Paul Gauguin Cruise Review by Kathy Z
- Sail Date: August 2004
- Destination: South Pacific
First I'd like to thank all the helpful people who took the time to answer my numerous questions posted on Cruise Critic, Tahiti-Explorer and the newest board, "LCT", and to my fabulous Certified Cruise Consultant for their valuable advise that helped me plan this extraordinary vacation for my husband and myself. We'll call it our "Pre 40th Anniversary Trip," since we met 40 years ago and will celebrate our anniversary on January 2, 2005.
Since our trip, but prior to my finishing this report, the news of the sale of the RSSC Paul Gauguin has been announced. My recommendation to anyone who has been contemplating a cruise in French Polynesia is to book a vacation on this ship while you can. RSSC will be operating her through 2005. The friendly crew, Les Gauguins, Siglo (the band), Motu Mahana, the private beach on Bora Bora and the fantastic food all played such a special part in making this vacation a tropical dream come true.
We flew out of Detroit (DTW) the afternoon of August 19th, and enjoyed a complimentary overnight room and buffet breakfast at the LAX Hilton thanks to RSSC. We opted to eat dinner at the Hilton after a brief walk on the sidewalks surrounding it. The dinner was fine, service excellent ($50 including tip).
Check-in and Security at LAX is definitely more complex and confusing than at DTW, but we maneuvered through it. Our Air Tahiti Nui flight in economy class would have been nicer if the individual monitors were working properly. We had picture but no sound. This was true for about 20% of the aircraft, including some rows in business class. The crew tried their best to accommodate us and allowed seat switching. I watched 1 video during the flight. By the time the 3rd round of tapes would normally begin playing an attendant announced their apologies and said that due to broken tapes there would be no more videos. (You could still play the games if your controller worked.) The meals were adequate in economy, nothing to write about.
Arrival in Papeete - Immigration seemed to take forever. European and local citizens breezed through while it took nearly an hour for the rest of us. After retrieving our 2 checked bags we were simply waved through Customs. Being near the end of the line, and making a stop at the bank to exchange $200 in American Express traveler's checks (yes, traveler's checks get a better exchange rate than cash) made us the last ones to connect with Tahiti Nui Travel for transport to the Beachcomber. This was actually nice because we were in a mini-van rather than a large bus. Check-in at the Beachcomber was a breeze and they had our luggage in our room within 10 minutes. We were informed that there would be a Tahitian Show, poolside at 8:00pm. Having eaten a meal on the flight at 4:30pm we felt no need to purchase the dinner buffet so we requested seating in the bar area to view the show. (Cost for 1 drink and cover charge was just over $20; we considered this a bargain for the show that got us right into the mood of a Polynesian vacation.)
Shortly before the show began another American couple sat down behind us and a young man said "Kathy"? It was Rob (aka Robbo1) with his wife, Mary. It sure is nice having our avatars posted on LCT. Rob was the first of six people to identify me over the next two weeks. (We have a lot of lurkers on these boards that have not yet posted. They are all delightful people.) The only negatives with our room at the Beachcomber were lack of adequate closet space (which was no problem for our overnight, but would be for a 4 day pre-cruise), and location of our room right over the bar area. I finally fell asleep with the aid of a sleeping pill about 11:30pm (5:30am Eastern time) while the band was still playing. The hotel property itself is beautiful, especially around the infinity pool.
Embarkation - A full busload of people left the Beachcomber bound for RSSC Paul Gauguin at 3:00pm. Bill & I were ready early and got front seats on the bus. This made it easy to identify our luggage at the pier and walk up the gangway with our carry-on. Check-in was a breeze and within 15 minutes our luggage was in our cabin and we were verifying our pre-booked (via Internet) shore excursions with the Tour Desk. I selected a few videos to have available in our cabin, a book on Bora Bora that was nice to view prior to arriving there plus another book that I returned, mostly unread, near the end of our trip. RSSC includes an in-cabin bar set up with your selection of 2 large bottles of liquor per cruise. We had selected Kahlua & vodka for our first week and Ameretto (considered premium, so it counts as 2) for the second week (we were doing a back to back cruise).
They were kind enough to give us the entire liquor allowance at the beginning. (We ended up giving most of this to the crew at the end of the 2 weeks, there is just so much offered in the dining rooms and special functions that we barely touched these bottles. I had read on one of these boards to give leftover liquor to the Cruise Director who would see that it got to the crew bar. When I tried to verify this with Steve he thought it was hysterical, as he had never heard of this. He had fun asking the Hotel Manager and Social Hostess how did this rumor ever get started on the Internet. We decided to pass our bottles on to the Social Hostess who assured us that it would be used at the monthly crew party.)
