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Island Cruiser

Review - B2B on the PG - Good Decision

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Fred and I had the good fortune to enjoy a memorable back-to-back cruise on the Paul Gauguin beginning Saturday, May 21. We repeated the same cruise twice. At least the itinerary and menus and entertainers and the islands and most of the crew were the same. But the people, so important to every cruise, changed. The first sailing was party time as we traveled with an informal group of like-minded cruisers, marvelous spirited interesting adventurers all. It was depressing to stand on our balcony watching them leave the ship knowing the party was over (for now). But we met interesting people and made new friends on the second sailing. And since we weren’t absorbed in the affairs of our group, we took pleasure in enjoying our fellow passengers. It was fun to watch the crew give special attention to the honeymooners—there were at least six pairs—and the special anniversary folks. The weather was quite different on the two sailings. We saw high winds the first week. Some of the shore options and dives had to be canceled. The ship rolled and pitched when underway. Some people got sick. On the second sailing the winds and seas were calm. It was hot. We took full advantage of the three luxurious “motu days” that make sailing on the Paul Gauguin so special.

 

We’ve decided booking back-to-back on this trip is one of the best cruise decisions we’ve made. Both the ship and the itinerary are so extraordinary, seven days doesn’t do them justice. There is so much to see and do—off road treks, photo safaris, snorkeling, island tours, scuba diving (for others), carousing with the rays, swimming with the sharks, shopping, sailing, deep sea fishing, lounging on glorious motus—there is no way to pack it all into a week. Two weeks on board gives you the chance to sample much of this in luxurious leisure. Turn-around day in Papeete is bitter sweet. Old friends are packing and leaving. But new ones are about to board and you can sleep in, lounge about the ship and take in the interesting market place just a few blocks from the dock and easily explore on foot the shops and sites of Polynesia’s capital.

 

On every cruise there are highlights and personal favorites, surprises and disappointments. Let me share mine with you.

 

For me, like so many others, the highlights of my Paul Gauguin cruise were the motu experiences, the ship and the crew. I haven’t cruised in the Caribbean or any other tropical venue, but I would be willing to bet no ship sailing stages a beach party equal to the class and luxury of the Paul Gauguin party on Motu Mahana just north of the island of Tahaa. The motu is private, the exclusive domain of Paul Gauguin guests. The setting is magnificent, crystal clear shallow waters perfect for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking, welcoming white sandy beaches, lush palms and other tropical vegetation offering comfortable shade, with the lush green mountains of Tahaa framing the view across the waters to the south. All of this is of Nature’s hand. The crew of the Paul Gauguin proceeds ashore with kayaks and lounge chairs and thirty or more coolers of food and libations. The guests of the ship are then treated to the ultimate day-long beach party. As we step off the tender, we are greeted by a trio of musicians playing traditional Tahitian tunes. A beautiful hostess hands us a “welcome” glass of exotic punch. Two bars are already open offering a full range of complimentary beverages, one from a thatched hut on land and the other floating in the waters of the sheltered lagoon. We smell the aromas of the lavish barbecue being prepared and conclude “it can’t get any better than this.” The friendly, enthusiastic crew blends in among us tending to our whims while keeping the grounds litter free. Empty plates and glasses vanish in an instant. We hear the sounds of people splashing in the lagoon having the time of their life. The convenience station is a modern wooden structure that blends in with the environment. It offers flush toilets and a separate massage parlor. Yes, we can order a motu massage! The minutes of pleasure flash by. It is an experience we will never forget.

 

The Paul Gauguin herself is another of my cruise highlights. She is designed to sail the waters of the South Sea and she fits to a tee. She is not flashy, but comfortable and spacious. The Grand Salon is stylish with comfortable seats easily accommodating a full ship. L‘Etoile, the main dining room, is elegantly appointed. La Veranda, one of the alternative dining venues, offers large wrap around windows offering spectacular daytime views. You can dine there inside in air conditioned comfort or outside at comfortable deck tables. We enjoyed most of our morning and mid-day meals at the deck tables. To me, the best feature of the ship is the staterooms. Though we have been spoiled by the spacious standard cabins on the Radisson Voyager (306 sq. ft., plus balcony), we never felt cramped in Paul Gauguin’s standard cabin (202 sq. ft., plus balcony). The cherry cabinetry is beautiful and designed to maximize storage. We brought six fully packed bags onboard. Every item was easily stowed and out of sight. The elegant chrome and white marble trim bathroom also offered ample storage space. I think the secret of the stateroom design is judicious use of mirrors. The cabin was bright, well-lit, with a feeling of cozy spaciousness.

