Some of this fits in the review template and will be there also, but most of it... read on!
TL;DR: Our first vacation to French Polynesia, and most expensive trip by a factor of three, included both the Paul Gauguin and overwater bungalows. Had a great time. Some tips for others.
She wanted Tahiti (shorthand for that plus Bora Bora, etc.) He was disappointed in both the service and food on their previous cruise (Holland America), and wanted to go upscale. With a lot of planning, and then some travel agent help, they made it happen...
Paul Gauguin for a week, in a Class D (nice good-sized balcony but no butler) cabin, followed by two nights at the Moorea Intercontinental in an "Premium Overwater Bungalow."
Getting There: From Home to SEA to LAX... Time for another vacation!
I travel a lot for work. A "car service" (or "limo service" though it's usually a black SUV) is only a bit more expensive than a cab, and far more convenient. They arrive early, are clean and professional, and on the return, for a small fee, they meet you at baggage claim and help with the bags.
So we started at around 4am, in the car service. But before we even reached the freeway (four blocks from our condo), we got pulled over by Bellevue PD. The SUV had a headlight out. The stop was low-stress (tip: roll all windows down, turn on dome lights and smile.), and with a 15 minute delay we were finally on the freeway.
And, shortly later, going through TSA Screening. Uncharacteristically, my bag gets pulled. And the agent is a bit concerned. Odd... I usually carry a trackball, in the past an M570, but I switched to an MX-Ergo to do away with the dongle. But the MX-Ergo looks, apparently, bomb like. So much so that not only did they find and look at it, but they ran three tests on it and asked me to turn it on. (Although, as soon as I started, I guess they were convinced, as they didn't let me finish.)
Finally at the gate... Which went much worse than usual. I typically travel a business schedule. This zero-dark-thirty Saturday morning flight is not a business schedule; instead there were large, confused, non-primary-English families... who didn't have their boarding passes, couldn't understand what was wrong... And were preboarding, holding everything else up. When we boarded (also early due to class), the agent said to me, "flight from hell."
It got worse. There was a medical emergency. They didn't turn around but all services were cancelled. No food no soda no water. And when we landed, everyone had to stay seated until the paramedics boarded and got the patient off the plane. (He was able to walk off, and I heard later he was fine after being checked.)
If you're keeping score, we have not even left the U.S. yet. We've taken one car ride and one flight, just down the West Coast. Wow.
LAX - Last Tips Stateside
Last summer it took us over 40 hours to go from Seattle to Heathrow due to a series of cancelled and delayed flights. That was also a vacation. My business travel always goes seamlessly. Fortunately, I'd buffered in, well, 39 hours that time so we made it sweaty and unchanged to the departure just in time. This time, I also allowed oodles of buffer, just in case we had to take another flight. Given the first several hours, above, good thing too!
As a result, despite the drama and (minor) medical delay, we arrived at LAX in the morning for a late-afternoon flight. I considered getting a dayroom, but the SO wasn't keen on leaving the airport. And the stated Air Tahiti policy is that they open their counters 2-3 hours before the flight departure; you can't check in your baggage prior to that, so you can't go into the terminals where the lounges and restaurants are.
So I found us some okay-positioned benches where we could keep an eye on the counter, for the six or so hour wait.
It turns out that Air Tahiti opens the counters for <i>any</i> AT flight they have to process. In our case, as we were near them when it happened, we noticed that they opened around 10am or so for a flight from LAX to Paris. (The LAX - PPT flight originates in Paris; this would seem to be the return flight.) Our counter agent wasn't clear that she could help us, but her supervisor ensured her she could... so we checked in. And I checked for upgrades too.
We had attempted to purchase an upgrade from Mona Economy to Mona Premium (from Economy to Comfort) prior to the trip, but as far as we and our travel agent could tell, PGCruises doesn't have a mechanism for doing that before the trip. You have to do it at check-in. Which is dicey, as the odds of two seats together in Premium at that point aren't high. Unless... you're checking in six hours before everyone else. It took about 20 minutes and a thousand dollars, but our to-island flight was upgraded, moving us from Row 40 to Row 10. Checked in, we headed into the Terminal.
Of course, we still had a long wait ahead, and the counter-agent couldn't get us lounge passes. Nor can you get them at the lounge. But you can purchase them at the gate. ANY Air Tahiti gate. Of which there was one, that being the flight that was just leaving going the other way.
We spent a bunch of time at the lounge, met and befriended another PG-bound couple. The flight from LAX to PPT was mercifully uneventful. Great service, nice seats, good food.
