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Radisson Seven Seas Cruises

Paul Gauguin

by
Mary Lou Zurawski

Paul Gauguin

Radisson Seven Seas m/s PAUL GAUGUIN Tahiti/South Pacific Cruise, April 1998

Ia Orana represents the warm, friendly spirit of "Welcome" from the Tahitian people, spoken to us many times from the moment we disembarked the airplane, to the unfortunate moment we had to leave that wondrous, magical place of Tahiti and return to reality.

On April 4, 1998 we had the privilege of sailing on the Paul Gauguin. We had arrived early, on our own, and stayed at the Hotel Sofitel for three days and spent four more nights in an overwater bungalow at the Moorea Beachcomber. The Saturday of the cruise, we checked out at noon, drove our rental car and dropped our luggage right outside the ship. The ship docks right in downtown Papeete. We were immediately struck at its size. Knowing there were only 300 passengers, we had expected a small ship, but it was larger than we expected.

EMBARKATION

We knew that the ship had put its air passengers at the Beachcomber resort, so we visited there to discover they would begin staggered busing to the ship at 2:45. Boarding officially began at 3 pm. Having had some bad experiences with lines and waiting, we decided to arrive early, before the crowd. We came back at 2 pm and asked if we could board. One of the officers smiled and welcomed us on board! He took us up the ramp and a "Tahitian hostess" escorted us to the LaPalette Lounge, where sandwiches and cookies were served to the eight of us early birds. We enjoyed a leisurely drink, while taking in the view of Papeete from the surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows. Within 20 minutes someone brought us our room keys and escorted us to our room. No lines, no check-in hassles and our luggage was already in our room! We later went to the entrance where the ship's Tahitian band was welcoming everyone aboard with champagne and a packet of information.

SMALL SHIP ATMOSPHERE AND INTIMACY

We have sailed on ships that carried between 900 to 1600 passengers. What struck us the most about this ship is that you have so much space and so many crew to wait on you. There were no lines, and no waiting. It seemed like our own private yacht! There was plenty of deck space to find a seat exactly where you wanted one at any time. We would have sworn the ship was not full, yet it was fully booked. The officers were very efficient and friendly. Everyone said hello at all times.

You had the opportunity to see the same passengers over and over. You could find someone and be found (if you wanted to), unlike large ships where you never seem to see the same people again. This was definitely a plus.

CABINS

Paul Gauguin StateroomWe decided not to get a balcony cabin because we wanted to spend the money on another week ashore after the cruise. We were on Deck 6 with a picture window. I don't regret the decision -- again, we did not spend a lot of time in the cabin. Our cabin was very spacious and the best laid-out cabin we have had. I would compare it to the cabins on the Sun Princess, but better arranged with more storage. All our luggage fit under the bed.

There was a stocked mini-bar with bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka and setups -- complimentary. In the refrigerator were a couple of beers and a variety of soft drinks -- complimentary. All soft drinks and bottled water on the ship were free. There was more storage space than we could use and after 12 cruises, I still bring more stuff than we can possibly use! I have never seen so much storage space. Recessed lighting and strategic placement of mirrors provided a soft ambiance. Yet there was plenty of light if you wanted it. A recessed chest of drawers near the door provided a mirrored space where a Tiki god statue greeted you as you entered your cabin. We used him to store our Paul Gauguin hats we bought. I told my husband this was probably some sort of sacrilege to a Tahitian god ,and a curse would befall us. But apparently he didn't mind -- he provided us with a memorable cruise and a wonderfully relaxing vacation experience.

The bathroom had two medicine cabinets, with storage areas underneath them. There was a shower in the bathtub, lines for drying your swim suits, a shelf for storing your snorkeling gear, a hair dryer, and complimentary terry cloth robes.

We never heard a noise from inside the cabin. We did not hear anyone in the hall, or in the room next door when they used their shower or toilet. It was like it was soundproofed. The doors in the room were hinged so they didn't bang or close in rough seas. The cabin door closed tightly by itself without a sound. We were impressed!

There was a remote control television with VCR. You could borrow a large selection of movies from the reception desk -- no charge. One channel was connected to a video camera at the front of the ship. There were several channels, but we had better things to do than watch television. The queen bed had reading lamps on either side.

 

The life jackets were stored in lockers next to the lifeboats, not in the cabins -- a nice touch. There were umbrellas in each cabin for your use. There also were umbrellas and water for your use at the disembarking station.

