I've always thought that the quality of provisions and a tasty, varied menu served by professional waitstaff are paramount to a successful cruise ship dining experience. Paul Gauguin Cruises definitely gets high marks on those counts.
We took our first meal aboard the ship in the main dining room, L'Etoile. The menu was extensive, portions were just the right size, and each course made our taste buds sing! We hadn't necessarily expected a fabulous dining experience, since food in French Polynesia is generally known for being outrageously expensive and not particularly pleasing for American sensibilities. Cross "mealtime" off your list of worries.
The cruise fare includes all meals, nonalcoholic beverages, house wines (think Dry Creek, L'Enclos de Saint Jacques and Cline Cellars) and spirits. You may also purchase wines from an extensive cellar list; bottles start at $30.
The casual vibe onboard lends itself to open seating, and it was equally easy to secure a romantic table for two or join other travelers for a convivial dinner.
There are three restaurants aboard the ship:
L'Etoile is the main dining room on Deck 5 aft; it's open only in the evenings from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and serves French food with a Polynesian flare. The room is impressive with its high ceilings, inset lighting, blond and dark wood finishes, and red and black round-back chairs. Windows line three sides of the dining room, while the fourth wall features shelves that show off more than a dozen ornate vases and dinner platters.
My first -- and most memorable -- meal at L'Etoile started with a tropical fruit cup, accented with toasted coconut, followed by a "Tahitian Wok" that consisted of succulent pieces of pork that were stir-fried with a delectably creamy coconut milk sauce alongside fried rice.
The waitstaff is attentive, but not intrusive, and the sommelier fills your glass all evening -- whether you're drinking wine or a nonalcoholic beverage like iced tea. Reservations are not necessary.
We especially enjoyed dining at La Veranda for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Floor-to-ceiling windows accent the light and breezy interior, and the aft location provides breathtaking panoramic views. You can dine inside or al fresco.
At both breakfast (7:30 to 9:30 a.m.) and lunch (noon to 2 p.m.), you may order off the menu and/or make selections at the extensive buffet. Daily lunch buffets are themed to various cuisines, including French, Pacific, German, Tex-Mex and Italian. In the evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., this location transforms itself into a reservations-only French bistro with a set menu throughout the cruise. Highlights include terrine of chicken livers and foie gras accompanied by prune marmalade and served with brioche, beef consomme with porcini quenelles, and rack of lamb with Provencal vegetables and dauphine potatoes. Cap off the meal with Tahitian vanilla creme brulee. Meal substitutions are frowned upon.
Three special dinner menus -- vegetarian, light and healthy, and no salt added -- are available at L'Etoile and La Veranda. These weren't your boring plain salad or baked chicken breast options, either. We ordered from these menus frequently and were quite pleased. My favorite "no salt added" dish was the pomelo salad of Tahitian grapefruit, chicken and shrimp, infused with coconut milk and tamarind sauce. My husband preferred the vegetarian moussaka. Chicken, mahi mahi and New Zealand salmon were on the menu almost every night.
Passengers also take many meals at Le Grill on the Pool Deck, open for buffet breakfast (7 to 9:30 a.m.) and buffet lunch (noon to 2 p.m.). You'll find many of the same options there as you will at La Veranda, but the vibe is more casual since you're dining on a covered deck. Note there are no tables for two there; as it gets busy at lunchtime, you may need to dine with fellow travelers. Like La Veranda, lunch buffet offerings are pegged to a different ethnic cuisine each day. You may also order hamburgers and hotdogs from the grill.
In the evening, Le Grill becomes Pacific Grill and offers a Polynesian menu. It's a must-dine if you've never tried poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk) or braised suckling pig. The atmosphere -- whether the ship is anchored in port or sailing the azure sea -- is pure vacation bliss, complete with a tropical breeze at your back.
Editor's note: Reservations for La Veranda and Le Grill may be made during breakfast and lunch each day.Room service is another solid option aboard this ship, whether you're seeking breakfast served on your balcony, a romantic four-course dinner for two or a simple midnight snack. A limited menu is available 24 hours a day, but during dinner hours, you may also select items from L'Etoile's menu. Room service offers a variety of appetizers like smoked salmon and shrimp cocktail, three types of salads (mesclun greens, classic Caesar and chef's), soups and sandwiches, and entrees like medallions of beef tenderloin, vegetarian stir-fry, pizza, and the obligatory hamburgers and hotdogs. Save room for dessert. Our favorites included the bourbon pecan pie and chocolate mousse.
The generous passenger to space ratio is one of Paul Gauguin's calling cards. This ship feels intimate, yet never crowded, and there are numerous appealing venues in which to relax with friends.
Head to the Internet Center on Deck 5 to check your e-mail or surf the Web. Internet plans are available, starting at 55 cents per minute, or you can buy packages: $35 for 100 minutes or $62.50 for 250 minutes. Wi-Fi is available in some cabins, as well, although connectivity speed can be disappointing in certain areas of the ship.