During the flight we were given immigration papers. The standard stuff. The couple behind us seemed quite concerned that they get the answers correct. I was considerably more sanguine about it, as Tahiti wants us in... and I was correct. From the U.S. you have two papers and are expected to possibly do declarations also. Nope... they checked that the papers had writing on them... seemingly <i>any</i> writing... and let us in. Customs was closed. Nobody there, nobody cared. Grab your luggage, exit to the waiting escorts and off you go.
Perhaps because we checked in first, my luggage was the last for the cruise off the plane... we exited to find one of the Gaugines waiting with my surname... and a bunch of erased space from the others... on a whiteboard. The bags, including carryons, went one way, we went the other onto a bus for the 15-ish minute ride to the dock.
Again with the timing, perhaps because we were the last on the bus, we were the first of our group on the boat... by quite a bit. (We are a bit more spritely than the average passenger.) You do have to show your passport about four times from disembarking the bus to getting the lei to getting up the gangplank to heading to reception (deck 4, just above entry.) There was a reception group and band waiting... quite surprised to see us. Apparently the bus didn't brief them. File your credit card, photo for the ID badge, accept champagne and get escorted for a quick boat tour and the room, where the luggage was already waiting.
Tips for the trip out:
1. If you're there early, pay attention to other Air Tahiti flight schedules; you can check-in and upgrade during those.
2. Buy a lounge pass from the previous flight departing gate.
The Cruise And Excursions
After that travel out, the cruise was easy and drama-free.
We are early birds, and of course just had a several hour time-shift. It turns out you cannot get served at a restuarant prior to 7am, or even get a coffee prior to 6:30am... unless you order room service. Room service still can't do food until 7am, but they open for coffee at 6:30am. (They delivered for us a few times before that.) By day four, they knew my call and order, and would tell it to me as soon as they picked up.
And room service was almost always FAST. Not just coffee, any food also.
Excursion and Docking information
Just in case you weren't aware... excursions are cheapest from the provider. The hotels (e.g. the Intercontinental) mark them up 37%. (Yes, that's the number. Not sure why, but I did verify it.) The Paul Gauguin seems to have an even higher mark-up. e.g. €70 (US$78) for the Blue Lagoon Day vs $109 from the hotel and $139 from the ship. That's nearly double for doing it from the ship (in this case; the ship markup seems to vary.) But it is far more convenient, especially considering...
Two of our excursions were cancelled, one due to port change, the other due to weather. We rolled with it. In one case, the "travel concierge" on deck four was able to get us onto a replacement that showed fully booked, when I requested it. (She picked up a phone and spoke in exceedingly fast French for several minutes, hung up and said something like, "It is done." Straight out of a movie.)
Snorking quality varies immensely. If you regularly dive or snorkle, you already know this. But if not, just realize that just because snorkling is offered, doesn't mean there's anything interesting to see there.
If you're used to using the PGCruises.com "Manage My Trip"... well, they don't keep it up-to-date. (As a rule, the Gauguin technology seems at least a decade behind.) We had two excursions cancelled... change of docking location for one, weather for the other. These aren't removed from the web page. In theory, according to the Travel/Concierge on Deck 4, the T.V. (ironically, their brand-new "ITV System") is kept up-to-date, but it really isn't... our Moorea docking was moved from Oahapanu Bay to Cook's Bay (because a Princess Cruise will be coming on Friday) but the T.V. information wasn't updated.
There are detailed schedule sheets. They're pretty useful. But most useful was simply going to the Concierge, who knows what's going on and can sometimes squeeze you in anyhow.
French Polynesia is fantastic for scuba diving. We did several dives. Another passenger referred to this as "Princess Diving", because the equipment (BCD, regulator, tank, weights) are provided and checked for you, they help you strap them on if desired, you flop over the side and then at the end, hand them up and climb aboard unencumbered. It's much easier than the beach drysuit diving we'd mostly done before.
You do have to check in with the dive master to schedule dives; he checks your logbooks and medical certificate. You don't have to use the PGCruises medical cert; I brought a copy of my last doctor sign-off, and I believe they can check you there anyhow. But this gave my nervous SO a chance to talk about the dives before deciding.
The Zodiac (they have several) leaves from the 3rd-floor boat marina. We brought our own masks, snorkles, fins and computers, but some people used boat-issued ones. Dives were in groups of four, each with a guide. It was a really great time.