The room card key also served as your boarding pass. Boarding passes were scanned by a cute, young French officer on his notebook computer when leaving and returning.

DINING OPTIONS

Dining was open seating between 7 and 9:30 pm. We had never had this option before and did not think we would like it. We like to meet people and find someone to tour with, etc. Open seating only made it easier. Every time we ate, we met a new group of interesting people. If you didn't care to see them again, you never had to. And if you met people you liked, you could arrange to meet the following night to have dinner together. If you preferred to eat alone, you could eat whenever you were ready.

The Maitre d' was very personable and made everyone feel like he knew them personally -- greeting everyone each night with genuine concern for their enjoyment of his meals.

L'Etoile

The main dining room, L'Etoile, was small and intimate with lots of large tables, and windows all around for excellent viewing. There are automatic draped curtains which could be opened or closed at the touch of a switch. The captain opened them during dinner when we docked in Papeete at night for effect. Menus were posted in all lounges each day ahead of time.

Lunch was also served here. Lunch was a combination of an elaborate buffet of hot and cold items, soups, carved meats and a dessert table. There were additional items you could order off the menu. And wine was freely poured with every meal and changed daily. My husband is not a big fan of buffets, and although I am, I would have preferred a traditional luncheon restaurant.

La Palette

La Palette Restaurant

Here each day there was a hosted early continental breakfast, and high tea with cakes, finger sandwiches and a flambe specialty which changed daily and was deliciously decadent. With the surrounding-window view, it was a quiet time to relax and reflect. The pianist provided music and song.

Le Grill

This was the pool deck restaurant, but different from what we have experienced. It is cleverly sheltered with clear glass so it is not windy. But it is not a buffet you are used to seeing on cruise ships; you are seated and waited on. There is a menu. You serve yourself from the buffet line if you wish, in addition to the menu.

Breakfast buffet consisted of cold cuts, fruit, rolls, any type of bread (bagels, raisin, muffins) cereal, and a large selection of juices. Then you order your regular breakfast: eggs cooked to order or pancakes. Lunch also had a limited menu -- hamburgers, chicken or fish, served to you, as well as a buffet for salads, cheeses and fruit.

Dinner was also served here from a limited menu and by reservation. We never made it to dinner here.

La Veranda

Breakfast was the traditional "order off the menu" with anything you could possibly think of. There was also a buffet for cold cereals, breads and fruits. We enjoyed this option.

Dinner was by reservation. (No, you didn't have to offer money to the Maitre d' to get a reservation.) The menu alternated between French and Italian.

I went to the Italian night. You were served a sampling of everything on the menu. It was a wonderful way to sample many different courses. My husband went to the French night and again sampled everything. He thought it was the best meal of the cruise. Guests with dinner reservations were invited to a pre-dinner wine tasting in the Connoisseur Club.

24-Hour Room Service

I do not care for French food, so my husband went to French Night alone. Not feeling very social, I decided to get a movie and order in. I pigged out on soup, salad, chicken dinner and chocolate cake and was very content.

Service overall was good. But open seating means that you never see the same waiter twice and they do not get to know your preferences. It was sometimes difficult to attract their attention. The ship does not use bus boys, only waiters. There is a wine steward who freely pours wine all throughout dinner and lunch.

POOL PARTIES

There was a nice sail-away party and several after that. The ship can anchor close to shore in the bays of the islands so we had a gorgeous view each night while partying. Drinks of all kinds were freely flowing. The band played and people danced poolside under the stars. One night a lady drank and danced too much and too close to the pool, and fell in. Her dance partner decided to join her. Their laughter was contagious and everyone applauded.

Pool Deck

The pool was small like older ship's pools and no Jacuzzi. But with the warm blue waters of the ocean available every day, no one wanted a large fancy pool.

PUBLIC ROOMS

Casino

The French government makes life difficult for all who dare to run a business in Tahiti. There are a few casinos in Papeete run as private clubs, but no slot machines. So the casino on the ship had to adhere to the same rules. They had to charge $10 to become a member and were not allowed to pay this for the passengers. The slot machines beckoned to me every time I walked by but they were not in use. We played roulette and blackjack. There was a bar and an extremely friendly, entertaining staff. The staff was from Australia and was very interesting to talk to.