While we were touring the ship we met Chaun (aka Critter) and her group of female family & friends (11 in total). What a friendly, lively, fun-loving group of ladies! They had a different theme for every day with a nice way of sharing much of the fun with everyone else. By the end of the week the crew and fellow passengers were applauding them when they entered L'Etoile for dinner. Chaun is worried that eventually I will learn how to post photos and provide an example of some of their get-ups. The crew was definitely sad to see them leave the ship.
We chose to eat dinner in L'Etoile every night for our first week onboard and then made reservations for Apicius and Le Grill for the 2 evenings that had our least favorite menus. This was a hard decision to make because everything was so delicious! Imagine 2 weeks of omelet centered breakfasts, buffet lunches and 4 & 5 course dinners and all you have to do is decide what you care to order. If you can't decide between two favorites it's no problem - just order both and enjoy! Somehow I only put on 1 pound with all of this indulgence. The ships stairs provide a good substitute for a Stairmaster. I'll only mention my very favorite menu items, but I kept a complete set of menus so I can answer any questions.
Several members of the crew are introduced at the sail-away party including the lovely and talented "Les Gauguines". This party went on for a long time on 8-21 because some passengers were coming in on a delayed flight. Friday we had sat behind a honeymoon couple from Dallas on the flight from LAX and their luggage had not yet caught up with them. When the final Saturday flight arrived their luggage was still missing. Their clothes were laundered for them while they slept, and next morning when the "Children of Raiatea" came to perform they brought the missing luggage.
Raiatea - We were up on the pool deck to see the "Children of Raiatea" perform and I moved up closer to get photos and sat down on the deck next to a young woman who turned and looked at me and said "Hi, Kathy." That's how I met "Travelchik". The youngest dancer was a cute little 2½ year old. They are never sure just what dance she will do, but she does enjoy performing! I was one of the passengers chosen for a dance lesson so Bill took some photos of my inept attempts. Before we left the pool area we met a family of 4 from Chicago and during our conversation the woman asked if I posted on Cruise Critic. She had read it extensively but never posted. I encouraged her to become a member and post. I won't embarrass you by writing your name, but please introduce yourself to the others reading this. Meeting you and your husband and sons enriched our week.
Immediately after the show and lunch we went on our first excursion where we met Diane (1dolphinblue) & Ted who share our love for snorkeling. They celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary plus Diane's birthday while onboard. (Diane got to pick out some beautiful pearl jewelry on her birthday!)
Tahaa - Motu Mahana - I had read a great deal about this truly special experience and I can truly say that we agree with all the positive reviews it has received. We were on the first tender over and found chairs under an umbrella at the water's edge. Private tropical island with food, drink, restroom facilities, recreation equipment; lagoon for snorkeling, swimming or kayaking; lots of happy people - what a way to relax and enjoy life!
Bora Bora - Everything that has been said about the varying shades of blue in the waters of Bora Bora is so true. The colors are extraordinary! The gorgeous water with the lush green mountains behind is a photographer's delight.
This is where the folks that did the "Off Road Adventure" had a star sighting when Pierce Brosnan and his wife, Keely Shaye Smith, went by in another 4-wheeler. Pierce and Keely were standing with arms up in the air (as one might expect of 007) while our shipmates were hanging on for dear life. We had opted for the "Land & Sea Safari" which provided enough 4-wheeler adventure for me plus the snorkeling that we so enjoy. The only slight disappointment was that we did not see any large eels as many have seen on this excursion because it was afternoon and morning tours had fed them so much that they could not be enticed out of hiding.
Our second day on Bora Bora was overcast with occasional light showers. Despite the clouds, we had our second favorite excursion of the cruise this morning, the "Shark & Ray Feeding". One of the descriptions I had read said something about standing behind a rope. Well, no rope on our tour! The captain kidded around and said that they required a white person to enter the water first as a sacrifice. Well, two French guys had lined up to get in first, but had second thoughts and turned to me, so I got to be the first person into the water! What fun! There were ample opportunities to hand feed small fish to the stingrays that also enjoy rubbing up against people. The guides tossed food to the black tip reef sharks, but the sharks were not hand fed. We got some underwater photos of the sharks as close as 5 or 6 feet away, but they swam even closer to a few folks at times. The honeymooning couple with the delayed luggage got a big surprise when two black tip reef sharks swam up to just about two feet away from their faces before turning away. My husband and I were standing in the water at the time and I said to Bill "Chris is in for a big surprise". The next thing we heard was "Holy S#*!" When he and Ava stood up he started telling us about this big shark that swam right up to "this close" and about five of us were laughing and said we knew all about it. That's when he learned that we could hear his exclamation through his snorkel.
