A Trip Thru Paradise on a Luxury Apartment Building

by Jodie & Dale Wendel

The usual evening throng crowding the "Meals-on-Wheels" at the Papeete waterfront reluctantly parted to allow our bus to approach the MS Paul Gauguin. My first impression when gazing at the slab-sided ship looming over the dock was more of a building than a vessel. The illusion quickly dissipated upon entering the ship. It is elegant and roomy.

This year’s family trip was a week on the Paul Gauguin thorough some of the Society Islands. Although the trip promised a week of luxury it started rather poorly with a long, uncomfortable flight on Air Tahiti Nui, a new airline started by Tahitians to improve service to the island. The Airbus 340 cabin was uncomfortably hot throughout the flight. The seats were both uncomfortable and spaced much too close. The cabin service could charitably be called confused. Although the air line has only been running since November 1998 it has already approached the poor level of service offered by US airlines that have been working at it far longer.

The eight of us quickly passed through Immigration and after eventually finding our luggage passed through the Customs gates into the terminal where we met the transfer staff. This is the wet season in French Polynesia; we were met with the usual heat and humidity but no rain. In fact, it didn’t rain for most of the trip.

Although it was mid-January gay Christmas lights illuminated the road in Faaa as the bus took us to the ship. We quickly boarded and mounted the stairs to the Grand Salon where we were greeted with a glass of champagne and handed a numbered card. The Grand Salon is a large show room and is the scene of most entertainment. Eventually our number was called and we checked in, were photographed for our hi-tech ID/room key, and were led to our cabin.

As befitting the ship’s reputation, the cabin was quite luxurious. Generous use of mirrors and eight-foot ceilings (overheads) enhance the feeling of spaciousness. Other amenities include dark wooden shelves, a tiled bathroom with bathtub/shower, complementary bottles of scotch, gin, and vodka, and a mini-refrigerator stocked with ice, soft drinks and beer. The only negative was that the closets and especially the drawers are barely adequate for our one-week cruise.

After dropping our carry-ons in the cabin we descended one deck to L’Etoile Restaurant for a late dinner. One of the head waiters greeted our 6-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, as "Princess" and led her, and us, to our table. She, and her 12-year-old brother, Nathan, received extraordinary treatment from the staff for our entire week, partly because they were the only children on the ship but mostly because extraordinary treatment is the nature of the ship. (Of course, we all received exceptional treatment.)

This trip disproved the contention by many cruise ships and tour operators that tipping results in better service. There is no tipping on the Paul Gauguin yet the service is outstanding, the best I have ever experienced on any trip. I believe that tipping simply allows the operators to underpay their staff and low-ball the tour price. Special Expeditions is now "suggesting" an outrageous tip of $10 per passenger per day.

L’Etoile is a spacious, elegant dining room with a soaring ceiling. Its position on the stern allows wrap-around windows on three sides. Illumination is provided by beautiful white glass chandeliers. The menu features a wide variety of selections that are always well prepared. Service is faultless, friendly, and attentive. Complementary wine, white or red, is included with lunch and dinner, although other choices are available for purchase. The selection of complementary wine changed throughout the voyage and was always quite good, sometimes French and sometimes Californian. This dining room is spacious enough for non-reservation seating throughout the 1½ hours it is open.

There was almost enough time after dinner to complete unpacking before sailing at 11 PM. As the bon voyage party progressed by the pool the ship seemed to silently separate from the dock and move out of the harbor. (There was never any perceptible sound or vibration from the engines or bow and stern thrusters.) We’re off on a 124 mile trip to Raiatea.

As we cruised along the fringing reef of Raiatea I tried to think of how to describe the Society Islands. They are green - insistent, pervasive green. Each island is fringed with the deep, dark green of the coconut palms which fades to a slightly lighter green as other vegetation takes over the march up the steep valley walls to the top of the shark-toothed ridges. To offset the intensity of the green, there is the luminescent aqua of the lagoons in contrast to the deep blue of the ocean on the other side of the coral reefs.