Le Grand Salon -- Main Lounge/Showroom

It was amazing that one showroom held all the passengers comfortably with no crowding or saving of seats. A bar ensured that no one was ever without something to drink. Viewing was excellent from all areas. There was not the usual entertainment, nor was it missed. There was a guest lecturer, a magician and, one night, the cruise director entertained. Other nights there was a Tahitian show poolside at the pool party. Most people were up early and on shore for the water and tour activities each day, returning to shower, dine and dance under the stars, frequent the casino or retire early. The sun sets at 5:30 - 6:00 -- no daylight savings time.

Connoisseur Club

Connoisseur ClubAfter dinner, guests may walk up the spiral staircase in the dining room to enjoy an after-dinner cigar or cognac. Many a time, I walked around this club during the day to find a honeymoon couple enjoying the view in a quiet moment all alone away from everyone.

La Boutique

Being used to the Princess hype of what's on sale everyday and seeing new merchandise daily, this boutique was disappointing. You could purchase designer perfumes and watches, and rare, expensive pearls. (Why anyone would want to buy an expensive watch or perfume on a cruise ship is beyond my comprehension.) They did not bring out new merchandise at any time. They had m/s Paul Gauguin baseball caps (which I purchased at $29) to keep the sun off my head, tee shirts, pareaus, polo shirts, gym shoes, bathing suits and some souvenirs. Not a great selection.

Carita Spa and Fitness Center

The spa features a marble-appointed reception area and a decor "inspired by the baths of ancient Rome" and was probably the fanciest part of the ship. They had massages and an extensive list of beautifying services, which we did not use. We passed by the fitness center, which looked well-appointed.

Sports platform

Everyone received complimentary snorkel gear, including life vest and mesh bag. The sports platform opens into the ocean. The ship anchors inside the breakwater within the calm waters inside the reef. Kayaking, waterskiing, and windsurfing could all be done from here. There was an extensive list of diving opportunities, but we only snorkeled.

Fare Tahiti

The ship provided books and materials on the culture of the islands and had a display area of various artifacts, maps and information. There was also a library of books for use during the cruise.

SHIP AMBIANCE

We like the glitz of the Princess and Costa ships and expected much the same. The Paul Gauguin is nothing like this. It has sleek and traditional decor. No glitz. But sophisticated. We called it "plain". Others called it "understated," which, I guess in Tahiti is apropos. But if they were going for the understated look in a Polynesian location, there should have been more Polynesian decor.

The spirit of no tipping on the ship and in Tahiti was refreshing. No one had a hand out anywhere. People were genuinely friendly and accommodating without expecting something in return.

DRESS

Each day the ship's newsletter said the dress was "Country Club Casual". We would have thought the captain's cocktail party would be more dressy and they would have one "Polynesian Night" to give everyone a chance to show off their pareaus or outfits. But it never varied. I brought one cocktail dress and was overdressed the night I wore it. Some men wore jackets for the captain's cocktail party, but not again. Men wore knit or polo shirts with slacks, women wore nice pants suits, tropical dresses. No one wore jeans.

ROUGH SEAS

Being a veteran of some twelve cruises on various ships and itineraries, we have sometimes encountered a rough night. But apparently the Paul Gauguin loses some stability by having the shallow draft it needs to enter the lagoons and bays surrounding the islands. The first night out crossing to Rangiroa was very rough. My husband made it to the door of the dinner restaurant and promptly returned to the cabin. Our dinner companion made it to the table and she promptly returned to her cabin. The dining room was half empty. The next night we were at anchor in Rangiroa. The following night we crossed back from Rangiroa through the same choppy seas and my husband again missed dinner and apparently so did many of the other passengers. Even I was feeling a little "off" and I never get seasick. The next few nights were uneventful.

Then one early morning we were awakened with terrible pitching and every so often a loud bang when a wave hit the ship a certain way -- the noise and vibrations kept us awake. Surprisingly there were many first time cruisers aboard. We tried to explain to many of them that this was unusually rough.

I do not think we hit unusually choppy seas or bad weather and the crew did not think it was unusual. But I think the ship will receive a bad reputation. Even though my husband missed two meals (he did not take any medication ahead of time), he would still do it all over again. Seeing Rangiroa is well worth the discomfort of the crossing and I hope they do not eliminate this port from the itinerary.

Tenders

The ship docks only in Papeete where the cruise begins and ends. At the rest of the ports, she is at anchor. The tenders run very frequently and we never had to wait more than a few minutes for one. There were no lines, and no coupons handed out for times to board. You just went when you were ready.

