Only 8.5 hours flight time from Los Angeles, lies the gateway to French Polynesia - Papeete, Tahiti. Just the name evokes a certain sense of wonder for most travelers. Whether it’s envisioning crystal clear cerulean lagoons or those iconic over-the-water bungalows, almost everyone has dreamed of Tahiti and her sister islands in some way. You can most certainly fly between the islands for your visit, but this happens to be one of the parts of the world that cruising offers a greater value than just staying in a resort.
Almost everyone has dreamed of Tahiti and her sister islands in some way.
We experienced both the Paul Gauguin and a Silversea Expedition in the past few years. As cruise and South Pacific island specialists, we can offer quite a bit of insight on why we feel either are a winning choice for your French Polynesia vacation.
In this post, we’re going to use the term “French Polynesia” to encompass the 118 islands and atolls that lie in the Pacific Ocean. The Society Islands are oftentimes referred to as “Tahiti” although Tahiti is just one of the several islands which also includes Bora Bora, Taha’a, Moorea, Raiatea, and Huahine. The Tuamotus and Marquesas are also included in term as well as the even less visited Austral and Gambier Islands. Occasionally, island nations outside of French Polynesia can be included in a cruise itinerary such as the Cook Islands (like Aitutaki and Rarotonga), Vanuatu, or Fiji although they are technically not part of French Polynesia.
Cruise Lines in French Polynesia
A variety of cruise itineraries can be found in the Pacific from 7-nights and longer. Round trip itineraries tend to embark and disembark in Papeete although there are deviations which might include places as far away as Easter Island or Honolulu. The Papeete international cruise terminal will soon be getting a face lift and expansion in 2020; the new pier will be able to accommodate three ships simultaneously and up to 2,000 passengers. The main lines that you might see advertising Tahiti or French Polynesia are:
The first five on that list tend to cater to an American market with the latter ones not so much. You’ll still find that announcements may be in both French and English onboard, however. Of these cruise lines, only one boasts a ship purpose-built for the waters here and that is Paul Gauguin Cruises. The Aranui is a barge that visits the Marquesas bringing supplies. It is not your typical cruise ship although it does offer a unique experience to visit every Marquesan island for a day, many people might not find that it provides enough creature comforts for the service level they’d prefer.
About the m/s Paul Gauguin
With just 332 guests on board, the Gauguin (Paul Gauguin Cruises' only ship currently) is the ideal size to explore the jewels of French Polynesia. Purpose built with a shallow draft, she is maneuverable and sleek with plenty of space for passengers to never feel crowded anywhere they go. The crew to guest ratio of 1:1.5 is one of the lowest in the industry. And the crew includes a unique Polynesian troupe called Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins – these entertainers and gracious hosts teach dancing, music, crafts, and perform on-board to the delight of the guests. I, myself, learned how to dance the Faka Ru Fit and O Piwi while Butch learned how to play the Tahitian drums!
With just 332 guests on board, the Gauguin is the ideal size to explore the jewels of French Polynesia.
Speaking of learning how to dance, there’s a great variety of entertainment programming every day throughout the day that we really loved. It was just enough to feel like there was always something going on, but not so much that you felt rushed or overwhelmed. Gone are the back-to-back teeth whitening, weight loss consults, and posture consults; stuff that some cruise lines think are entertainment. (You know what I’m talking about if you’ve cruised before!) Each day there’s a dance class with Les Gauguines and Gauguins in the morning, piano for before-dinner cocktails and an evening show. The evening show changes to feature the crew, the Gauguines and Gauguins, the featured entertainer (on select itineraries), and more. Usually there were one or two craft sessions using native materials. Some documentaries and movies were shown in the Grand Salon. Lecturers onboard provided commentary on the marine life, culture, and history of the areas. Overall, it was a very refreshing change. Read about our personal experiences on the Gauguin here.
The ship offers three restaurants, a boutique, a small casino, spa, fitness center, a theatre for performances, and a lounge/disco. The pool is small, but works for a ship this size. Deck space abounds for sun worshippers – there is no clamoring for a space. A unique feature of the Gauguin is its water sports marina that unfolds from the rear of the ship. Kayaks and standup paddleboards are launched out the back and are included in the cruise fare; snorkel gear is also complimentary and you can pick up a bag to use during the cruise. The marina also hosts the Gauguin’s dive programming for both certified divers and those who wish to become certified – a rarity on ships now since Silversea Expedition seems to have discontinued their dive program. While not intended for those who want to dive five times a day, it’s a fabulous opportunity for folks who have travel buddies or partners who don’t dive so you can both enjoy a vacation to one place. (And it’s the only option to dive in the Marquesas.)
Staterooms range in size from 200 square feet up to 588 square feet (including balconies) and nearly 70% of the staterooms have balconies to enjoy. Spacious bathrooms include bathtubs (select staterooms offer only a shower) and full-size pump bottles of tiare scented shampoo, body wash, conditioner, and lotion made by Algotherm. In-suite bar set-ups are refreshed daily and include a refrigerator for beer, soft drinks, and water.
Fares include round trip airfare from Los Angeles, ocean-view accommodations, all meals including 24-hour room service, all beverages (small selection of ultra-premium brands excepted), all ship board entertainment from shows to crafts, all onboard gratuities for room stewards and dining staff, and complimentary water sports from the marina. Diving courses and excursions, spa, casino, and boutique are additional cost.
