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Sails of the South Pacific

Cruising French Polynesia on the Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Papeete
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

For as long as we can remember Ed and I have had an urge to visit Tahiti. At least we thought it was Tahiti. Maybe we were influenced by those Gauguin paintings of round-hipped, dark-haired, half-clad beauties bearing baskets of fruit on their heads and promises in their eyes. Or perhaps it was the various versions of "Mutiny on the Bounty,” with Fletcher Christian as played first by Clark Gable, next by Marlon Brando and finally in "The Bounty” by Mel Gibson. Part of our yearning for a place that we had never actually laid eyes on might be traced to reading Michener"s "Tales” and watching the musical "South Pacific” on stage and in the movies.

Most people who dream about Tahiti are in for an awakening. When they finally reach this Shangri-La, they discover it wasn"t Tahiti they longed to see, but the Society Islands, one of five archipelagos formed by 130 islands that are French Polynesia, which takes its generic name from Tahiti and is an "autonomous overseas territory of the French Republic.”

Bali Ha"i isn"t calling, "Come to me,” for Tahiti as it is for Bora Bora and the other Eden-like Society neighbors—Moorea, Raaitea/Tahaa and Huahine. Its rather raggedy main town, Papeete Pah-pee-ay-tay, where international flights land, is a jumping off point for all the other luscious pieces of land sprinkled over a stretch of the South Seas.

Asian Buffet, La Veranda
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Radisson Seven Seas Cruise Line"s Paul Gauguin was our first and only choice for this fantasy trip. Often the most remarkable sights are those possible only from the deck of a ship. Many sublime experiences are stored in my mental scrapbook of the world"s great sailing grounds. I also have a vivid collection of wonderfully romantic and scenic ports. In Tahiti I pasted more images into that album: sailing into Bora Bora with the light pouring over the mountains in wide streaks and covering the trees and low-lying fares (houses) like Zeus descending to earth and water; Moorea whose impossibly lush outcropping of green jagged mountains reach 4,000 feet to pierce an almost constant wreath of clouds; and Raiatea ringed by crystal-clear waters of every blue in the spectrum and by what Gauguin called Veronese green in his journal.

Some of the world"s cruise ships restlessly prowl the seas in pursuit of the warmest sun, finest weather and best sights, pausing only on an exotic route to stream away on new runs, but this boat was designed to stay in the South Seas year-round. Since its maiden voyage in 1998, it has never strayed from a set course.

Readers of "Conde Nast Traveler” recently ranked the Paul Gauguin as first in world cruising. Built for French Polynesia, the design reflects the stage on which it plays. We were struck by the low-keyed, uncontrived interior. It seems to have been created to spotlight the world beyond its decks.
No matter how high your expectations, you will not be disappointed with the ambiance. The Paul Gauguin does not need much in the way of embellishments. The hallways are a gallery of black and white photographs of island peoples and scenery taken decades ago. Lithographs illustrate the history of the area. A collection of images of Gauguin hang in the reception area.

The staterooms are functional and easy to live in. A balcony and the clever use of mirrors made our 239 square-foot stateroom seem larger. There was more than enough drawer and closet space and a full-size bathroom

Aqua Safari
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The suggested dress in the evenings is "country club casual.” Scratch country club. Even at the captain"s dinner in L"Etoile, the main dining room, women appeared in very informal dress and men wore short-sleeved sport shirts. The food in L"Etoile, open only in the evenings, was over the top. Who would have expected such lavish meals on a cruise that is not easily provisioned and from a very skinny Brittany-born chef, Daniel Daoulus? When questioned, Daloulus pulled out a demi-tasse-sized spoon, which he carries in the pocket of his uniform, and said, "I taste.”

The extensive menus require lengthy and serious perusal. The left side of the carte listed a five-course chef"s recommendation, a four-course well-being calorie counting meal and four simplicity dinners. On the right there were a good number of other choices for each course, as well as pasta and vegetarian dishes. I can"t remember ordering anything that I didn"t thoroughly enjoy. Wine is complimentary and each night in every restaurant two lovely, different ones, a white and a red, from around the world were served.