You don't need to scuba to swim with the sharks and rays; Shark City is a shallow (perhaps a meter) deep area better for snorkling. But we saw much larger sharks, and a lot of other great life, diving.
ATV Tour of Huahine Nui
We took the Hauhii ATV tour around the island. The highlight was, sadly, the driver in front of me crashing into the driver in front of him. No injuries, but it was exciting. We also did some shore riding, which allowed us to get a better view of the tidal life than we could on foot, because the rocks are simultaneously super-sharp and super-slippery, not a problem for a 4WD ATV but dangerous on foot.
We also saw several of the stone marae (temples, basically), the river-eels, a lot of backyards and residents. This gave us a deeper and closer look at the real island than any of the other tours, but that may not be what you really want... because the island's economy really isn't all that great. (My trip notes stated "Third world back alleys.")
BBQ on the Motu:
This is the excursion, not the "private island" day on Motu Mahana in Bora Bora... covered below.
TL;DR: Skip this one.
This wasn't all that close to where the Gauguin was docked, so the ride out was long. That may be unusual; our dock was changed because a Princess Cruise was going to need Oahapanu Bay, the larger bay, so the Gauguin docked at Cook Bay instead.
On the way, we stopped at Shark/Stingray City, an area out several hundred meters in meter-deep water where the rays and sharks have been fed for decades. This was fantastic and fun. All these large carnivorous fish swimming around you and expecting contact. Definitely do this, but there are other ways to do it than the BBQ excursion.
Then we got to the Motu. This one had a lot less going on than Motu Mahana. You're there for hours, but no food or drink for the first several. It's heavily wooded, limited sun. The food is grilled right there, still limited drinks - just beer and water. And not really that great for snorkling either. Eventually, you're glad to leave.
Waverunner & Snorkeling Adventure
This was a longish ATV ride in very choppy water. Apparently, we were right on the cusp of where they would cancel the excursion, except that two days had already had cancellations due to changed docks. So the ride was a bit brutal. But the scenery was amazing. Snorkling was pretty good, but keep in mind that it may have been more impressive to people who weren't doing scuba dives.
The view of the overwater bungalows (and how many resorts have them) was really neat. The guide also prepped some bananas, coconut and grapefruit for us. The bananas and coconut were amazing. We weren't fans of the grapefruit, but it was neat to experience.
This is included with the cruise. It's the "Gauguin Private Island" day. And it's a blast. Imagine it's just past the halfway mark of the cruise. You now have a bunch of friends (it's a small ship, remember? And a self-selecting set of passengers.) The island has wonderful white sand, perfect trees, a huge BBQ buffet, unlimited good drinks, some served in coconut shells (which are greener than you expect from watching Gilligan's Island, apparently not the most accurate documentary.) The water is warm, and even the rain doesn't dampen things.
Plenty of chaises, the water is wading-deep for quite some distance, full-plumbing facilities. Really, no downside.
Well, one downside. There's an encampment on the other side of the Motu that resembles a homeless camp. I asked about it; apparently one of the local families has "an arrangement." You'll see it if you walk around the Motu (and if they're still there), but if you just stay in the resort-area, you won't.
Tip: Don't bother bringing your snorkle gear to the Motu. Despite the description, there's not much to see, especially compared to some other stops.
Excursions we heard about:
The "Le Truck" excursion disappointed the passengers we chatted with. They didn't see much, were stuck on the road, it seemed aimed at getting them to spend money at local businesses and they just didn't enjoy it.
The "personal submarine"/Aquabike's had passengers raving. NOT scuba passengers, but scuba takes prep, training and equipment. It seemed everyone who did the Aquabike loved it.
Get the laundry Service. We booked this electronically well before the trip. It's completely worth it. Just make sure you accurately count your items going out; my SO got it wrong (twice!), with them rejecting the order as a result. Perfectly reasonable, not a big deal.
You can't order the internet package in advance; it must be done from on-ship. And it was spotty. The ship's equipment is not a match for today's expectations. This isn't a French Polynesia issue; my cellfone had better coverage and speed than the best of the boat, and large portions of the boat and even some of the cabin had dead zones. But still, it's not expensive and is very convenient. Just realize you won't be doing any streaming or VOIP calls. This had no impact on me other than surprising me.
The Ship Experience
The ship can hold a maximum of 326 or so passengers; there were 260 passengers, 226 crew on our trip. Pretty good crew-to-passenger ratio.