How the Gauguin Edges Out the Competition
All ports in French Polynesia, except Papeete, are tender ports; meaning cruise guests are put onto smaller boats in order to get to the port of call. This is even true for the Gauguin’s private motu off Taha’a called, Motu Mahana. That being said, there’s no comparing getting 332 people (or less) off a ship onto tenders versus 1,200 passengers like would be the case for Oceania or Holland America Line. When the seas are rougher (as they sometimes can be in the middle of the South Pacific) the expert crew of the Gauguin handle the adverse conditions with ease and professionalism, relying on their familiarity with the ports, and ensuring guest safety and comfort. The same cannot be said for other cruise lines in French Polynesia.
Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, the Polynesian troupe onboard, bring a certain je ne c’est quia to the atmosphere that can’t be replicated on any other cruise line. And they are present on every single itinerary. From hosting dance classes to crafts like making pandanus-leaf headbands and teaching guests how to use the traditional instruments to performing in the Grand Salon, the Gauguines and Gauguins are a special part of the experience you shouldn’t miss. In addition to the troupe, the m/s Paul Gauguin also makes a point to bring on local groups for performances while in certain ports of call - they shouldn’t be missed if you can help it! In particular, the Children of Huahine show will steal your heart.
Speaking of the ship’s size, you never feel crowded onboard. There’s never a line anywhere which can be a very refreshing experience for those who’ve experienced some of the “mega ships.” Even when there are guests waiting to be tendered to or from port, that’s still nothing compared to large ship cruising.
Once you cruise the Gauguin, you’ll be drawn back to French Polynesia again and again.
French Polynesia is quite expensive, more so than most island countries. Having access to all meals and snacks onboard makes for a great value while getting to overnight in the most popular places like Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti (itinerary dependent). The meals are top-notch – among the best we’ve had in all our cruising. And many display a Polynesian touch whether it’s super fresh, catch-of-the-day moonfish or a local preparation technique found in the islands. We definitely didn’t leave our cruise hungry or having lost any weight! Prior to embarking, we spent about $50 USD for lunch at a street-side café in downtown Papeete – and that was just for the meals because we drank tap water. Drinks at the world famous Bloody Mary’s in Bora Bora run around $15 USD plus for cocktails as well. That should give you a barometer to judge by.
The Gauguin sails Tahiti and French Polynesia year-round. You can’t find that with other lines. Even with a rainy season, French Polynesia is fantastic no matter the time of year you visit as well. Being a specialist in something allows you to spend more time in a destination, so Gauguin capitalizes on that. The line offers several trademark itineraries ranging from 7 to 14-nights. Beyond that they offer some one-off itineraries a few times every other year that visit Tahiti Iti (brand new), Fiji and Tonga. The longer itineraries visit the Cook Islands, Marquesas and Tuamotus – all exceptional. You’ll find once you cruise the Gauguin, you’ll be drawn back to French Polynesia. We have met several passengers who are on their 6th or higher cruise with Paul Gauguin Cruises.
For families travelling together with multiple generations, you’ll be thrilled to hear that on certain itineraries each year (generally during summer and big holidays like Christmas and New Year’s), the Gauguin offers a special family program called Stewards of Nature in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society. At a nominal cost, kids ages 7 to 17 can participate in a variety of activities ranging from island and beach excursions, science activities, crafts, games, and other adventures. Parents and family members can join their kids for the cost of the excursion(s). Other cruise lines like Oceania and Windstar, while allowing children, don’t offer any programming to entertain them. Holland America Line has a kid’s program, but it is not themed like the Gauguin’s is to offer something exclusive and unique for French Polynesia – your kids would get the same ol’ same ol’.
Comparing Small Ship to Small Ship
I bet you’re wondering now about the differences between Paul Gauguin and other small ship cruise lines like Silversea Expeditions or Windstar.
Silversea Expeditions has a minimum cruising age on most of their itineraries which is generally much higher than that of Paul Gauguin. When you factor that in plus the fact that third passengers in a cabin pay full price, it’s quite the financial commitment. The way that the expedition ship conducts business is different as well. It satisfies curiosity and adventure-seekers, but for those not willing to be very adventurous, it’s likely not the best fit. It is ship dependent, but the Silversea ships tend to use Zodiacs to get from the ship to shore; in some of the waters you experience in the Pacific, a Zodiac trip would not be safe, so you do run a higher likelihood of a port stop being cancelled due to swells (which can happen at any time during the year). We love Silversea, but it is not for everyone. They also operate generally longer itineraries that cover a lot of miles and thus do not solely focus on just French Polynesia.
Windstar is another small ship experience that does several itineraries in Tahiti each year. Windstar’s ships set it apart from many others. First of all, there are no balconies – only ocean-view portholes/windows. Secondly, there is no entertainment onboard for the evenings. There is only one dining venue onboard. It is geared for a more active clientele, folks who prefer to be busy during the day and then “early to bed, early to rise.” While you will find the occasional child onboard, there is zero kid’s programming.
There are several ways one can experience the stunning beauty of French Polynesia, but cruising remains an exceptional value that can be paired with an over-the-water bungalow stay for the picture-perfect vacation. Paul Gauguin Cruises stands out from the pack with their attentive service, purpose-built ship, and exclusive onboard options that they offer. With a variety of itineraries, a guest even has options for returning to the tantalizing islands once they’ve been intoxicated by the beauty the South Pacific offers. The Gauguin’s understated luxury hosts honeymooners and first-timer cruisers to repeat guests with panache. She’s a year-round staple for French Polynesia and one you should strongly consider to cross off that bucket list item. (And for those of us bitten by the South Pacific bug, we just can’t wait to go back again… and again…)
Have any favorite memories of Tahiti, French Polynesia, or Paul Gauguin Cruises? Leave a comment and share your story. If you would like some additional information, or to reserve your trip to French Polynesia, contact us here.