All the restaurants have open seating. We ate dinner in L"Etoile with four other couples on two occasions. Some of our tablemates turned their orders into lengthy tasting menus and our group was the last to say, "Good Night.” The waiters were good humored about it.

The other dining spaces, Veranda and The Pacific Grill, are open three times a day. The Grill on the top deck is the most informal venue. At dinner Asian ingredients are used liberally in the dishes. The other two meals are buffets. At breakfast in the Veranda you can choose from a generous and delicious buffet or order off the menu. At lunch international buffets are served. The ones we tasted were superb with the French meal taking first prize. Mais oui! In addition to the chef"s background, the on-board atmosphere and this part of the world are partly influenced by a French sensibility. In the evening Veranda is transformed into Apicus, modeled on a Michelin two-star Parisian restaurant. It has handsome table appointments, dim lights, candles, attentive service and exquisite food. We savored every bite of our three-course meal and were particularly seduced by the sauces. Thumbs up to each plate—caviar with a charlotte of potatoes, lobster ravioli, truffle-mushroom risotto, grilled tenderloin, chocolate tart and crispy cylinder of tropical fruits.

Of the 12 or so mostly water-centered excursions scheduled each day, the zenith, the aqua safari, introduces rookies to deep-sea adventure. It eliminates hesitations about diving, while providing the pleasures of the sport. Donning a sealed helmet attached to an on-board air tank, I descended about 15 feet from the side of a small catamaran off Bora Bora into one of the world"s most beautiful lagoons. Standing on the sand and coral reef floor I experienced a natural high. I felt weightless inside nature"s vast aquarium. The scene around me looked like an animated cartoon. Striped and spotted fish in Crayola colors fluttered by as I fed them bread from my pouch. After the too short 30-minute exploration, I reluctantly left the bottom of the sea.

Les Gauguines
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The guided waverunner rides that circled Bora Bora and Moorea got rave reviews from other guests . Rushing the water at a fast clip, with one passenger piloting and another hanging on in back, the experience can be likened to skimming the sea by motorcycle.

Near Moorea on an outing to feed sharks and rays, we again met underworld creatures up close. Climbing out the back of a motorized outrigger canoe, our group lined up along one side of a rope so that we could watch the harmless four- to five-foot black-tipped sharks on the other side. Later we disembarked in a shallow part of the lagoon where the water reached our waists. As our guide fed the dancing rays, we ran our hands across their flat dark backs.

Scuba trips were organized each day. Every small- and medium-sized sea-going vessel—catamaran, outrigger canoe, semi-submersible, catamaran, zodiac, sportfishing, sail and parasailing boats--was drafted to explore the water in a myriad of ways.

It was possible to waterski, kayak, windsurf and snorkel from a marina platform off the back of the boat or from the motus, tiny islets in the constellation of the larger ones. The Paul Gauguin has its own private motu, Mohana, not far from Taha"a, the sister island to Raiatea. The motu is everything a deserted island in the South Pacific should be—a sliver of sand, intense sunshine and a few coconut trees swaying to gentle breezes.

Le Truck
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

While the ship was docked in Taha"a, you could pass the day at Mahana. In addition to participating in water sports in the translucent lagoon, it was possible to get a massage, play volleyball, eat lunch on the beach and watch a coconut being attacked with a machete. Les Gauguines, the ship"s resident troupe of native women entertainers, taught guests how to tie a pareo (sarong) and to thrust their pelvises and shake their hips to Tahitian music.

Majestic volcanic mountains, wildly exuberant gardens, panoramic vistas,
towering waterfalls, rushing streams, plantations that grow tropical crops and animals at rest and birds in flight—are the sights to explore by helicopter,
Land Rover or Le Truck. We took island tours using Le Truck, reconditioned school buses with open windows and benches lining both sides.