 

My final cruise highlight is the crew. We’ve marveled at the high quality of the crew on all of our Radisson cruises, but this crew was the best, particularly during the second week of the cruise. Our stateroom was serviced to perfection by a friendly and attentive stewardess and her assistant. The dining room service after the first few days was absolutely first rate at all levels—friendly, efficient, thorough. I never saw the bottom of a used coffee cup. Diet cokes appeared at the lunch table before we had a chance to think about them. On the motu, I ordered gin and tonics for two. It was busy. I looked back a minute after collecting my drinks and noticed the bartender had lined up three more for us—just to be sure we wouldn’t be thirsty. It doesn’t get any better!

 

We spent about a year reading and shopping and fanaticizing to prepare for this cruise. After all this, we were still in for some surprises. The big one was motu day. We aren’t lounging-on-the-beach types, so I was prepared to be bored by the motu. What a surprise that I was not at all bored! We were also pleasantly surprised by the hotel situation in FP. We flew in a day early and booked, through Radisson, a standard room at the International Beachcomber Hotel. It was expensive, but I still expected the room to be only adequate. To my surprise, it was very nice indeed, clean, comfortable, stylish with a beautiful view. Having read about the overdevelopment of hotels on Bora Bora and Moorea, I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of these properties tuck nicely into the environment (I think all the bungalows do!). This is no Miami Beach! I had anticipated a sense of crowding. I was happy to discover that was a product of my imagination. I read about the “towns” on Bora Bora and Moorea. I was surprised to see how small they are, not even villages really. Finally, I was surprised to hear from many of the locals that the cruise ships are pulling out of their traditional South Sea runs. Since more people than ever are cruising, I don’t understand why that would be the case.

 

Fortunately, I found there were only two disappointments on this cruise worthy of comment. I’ve already reported the eight hundred pound gorilla of them on a previous post, so I’ll not revisit that matter here. The other major disappointment was the quality of the food on the Paul Gauguin. We spoke to lots of repeat Paul Gauguin cruisers on this voyage. Every one of them opined the quality of the food has declined since their last Paul Gauguin trip. In my opinion the food is still in the luxury cruise range, but not consistently so. A weak buffet lunch is served in La Veranda on deck 6 and Le Grill on deck 8, generally the same food at both locations. The presentation is adequate only, more cramped at Le Grill. The quality is about what one can experience at a decent all-you-can-eat restaurant, well below the standards of the buffet service on Radisson’s Voyager. Each day, for example, the buffet offers a decent selection of four cheeses. Unfortunately, the French bread served with the cheese is consistently dry, sliced too early in the day. We usually lunched in La Veranda right at opening time. We found the hot entrees not very hot at all and presented about like you’d find in an Army canteen. In the evening, one can dine from a menu at three locations, L’Etoile, the elegant main dining room, Apicius, and Le Grill, the latter two by reservation.. I’d give L’Etoile an “A” for effort, but most folks I talked to agreed with me that the results were inconsistent. One night at L’Etoile, we ordered lobster tails as and appetizer and rack of lamb as a main course. Unfortunately, service was slow that night so the entrees were served tired and at room temperature. We ordered the same dishes a week later. That night, the service was properly timed and the same meal was considerably better. Some of our later meals at L’Etoile were quite good and compared to meals at Compass Rose on Voyager. We were lucky enough to enjoy excellent French cuisine at Apicius on four nights. This restaurant is magnificent. The lobster ravioli is a favorite appetizer. The loin of lamb is cooked to perfection. Mushroom risotto as either a side dish or a main course is to die for. And the crème Brule and pepper ice cream served at dessert is remarkable. On our third night out, Le Grill was reserved exclusively for the informal group we were traveling with. Our meal that night was simply poor. Hot entrees were served at room temperature and appeared to have been sitting that way for some time. One entrée that had been pre-ordered wasn’t served. With respect to the food at Le Grill, I recall hearing the word “disaster” used. We didn’t return to Le Grill. But we talked to several couples who liked it very much.

 

There is speculation that the Paul Gauguin will either end service in the South Pacific at the end of 2006 or at least switch from luxury to mass market standards under different management. She has thousands of fans around the world, us now among them. We will be sad to see this happen if, indeed, it does. She is one of a kind!

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