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Balcony view

Luxury cruising - the perfect way to explore French Polynesia

© by Ming Tappin

You know that oldie tune from Eddy Money - "I've got two tickets to paradise. Won't you pack your bags, we'll leave tonight." I wonder if he was thinking about going to French Polynesia when he recorded the hit song about taking his girlfriend on vacation. Because, let's face it, when most people think of paradise, they usually conjure up images of turquoise seas, endless blue sky, and powdery white sand beaches on a faraway island. And when it comes to paradise, you can't get any better than French Polynesia.

Except of course, how you get there.

Although they usually appear at the very edge of world maps as if they'll fall off the end of the earth, French Polynesia isn't as far as you may think. To reach the port of Papeete on the island of Tahiti, flying nonstop from Los Angeles only takes eight and a half hours, or as my friend likes to say: "It's just two cocktails past Hawaii", and it's even in the same time zone. But the similarity ends there. These South Pacific isles get the same amount of visitors in a year that Hawaii gets in a month. So if you're looking to escape from the crowds and tourist traps, French Polynesia is definitely the place to be.

My conveyance of choice was a 14-night cruise aboard the Paul Gauguin, sailing from Papeete through the Society Islands, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas, three of the five island groups that make up French Polynesia.

The Paul Gauguin, aptly named after the French post-Impressionist who drew so much inspiration from these islands, is purpose-built to sail the Polynesian waters. With a shallow draft and a u-shaped hull, the Gauguin can anchor close to shore, bringing her guests to the islands within minutes. Her ample open decks allow for maximum enjoyment of dramatic sailaways and blazing sunsets.

To allow easy access to French Polynesia's colourful lagoons, a watersports marina unfolds from the ship's aft for guests to enjoy complimentary toys such as kayaks, wind surfers and paddleboards. Complimentary snorkeling gear is also available for use during the cruise. PADI certified divers can choose from a myriad of excursions at each port, and a certification program is available onboard for those who want to try.

All onboard accommodations have ocean view, with seventy per cent having private verandas to admire the breathtaking scenery. Two restaurants plus a casual open-air grill serve delicious meals including locally caught seafood. Continental and regional fare prevails, but a partnership with Michelin-starred French chef Jean-Pierre Vigato also brings a fusion of French cuisine blended with local ingredients. And of course, there is complimentary room service if you can't tear yourself away from your private veranda.

All of us onboard could not get over the congenial and intuitive service, and how genuine the crew members were. "I'm seriously concerned," said my friend at the breakfast buffet halfway through the cruise. "I don't know how I'll manage to take my cereal to the table by myself when I get home. They never let me carry anything!" We shared a good laugh, and sure enough, later that day at afternoon tea, we saw a 6-foot plus man walking to his table while a waiter carried his tiny bowl of ice cream for him. Onboard the Paul Gauguin, the staff wouldn't have it any other way.

Outstanding service like this is what makes the Gauguin so special. With 217 crew members serving a maximum of 332 guests, the staff truly got to know our likes and wishes. After meeting me on the first day, all crew members addressed me by name for the next two weeks. And they had an incredible memory. I couldn't name the wonderful wine I enjoyed at dinner several nights ago, but my wine steward, Adrian, remembered, and poured it for me again.

Float bar

Speaking of libations, all beverages on board the Paul Gauguin are included. Feel like a glass of champagne at sailaway, an iced cappuccino while poolside, a soda with lunch or a glass of wine with dinner? It's yours for the asking. And a glass of port or cordial after dinner does nicely too. Each stateroom fridge is also stocked with sodas, bottled water and beer, and replenished daily.

Our days at sea were peaceful and lazy. A leisure breakfast, a visit to the spa, or a dip in the pool preceded lounging on deck with a tall cold drink in the afternoon. For those looking for enrichment, there were lectures, documentary films, and Polynesian arts and crafts. On our sailing, there was an art professor specializing in the artist Paul Gauguin, and she delivered several lectures about the life and works of the artist, whose final resting place we were about to visit.

Evening entertainment featured authentic performances by local artists. But they're no kitschy luaus that you've seen in Hawaii. We enjoyed traditional Polynesian warrior dances where boys, youth and adults belted out war cries accompanied by thunderous drums carved from native wood and wrapped with animal skins. In between numbers, young girls provided vocal introductions through harmonized melodies. And then there's the Otea, with fast rhythmic drumming and mesmerizing hip shaking performed by raven-haired beauties wearing elaborate headdresses and traditional skirts made of hibiscus bark.

Adding to the South Pacific vibe onboard are the ship's social hosts Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines - a group of young men and women all hailing from French Polynesia, whose sole job is to interact with guests and share their history and culture through story-telling, music and dance. In addition, a dedicated space onboard showcases French Polynesia with a display of wood carvings, sculptures and artifacts.

Soaking up the culture and is one thing, but most people also bring home memories of French Polynesia by way of a black pearl (or two), and the onboard boutique is fully stocked for our shopping pleasure. Carrying an exclusive collection of black pearl jewelry from Hinerava of Tahiti, La Boutique attracts daily visitors including myself, pining for the elaborate designs for which I would someday splurge.

And of course, there was tea time every day, when we went for our afternoon fix of finger sandwiches, pastries and cakes, and bowls of ice cream, delivered to the table by our doting waiters.

But days ashore were what we all came for. Our first stop was Fakarava, a necklace of coral rising from the ocean in the Tuamotu archipelago. Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the atoll is a haven for snorkeling and diving, with impossibly clear waters. Our excursion took us to two snorkeling spots where we swam amongst fish of all shapes, color and sizes. At our lunch stop on a deserted beach appropriately named the Blue Lagoon, we feasted on fire-roasted chicken, fish kabobs and sausages. We chowed down, sitting on wooden benches, mooring buoys, and fallen coconuts, island-style. None of us wanted to leave. But the highlight of our cruise awaited.

