Paul Gauguin Cruises: Luxury, Paradise, and a Little Mind-Reading

I’ve never met anyone with ESP, but when the hotel manager whom I have never met greets me by my name as I walk into the Salon, I was pretty impressed. “How do you know my name?” I ask, and he says with a broad smile: “Madam, it is a great talent that I have!”

And thus begins my cruise onboard the m/s Paul Gauguin.

Arriving at the pier after a short taxi ride from Papeete’s Faa’a airport on the island of Tahiti, I’m whisked onboard to Le Grand Salon, the ship’s main show lounge, where I’m presented with a chilled glass of champagne. After a quick check-in, I’m escorted to my spacious stateroom. As I sink into my balcony lounge chair to sip my drink, I contemplate my upcoming two-week trip to the Society Islands, Tuamotus, and Marquesas, as I’m about to visit some of the most remote and idyllic islands on earth.

But before you think Tahiti is out of reach because on the map it looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere, let me assure you that it’s not. Flying there is just 2.5 hours farther than flying to Hawaii. In airplane time, that’s a movie and a cocktail (ok maybe two). There are daily flights from Los Angeles on Tahiti’s national carrier Air Tahiti Nui, as well as Air France, as Tahiti is a French overseas territory.

Truly luxury

The m/s Paul Gauguin is touted as a luxury cruise ship. Now you hear the word “luxury” used a lot in describing cruises – it seems that anything that floats and has a casino and swimming pool is being called a luxury liner. I use this word very sparingly, but in this case, I would agree that the m/s Paul Gauguin falls well within my definition.

A luxury cruise starts with an uncrowded ship, where there is never a wait to get into a restaurant, never a need to reserve a deck chair, and never a line-up to get on and off the vessel. Luxury also means inclusiveness: not having to pay for every drink or a dinner at a specialty restaurant, and not having to tip. It means relaxed and unstructured ambiance – no set dining times, fussy dress code, or acting hoity-toity with stuffy formality. And to top it off, luxury means being spoiled rotten by a doting, ESP-possessive crew who anticipates your needs and will go to no end to ensure you are having a great time on your vacation. And this is what I have found onboard the m/s Paul Gauguin.

Spacious design

Built for just 332 guests, the m/s Paul Gauguin has tons of room for everyone to spread out over her nine decks. A large pool and spacious sunning area with plenty of chairs ensure each guest can soak up the South Pacific rays in peace and tranquility. The open-seating dining concept means guests can eat at any time the restaurants are open, and sit with whomever they choose. There’s never a problem finding a table or seat anywhere on the ship, and even Le Grand Salon can accommodate everyone at once. 70 percent of staterooms have private balconies, and sizes range from a 200 square-foot oceanview cabin to the grandest Owner’s Suite measuring 534 square feet with a living room, dressing area, and a balcony that spans the entire width of the suite.

It’s all included

Luxury isn’t about nickel and diming. Every night at dinner, I had the choice of dining in the elegant L’etoile à la carte restaurant, the poolside Le Grill, or the specialty restaurant La Veranda, serving Michelin-starred gourmet cuisine of French chef Jean Pierre Vigato. My meals are accompanied by free-flowing wine, or cocktails or beer if I so desire. Mocktails, sodas, specialty coffees, teas, and bottled water are all available should I choose not to indulge. There is never a cover charge for any restaurants, and never a bill to sign. All I have to do is relax and enjoy every moment.

Resort casual ambiance

There isn’t an ounce of pretentiousness onboard the cruise, with the crew or my fellow guests. The casual dress code calls for shorts, t-shirts and bathing suits by the pool, and evenings call for sundresses and sandals for me, and open-neck shirts and slacks for the gentlemen. My fellow guests are congenial, down to earth, and easy to talk to. Sure, many are well travelled and well-read, but none are snooty or aloof. The crew is equally laid back. Although the service they deliver is precise and prompt, there is never a formality or stiffness that makes me feel awkward or patronized. I also observe great camaraderie amongst the crew members, they work well together as a team and are genuinely happy to be onboard.

Royally spoiled

Having taken over 50 cruises in my lifetime, I have to say that the service I encountered onboard m/s Paul Gauguin is one of the best I have ever experienced. From my first meeting with the hotel manager to the minute I disembark for the last time, I am royally spoiled for the entire two weeks. I am addressed by name every day by every crew member I meet. Every waiter, server, and wine steward has the uncanny ability to remember what I like to eat and drink. Upon filling my plate at the lunch buffet, a waiter would magically appear by my side to take it over and escort me to my chair. Water is being poured, and my wine steward asks if I would like a glass of the riesling that I enjoyed so much at dinner last night? And at afternoon tea, surely I can carry my bowl of ice cream by myself, but the crew won’t have that! My table mates joke that they won’t manage to bring food to their table on their own once they return home. Come to think of it, that does worry me slightly!

