compared with those on newer ships.
Cabins range from 200 to 588 square feet, including the balconies. Most utilize actual queen-size mattresses that don't split into two single beds, although a few cabins are equipped with twin beds that can convert to queens. All but six cabins come with tub-and-shower combinations; the other cabins, including the one wheelchair-accessible cabin, offer showers only. Bathtubs are a bit narrow, with tall sides, so passengers should take care not to step too wide while in the shower and lose their balance. L'Occitane bath products are standard in all cabins. The bathroom amenity kits include verbena-scented shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion, as well as a shower cap, Q-tips, cotton balls, a nail file and bar soap.
The comfortable beds are topped with feather-down duvets. The closets are each stocked with a hair dryer, robes and cotton slippers. Each cabin features a seating area, with a small table, couch and ottoman, as well as a vanity/desk combination. Cabins have small flat-screen TVs with channels including Fox News, Sky Sports 1, CNN and BBC. Movie channels, which loop different movies each day, are available in English and French, and all TVs are equipped with DVD players; you can borrow DVDs from the reception area on Deck 4.
While all cabins have refrigerators that are replenished daily with soda, beer and water, those staying in the 26 cabins that are verandah staterooms (Category B) or higher also get in-suite bar setups and butler service. Cabins and suites share a color palette that includes red carpeting, darkly lacquered cabinetry, chiffon yellow and sheer draperies, beige sofas and brown ottomans, as well as lots of mirrors, including a massive floor-to-ceiling mirror in front of the bed. Drawer space is limited, but the wardrobes offer space enough for hanging virtually any clothing item.
Balconies vary in size, but each includes at least two wicker sitting chairs and a small glass table. Larger balconies are outfitted with chaise lounges.
If you're going whole hog on this trip, book early, and snag a suite. There are two Owner's Suites -- one that's 457 square feet with a 77-square-foot balcony and one that's 531 square feet with a 57-square-foot balcony -- that offer separate sleeping and dining/sitting areas. Two 332-square-foot Grand Suites offer spacious combined living and sleeping spots, along with huge 197-square-foot wraparound verandahs.
A step down from the Grand Suites are the Category A verandah suites at 300 square feet each. They're spacious but have less seating in the living areas than what's offered in higher categories. The balconies are 58 square feet apiece. Category B verandah staterooms are popular because they offer a decent amount of square footage (249, plus 56-square-foot verandahs) and, like the above-mentioned accommodations, include butler service.