Sail the Enchanting South Pacific
The 330-guest Paul Gauguin calls at the captivating islands
of Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea and more
By Alan Fox
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)Halfway between California and the land Down Under, there is a canvas splashed with dazzling shades of blue, vivid greens of the jungle and the gold and red of sunset. Towering peaks rise from lagoons like silent sentinels, and trade winds that once brought Magellan and Cook wash over the land, spreading the fragrance of tiare flowers and vanilla.
In the evening, stars glitter like diamonds on black velvet, the Southern Cross comforts sailors at sea and the Milky Way whispers -- to those who will listen -- that we are all so very small.
In case you don't speak Tahitian, that's "hello" -- pronounced yo-RAH-na, more sung than spoken.
I am writing this from an overwater bungalow at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa in Bora Bora, French Polynesia. I am here for three nights before a flight to Tahiti and a cruise on the five-star Paul Gauguin.
I'd just like to say up front that I am never going home. Mom, if you're reading this, please send money. Lots of it.
My family arrived on the island of Tahiti three days ago after an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from Los Angeles. It was our first flight on Air Tahiti Nui, and the crew did an excellent job. We spent one night on the island before a short, scenic flight to Bora Bora.
French Polynesia consists of 118 islands and atolls scattered across 2 million square miles of the South Pacific. The islands are divided into several groups -- the Society Islands and Marquesas among them -- and the best known and most populous of all the islands is Tahiti.
While Hawaii is north of the equator, French Polynesia is about the same distance south of the equator. More than two-thirds of all the people in French Polynesia live on the island of Tahiti, which may be why the entire region is sometimes referred to as Tahiti.
French Polynesia is a "collectivity" of France, not exactly part of France but not quite independent either. The official language is French, but Tahitian and other Polynesian languages are also spoken.
The people have their own local government, and they also vote in French presidential elections and send representatives to the French National Assembly and the French Senate.
All matters of justice, education, security and defense are provided by the French government, which also provides financial assistance. The local population is almost evenly split between those who want to remain a collectivity and those who seek complete independence from France.
While French Polynesia is famous for spectacular natural beauty and a near-perfect climate, the region has a rich and colorful past. On this trip, we'll cross the paths of Magellan, Cook, Bligh and Darwin, among others. But from where I am sitting right now, I can see about a dozen shades of blue water. It's time to step off the deck and disappear into one of them.
Our flight from Los Angeles arrived at the Papeete airport, on the island of Tahiti, an hour after sunset. We took a short cab ride to the InterContinental Resort Tahiti, where we were driven in electric carts to our overwater bungalows.
As my family and friends set about doing sensible things like unpacking and reading about the resort, I threw on my swimming trunks and raced out the back door and down the steps to our private landing. During the eight-and-a-half-hour flight, I had pictured myself jumping off that platform, and I was not willing to wait for daylight. The one small complication: In the dark, there was no way to tell the depth of the ocean without getting wet.
I stepped down the ladder and tested the water temperature with my foot. It was a bit cooler than I expected on a warm and humid Tahitian night, but quite nice for the dead of winter (air and water temperatures vary only about 5 degrees year-round). I moved down another step, and another.
At the bottom of the ladder, I released my grip and slipped into the blackness of the sea, becoming completely submerged. When I rose to break the surface, I could see the glow of lights inside our bungalow, hear the water slapping against the piers under our room and taste the salt of the South Pacific.
For a few precious minutes, I let the seductive currents carry me away from shore. Ahh, paradise...
It was at about that moment that I slammed my foot into an underwater boulder and swam -- one-legged -- back to the landing for first aid. Five minutes into the first of my many planned adventures, there was already skin on the rocks. With shark diving ahead, I wondered how much would be left of me by the end of the trip.
The next morning I was up early to explore -- with a slight limp -- the sprawling resort, perhaps the finest on the island. I found two inviting infinity pools, a spa and fitness center and an activities center for water sports.
The resort's gourmet, overwater French restaurant and the casual restaurant are both open-air, while the lively Tiki Bar overlooks the pool and shares great views of the lagoon and the island of Moorea in the distance. Watch out for the ti punch -- it's the kind of drink John Wayne might have had before having a bullet removed.
One of the resort's highlights is the Lagoonarium, a man-made, saltwater snorkeling area stocked with colorful fish and fed by the sea on two sides. With such clear water, it's easy to see the fish from the paths and bridges, without getting wet.