When a scheduled bus ride around Raiatea was cancelled, Normand Piche, tour manager, kindly let us join the 9- 15-year old Ambassadors of the Environment and some of their parents as well as counselors in a program operated by the ship and Jean-Michel Costeau"s Ocean Futures Society. A local guide took us to Taha"a"s turtle sanctuary and vanilla and black pearl farms. Along the way he pointed out various varieties of plants and stopped to show us how coconut is dried and how the leaves and bark of the ubiquitous white hibiscus is used to make pot covers, plates, reef shoes and even a flute. On other days the enthusiastic youngsters snorkeled among the fish and corals, fed the sharks and rays, toured Bora Bora, canoed with local kids and explored gravesites with an archeologist.

On a similar excursion around Bora Bora centering on history, customs and the environment, we missed the curiosity and spontaneity of the young ambassadors. During their visit to this island they must have enjoyed the tie-dying demonstration and tasting of some of the native products. I can imagine them saying "yuck” about the breadfruit and "yummy” to the poe.

Ambassadors of the Environment, Vanilla Farm
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Like all cruise ships, this one has a full on-board day and evening program of teas, shows, movies, dances, fitness classes, lessons in Tahitian customs and crafts and lectures.

Archeologist/anthropologist Mark Eddowes presented two enrichment lectures: "Ancient Tahiti of the Golden Mist,” a spellbinding examination of Polynesian culture and history, and "The Mutiny on the Bounty-What Really Happened,” the truth behind the fictionalized version.

Along with wine and a set-up of hard liquor and beverages in the staterooms, gratuities are included in the cruise. John Bruno, a guest who was treating himself to a trip for a milestone birthday, noted how accommodating the service was and said, "You never get the feeling that someone is helping you because they"re hoping for a tip.” As an example he cited that he had missed a waverunner ride. Although non-refundable, the tour desk "knocked themselves out” to get the excursion company to reschedule.

Bruno, an actor, added "I always dreamt of Tahiti. It could not be more perfect.” We did not remind him that the Tahiti he fantasized may have been one of the other Society Islands.

Reservations: 877-505-5370

Pre- and Post-Cruise Programs

The following island properties are among the more than a dozen hotels which Radisson Seven Seas Cruise Line books for its passengers before and after cruises. We chose to visit these lodgings because of their affiliation with select hospitality groups.

Le Taha’a Private Island and Spa

Alain Druet, manager, was at the dock to greet us as we got off of a taxi boat bringing us from our ship to Le Taha"a Private Island and Spa. You can also arrive by helicopter from Bora Bora, by shuttle boat from Raiatea and by overnight freighter from Tahiti. Some guests charter yachts and overnight at several islands.

As Druet showed us around, he spoke about the importance of a well-trained staff at the high-end resort. The two-year old Le Taha"a is part of Pearl Resorts and is the only hotel in French Polynesia that belongs to the prestigious Relais & Chateaux. The hotel is on Motu Tautau, a stunning low coral atoll bursting from the sea out of nowhere.

Pareo Shopping
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

It was designed to be the most feathered resort ever built on a reef and is so gorgeous you can"t take your eyes off of it. The over the water bungalows which Druet said are "boats that don"t sway” rate eight and one-half out of a possible 10 on a scale for dramatic accommodations. If you descend the stairs in front of your suite, you will find yourself chest high in water. Room service uses the stairs, too, when delivering breakfast by outrigger canoe.

From the foot of your bed you can watch or feed the fish. Just open the glass lid of the lighted lagoonarium and toss bits of bread. Every accommodation has an outdoor terrace and a sheltered one. Natural native materials are applied in functional and decorative ways--carved woods, slate, stones, shells, bamboo, tapa cloth and even hemp on the door handles. The result is a palette of shades of blond and beige. Bathrooms with tubs shaped like ships are on theme, too. Large beach villas with private pools accommodate families.

Sixty percent of the clientele are honeymooners in search of a dreamy ambiance. They discover it up in the trees at Restaurant Vanille where the air is scented with tropical flowers and during the blue lagoon and Polynesian-themed evenings where the fiery sunsets provide a backdrop.

We, seniors, found whimsy, too. At La Plage, the waterside restaurant, we watched the exquisite views, the infinity pool and swim-up bar while we dug our feet into the sand floor and ate lunch under a pandanus roof held aloft by trees.