Paradise found

Who hasn’t seen photos of the impossibly blue and turquoise waters of the South Pacific surrounding lush green islands and jagged peaks, and wonder if they’ve been photoshopped or colour enhanced? Surely these shades do not occur naturally? Well yes they do, and they take your breath away. The m/s Paul Gauguin has been plying these waters since 1998, bringing her lucky guests to witness Mother Nature’s spectacular creation, from shimmering atolls to impossibly blue lagoons, to icing sugar beaches and multi-colour corals.

Stunning Society Islands

Perhaps the most well-known of the island chains, the Society Islands comprise of 14 islands spread over 1,590 square kilometres. My cruise takes me from Tahiti to the most populated and visited – Bora Bora, Moorea, Taha’a, and Huahine. These islands are the quintessential images of paradise, found in every travel magazine and brochure. And it is truly breathtaking to see them from the deck of the m/s Paul Gauguin, as we sail into the harbour every morning, and cruise by at sunset every night.

In Bora Bora, I take a snorkeling excursion in search of manta and eagle rays (both successful), plus a stop at a colorful coral garden. There is enough time after lunch to zip over to the Gauguin’s exclusive private beach, where there’s nothing but a few coconut trees, and a crew member with a cooler full of beer, sodas, and water. I wade out thirty feet from shore, and still in knee-deep water, plonk myself down in bath-temperature water and soak up paradise. An afternoon shower passes, but no matter, I’m already wet, and I have my ice-cold beer.

Just off the coast of Taha’a is another private island, accessible only to the ship’s privileged guests. This was a day to swim, snorkel and kayak, or take a tour to visit a vanilla farm. The only interruption to your chill day might be a beachside massage, or the delicious barbecue lunch. There’s even a floating, palm frond adorned bar on a surfboard that travels up and down the beach to top up your drink. Surely it can’t get better than this.

Idyllic Tuamotus

But oh yes it does! We reach the Tuamotus – an archipelago of almost 80 islands strewn over 850 square kilometres. Our stop is at Fakarava – which has got to be everyone’s favourite port to pronounce. Say it out loud and I challenge you not to giggle! Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Fakarava is actually an atoll – literally a ring of white sand rising out of the ocean. I snorkel in a cerulean lagoon amongst fish of all shapes, color, and sizes. Our lunch stop is on a deserted beach where our captain roasts chicken, fish kabobs and sausages over hot coals. We chow down, sitting on whatever we can find – palm fronds, mooring buoys, and even fallen coconuts. None of us would have minded being marooned here.

Magnificent Marquesas

Rising out of the pounding South Pacific surf, the Marquesas Islands are a sight to behold. With dramatic cliffs carpeted in lush forests, the islands have names as unusual as they are remote – Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, Tahuata & Nuku Hiva. At each port, what seems like the entire village comes out to greet us as we step ashore. Mamas, papas, and little boys and girls in grass skirts sing and dance for us as our cameras snap and video recorders roll.

You can’t help but quickly notice that life is at its simplest here. Residents subsist by farming, raising livestock, making crafts. There is no traffic, no rush, no stress. Their lives are filled with music, dance, traditions, and they are proud of their heritage.

My most memorable day is spent in Fatu Hiva (population 650), where we land in the village of Omoa on the southwest coast. There is only one road connecting to the island’s only other town called Hanavave. I take a speed boat there and hike my way back to Omoa. In the blazing sun with little shade for refuge, I climb up from sea level along the steep hills, traverse the wilderness, before descending back down again. The road meanders 10 miles back to Omoa and is unpaved most of the way. I am alone during the entire walk, stopping countless times to photograph the sheer cliffs and the vast blue ocean below. I listen for birds chirping in the trees, a rooster crowing, and the eerily funny sounds of falling mangoes through the trees, and the thud when they hit the ground. The sweet and juicy fruit makes an excellent energy boost for my descent back to Omoa, four hours later. Tired but jubilant, I look back as my tender leaves port and come to the conclusion that this is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.

As we sail from Moorea towards Tahiti on the last evening of my cruise, I watch my final South Pacific sunset up on deck. As the sky sinks into the horizon in a fiery glow, I think to myself – this can’t end any better. But just coming around the corner is my trusty wine steward. “Good evening Ms. Ming,” as he hands me a glass of champagne. Looks like ESP still works just fine.

If you go: The m/s Paul Gauguin sails year-round in French Polynesia to the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Cook Islands, and the Marquesas. There are also special sailings that include Tonga, Fiji, and Bali.


By Ming Tappin (Your Cruise Coach)

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