At midmorning, we made our way back to the airport for a flight to Bora Bora. French Polynesia is a long way to go for a seven-night cruise, so like many who sail the Paul Gauguin, we were treating ourselves to a pre-cruise visit to the island that author James Michener, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "Tales of the South Pacific," called the most beautiful in the world.
Forty-five minutes later, we touched down on an airstrip built by the U.S. Navy during World War II and entered the small, open-air terminal to find a representative from the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa. Around the neck of every arriving guest, she hung a lei of tiare flowers, incredibly fragrant gardenias with pure white blossoms. Our luggage was loaded on a boat sent by the resort, and we were quickly off on a 10-minute ride across the lagoon.
Dead ahead, rising abruptly from the water, the main island of Bora Bora looked like the setting for a King Kong movie: a lush, green shoreline of coconut and banana and lemon trees giving way to deep and forbidding jungles and sheer cliffs of volcanic rock. The clouds parted as we neared the private dock of the hotel, and under a bright sun we were awed by the brilliant shades of blue water in the lagoon.
We were met by smiling hostesses, offered a refreshing fruit drink and shuttled by electric cart to reception and down the long pier to our overwater bungalows.
The InterContinental sits on its own island across the lagoon from the main island of Bora Bora. The resort is much newer than the InterContinental in Papeete and simply spectacular in every way, from the infinity pool overlooking the beach to the beautifully decorated, open-air restaurants and bars.
The therapy rooms in the Thalasso Spa are positioned over a lagoon of brightly colored fish, and the large glass windows in the floor provide the best views ever seen through a face cradle.
I have been fortunate to stay in some pretty amazing places, but none that beat this resort's overwater bungalows for size, decor and surroundings. The spacious living rooms feature a glass coffee table with a view through the floor into soothing, turquoise water. At night, lights under each bungalow lure fish of all sizes.
We swam and snorkeled and kayaked our way around the resort, merely stepping off the platform behind our bungalows into crystal-clear water with a sandy bottom and no boulders.
Throughout the day, as the sun moved from horizon to horizon, the colors of the water and the island seemed to change. I could not keep from turning toward the peaks of Bora Bora across the shimmering lagoon, a spectacle that filled the senses and left me as satisfied as Thanksgiving dinner.
Through the resort's concierge, we hired an enterprising and entertaining French expat to take us on a hiking tour of flora and fauna and to the remnants of an ancient Polynesian temple that he had personally uncovered. From there, we went deeper into the jungle, climbing to the top of the ridge that runs the length of Bora Bora under a canopy of leaves and branches so dense that we had to use a flash to take photos. From the peak, we had panoramic views of both sides of the island, the coasts and lagoon and barrier reef, and the islands beyond.
If you find yourself on Bora Bora and in need of a strenuous hike, the guide's name is Oualid Azoine, but he is locally known as Tana Atea, which he roughly translated from Tahitian as "a child from far away."
In our exploration of Bora Bora, we have found the locals to be kind and welcoming, and many people in the hotels, restaurants, pearl shops and informal markets speak English as a third language, after French and Tahitian. The currency here is the Pacific franc (CFP), and with so much of what is consumed coming from France or New Zealand, prices are universally high. Hotel and restaurant rates start at expensive and go up from there.
By American standards, most homes are quite modest and cars are old and small, but we have not sensed that people are unhappy with what they have.
The pace is slow and easy. Freshly caught mahimahi and tuna hang by small boats along the shoreline, and barefoot children play in the shade of banana trees.
Tomorrow we are off to Papeete to board the Paul Gauguin. We will return to Bora Bora on the cruise, and also visit three other islands of French Polynesia. I can't say whether Bora Bora is the most beautiful island in the world, but I'm willing to keep looking.
We sailed from Papeete just before midnight, having waited past our scheduled 10 p.m. departure for two late passengers. On a warm Tahitian night, we left the lights of the town behind and headed out to sea.
Within an hour, the Paul Gauguin was swaying on a gentle ocean. For some that motion meant they were away, for some it was a sign that they were home.
After several days in overwater bungalows on Tahiti and Bora Bora, my family and friends had embarked on a weeklong cruise within the Society Islands. We would call on Taha'a, Raiatea, Bora Bora and Moorea.