The afternoon continued to have showers so we just tendered over to shore and went shopping. That is when I bought my first Tahitian Pearls; a simple pendant and stud earrings in a light greenish gray (the same color as my eyes).
Moorea - The "Dolphin Watching Expedition" with Dr. Michael Poole may turn into an island watching expedition when no animals are sighted. We were told a lot about dolphins and their behavior as we searched for them in all of Moorea's 12 passes. A small boat cannot completely circumnavigate Moorea because there is no lagoon by the airport; so by the time we had reached the 10th pass without spotting any dolphins or whales Dr. Poole had phoned for a bus to meet us at the pier near the 12th pass to drive us back to the dock in Cook's Bay. I regretted not having my digital camera along on this trip since we ended up seeing almost the entire island from the boat. His presentation onboard the ship prior to dinner showed slides of all that we had missed. (People who took this excursion on our second week spotted no dolphins, only a mother whale and her calf.) The fortunate people were the ones that signed up for this tour after the first tour was fully booked and they got to go the next morning and saw numerous dolphins and whales. We had booked the "Lagoon Discovery with Snorkeling" for our second day at Moorea but it was cancelled due to the minimum number not being reached. The Tour Desk notified us 2 days prior that it might be cancelled and verified the cancellation the night before the scheduled tour.
This meant that I had another opportunity to go shopping! So off I traveled to the Black Pearl Gem Company (the one currently represented on the ship) on their complimentary shuttle. Here I purchased a baroque clip (instead of a pendant to slip on a chain, the pearl is mounted on a clip and can be put on a regular white strand of pearls.) Their shop is located in "Le Petit Village" so there is ample time to also visit other shops.
Friday night when 98% of the passengers packed their bags and put them in the hallway prior to going to sleep we happily anticipated our second week aboard the PG; a back-to-back cruise definitely has its advantages. We finally met Clint (who had started the thread re the PG 8/21) on Friday after having met his wife, Clare a few evenings earlier. Our planned Sunday morning CC meeting never occurred because we had unknowingly selected the same time as the lifeboat drill. My suggestion for others wanting to plan a first meeting time would be Sunday Night at the Captains Welcome Reception in the Grand Salon. Just decide to meet along the port side in the Grand Salon after going through the reception line (starboard side) and prior to dinner.
Saturday - We verified that we would be allowed to leave and return to the ship at will on Saturday by following the regular routine of having our ship identification cards swiped at the gangplank. After breakfast we went to the Grand Salon to say good-bye to many of the friends made during the week. Then we disembarked and walked to the Market Place. It was a fun place to shop filled with local colors, sounds and aromas. This was where I spoke the most French of our entire trip. (High School was a long time ago!) After a vendor had spoken French to me for more than a minute I said "Je ne parle pas Francais, parlez-vous Anglais?" She easily and promptly switched to English. The number of multi-lingual people in French Polynesia is amazing.
We were back on board by noon so as not to miss a free meal! Le Veranda is open Saturday between noon and 1:00pm. We had a headwaiter, 3 waiters and a sommelier to take care of us!
Week 2 on PG - As we began meeting new people coming aboard after 3:00pm we were able to answer most of their questions as well as many of the crew. The crew always makes you feel like a VIP, but this was even more so on our second week. At the welcome aboard party Saturday night the Cruise Director said "this couple liked the cruise so much they have stayed aboard for a second week" as he walked over to us. We were able to do excursions on week 2 that we had no time for on week 1. We booked dinner at Apicius for Monday night and Le Grill for Thursday night. An almost full moon lighted the August 28th sail away party. Siglo's music was being enjoyed poolside by passengers on both the PG and the Tahitian Princess docked next to us. As we sailed away some on the Princess who were also dancing to our music waved good-bye to us.
Fortunately I was not chosen to dance this week, but happily accepted the flower headdress from the 8 year old dancer from Raiatea at the end of their show. Apparently following Sunday morning's show is a prime time for meeting new friends. A couple came up to us and the gal said something like "You must be Kathy". She has read but not posted on both CC and LCT. Again, I won't embarrass you by mentioning names but please sign-in and let everyone else know just how much fun it is to know you! (We enjoyed many adventures with this couple during our second week.) I wore the flower headdress to lunch and later that day put it into our refrigerator. Monday morning I retied the back to fit my head and went to Motu Mahana in swimsuit, pareo and flowers in my hair. If we could afford to spend more time on islands like this I could easily get used to it!
