By Captain Peter Philpott
Captain Philpott, recently retired Captain of Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, shares his experience sailing aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin on the August 14, 2019, Society Islands & Tuamotus voyage.
Having spent my entire career at sea on the oceans of the world and the last 29 years in the cruise industry, I thought I had seen just about everything. But when the chance came to embark on a voyage around the French Polynesian Islands with Paul Gauguin Cruises, I had to admit that this region beat anywhere I had traveled to before!
I was proud to spend the final year of my seagoing career as Captain of the famous ocean liner Queen Mary 2, on which we regularly carried around 2,500 guests on transatlantic voyages between New York and Southampton, England. So I was extremely interested to experience the intimacy of The Gauguin and her passenger capacity of 332.
There are an impressive 217 crew members to look after those passengers—a very good crew-to-passenger ratio that promised and delivered excellent service in all respects.
Your cruise aboard The Gauguin will probably start with the included airline flights from Los Angeles or San Francisco. A real pleasure is to take advantage of the hotel day room on offer at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa when you arrive into Papeete, Tahiti, in the early morning. This way you can refresh and have lunch before your mid-afternoon bus transfer to the ship.
The Gauguin looks beautiful alongside her berth in Papeete harbor as you stroll up the gangway and are met by the first of the ultra-friendly and helpful crew members on board the ship.
Check-in is simple in the main show lounge, named Le Grand Salon in true French style, and then it’s off to your stateroom or suite before taking time to explore the ship. Our balcony stateroom was immaculately presented, with a beautiful tropical flower arrangement and a bottle of bubbly on ice on the table near the balcony doors. What a lovely start to the cruise!
There are three dining venues on board The Gauguin, and each of them provides a great dining experience—Le Grill out on the open deck for a sunset dinner, La Veranda for exquisite French-style food, or L’Etoile, which is the main dining room and which we found to have a great buzzing atmosphere each time we dined there.
Executive Chef Paul Ellis from New York and his galley team produced a fine dining experience in all venues throughout the cruise, and it is quite apparent that the food is cooked in smaller quantities and more of it is cooked to order than on the larger-capacity cruise vessels.
Paul Gauguin Cruises are all inclusive, which makes it so easy to order a pre-dinner cocktail or a glass of wine with dinner. The bar staff was eager to please and soon learned your name and your favorite drink, which is always a lovely little extra. Bartender Ernesto in the Piano Bar made great pre-dinner cocktails for us, while waiter Ian in L’Etoile soon became familiar with what we enjoyed at lunch and dinner.
Another very nice feature on board ship is the presence of a troupe of local Tahitian entertainers—known as Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines—employed by Paul Gauguin Cruises to enhance the entertainment. They sing, dance, and, during the day, give local handicraft lessons and teach local dance steps. Such a lovely addition to the crew of the ship!
After-dinner entertainment was just as enjoyable, ranging from an excellent French illusionist, exciting Tahitian music and dance from Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines, a music night from the excellent resident band the Santa Rosa Band from the Philippines (whose Beatles night was a show to remember!), and two great shows from a troupe of local island entertainers featuring the songs, music, and dance of French Polynesia. To cap it all, one night is given over to the various talents of the regular crew members in The International Crew Show!
At 10 nights, our cruise was a slightly longer than the cruise line’s core 7-night itineraries, which comprise the majority of its voyages. But voyages of more than 10 days are also available if you are lucky enough to have the time. Another bonus feature was the presence of several informative and entertaining onboard guest hosts and speakers who greatly increased our knowledge of the history and culture of the region.
At this point, allow me to repeat the certain fact that you have been transported to a piece of paradise on Earth. The island itinerary is beyond whatever you expected it to be!
Our first call was to the island of Huahine, and after breakfast on board ship at the open-air Le Grill, my wife and I took the ship’s smooth and efficient tender service ashore and stepped off onto our first island paradise. The beach had almost no one on it, and it was so unimaginably perfect that, as my wife said, it was almost an emotional experience! Bright blue tropical fish swam around us as we paddled in the warm water, and a lady from one of the yachts anchored off the beach showed us how the outline of the mountains there formed the shape of a reclining lady. Later, a troupe of local children came on board ship to give us a traditional Polynesian show in Le Grand Salon show lounge.
As we set sail for Bora Bora, that first day was capped off by the Captain’s Cocktail Party, followed by an excellent dinner of moonfish in L’Etoile dining room.
Next came two days in Bora Bora and a visit to Paul Gauguin Cruises’ private beach, which for me was the most beautiful of the whole trip. Standing just knee deep in the crystal-clear water with stingrays swimming around us was truly unforgettable! We chatted there with a lovely couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and they told us that, as the ship was remaining at anchor overnight, they were able to have an intimate anniversary dinner of their own on the marina section of the ship at the stern (or back) of the ship. What a delight that must have been, and what an excellent service by Paul Gauguin Cruises!
From Bora Bora, we sailed to the Tuamotus Islands and the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. Needless to say, they were beautiful, and it was amazing to see the ocean waves crashing onto the outside of the coral reefs forming the atolls and then to compare this seascape with the crystal-clear and sheltered waters inside the lagoon.
After that, it was two days on the stunning island of Moorea, famous for the uniquely shaped mountain used in the movie South Pacific—and possibly my favorite island of all. We took the Island Drive & Belvedere shore excursion, which included going to the famous lookout point for some superb views and photo opportunities. The view from the viewpoint just above the beach looking across the varying colored seawater, past the coral reef and across to the island of Tahiti just a few miles away, was one none of us will ever forget!
That evening it was back to Papeete, Tahiti, from where it had all begun. After yet another superb dinner, an excellent professional and award-winning folkloric dance troupe performed in the show lounge for some of the finest Polynesian music and dance we had ever seen!
It was truly sad to disembark for the long journey home, having made many new friends from both passengers and crew and all of us vowing to return to experience it all again in the not too distant future. I wholeheartedly recommend a cruise to you aboard The Gauguin—you will not regret it!