The passengers were mostly English speaking couples, some French, a few Japanese and Spanish (south American.) There were three young (5-ish) children, from three different families that did not previously know each other. They were well-behaved. Once in a while a bit energetic and rowdy, but in places where this wasn't inappropriate. We only briefly glimpsed one of the families; of the other two, I don't think the children spoke English, but that also wasn't a factor.
Most were m/f couples around 45-70, but there was a smattering of everything, including grown kids helping their parents, all types of couples and everything from extreme goths to men who wore dinner jackets with shorts.
We had a Class D cabin on Deck 6 with a veranda. It looked exactly like the brochure/website photo, including having an odd stone sculpture in a nook. Pretty nice. From the fora, some people say they don't spend any time in their cabin. We use ours a fair amount, but I'm an introvert. The huge window is really nice, the deck fantastic and, since it's so fast, room service makes it all easy. (Room service is included. No delivery fee, no food or drink fee.)
There was plenty of storage, in the form of tiny drawers everywhere. Not many large ones, but anywhere a drawer or shelf could be put, they did. There are only a few power outlets, not where you expect. They are dual (U.S./Euro) at the writing desk and between the cabinet with the fridge/TV and the door. None near the bed.
I did bring an extension cord splitter. That was fortunate.
Housekeeping was twice daily, with fresh towels. They even wash the deck windows when needed - basically after any sea travel. We did run out of shower gel; apparently that's not checked regularly. But it was promptly refilled after we called it down.
We were on Deck 6, near the front. Louder events in the Grand Salon (the main theatre) and in the hallway to the shopping area (such as the Gauguines singing, the piano bar when it was louder and the talent shows) bled through. It wasn't bothersome to us, and ends by 10pm usually, but be aware.
Tender is pretty easy, but not "accessible"; you must be able to climb narrow metal stairs. Not a problem for us, but some less-spritely passengers quickly gave up on it.
The Tender goes to the primary port for activities. Which, in Moorea, was near an abandoned hotel. Seriously, after tourism success came to the island, they tried regulating and taxing it to the point where hotels were abandoned and new ones built rather than refurbishing the old ones. But it's a nice elegant abandoned hotel, just a monument to the unintended side effects of socialist causes.
Meanwhile, the Bora Bora port was even worse. The island is beautiful... from the water. The docking area town, not so much. You could be in Jamaica, Tiajuana, etc. and not notice a difference. Stalls under tarps, some small stores, mud... either book a tour that gets you past this part of the island, or do an excursion instead. But our Bora Bora scuba diving was incredible.
The ship does have cell service through Maritime. Which is not covered by AT&T Passport. Unlike some other lines, no package available. I didn't use the Maritime coverage.
Throughout French Polynesia, Vini is the local cell service. AT&T was definitely confused on the concept of Tahiti vs French Polynesia - I called and they thought they only supported Tahiti, not Bora Bora or Moorea. Post-cruise, I can confirm that AT&T Passport over Vini was covered in all three islands. Vini coverage was fine.
There is a mandatory pool atop the ship. It's pretty small; you wouldn't do laps in it. They drain it for cruising, refilling it (with salt water from the ocean) every morning.
The food was mostly very good. Dinners were 50% amazing, but 50% mediocre for a good restaurant. Seafood was reliably fantastic, vegetarian dishes were consistently poor.
Drinks were good and as strong as you wish. We didn't have any whisky, but the vodkas and rums were quality, including Grey Goose, Titos and Sky. (Didn't check on others.)
Weirdest Shipboard Experience:
The hours-long rooster-apacalypse early in Moorea, tons of crowing in the distance for at least an hour. Sounds like a bit of a sports event. Not too loud, but funny.
Post-Cruise and Transfers
We booked two nights at a "Premium Overwater Bungalow" at the InterContinental Moorea, through Paul Gauguin. We assumed this would ensure consistent, reliable and well-coordinated transfers. Not so much.
TL;DR: Perhaps have a travel agent help you with this part, rather than using PGCruises. Stay a bit longer, but not through them.
We couldn't coordinate the two days before the cruise. The flight schedules just wouldn't cooperate. But we also didn't have the jet lag problem some people commented on. The time change from the west coast is only a few hours.
Getting To Moorea
A bit ironic, considering the boat had just returned from there, but so goes life. We boarded a tour van with a few other couples and headed to the ferry dock. Upon arrival, the local ambassador, "Hero", met us and briefed us, basically ensuring we understood and got onto the ferry correctly. It's not a luxury trip; it's a heavily-used water bus. But it is quick. On the other side, grab our bags and find the tour driver taking us to the hotel.