We finally made it to the private beach on Bora Bora September 1st. The weather was postcard perfect. We had requested box lunches and rode on the first tender over to the beach. After making ourselves comfortable under some palm trees on the beach with our lunch hung up in a tree away from the visiting dogs we went into the water to snorkel. I had read that sometimes the currents are a problem here, but it was only slight and the snorkeling was excellent. We observed something we had never seen in all our 33 years of snorkeling and that was large numbers of sand diver fish sitting on the bottom. First we noticed a few, then groups of 5-10, then bunches of 20 or more. All together there must have been hundreds over an area of perhaps 400 square feet. A truly amazing sight! The water was from about 20 to 35 feet deep where we saw them so there was no way to capture this on film with our disposable cameras; it's just one of those memories that will linger in our mind. We stayed at this beach until mid-afternoon, then returned to the ship to shower and get cleaned up for the honeymoon/anniversary celebration. We had just wanted to see what it looked like, but were invited to stay and be part of the party. This crew is fabulous; they are so genuinely friendly.
Since the "Lagoon Discovery with Snorkeling" had been cancelled on day 2 of week 1, we signed up for it on day 1 of week 2 on Moorea. It was by far our favorite excursion of the entire cruise. We were able to feed and pet stingrays, and then we went to a coral garden area near a beach to snorkel. Many areas here were too shallow for novice snorkelers and two did get coral cuts, but Bill & I had no problems and the coral and fish were pretty good. The best part of this trip was that we were blessed with sightings of first dolphins and then whales while traveling back to the dock. A large pod of spinner dolphins were sighted in the lagoon, then a mother whale and her calf that the captain followed through the pass out into the ocean and finally 3 adult whales that we followed long enough to see them breach (flip tail in the air) and roll on side and wave a fin. This trip also has a photographer on board so we purchased a DVD of the entire trip for $60. (Ordered it while still on excursion boat - they bring the orders to the dock the next morning for pick up between 8:30 & 9:15 - we paid cash in US dollars.) We stayed up long enough our first night home to watch our DVD - what a souvenir! We learned from the folks that were with Dr. Poole at the same time as we were on our snorkeling trip that they saw no dolphins and only the mother and her calf whale but we were closer to the whales than they were!
We rented a car for 4 hours on our final day at Moorea. We circled the island, making stops at the Pearl Beach Resort, the Belvedere, Opunohu Bay and the distillery. Our stop at the Belvedere was around noon. There are no tour buses there at that time, as they tend to go up twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon. We were able to park facing the view of both bays, as did one other car. That was the one time we encountered any daytime rain that lasted more than 30 minutes.
So our photographs are not great. We ate our box lunches in the car (with 3 windows rolled down about 1" for ventilation and my front window most of the way down with our large PG umbrella fastened by the shoulder strap of my seatbelt)! After about 30 minutes the rain was down to a fine drizzle and we got out for about 10 minutes and took pictures. On our way back to Cook's Bay we stopped at the distillery and enjoyed many samples of all their local liquors. I had to keep telling the girl pouring the samples "just a teeny tiny amount"! That evening was our second and final "Pacific Farewell" party and show in the Grand Salon. Before dinner "O Tahiti E" had presented a lively, colorful musical show and now it was time to see most of the crew for the last time and be entertained by the performers. It was still hard to say good-bye after 2 weeks but not as hard as it would have been if we had only been onboard for 1 week.
Food onboard the Paul Gauguin - As I mentioned, I've got copies of almost all the dinner menus. I did not request one at Le Grill. Our favorite meal was at Apicius. This started with a cold garlic soup, followed by a green asparagus salad with mascarpone quenelle perfumed with white truffles. Next came lobster ravioli in "Dim Sum" with shellfish emulsion and basil. For our main course we each chose the grilled tenderloin of beef (the best tenderloin we've ever been served) with oxtail compote and candied carrots (not at all too candied) with parsley. After all of this food (plus the champagne and wine) and not being able to decide between the Tahitian vanilla crème brulee with candied fruits and vanilla ice cream or the crispy chocolate tart with praline ice cream we both ordered one of each dessert! We learned that I liked the crème brulee best and Bill preferred the chocolate tart so next time we'll order accordingly. The cookies and candies that were also presented with dessert were carried back to our cabin.
Favorite entrees at L'Etoile were the broiled Maine lobster tail with Taha'a vanilla sauce served on Sundays and both the beef chateaubriand with choron sauce and the famous Polynesian grilled moonfish served on Wednesdays (you can order both - we did on the second week)! I won't elaborate on the rest of the food, suffice it to say with a few minor exceptions it was excellent. I'll answer further questions posed by any "foodies" reading this.
