Five-foot blacktip reef sharks were circling my legs in the crystal-clear waters of Bora Bora. I was snorkeling with fellow cruise passengers off an outrigger, accompanied by sharks and stingrays, in a lagoon with more shades of blue than the lineup at my local paint store.
This thrilling Tahiti experience (even if the sharks were more interested in the food proffered by guides than human presence) was offered as a shore excursion on the 332-passenger m/s Paul Gauguin, which for 24 years has been the most luxurious, quintessentially Polynesian ship cruising year-round in the remote Pacific islands.
Many travelers, in search of white-sand beaches, clear seas rich in marine life, and beautiful island culture—the calling cards of French Polynesia—head for the resorts when they visit this region. At the high end, there’s the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, or the completely over-the-top the Brando on its own private atoll. But for those who want to see more, a sailing on Paul Gauguin Cruises’ classic m/s Paul Gauguin avoids the logistical hassles of local flights and ferries, while still allowing for a variety of quintessential island experiences.
This past August, my pal Kim and I sailed on a seven-night Tahiti and Society Islands itinerary with overnight visits in both Bora Bora and Moorea, including time on the white sands of the cruise line’s private Bora Bora beach. We also stopped at less-touristed Huahine, an island known for such attractions as sacred blue-eyed eels and ancient historic sites, and at the company’s private islet Motu Mahana (off the island of Taha’a)—where crew set up a floating bar and a game of bowling with coconuts.
Longer 10- to 14-night itineraries visit the more remote and less-visited Tuamotus and Marquesas or Cook Islands. In 2024, some seven-night cruises will mark the cruise line’s return to Raiatea, a sacred island known for its cultural heritage and natural beauty. All departures are from Papeete, on the island of Tahiti.
What it’s like cruising on the m/s “Paul Gauguin”
Fresh from a refurbishment in 2021, the iconic French-flagged m/s Paul Gauguin delivers laid-back luxury and island-influenced decor that perfectly matches the scenery and experiences on shore. The ship was first introduced in 1998 as a vessel specifically built to cruise in the shallow lagoons of these islands.
This was my fourth time onboard, and the m/s Paul Gauguin has withstood the test of time in its friendly island manner complete with upscale amenities and services, including gourmet food and French wine. In the cruise industry, it’s not the newest, flashiest ship but it is a perennial fan favorite.
The cruise line has gone through several owners, but most recently it was acquired by French cruise line Ponant in fall 2019. On our sailing that French influence came through with a particularly charming French captain, a French executive chef, and 50 passengers from France among the 220 aboard—most of the rest of us were from North America. Announcements were made in English and French. Passengers ranged from families with kids to seniors.
Most staterooms, and the ship’s 27 butler-service suites, are outfitted with balconies that deliver astonishingly beautiful views of the sea and sky and of the vegetation and dark volcanic peaks ashore. With such perks as 24-hour room service, my traveling companion and I couldn’t resist starting most days with breakfast in our bathrobes on our balcony amid the tropical splendor.
The ship’s updated color palette of blue, green, taupe, and pearl mirror the Tahitian landscape. In our standard Deck 7 balcony cabin, we passed a stone tiki statue on the way to the bath and had plenty of room to stretch out in our indoor sitting area and balcony big enough for a couple of chairs and a cocktail table.
There are pleasant reminders of place throughout the ship, from the rain forest murals to the collected Polynesian artifacts displayed in glass cases near the expanded piano bar in the center of the ship on Deck 5. They include a ceremonial paddle carved in traditional patterns and original lithographs by French artist Paul Gauguin who introduced the beauty of Tahiti to much of the world.
For those who want to learn and see more, a digital museum features more than 150 works by Gauguin and a collection of photos of people, places, and objects you can pull up and display on a large HD screen near the display cases, for an art and history lesson at your own pace. Original paintings by contemporary local artists decorate hallways and lounges.
Fine dining for a wide range of tastes
The ship’s three restaurants offer menus that appeal to a wide variety of palates, while highlighting local ingredients such as mahi mahi and yellow fin tuna in both Tahitian and French preparations.
The reservations-required (but for no added fee) Le Veranda has an over-the-top degustation menu that includes dishes such as seared foie gras and tuna sashimi with apple and pear and a duo of escargot and mushrooms on a poached egg topped with potato foam. You can indulge in Tahiti’s famous poisson cru (raw tuna in coconut milk) at the open-air Le Grill restaurant on the pool deck, where you can dine casually in your shorts. And you won’t go hungry at Restaurant L’Etoile, the classy main dining room, where crowd-pleasing international menu items, including Asian and vegetarian selections, are followed by a parade of petit fours for dessert.
During a Tahitian theme night, everyone onboard is encouraged to wear traditional pareos (skirts) or other tropical outfits, is decorated with fresh flower leis, and is treated to a menu that includes poisson cru, broiled lobster tail with vanilla sauce, and pineapple financier cake.