We skirted the reef until finding the "pass" into the inner lagoon. Once inside, we sailed further until anchoring off of Apooiti. Raiatea is considered the sacred island, the religious center of ancient Polynesia. It is reputed to be the starting point for the migrations to Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Easter Islands. Now it seems to be the starting point for a more modest, temporary, migration. The dock at Apooiti is lined with large sailboats available for charter. Our arrival on Sunday coincided with all the stores being closed in town. So rather than taking a taxi to a closed town, we wandered around the small settlement at Apooiti then went back aboard.

The Paul Gauguin remained at anchor overnight at Apooiti. In late afternoon the children of Raiatea presented a show on board. This spirited Tahitian dance group is quite enjoyable and is composed of girls and boys under the age of 12. A special charmer was a 2-year-old girl who captured the hearts of all grandparents on board.

The only somewhat formal event of the trip was the Captain’s Welcome cocktail party which followed the Tahitian dance group. It was "suggested" that gentlemen should at least wear a jacket or sport coat. Ties, however, were not required. As befitting the French registration of the ship, Capt. Olivier Decouzon and his staff officers are all French.

A word about amenities is in order. There are three restaurants on the ship. L’Etoile is the largest and offers the usual wide selection found on most cruise ships. The meals there were always excellent. La Veranda features alternating Italian and French cuisine and is by reservation only. It also the interior location for breakfast and lunch. Le Grill is semi-enclosed and on the same level as the pool. It offers a light, buffet breakfast, casual lunch, snacks in the afternoon, and dinner under the stars by reservation. In fact, from 6:30 am until 9:30 pm there is somewhere on the ship where you can eat with the exception of 11:30 to 12 noon and 5 pm to 7 pm. If you don’t want to spend all your time eating, there are five bars on board. At least one is open from 9:30 am until the wee hours.

There is also Le Cercle Casino whose operation is somewhat hampered by Tahitian governmental regulations (i.e., the slot machines may not be used.)

There was a show every evening in the Grand Salon. (I can’t explain why this room doesn’t have a French name like everything else.) Entertainment varied from a magician to Polynesian dancing to "A New York Cabaret."

At seven the next morning the ship moved to Taha’a which is within the same barrier reef as Raiatea. Although a jeep island tour is available, the prime activity here takes place on a motu, a small island. This has been developed for beach activities with several permanent structures, restrooms, and picnic tables. This was our first opportunity to snorkel however conditions weren’t very good; it was shallow, most coral seemed dead, and there was a persistent current. There were, however, many colorful fish, eels, and a very shy octopus. The ship’s sea kayaks were also available. As a whole, the visit was quite pleasant with the barbecue lunch, complementary drinks, and entertainment by Les Gauguines (a group of young Polynesian women who comprised the entertainment staff). This is the mythic South Pacific island, white sands, coconut palms, and surrounding aqua waters. It was an idyllic afternoon, even though there were many sunburned passengers.

After a restful night at anchor, the ship moved to Bora Bora in the morning, anchoring around 8 am. Tender service to the Vaitape pier started at 8:30. The scuba divers in the group went off for a two-hour dive while the rest of us journeyed off to the Lagoonarium Experience by Le Truck and Le outrigger canoe.

Although Lagoonarium sounded pretty mediocre we tried it and had a very enjoyable time. Even the 4 mile trip to the site by truck and canoe was enjoyable. Le Truck offers a nice view of the country and people. One interesting feature is the presence of long "mail" boxes at residences along the road for the delivery of loafs of baguettes. Most appeared to be already filled as we passed by.