The five-star Paul Gauguin was christened after the Postimpressionist French painter who first arrived in Tahiti in 1891. Purpose-built for these waters, the vessel sails year-round from Papeete and offers seven- to 14-day itineraries in the Society Islands, Cook Islands, Marquesas and Tuomotus. A handful of sailings venture out to New Zealand or Fiji.
The Paul Gauguin was built in 1998 and refurbished this year. An immaculate ship that gleams white in the harbors, she has become more closely associated with French Polynesia than any other vessel. With a passenger capacity of 330 and a crew of 211, the ship boasts an excellent passenger-to-crew ratio of 1.5-to-1. All staterooms have an ocean view, and nearly 70 percent have private balconies.
There are three open-seating dining venues as well as 24-hour room service. Both the main dining room, L'Etoile, and the reservations-only La Veranda serve fine French cuisine, while the poolside Le Grill offers, not surprisingly, grilled Polynesian specialties in a casual atmosphere.
For our first dinner onboard, we chose L'Etoile, where the food and the service were excellent.
In contrast to most ships, the evening dress code is always "country club casual": open-neck shirts and slacks for gentlemen, no jacket required; slacks, skirts and blouses, dresses or sundresses for ladies.
For active passengers, the retractable water-sports platform is one of the highlights of the ship. Depending on where the ship is anchored, guests can try water skiing, kayaking or windsurfing, or depart for scuba diving excursions. There is also a fitness center and a full spa.
For guests ages 9-17, the Paul Gauguin offers the "Ambassadors of the Environment" program, with eco-excursions to coral reefs, rain forests, pearl farms and ancient Polynesian temples.
Most of the entertainment and lectures take place in Le Grand Salon and on the pool deck and focus on the music, dance and history of the Polynesians. A troupe of Polynesian performers -- Les Gauguines -- travel with the vessel and share local legends and customs, and sing and dance. There is a small casino, a piano bar, a pool bar and a great venue for watching the sunset -- La Palette Lounge -- on the top deck, aft.
Fine wines, cocktails and soft drinks are complimentary throughout the ship, and gratuities are included in the price of the cruise, making the Paul Gauguin one of the most all-inclusive vessels afloat. Only spa treatments, shore excursions and Internet service cost extra. I've only seen a handful of children on the ship, but quite a number of honeymooners, retirees and everything in between.
On our first morning aboard, the Paul Gauguin dropped anchor off the coast of Taha'a, a quiet island that was once the center for fire-walking ceremonies but has lately been known for vanilla plantations and utter tranquility.
South of the equator it is wintertime, which in French Polynesia is also the dry season, with plenty of sunshine, highs in the mid-80s and lows in the low 70s. Today was just as advertised, with a few white clouds against a deep blue sky.
We had breakfast on our balcony and took the ship's tender to its private island, Motu Mahana. A motu is one of a series of small coral islands that together form a coral reef and enclose a lagoon. We explored the sandy beaches and enjoyed a lavish buffet under swaying palm trees before boarding a motorboat for a trip to another motu and a snorkeling excursion in a coral garden.
As we rounded the coast of Taha'a, the familiar (and now beloved) peaks of Bora Bora came into view in the distance. After three perfect days on that island, my first impulse was to jump from the boat and swim for it.
Then again, I did not want to miss a single minute on the Paul Gauguin. I stayed in the boat but promised myself I'd revisit the idea at the end of the cruise.
Back on board following our snorkeling adventure, I had but one goal for the rest of the day -- to try to capture a Polynesian sunset for my readers. There is something very special about the light at that time of day, the way the colors spread across the sky. In five prior days, I had watched the sun sink behind the peaks of Bora Bora or into clouds above the horizon, both impressive spectacles, but with the current weather and ship's position, I was hopeful that today I'd see the sun disappear directly into the water.
I had checked my camera and my watch when suddenly, a scant 20 minutes before sundown, the announcement was made to report to muster stations on the open deck for the lifeboat drill. I watched the brilliant sunset wrapped in a life jacket and waiting for stragglers, sans camera.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
We raised anchor in Taha'a and cruised to Raiatea, an island so close it is enclosed within the same barrier reef. We docked at the pier overnight, and in the morning, our group left for a kayaking trip on the Faaroa River, the only navigable river in all of French Polynesia. The road hugged the scenic coast, passing small, one-story homes and an occasional business. As on Bora Bora and Taha'a, what little development we saw was along the coastal highway.