On Deck 6, check out the small Fare Tahiti art exhibit in front of La Veranda restaurant, and the library, which stocks a few shelves of mostly English-language books.
French Polynesia is far away from just about everywhere, and the entire reason one goes there is to enjoy the beauty of nature. No one wants to be cooped up inside, so it's good news that all Paul Gauguin cabins have ocean views and that almost 70 percent are equipped with balconies.
Cabins range from 200 to 588 square feet, including the balconies. Most utilize actual queen-size mattresses that don't split into two single beds, although a few cabins are equipped with twin beds that can convert to queens. Almost every cabin comes with a full-size tub and shower (some only offer a shower), and high-end L'Occitance bath products are standard. The bathroom amenity kit includes verbena-scented shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion, as well as a shower cap, Q-tips, cotton balls, a nail file and bar soap.
The comfortable beds feature feather-down duvets. The closets are stocked with a hair dryer, robes and cotton slippers.
While all cabins have refrigerators replenished daily with soda, beer and water, those staying in Veranda Staterooms (Category B) or above also get in-suite bar setups and butler service. Cabins and suites share a colorful interior design that can only be pulled off in a tropical destination. The palette includes red carpeting, Mahogany-lacquered cabinetry, chiffon yellow and sheer draperies, navy blue sofas and ottomans, and purple bedspreads with gold leaf patterns. Bathrooms in every category are very spacious -- no smacking your elbows on the shower walls!
Balconies vary in size, but each includes at least two sitting chairs and a small table. Larger balconies are outfitted with chaise lounges.
If you're going whole-hog on this trip, book early, and snag a suite. There are two Owner's Suites -- one 457 square feet with 77-square-foot balcony, the other 531 square feet with 57-square-foot balcony -- that offer separate sleeping and dining/sitting areas. Two 332-square-foot Grand Suites offer spacious combined living and sleeping spots, along with huge 197-square-foot wraparound verandahs.
A step down from the Grand Suites are the Category A Veranda Suites at 300 square feet. They're spacious but have less seating in the living areas than higher categories. The balconies are 58 square feet. Category B Veranda Staterooms are popular because they offer a good amount of square footage (249, plus 56-square-foot verandahs) and, like the above-mentioned accommodations, include butler service.
Editor's note: There is one wheelchair-accessible cabin (Category E, 415).
Paul Gauguin's beach BBQ day, hosted on Motu Mahana, a tiny island off Taha'a, is legendary. The beach is perfection with powdery white sand, and the snorkeling there is some of the best in the Society Islands. The Marina staff brings over the ship's kayaks so you can explore the area before and after enjoying a buffet spread for lunch. There's both an open bar on land and a floating bar if you can't bring yourself to leave the water.
Paul Gauguin Cruises also maintains a motu (little island) in Bora Bora, but it's more basic and does not have the facilities you'll come to know and love at Motu Manaha. Still, it shouldn't be missed because the beach is glorious.
The cruise line also emphasizes its enrichment series and invites some of the most fascinating lecturers around to speak about French Polynesian culture and the local eco-system. We went to several excellent presentations by anthropologist Mark Eddowes and marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole, both of whom also lead ship-sponsored shore excursions.
Shore excursions generally take place in small groups and include everything from hiking, diving and snorkeling to visiting pearl farms and swimming with stingrays. The majority of ship-sponsored tours are priced per person between $55 (think Le Truck island tours) and $120 (for options like the AquaSafari Underwater Walk and various scuba opportunities). Excursions like horseback-riding and a WaveRunner/ATV combo are more expensive.
Back on the ship, central meeting places before and after dinner are the Piano Bar and Grand Salon (both on Deck 5) and La Palette lounge on Deck 8 aft. Live music is featured nightly at both the Piano Bar and La Palette, and you'll find the Grand Salon is a comfortable venue from which to enjoy shows like "Viva Polynesia," featuring the ship's Tahitian hostesses, Les Gauguines; the ubiquitous "Krew Kapers"; and an evening of most requested songs, played by the resident musicians aboard the PG.
A small casino onboard features two gaming tables and slot machines. If you feel like playing some Caribbean poker but the casino is empty, simply ring the bell on the gaming table, and a dealer will come running. (Due to local laws, the casino is only open when the ship is at sea.)
Once you've won a few dollars, head to La Boutique, which is stocked with black pearls from Tahia Collins, tropical clothing and Paul Gauguin logo merchandise.
We're sticklers when it comes to music and theater, and many cruise ship shows have disappointed us in the past. That's why we appreciated PG's approach to entertainment. They simply hire excellent musicians who know every song ever written. Pop band Siglo was a veritable jukebox, and from the sail-away party through the farewell toast, they had travelers dancing.
Paul Gauguin is also unique in that a group of talented young (and beautiful!) Tahitian women travel with the ship to teach passengers about French Polynesia, as well as to sing, dance and tell the lore of their homeland. These young ladies add a dimension to the cruise that can't be experienced elsewhere else.