Island culture onboard
Dining and decor aside, the true differentiator on this ship is the friendly and engaging crew, hailing mostly from the Philippines (who make great efforts to remember every guest’s name and preferences), as well as a troupe of local performers and storytellers who are onboard the entire cruise with the goal of showcasing island culture.
Two men and four women, known as Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines, wear traditional pareos, with the men bearing their chests and one showing off his traditional, dark Tahitian tattoos, reflecting his family history. Using their hips and arms, they perform traditional dances and songs in Le Grand Salon, sometimes to dramatic video backdrops of island scenery. Colorful legends of gods, warriors, kings, and queens are part of the Tahitian culture, and these performances serve as a great introduction to these ancient stories.
The Tahitian ambassadors also offer classes in crafts such as making roses from bark and necklaces from shells. They explain how to properly tie a pareo and teach a few words of the local language. They also lead plain old bingo.
While some of the activities may sound a bit hokey, the Tahitian ambassadors are also willing to sit and talk with guests in a more impromptu way about their own lives and local customs—one young woman told me she would soon apply to study economics in France. It definitely enhances the experience to have these more personal interactions with people from the region.
The cultural programming extends to kids on select cruises in the summer and holiday periods, when kids ages 7 to 15 get special attention via Paul Gauguin’s Moana Explorer Program, created in partnership with Te mana o te moana, a local marine and education conservation foundation. Activities include creating your own temporary tattoo and naturalist-led beach hikes.
The ship’s spa is also a cultural experience of sorts, with the therapists being specially trained in some of the local wellness treatments. My Romanian therapist turned me to mush using oil scented with gardenias and a combination of touching and pressing based on traditional Polynesian Taurumi mind-and-body massage techniques.
Supplementing the ship’s own immersion is a local children’s troupe that comes onboard in Huahine for a heartfelt dance show. In Papeete, at the end of the cruise, two-dozen professional dancers from the awarding-winning O Tahiti E dance group deliver a rousing performance.
Exploring the islands
To see the island of Tahiti and properly recover from jet lag, I highly recommend you arrive a day or two before your cruise. But if you’re short on time, Paul Gauguin Cruises has the option of a day room (for a fee) at the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort & Spa so that you can at least rest and refresh for the hours between when your flight arrives and when you can board the ship, typically in the late afternoon.
Fresh off an eight-hour overnight Air Tahiti Nui flight on a Dreamliner from Los Angeles, we took this route and got in a nap before relaxing in the resort’s pools and fueling up with a buffet lunch. We were nicely refreshed by the time we arrived at the ship, which was docked in Papeete.
To help you make the most of your time at each port of call, Paul Gauguin delivers a roundup of shore excursions with local operators each day. It includes active adventures, such as ATV tours and e-bike rides, and engaging cultural encounters. The ship’s local shore excursion team offers advice so that you can plot out your choices over the course of the cruise. Prices start at less than $50 per person for an island driving tour.
For divers, the ship has a for-a-fee scuba program with equipment and scheduled dives designed for all levels of experience. For those who are novice divers or looking for refresher courses, PADI certification is offered onboard. Passengers can also borrow snorkel equipment and water toys such as kayaks and stand-up paddleboards that launch from the ship. We took advantage of this for a delightful kayak paddle off Huahine.
In addition to our shark encounter off Bora Bora, complete with a ukulele-playing guide, we booked a bus tour on Huahine to learn about vanilla-producing orchids at a family-owned plantation. During the plantation outing, we also stopped by the island’s renowned Marae of Maeva (one of the best-preserved ceremonial and religious sites in French Polynesia) and a stream with sacred blue-eyed eels—revered, fed, and cared for by the village of Faie.
Beach time spent relaxing with our toes in the soft sand on the cruise line’s Motu Mahana was a total pleasure, despite some rain showers. We just ordered an extra round of mai tais and went with the flow.
With some free time to explore Bora Bora, we headed to the open-air Aloe Café in Vaitape to fulfill my goal of eating as much poisson cru as possible, dining with locals and fellow tourists. After lunch, we stretched our legs walking out of the tourist town, past views of flower gardens and a woman selling fish.
In rugged and lush Moorea, a snorkeling excursion ensured more quality time with sharks and views of the coastline. The next day, after we purchased shell necklaces from artisans at the pier, we hired a guide who drove us past pineapple groves and up mountain peaks for views of the island’s stunning lagoon.
Later, at the low-key Snack Mahana we ate more raw fish with our feet in the sand. Not even a complaining visitor could ruin our lunch—and three cheers for the chef who shouted from the kitchen that some people just aren’t used to fresh tuna right off the boat.
We walked a quiet road, stopping to sip coconut milk from a stand and exchanging greetings with locals we passed, before returning to the ship.
Ultimately, the cruise proved a delightful means to slowing down to smell the tiaré flowers in the tropics.
Fares for seven-night cruises on the m/s “Paul Gauguin” are from about $3,500 per person, including drinks and gratuities.