Who insisted on taking both our transfer "to" the hotel and the transfer "from" it. This seemed disconcerting, but apparently is what they do. They also work on "island time", which apparently means the printed time is merely for a roughly quarter-day increment.
He got us to the hotel efficiently and comfortably.
Inter Continental Moorea
This is a gorgeous property, but a bit of a let-down. Partly due to our travel agent and the inaccurate maps... both she and the maps described our bungalow as "Premium Overwater Bungalow." Not as "Partial Overwater Bungalow", although the PGCruises site does label it that way. Since we were relying on her and on the maps, we expected actual overwater bungalows. We caught this when the tickets arrived, before the cruise, and asked about it, to which she responded,
"The InterContinental Moorea started construction on their full over water bungalows. You are in their premium over water which is not a true overwater."
Umm... no. They don't have actual overwater bungalows, it turns out. But by then it was too late to change. Aren't travel agents supposed to get this stuff right?
In fairness, communications from Paul Gaugain on them also sometimes calls them "Overwater Bungalows" with no qualifiers. So be aware.
Moving on... so we were in a "Premium (Partial-)Overwater Bungalow", which means the sliding door and deck are overwater with stilts. The rest was normal grounded. It was also large, great view, comfortable, and sporting a tiny toilet room that a 220 pounder probably could not enter and close the door in. (And the bathroom door was filthy.)
Most bungalows are on-ground, set back from the beach. Consider them "water view." Otherwise they look to have the same layout. But not the privacy or view of the premiums.
And we were on the west side. The east side has amazing views but strong trade winds. Oddly, that short distance (only perhaps 30 meters) and direction change make a difference.
The resort also has regular hotel rooms, in a two or three story building, mostly around the pool area. Families largely stayed here. Some water views, nothing like a bungalow.
The downsides included that the two nearby ice machines were both non-functional. We had to use room service to get ice; that took 15 minutes.
The water pressure varied from from good to nearly none... often during the same shower. From midnight to 5am, no water pressure to speak of. We were near the end of the bungalow line though; presumably most of the hotel has better pressure.
Drink and food prices were surprisingly high. Drinks run 1800-2200 xpf, or around $18-$22. Plus tax and pre-charged "service charge" and a request for a tip. Food prices are also high, about $25 for a burger, $6 for fries (included with some meals, not with a burger.) And in about half of our meals, an ordered drink was forgotten.
The Polynesian Theme Night was amazing, with great fire dancing, outriggers and a wonderful buffet. Unfortunately, we suffered a billing screwup (on their part), and bad service... 4 minutes for her wine, but 15 minutes and two follow-up requests to get my beer.
Getting from Moorea to the Airport
This part was also, still, arranged by PGCruises. It wasn't so great, because their travel times and dayroom times don't match the other times. For example, checkout at the International Moorea is 11am but the transfer pickup was scheduled for 2:30pm. What are you supposed to do for the intervening 3.5 hours?
And then a few hours at the International Tahiti, followed by checkout at 6pm... for a 7:30pm transfer pick-up. Seriously?
I did receive a brief extension upon request, but was told I'd have to pay for other. Uggah.
We ran into some of our co-passengers (two days after disembarking and heading back to Moorea) in the PPT airport. The airport isn't air conditioned, and the return flight is pretty late, so we were all overly warm and tired. We also didn't arrange an upgrade from Economy to Premium since we'd be sleeping anyhow.
We were near the front of Mona Economy. The seats were okay, more cramped but we're not large people. But they ran out of one of the entries in our row... less than halfway through the plane!
The rest of the way home was uneventful.
The cruise was incredible, and plenty to do, at a premium price. It has changed how we'll vacation in the future. But probably not back to Tahiti for at least a decade. BTDT. Not much more to do, and could do two or three luxury vacations for the cost of this single vacation.
The difference between a real overwater and a "partial" overwater bungalow, from the inside, is minimal. But we're glad we did the (semi-)overwater bungalow, because it was on her bucket list and she enjoyed the time, but honestly she could have enjoyed the same for a lot less at a Las Vegas hotel with a pool. Probably wouldn't do that a second time. View was amazing, but not much to do.
Plus not much else is so far from Seattle.
The Paul Gauguin is about a decade behind on technology. Their in-cabin entertainment systems suffer this, the shipboard WiFi suffers and their website, as of this writing, still requires Flash for some features.
CHECK YOUR ITINERY. When PGCruises sent over the confirmations, I noted that they had us booked for air return the same day they had us checking into the InterContinental Moorea. They corrected it when notified.