French Polynesia has long been the center of the universe for romantics looking for the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vacation. Adventure-seekers are equally drawn to this chain of 118 islands and motus (little islands) and make the long-haul trip to dive, snorkel, hike and swim with sea turtles and stingrays. We were searching for a South Pacific vacation that combined some lazy days alongside more active outdoor pursuits and found that there is, perhaps, no better guide to French Polynesia than Paul Gauguin Cruises, operator of the Paul Gauguin cruise ship.
Paul Gauguin began sailing these waters in 1997 and, prior to the 2009 takeover by Paul Gauguin Cruises (a Pacific Beachcomber company), the ship had been owned by Grand Circle Travel and was managed by Regent Seven Seas Cruises. That relationship ended in January 2010, when Paul Gauguin Cruises assumed responsibility for all aspects of the cruise line -- including day-to-day management.
If you're a past passenger who's worried about change, don't fret. Paul Gauguin Cruises has retained everything you adored about the old PG. It's still an all-inclusive experience, and 85 percent of the crew -- including captains, executive officers and cruise directors, as well as signature entertainers like Les Gauguines (a troupe of Polynesian singers and dancers), pop band Siglo and pianist Hal Fraser -- decided to join the new company.
The cruise line is now rising to new heights. The ship underwent a $7 million refurbishment in 2012, there's renewed focus on inventive dining menus, spa offerings have been enhanced, and management has combed through the shore excursion options and is rolling out some new and exciting trips ashore.
Through the years, Paul Gauguin -- purpose-built to sail the shallow waters of French Polynesia -- has competed with other cruise lines that sailed in the region. Today, the ship has emerged from the fray as the only cruise ship offering year-round itineraries in the Society, Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands.
For that reason, crewmembers know these islands intimately and pass along that expertise to you. You'll learn about the Polynesian islands from residents themselves, as well as from renowned archaeologists and marine biologists. You'll go ashore with highly rated guides and tour operators, and pre- and post-cruise partner hotels -- Pacific Beachcomber operates six mid-level and luxury resorts on the islands -- will wow you.
Paul Gauguin is not just a ship passing in the night. It calls upon these islands each and every day of its life. A cruise aboard PG will unlock the secrets of French Polynesia for you in ways that no other mode of travel can.
While the average passenger age is 54 years old, you'll be traveling with children and teens (during school vacation periods), honeymooners, professionals and retirees. There is no age barrier aboard Paul Gauguin. Likewise, travelers come from all over the world, including the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other countries. Announcements are typically made in both French and English.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Deep Nature Spa by Algotherm -- the same outfit used at Pacific Beachcomber's InterContinental properties in the Society Islands -- has replaced the Carita Spa that you may remember if you sailed on PG when it was under the Regent banner. You can book traditional hair-styling ($135 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry) and nail services ($25 for a polish change), as well as unique Polynesian-inspired spa treatments like Monoi oil massages, black-sand body scrubs and the signature Bora Bora Deep Blue Massage ($240 for 90 minutes).
There's also a small fitness center with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. The ship, however, lacks an outdoor jogging track, and that's a disappointment for many cruisers.
A hallmark of Paul Gauguin is its retractable aft marina. When sea and weather conditions cooperate, the marina is the venue for complimentary water sports like windsurfing, water-skiing and kayaking. Snorkeling equipment is available for use throughout the cruise, but passengers cannot swim or snorkel from the marina platform.
There is also a comprehensive SCUBA program onboard. Refresher, referral and certification courses are offered. Up to three dives per day are scheduled and led by the ship's onboard dive instructors. The per-person price for most dives is $95.If you're looking for something a bit more passive, try the pool on Deck 8. One caveat though is that there's very little shade available on that deck. Slather on the sunscreen!
These tropical itineraries call for casual attire by day and country club or "elegant resort wear" clothing by night. Women traditionally wear skirts or slacks with blouses, and men go for trousers and collared shirts (not golf shirts). On Tahitian Night, women are encouraged to wear pareos (wraparound skirts), and men don Polynesian shirts. Fill your suitcase with lightweight clothes made of natural fibers (cotton, linen and silk), and you'll have everything you need.
Gratuities are included in the cruise fare. If you wish to acknowledge above-and-beyond service, visit Reception on Deck 4, and donate a sum to the crew fund. The U.S. dollar is the ship's currency.
There is nothing like experiencing nature and different cultures through the eyes of children. You'll never forget a trip to the South Pacific with your kids, and Paul Gauguin Cruises offers the Ambassadors of the Environment program that is tailored specifically for families.
Consult the line's cruise calendar, and pay special attention to summer and holiday sailings during which this program is offered for children, ages 9 to 17. Created in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau -- son of Jacques Cousteau -- and the Ocean Futures Society, the program entertains and educates through a series of eco-excursions. Parents and their kids will snorkel -- with both day and night outings -- and hike across the islands. Although the ship does not have dedicated children's facilities or staff, Les Gauguines offer daytime storytelling and craft activities throughout the cruise to keep children entertained.
Editor's note: No children's services are offered on itineraries that don't include the Ambassadors of the Environment program.
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