I’ve been meaning to write this review for quite some time now and upon being presented my gold medal for procrastination, I thought I’d best pull my finger out!
A couple of years ago Josanne threw out a line that it might be nice to spend her next birthday in Bora Bora. It was a significant birthday (ie ending in a zero) and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to tick off one of our joint bucket list locations. As such, I set about working out what the options were.
After considerable research, I settled on a 7 night cruise aboard the Paul Gauguin. I wasn’t entirely convinced that we were of a sufficient age to do a cruise, but everything I read suggested that this one would suit people of all ages and that the ship was small enough to remain personal, unlike some of the larger 2-3,000 passenger ships that I regularly see docking in Auckland.
The Paul Gaugin, named after the famed French artist who spent a considerable time in French Polynesia, is small (catering for a mere 332 passengers). This results in a personal, somewhat intimate experience where the crew even learn your name. They can’t do enough to ensure that you get total value for money on board this floating 5 star hotel / restaurant.
The package included accommodation, food and alcohol (and to be perfectly honest, when you look at what it would cost to stay in a hotel on Bora Bora, it works out to be very cost effective by comparison). We booked a basic cabin (portholes and no balcony), but as you can see, it was perfectly acceptable. We didn’t spend much time in it anyway! The beer and soft drinks in the fridge were topped up daily.
To ensure we were there for departure, we arrived the day before, spending the night in Central Papeete (we wanted to eat at the waterfront food trucks that we’d heard so much about) and at the Intercontinental close to the airport on the final day. This worked really well for us.
We had to laugh at ourselves on the first night on board. Being novices, although we knew the package included alcohol, we weren’t sure if it was all alcohol or just the cheaper brands. To determine which of the two it was (without having to look stupid by asking) I ordered us two Bombay Sapphires (they also had Gordon’s on the shelf). The barman cheerily made these, handed them over and didn’t ask for our room number!
Result! We now knew that all alcohol was included in the cost.
Finding this out was really useful and we instigated cocktail hour every night before dinner. The downside of cocktail hour is that I now know that I’d make a rubbish James Bond. The only martini that I didn’t like was the vodka martini (ordered shaken not stirred of course)! The chocolate martini or apple martini on the other hand……
We’d initially worried that (relatively speaking) we could be the only “youngsters” on board. We needn’t have worried. There was an eclectic mix of ages and nationalities. Yes, there were some older people (who knew full well that they could order anything from the bar), but there were also honeymooners and other younger couples celebrating special occasions. We still keep in touch with a great couple we met from Sydney (Hi John and Priscilla Gregory if you’re reading this!).
At the end of our week, I discovered the only downside of cruising was weight gain! The food on board was exquisite, rich and decadent (unfortunately there’s a 4th adjective directly related to the previous three – calorific). At home, we never eat three large meals a day. On board I felt obliged to. And afternoon teas. And beer. And cocktails. And….. well, you get the picture.
There is a gym on board. I know this because I made a point of finding it on our first day. And then walked past it every single day without actually going in!
You had to book for dinner in two of the three restaurants. The third was where we ate most nights (because I kept forgetting to book!). You can also choose whether to eat on your own (i.e. a table for two) or with a larger group. I recommend the latter, as we met loads of great people that way. One of the restaurants did a beautiful degustation menu. It was heavenly. Looking back at my weight gain though, I’m very glad we only did it once (surprisingly, I remembered to book for it!).
At mealtime, there were a couple of choices of red and white French wines included in the price. If you wanted, you could choose wine from the menu. This was the only time that you needed to pay for alcohol. The wines supplied as part of the package were perfect though.
After dinner entertainment consisted of a small casino, a theatre that put on shows, karaoke in one of the bars (which I stayed well clear of), and themed evenings. We’d generally meet up with friends and just have a drink in one of the bars. I’m fairly certain that I’ve tried just about every cocktail known to mankind as a result!
Each night when you left port, most passengers made their way up to the main deck where cocktails were served. Not only was this great for catching up with people, but you got some great photos. It was also how we tended to meet up with whomever we were going to have dinner with (necessitated by yours truly not booking. I’m sure you’re getting the picture by now).
So I’ve talked about the cabins, the food, the alcohol, the outstanding staff.
What about the location? Was it worth it? Would I recommend it to anyone else?
I can only answer with an emphatic Yes, Yes and Yes.
Our itinerary took in the islands below (I’ve taken this directly from Paul Gauguin’s website). The order in which we visited them changed slightly as the captain moved one destination as there was a large cruise ship that would have been in port at the same time as us.
We started in Papeete, moved to Taha’a, followed by Huahine, Bora Bora and Moorea. We did excursions in each port (you do have to pay for these, but you choose what – if any – you are going to do).
Our first stop was to the Paul Gauguin owned island of Motu Mahana off Taha’a. We spent the day, or as much time as you wanted to, there. Lunch was an extensive barbecue with plenty of cold beers and cocktails to get us through. After the exhaustion of lounging about, we deserved a cold beer if nothing else!
Lots of the passengers tended to congregate on the main beach area on the island, but if you walked around to the other side, you had the place almost entirely to yourself:
After spending the day on Taha’a, it was back to the ship to head off to our next destination – Huahine.
