By Tom O’Neil
As a seasoned cruiser, I have had the privilege to travel on a wide range of both large and small ships around the South Pacific. The question I continually get asked by curious family and friends is ‘which is better - large or small ships?” While people prefer different sized ships for different reasons, things have changed significantly with the advent of Coronavirus / Covid-19.
The cruise industry as a whole has hit a storm like no other in its history, and future styles of cruising will be changed forever. Therefore what is a better option for cruising over the next 12-24 months?
Control of Coronavirus
Simple mathematics shows that a ship with 300 guests has a far less level of risk than a ship with 3,000 (or even 6,000+) guests. Paul Gauguin Cruises and PONANT are collaborating with the IHU (Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire) Méditerranée Infection of Marseilles (one of the world's leading centers in the field of infectious diseases) to operate best-practice "Covid-Safe" health protocols, based on strict standards that exceed international regulations.
As one can imagine, it is far easier to ensure all guests and staff are protected on a smaller ship, where the management team can respond positively and proactively to ensure the safety of all onboard.
With the advent of ‘social-distancing’ due to Coronavirus, the ability to limit interaction with hundreds of others for an extended period of time is critical for international travellers.
As a sometime impatient traveller, queues are a real negative for me. Stopping at Port Denarau in Fiji on a large ship a few years ago, my wife and I were relieved to find that our pre-booked tour gave us priority to the port. Sadly for those who did not book a tour, wait lines were longer than three and a half hours, with those finally getting ashore only allowed three hours of visiting time before they had to re-embark.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the only time I faced a queue on the Paul Gauguin was when we visited their private island at Taha’a. After a short 20 minute wait, we boarded the tender to true paradise … totally worth the wait!
On a smaller ship, I find it easier to make new friends as you are continually interacting with each other at the bar, dinner, or a show. This is a big plus for me, as I travel to both see the world, but also to make new friends.
Another big bonus is that when you are visiting small ports, you can wander around almost unnoticed as 300 visitors will vanish into the surroundings very quickly. On another trip on a large ship in Vanuatu, I always felt a pang of guilt as 3000+ people and I would invade a small beach for the day, then disappear just as quickly, negatively impacting the environment with just foot traffic alone.
While all cruises (large or small) have informed destination speakers onboard, cruising with Paul Gauguin is a totally different experience. You get the feeling that you are touring with locals who genuinely care about the islands, rather than a disparate group of staff who have no real clue about the region. This feeling is only enhanced as you cruise French Polynesia with the beautiful and highly talented Les Gauguins & Les Gauguines, (the local entertainment group), who generously share their skills and life experiences they have learnt growing up in the islands.
The Paul Gauguin does not have a dress code per se (it is all country club casual), so the overall atmosphere onboard is relaxing and enjoyable, without those crazy ‘cowboy’, ‘rock and roll’ or ‘pirate’ themed nights I really despise.
Getting in close
The Paul Gauguin is designed for intimate excursions, with the ability to navigate narrow and shallow channels at atolls like Rangiroa and Fakarava. Large ships cannot offer this type of experience, with their guests missing some of the most spectacular and remote places in the world.
While I am pretty much sold on almost any sort of cruising, my preference is by far smaller ships like those that the "Paul Gauguin and PONANT offer. As I say ‘Petit, et Magnifique!’