Lagoonarium shares a smaller island with a typical resort where accommodations are small huts set on stilts over the lagoon. Three fenced areas comprise Lagoonarium. All contain colorful tropical fish that just wander in and out through the mesh. The first, and smallest, contains several sea turtles and a sting ray. The second contains many, many fish. Someone brought along some bread from the ship to feed the fish. Its an amazing sensation to hold a piece of bread in your hand and be swarmed with masses of colorful reef fish. Its another sensation to be approached nose to nose by a parrot fish and have a close view of its coral munching teeth.

The third, and largest, has several sting rays, many bat rays, and some black-tipped reef sharks. After our snorkeling, we were treated to refreshments on shore. We had fresh coconut, fresh coconut milk, many small but sweet bananas, and very sweet local grapefruit. The whole experience was excellent. Although the pens are an artificial environment they afford a much more intimate exposure to the fish that are found on an open reef.

We returned to the ship for lunch and then went into town for a little shopping. We set off in search of a shop that had been recommended to us. We later learned that it actually is on Moorea. The shopping experience is limited if you are on foot. The stores are widely separated.

Another restful night was assured by the ship remaining at anchor. After another shopping foray and lunch, we took the tender to another Motu. This one was not furnished quite as well as the one on Taha’a, however the snorkeling was much better. After losing ourselves among the fish we were startled to hear that the next to last tender had just left for the ship. We dried off in the sun and enjoyed a quick beer before returning to the ship and a hot shower.

We set sail for Moorea in early evening. The next morning we passed by and around Tetiaroa, an atoll that lies 26 miles north of Tahiti. It consists of 12 small islets grouped in a circular configuration surrounding a large lagoon about 4.3 miles in diameter. Since there is no pass through the surrounding reef, the small resort and few residents must rely on airplanes for delivery of supplies and, more interestingly, whale boats that "jump" the reef to enter the lagoon. The island is owned by Marlon Brando.

After lunch, it was time to check out the shopping around Cook’s bay on Moorea. One interesting fact, Captain Cook never visited Cook’s Bay but he did visit adjoining Opunoka Bay. Our luck with the rainy season finally abandoned us. Although this is the rainy season, we had not been troubled by rain so far. When walking back from the White House, the shop we looked for on Bora Bora, we encountered a tropical deluge. Umbrellas did not help, especially from the splashing of passing cars.

Jodie and I were invited to dine at the Captain’s table that evening. In the course of the meal he learned that I hadn’t taken time from all the other activities to take one of the scheduled bridge tours. He invited me to come to the bridge the following evening at 5:30 as we departed Cook’s bay for Tahiti. As you would expect from a ship that is only a year old, the bridge is quite modern. An ancient mariner wouldn’t recognize it as a ships bridge. There is a large console to the right mounting two digital radar displays plus a moving map display. The console to the left is lower and mounts the helm and auto pilot, engine controls, thruster (bow and stern) controls. Both consoles are set back from the windows. The bridge wings are quite small, especially when compared to the generous size of the bridge.

For our second day on Moorea we set up a complicated shuttle tour with Berda Lowgreen in her Hyundai van. Part of the group spent the morning at the Tiki Village, a very enjoyable view of early island life. In mid morning and provisioned with box lunches from the ship, the rest of the group met Berda who drove them off to Hotel Sofitel Ia Ora for snorkeling in the lagoon. She then drove back to Cook’s Bay and picked up the group returning from the Tiki Village and drove back to the Sofitel. After snorkeling and lunch, we drove around the island and up to the Belvedere, where, in spite of the frequent rain, we were able to see both bays and the Paul Gauguin at anchor.

A group reputed to be Polynesia’s number 1 Dance folklore Troupe, O Tahiti E entertained as the ship sailed for Tahiti. Their polished, energetic performance seemed a fitting climax to our trip.

We arrived in Papeete around 8 pm and spent the night on the ship. We opted out of the included tour the next morning so we could wander around downtown Papeete. Especially enjoyable was the market. After an ice cream cone at Le Retro we took a cab to the Sofitel where Radisson provided day rooms and lunch. At almost midnight, tired and tanned, we were headed back to LA on an 8 hour flight.