We also found bliss at the Manea Spa as we shared a couples" massage in a pavilion open on one side. Expert hands plied, pushed and kneaded our bodies as we lay face down looking through the head rest at orange hibiscus flowers on the floor. The masseuses wear orange pareos, the signature color of the spa. Depending on the culture in which you live orange can symbolize many things such as warmth, energy, the sun, vibrancy, enthusiasm and luxury. The effect worked. We felt uplifted after the luxuriant experience of being perfumed with oils.

Le Taha"a Private Island and Spa, B.P. Patio, Taha"a, French Polynesia, Tel. 00 689-60 84 00, USA 310-649-2528

Bora Bora Lagoon Resort

Every half-hour a shuttle boat transports guests from Bora Bora"s main village of Vaitape to Motu Toopua, an islet formed from the remains of an ancient volcano. Fifteen minutes later the boat arrives at Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, a secluded slice of utopia accessible by water only. From this vantage point visitors have front row seats for a spectacular panorama—the verdant sides of Mount Otemanu sliding down into the placid lagoon.

Over the Water Bungalows, Le Taha'a Private Island
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Despite the proximity to Bora Bora there have to be more than scenery and location to draw international travelers to a resort on a dot of land in the South Pacific. Reputation travels as far as do vacationers. The standards of Orient-Express Hotels, Trains and Cruises in providing outstanding service in unique luxurious surroundings are a major draw. The parent company has owned the resort, which originally opened in 1993, a mere three years, but has spent heavily in upgrading the property and installing the largest pool in Polynesia.

Guests are housed in over the water bungalows and beach and garden villas, grouped in three villages to afford light, privacy and haunting views. All are large enough to be considered suites and are decorated in authentic Tahitian style. Stairs from the bungalows end at platforms, which skim the lagoon and serve as launching pads for water sports. Each village is convenient to the beach, swimming areas and a communal pavilion.

When Orient-Express acquired the property, Dr. Shirley Sherwood, botanist and wife of James Sherwood, chairman, added 1,000 plants to the acreage. During our visit, finishing touches were being put on a new spa. A two-storied construction, it is built around a banyan tree with two treatment rooms buried in the branches and leaves.

If you are looking for a vacation filled with activity, the concierge can arrange more than 25 of them. And if you"re looking for a romantic interlude, the staff will pack a basket for a picnic on a secluded island.

Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, Motu Toopua, B.P. 175, Vaitape, Bora Bora, French Polynesia, Tel. 689-60-40-00, 800-860-4095

How To Reach Papeete

As we boarded an Air Tahiti Nui flight in Los Angeles, the cabin crew handed us tiare blossoms (gardenias) the national flower of Polynesia. After being seated we were served punch made from several island fruits including mango and passion fruit. To reflect the Tahitian waters, the cabin and the crew were dressed in turquoise and blue. After take-off the attendants changed into native costume--red and white print dresses or shirts whose flowered pattern was straight out of a Gauguin painting.

Dinner was served from a rolling cart so that you could take a peek at the choices before selecting. Food was palatable, but wines (French) were outstanding.

Manea Spa, Le Taha'a Private Island
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Not long ago the "Wall Street Journal” wrote about six small and little-known, but outstanding airlines. ATN was among them. Its planes have only been in the air a scant half-dozen years, but the company has edged out the competition for market share and is now the major carrier to and from Tahiti-Fa"a, the only international airport in Polynesia. Direct flights go to Tokyo, Osaka, Auckland, and Los Angeles and through an alliance with Air France to Paris via L.A. A partnership with Quantas allows passengers flying directly to Auckland to travel on to Sydney.

In 2005 direct flights will operate from New York to Polynesia. They will be timed to arrive on Saturdays several hours before the Paul Gauguin sails. If a flight is late,
the ship will wait until the passengers from the east coast board.

As mentioned in the Personal Journal section of the WSJ, the experience of flying with ATN is a very pleasant one. Even in coach class everyone has a personal screen on which to play games and watch movies. In business class our seats reclined so far back that they were practically flat. We slept well both ways.

Air Tahiti Nui, 877-824-4846

Summer, 2004