In Polynesian mythology, Raiatea was considered to be the birthplace of the world. As our van turned inland, we saw lush green mountains rising to peaks of volcanic rock, shrouded in clouds. It was easy to understand how that sight would have fired the imagination.
Raiatea was the center of religion, royalty and culture for the ancient Polynesians, who departed from these shores to discover and colonize Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. They built boats for long voyages with trees floated down the Faaroa River, a practice noted by Capt. James Cook, the first European to visit Raiatea, in 1769.
We put in at the mouth of the river, where the famous explorer once stood, and paddled upstream. In the dry season there was very little current, and the going was easy. It was not long before the channel narrowed and the foliage on the banks turned to jungle, overhanging the water from both sides and sometimes meeting in the middle. The air grew still and very warm, and there were frequent switchbacks. I lost sight of the back half of our line of kayaks.
It was an Indiana Jones-like setting, perfect for snakes or crocodiles or giant poisonous spiders, but these creatures don't exist in French Polynesia. We drifted by a wild hibiscus, or purau, the flower of which blossoms bright yellow in the only morning of its life, turns crimson in the afternoon and falls from the tree at sunset. The prior day's flowers still dotted the surface of the Faaroa.
Leaving the kayaks for a guided walk through a tropical garden, we found freshwater eels slithering in a trickle of a creek and a wide variety of trees and plants. Within a few hundred yards we saw wild ginger, vanilla, birds-of-paradise, cocoa beans, chestnut and mango and banana trees and "touch-me-not" plants that slammed their leaves closed when disturbed.
Back on the Paul Gauguin, we gathered for a delicious lunch at the pool grill (this extensive buffet became a tradition) and in the afternoon, several members of our group took the "Discover Scuba" class, which included an hour of classroom instruction and another hour in the ship's pool.
My dive certification had expired, and there were others in the class who had never been certified, but after this easy, two-hour lesson we were all eligible to participate in subsequent "beginner" dives in Bora Bora and Moorea. The instructors were competent and friendly, and I highly recommend the class to anyone curious about diving.
In the late afternoon we were entertained by Polynesian singers and dancers on deck, and we sailed for nearby Bora Bora just after another spectacular sunset.
When Capt. Cook arrived on Raiatea, the people of the island had just fought and lost a bloody battle with fierce warriors from Bora Bora. Conflicts between islands and even between the tribes on a particular island were common in those days.
Exploration was a hazardous undertaking, and if the sea didn't get you, the locals might. There were numerous reports of cannibalism among the Polynesians in the Marquesas and New Zealand, and Cook witnessed part of a ceremonial human sacrifice in Tahiti. Cook was later stoned and stabbed to death by the natives on the shore of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Cook was rightfully celebrated in Europe for his courage and leadership, and for his extraordinary skill in mapping great unknown regions of the planet, from the Antarctic Circle to the Bering Strait, and from Newfoundland to New Zealand. In a world where some do and some don't, Cook did.
It may have been a bit of a stretch, however, to credit Cook with "discovering" Raiatea, the islands of Hawaii, the eastern coast of Australia and many other places that had been inhabited by thousands of people for hundreds of years.
As Cook himself came to understand and lament, the Europeans brought new diseases to these islands, against which the natives had no natural immunity. By some accounts, epidemics reduced the population of the region from 250,000 to 40,000 in a short time.
After tales of paradise reached Europe, French and British settlers began to arrive, and before long, tribal religions, rituals and dance were outlawed. On some islands, children were separated from their parents and kept in boarding schools to prevent the transfer of history and traditions that had been passed orally from generation to generation for centuries. In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in ancient Polynesian culture, but it's reasonable to suspect that some aspects are forever lost.
I have searched in vain for any vestige of resentment in the faces of the islanders. Aside from a few politicians who gain personally by stirring things up, most Polynesians don't worry much about the early Europeans, their "discovery" or the aftermath. The people we've met have been kind and friendly.
Maybe that's because the world spins more slowly here, or perhaps the Polynesians have been soothed by the same panoramas that draw visitors from around the world.
I would capture all these moments if I could -- the sunsets, hikes and moonlit swims -- and take them home to savor. But they are as fleeting as the flowers of the purau, burst forth in all their glory just this morning and tomorrow, floating to the sea.