After a blissful day at sea, we arrived at the Marquesas. Rising out of the pounding South Pacific surf, the dramatic cliffs carpeted in lush forests were a sight to behold. The islands we visited have names as unusual as they are remote - Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, Tahuata & Nuku Hiva. Each time, what seemed like the entire village came out to greet us as we stepped off our launches, with mamas, papas, and children in grass skirts performing traditional songs and dances. We were treated as honored visitors, not money-toting tourists. Life is at its simplest here. Residents subsist by farming, raising livestock, making crafts. There is no traffic, no rush, no stress.

As most of the islands have no beaches due to high cliffs, excursions were typically 4x4 tours and scenic drives. In Fatu Hiva and Tahuata, I hiked in the hot sun and humid air, amongst crowing roosters, clucking chickens and chirping birds. At every turn, I passed mango, papaya and guava trees dripping with ripe fruit. In Hiva Oa, everyone visited Paul Gauguin's grave, under a fragrant plumeria tree high upon a hill overlooking the ocean. At Nuku Hiva, the administrative capital of the Marquesas, some hiked to the Survivor Season 4 base camp, and the daring went scuba diving with hammerhead sharks.

Our second week was spent in the Society Islands. In Huahine, four of us squeezed into a rental car to explore the island. Famous for its Polynesian marae - open-air archaeological sites dotting the roadside, the "Garden Island" also offers up spectacular coral reefs for snorkeling and diving. Most interesting are the blue-eyed eels that reside in Faie village, and ancient fish traps made of stacked stones still in use today.

Bora Bora is no doubt, the quintessential image of French Polynesia. The jagged pinnacle of Mount Otemanu surrounded by a brilliant turquoise lagoon is positively a sight for sore eyes. This is the playground of the rich, with luxury resorts and over-water bungalows commanding exorbitant rates. Another good reason to arrive on the Paul Gauguin, where everything is included.

Our snorkeling excursion took us in search of manta and eagle rays (both successful), plus a stop at a colorful coral garden. There was enough time after lunch to zip over to the Gauguin's exclusive private beach, where there's nothing but a few coconut trees, and a crew member with a cooler full of beer, sodas, and water. I waded out thirty feet from shore, and still in knee deep water, plonked myself down in bath-temperature water and soaked up paradise. An afternoon shower passes, but no matter, I'm already wet, and I have my ice-cold beer.

Just off the coast of Taha'a is Motu Mahana, Paul Gauguin's private island, accessible only to the ship's privileged guests. This was a day to swim, snorkel and kayak, or take a tour to visit a vanilla farm; but after a few eventful days in a row, I was less inclined. I simply lazed in the comfort of my sun lounger, a cocktail-filled coconut in hand. The only interruption to my day was a beachside massage, followed by a barbecue lunch of ribs, chicken, sausages, burgers and all the fixings (and yes I had to try them all). Afterwards, I soaked in that bath-temperature water again, listening to Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines serenading us with their ukuleles. And just as my coconut drink ran dry, my Adrian magically appeared alongside, with his palm frond-covered floating bar to top me up.

On our last day in Moorea, there were plenty of excursions to explore above and below the water line, but we chose to rent a car to go hiking independently with two friends we had met onboard. The rugged trail took us to a spectacular viewpoint and afterward we drove to the Belvedere Lookout for more photo ops. The view overlooking Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay with the sharp peak of Mount Rotui in the middle is not to be missed. Car rentals in the Society Islands are easy to arrange, and driving is on the right. Rates are high, so it is best to share with a few traveling companions. And be prepared to drive a stick shift or pay a lot more for an automatic.

At the end of our two blissful weeks, we all agreed without a doubt - French Polynesia is pure paradise, and a cruise aboard the Paul Gauguin is your two tickets there.

If You Go
The Paul Gauguin sails year round in French Polynesia from Papeete, with 7-night sailings to the Society Islands, plus 10 & 11-night sailings which also include the Tuamotus or the Cook Islands, and 14-night sailings visiting the Marquesas. 2018 sailings are available for reservations; and 2019 itineraries have already been announced, including two special, one-time sailings to Tonga and Fiji. Fares include roundtrip economy flights from Los Angeles, airport transfers, all onboard meals and beverages, daily activities, nightly entertainment, watersports equipment, and gratuities to onboard staff.

For more information, visit www.pgcruises.com.

Photo Credits
Photos courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises
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Ming Tappin - Ming took her first cruise in 1991 and was immediately hooked. She took a cruise every year after that, and she had so much fun researching and learning about cruising, she enrolled in travel school and became a travel agent in 1994, specializing in cruises. A marriage and a move to Vancouver two years later, Ming began working in the administration side of the cruise business, helping travel agencies promote cruises to their clients through marketing, promotions and training. Today, Ming continues to work closely with cruise lines and travel agents, and she cruises several times every year to broaden her experience. Ming has sailed on 45 cruises with 17 cruise lines, with many more on her list still to try.
In 2015, Ming created her own company Your Cruise Coach, and began her career as a cruise journalist serving the travel industry. She has been published on three leading Canadian travel industry websites and currently has a cruise column in a travel industry magazine distributed to 8,000 travel agencies across Canada. Ming also writes for the consumer - her goal is to educate the traveling public on the value of a cruise vacation, and share stories of her cruise experiences to help travelers make informed decisions. Ming can be reached at ming@yourcruisecoach.com.

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