Post Cruise: Manihi Pearl Beach Resort - We went on a post-cruise trip to Manihi so we needed to be on the dock to meet a Tahiti Nui Travel driver at 6:15am. This meant that we needed to eat breakfast earlier than their 6am starting time on Saturday. Again, it was no problem for the PG staff. One cook got up a half hour early and we had complete room service at 5:30am.
We were driven to the airport and stored one large (locked) bag of dirty laundry and checked in for our turbo-prop flight on Air Tahiti to Manihi. From this smaller aircraft you can see the water during the whole trip and any islands that you fly over. We had 1 short stop at Tikehau on the way to Manihi.
We were in our bungalow at the Manihi Pearl (OWB # 31 at my request) by 10am Saturday and did not need to check out until 2:30pm Tuesday, which was very nice for the cost of a 3 day stay. Even after checkout Tuesday we were comfortable by the bar and pool until 25 minutes prior to our flight out at 4:25pm. (That's one advantage to a tiny airport with a thatched roof over a few benches on a dirt floor for a terminal.)
The further away you travel from the Society Islands the less English is spoken. The staff at the Manihi Pearl was extremely friendly and helpful and when we would ask something that could not be answered by the person we were speaking with they would smile and say "one moment, please" and go to bring back a staff person who was fluent in English. Also the further out you go (from Papeete) the more expensive the food due to their being dependent on flying almost everything beyond fish in to the island.
Nevertheless, everything we ate here was simply delicious! Included in the package was "canoe breakfast" for 2 one morning. We chose to have this on Sunday at 8:30am. Someone came to our door about 8:10am to place a table and two chairs on our deck (the deck has 2 lounge chairs and built in benches). Just before 8:30am we spotted the canoe being paddled along the lagoon to our bungalow. While the boatman maneuvered over to the ladder leading up to our deck our waitress had the enormous task of trying to carry a heavily laden tray up the almost vertical ladder. Bill offered his help and reached down to her and assisted. When we had placed our order Saturday afternoon the waiter kept making suggestions for breakfast and requests of mine for such things as "a few pieces of crispy bacon" were met with what was probably an entire pound of nice crispy bacon! After a bit of careful arranging Jenny had our entire breakfast laid out on the table then quietly exited through the door to the boardwalk. When our maids came to the room later in the day the table and chairs were removed from the deck.
Although there were a lot of fish looking for the stale bread handouts (they also love papaya skins), the coral here is not in good shape. Despite the wind we had no problems snorkeling with our own gear that is dryer than the standard straight snorkel. Our visit did not fit with the resort's motu picnic schedule though they were willing to work the Tuesday one so that we could do it. It would have involved a lot of rushing to be ready for our flight out so we decided to not try it. We did do the snorkeling activity on Monday, which was a boat ride through the pass to the ocean side just beyond the pass and 40 minutes of snorkeling in absolutely gorgeously clear water over pristine living coral teaming with fish.
The neatest thing about being in an OWB is watching the fish and sharks at night swimming under you! You can view them through your glass coffee table, glass bedside tables (can fold down a wooden cover for privacy) or through the glass in part of the countertop around your bathroom sink. Other advantages to the OWB are the constant breeze, water lapping against the posts, sunrise views from bed, and clean fresh air.
Return trip to DTW - We left Manihi at 4:25pm Tuesday, September 7th, changed planes and airlines both in Papeete and Los Angeles and arrived at Detroit Metro at 8:00pm Wednesday tired but brimming over with happy memories. It took a full week to overcome our jet lag.
Final Comments As only our cruise consultant knew prior to this trip we had booked another PG cruise next May when we would have met many of you. We wanted to see how we liked this first visit and how we survived the long flights before making a final decision on that refundable deposit. Well, we loved FP so much that we want to return BUT we could not resist the opportunity to switch over to their 10-day itinerary that in addition to all the stops made on the 7-day trip goes to Huahine and Rangiroa. Embarkation is June 11, 2005. So, I am sad to still not meet many of you in person, but very excited about visiting 2 more of the islands I have read so much about. We also have booked a post-cruise stay at the Moorea Pearl Resort. We liked that very much when we stopped by there to check it out. We'll be able to walk to a few other restaurants from their location.
We don't believe in luck. We are Christians who believe in God the creator of the universe. We feel truly blessed to have been able to take this vacation to a part of the world we had never before visited. God granted us safety and good health in all our travels and activities. The beauty of the Islands and waters He created are awesome! The Tahitian people, the workers and for the most part our fellow travelers were extremely pleasant. Thanks again to everyone who helped plan this trip and to those of you who took the time to read this long report. Eventually I hope to narrow down our photographs to a reasonable number and have them available for posting.
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