I straddled the side of the boat, put one hand over my right ear and pressed the mask to my face with the other. I wanted to be the first in our boat to hit the water, and as I leaned to fall in -- just past the point of no return -- I heard someone in the boat call out, "There's a shark right there!"
And so there was. And another, and another and another.
In the crystal-clear water a mile or so off the coast of Moorea, you can spot sharks from the boat, but it's much more interesting to jump into the middle of them. We had paid to do this, on our second diving adventure from the Paul Gauguin, and we got more than our money's worth.
For 45 minutes, we swam at depths up to 40 feet with two types of sharks -- blacktip and lemon. The former grow to 5 feet and the latter to 10.
There were moments when I had several of these fascinating creatures in view at one time, and they were almost as curious about us as we were about them, sometimes coming within a few feet before veering away. We also found Javanese moray eels and too many kinds of multicolored fish to name.
Earlier, the Paul Gauguin spent two nights in Bora Bora anchored in the deepwater section of the lagoon, just a few hundred yards offshore. There is no "bad" view of the island, but the most stunning view is from the opposite side, where the overwater bungalows at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa are located.
The first morning in Bora Bora, those of us who had taken the "Discover Scuba" class went diving at the edge of a submerged volcanic crater in the lagoon. In addition to the colorful fish and coral formations, we saw large eagle rays soar by, looking almost as if they were in flight.
In the afternoon, we took the ship's tender to the little town of Vaitape and visited the few stores we found there. French Polynesia is famous for its black pearls, and Bora Bora is second only to the island of Tahiti in the number of pearl shops.
We had dinner onboard at La Veranda, where we enjoyed fine French food and an entertaining conversation with the ship's hotel director, Freddy Strohmeier. Freddy has worked cruises to the North Pole, Antarctica, the Amazon and other exotic destinations. His choice of after-dinner drink, the Scandinavian liquor aquavit, is an adventure in itself.
The next morning, I caught the ship's tender to a motu with a white-sand beach, and in the afternoon, it was time to check out the ship's spa (two thumbs up). We sailed for Moorea at sunset, escorted by a school of dolphins on a golden sea.
The final stop on our cruise was in Opunohu Bay, Moorea, where we explored the west coast of the island on WaveRunners. We sped single file across the turquoise water, crisscrossing the wake from the WaveRunner ahead of us and kicking up as much spray as we possibly could on our friends behind us.
Along the way we stopped at a small island -- Motu Ono -- and heard a short lecture about stingrays as they circled us in knee-deep surf.
In the afternoon, we hiked the rugged trail to Belvedere Lookout and beyond, to the ridge between Mount Mouaroa and Mount Tohivea. The latter is Moorea's tallest mountain, at 3,960 feet. We had panoramic views of both sides of the island, but the peaks of the mountains were shrouded in clouds.
That night, despite the excellent food on the ship, we decided to have dinner at a French restaurant on Moorea, Te Honu Iti. As is common with the better restaurants here, the manager offered to send a car to transport us to and from the small marina where the ship's tender docks. We accepted and were met by the owner himself, Roger Igual, who loaded us in his van for a hair-raising, white knuckle race to the restaurant.
Te Honu Iti is a casual, open-air venue located on picturesque Cook's Bay, and fortunately, Chef Roger is much better at cooking than driving. Go if you get the chance.
While you're in the islands, be sure to sample the regional specialties: the tasty poisson cru (marinated raw fish in coconut milk) and the local brew, Hinano. Try the tuna steak at Bloody Mary's on Bora Bora, and our group's favorite lunchtime fare -- the InterContinental's grilled mahi-mahi sandwich.
Be on deck at sunset every day for the explosion of color that frequently follows. Gaze out to Bora Bora at dusk, as Capt. Cook once did, and let her dark and hulking silhouette transport you back in time.
From the moment Raiatea sprang from the womb of the universe, this has been a special place.
Cruising French Polynesia
If you are planning your first visit to French Polynesia, the combination of a few days in Bora Bora or Moorea with the seven-night Paul Gauguin cruise is a great way to go. For a return visit, longer Paul Gauguin itineraries that include the Marquesas or New Zealand are especially tempting.
Cruise counselors at national cruise discounter Vacations To Go can set up any of these vacations, including air. To see a complete list of Paul Gauguin departures, with prices reduced by more than 50 percent, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.
Vacations To Go can arrange pre- or post-cruise stays at the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti and the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa at the time you book your cruise.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2009.