One thing to be remembered is that you are in the Pacific. You don’t get the greenery of the islands without rain. So while you can have glorious days of hot, humid sunshine, you can also get some impressive bursts of rain. The panorama below shows one of these downpours as we left Taha’a. As we were back on the ship, it didn’t affect us at all – other than having to have our cocktails indoors (such hardship)!
Another of the benefits of this cruise is that most of the sailing is done at night, meaning that you have access to the islands for most of the day when you’re in port.
On Huahine we did a trip out to see one of the Tahitian black pearl farms. While Josanne didn’t buy a pearl there, she did get round to buying one in Bora Bora. It was supposed to be made into a ring. Supposed to being the operative word. I’m sure she’ll get round to it at some point (a bit like me getting round to writing this review).
We also went inland and fed some blue eyed eels. The guide used a tin of tuna and this got them right up out of the water eating it.
As is the way, cocktails on leaving Huahine enabled us to get some nice photos. It had started to cloud over, so we missed the sunset.
Our next stop was what the trip was all about – Josanne spending her birthday on Bora Bora!
It has to be said that if you don’t have Bora Bora on your bucket list, you need to move something off of it and put it on. I’ve been to a number of the Pacific Islands and Bora Bora easily surpasses all of them for beauty, cleanliness and for what I can only describe as pristine turquoise waters. And believe me, my description does nothing to describe the genuine beauty of those waters. It really needs to be seen to be believed.
As we spent a couple of days in Bora Bora, we did three excursions; two of which involved feeding sharks and stingrays, the other dolphin and whale watching (we got lucky with the latter as it was the end of the season and most of the whales had already headed back south with their calves).
The first experience of feeding sharks and stingrays ended up with me getting into trouble (without even trying). I apparently got too close to the sharks when they were being fed. As my head was under the water, I was oblivious to my telling off. That said, given how the sharks were fed the next day at the Lagoonarium, I suspect that the guide was taking Health and Safety way too seriously for a Tahitian!
I’d bought a cheap underwater camera off Trade Me (big mistake – it stopped working on day 1!), but thanks to John Gregory with his GoPro, we managed to get some underwater shots of the sharks and rays:
Later that day we went dolphin and whale-spotting. It didn’t look like we were going to see any whales when suddenly a shout went up that a mother, her calf and another male were in the area. In the end, they came up right next to our boat.
On day 2 in Bora Bora, we decided to visit the Lagoonarium. This has a number of sharks in a more enclosed area. You get in at one end and snorkel up to the other while one of the guides throws great chunks of fish in. The sharks are swimming around and under you (the water is deeper here) and if I’d had an underwater camera, I’d have got some great photos. Next time!
We left Bora Bora that night and headed to Moorea – the last stop on the voyage. I had the tick in the box for Josanne being in Bora Bora for her birthday though. I think my brownie points for that will have expired by now.
There was some heavy rain during the night after we left Bora Bora. This meant that the planned excursion we had for the next day (4WD driving to some spectacular spots for taking photographs) was cancelled, as it was too muddy for even the 4WDs.
As the weather had cleared up, we decided to take the tender ashore and walk up what was known as Magic Mountain. How hard could that be in 30C heat and 95% humidity?!
It was very hot and very sticky. Once we’d finished, we decided to head back to the ship for a shower, lunch and a cold beer.
I’d ordered a couple of cold beers from one of the waiters, had grabbed my food and was back eating it at the table. I was busily thinking that Josanne was taking a very long time at the buffet when the waiter came up and quietly said “Mr Kevin, have you fallen out with Miss Josanne?”. “No“, I smiled “what makes you think that?”. He smiled back and pointed to the other side of the dining room “Well she is sat having her lunch over there with two beers“! After joining her, I was forced to drink three of the four beers we’d collected. It was one of the few times I made time for an afternoon nap!
You’ll note that the waiter actually knew our names. The crew, most of whom were from the Philippines, took the time to learn your name and they’d greet you wherever they saw you on the ship. I was Mr Kevin for the duration.
While it was a hot, sticky walk to get to the top, we did get some great views once we were there, so it was worth it.
And that was the last of the excursions. All that was left was one more cocktails hour (or two), one last delicious meal and a night of sailing back to Papeete, where we’d spend a night at the Intercontinental before heading back home.
So what do I think about the experience?
I loved it. I discovered I’m not too old to cruise and neither is anyone else. As with any holiday, you’ll meet some neat people. I’d also do it all again. The crew on the ship really helped make the experience – always smiling, always asking how you’re enjoying it, always representing the Paul Gauguin impeccably.
If you’re thinking of a cruise in the Pacific, you should definitely consider this one.
What were my “must do’s“?
- The shark and stingray feeding. It’s an exceptional experience. As they are black tipped reef sharks, you’re fairly safe (I wouldn’t advise doing it with Great Whites though). If you can only do one – do the Lagoonarium. A Tahitian throwing great chunks of fish to the sharks as you snorkel is a fantastic experience.
- Whale and Dolphin watching – even the inclement weather couldn’t spoil this day. We were so pleased to have seen dolphins and whales, and the rollercoaster ride over the reef on the way out and back topped it off!
- Take an underwater camera. You’ll get some great photos from it.
- Take some gym gear. Oh, and use it. I took gym gear and didn’t! The food is too good not to indulge, so if you visit the gym at least you can legitimise it!