INFORMATION DISSEMINATION

This is the only area in which I fault the ship's personnel. They desperately need an "information officer". (For which assignment I would readily volunteer.) First of all, the staff is French and cannot translate a lot of ideas into recognizable English sentences. There were many spelling and grammar mistakes. I borrowed a video the night before and the next morning found a note on my door to remind me to return the video by 8 pm because it was the last night of the cruise. The note further said that "I would be charged the sum of $20.00 per video at this time." I thought that I was late in returning the tape. The French woman at the reception desk looked at me quizzically when I inquired how much I owed. The note meant, that I would be charged if I failed to return the video. I pointed out to her that that was not what the note said. It went over her head and I doubt if they will ever fix the form letter.

But most importantly, information was not there when we needed it. Everyone was complaining about this. For instance, there was a shuttle bus run by the ship from the dock to the town in Raiatea. This fact was not printed anywhere or announced to anyone. If you happened to see the bus or asked someone, you found it. We found out about it when we happened to stop at the excursion desk and overhead a conversation about it. Other people took a taxi into town only to find out they could have taken a free bus. In other ports, you could use hotel facilities. Again this was not told to us in advance.

There was only one shore excursion talk, the first day. It provided only a cursory review of all the tours -- one time only. You then had to hurry up and book all your tours in order to get the ones you wanted: space was very limited on some of them. We are used to the accuracy and impeccable organization of Princess, which describes in depth each tour and also describes how to explore the ports on your own.

No one explained that there were things you could do on your own (buses, rental cars, etc.) until you received that day's sheet late the night before. I guess cruisers are used to having all information at their fingertips early so they can best plan what they would like to do.

It became an ongoing joke: ask everyone about everything or you won't know anything.

DAILY ACTIVITIES

There were very few daily activities provided on board. But there were no days "at sea" and each day became an opportunity to see a new part of paradise. There was a daily quiz, some pareau tying demonstrations, but very few activities.

Nature did an excellent job at providing the entertainment. Most people were there to inhale the breathtaking sights of the islands and to relax on deck. It's much too romantic a place for silly pool games. Honeymooners and us 25-year married couples shared quiet nighttime moments together gazing at the amazing number of stars you could see; during the day, there was the beauty of the islands and the unbelievable shades of the shallow waters. Lovers of all ages were reunited in spirit.

PORTS OF CALL

This is, of course, the main reason people take this cruise. We would have taken any cruise ship with this itinerary -- the Paul Gauguin happened to be the only one available. We did sail the islands in 1986 on American Hawaii's Liberte and always longed to return to this magical place.

General Information on Tours

A word to the wise -- ask questions about what alternatives are available for each day. Unless they have changed their information distribution, you need to ask. As I said above, there was only one initial talk, which was short and merely an overview of the tours for purchase. Tours book up quickly. There are not enough tour operators available and space is limited. You can sign up to be on standby should someone cancel.

Bring sunscreen, reef walking shoes, sandals, a tee shirt for snorkeling, lots and lots of film (it is too expensive to purchase there) and there are so many beautiful sights to photograph. Don't bring your snorkeling gear. The ship gives it to you for free for the entire week. The Moorea Beachcomber provides it in your room. You won't need slacks, except for dinner on the ship. Bring a sweater only for the ship's public areas or the airplane ride: you won't need it ashore. And remember to ask how many minutes away a destination is if you are walking. Tahitians walk everywhere and tend to relate everything as "not far."

American dollars are generally exchanged equally for Tahitian French Pacific Francs. We got a better rate at local markets using francs -- they didn't want the hassle of exchanging money at the banks. There is a currency exchange in the airport for a few francs if you arrive on your own. Otherwise you can exchange on the ship. American Express and Visa are widely accepted in the main stores and restaurants and hotels, but not at local markets or roadside shops.

Diving: The sports platform of the ship allowed for daily kayak and windsurfing and various other activities. Dive tours were organized separately for divers. Tahiti is a diver's paradise. There were organized dives on each of the islands at the best motu locations (small offshore, uninhabited islands). But even if you don't dive, the waters are so shallow and clear, all you need to is get out on a boat, any kind of boat.

RANGIROA - Tuamotu Islands - overnight

Rangiroa Lagoon

We spent the first night cruising to this atoll away from the chain of islands of French Polynesia traditionally known as "Tahiti." The Glass Bottom Boat excursion was cancelled because the weather was stirring up the waters so that it was not clear enough. Another tour was at a Black Pearl Farm.

Blue Lagoon Experience was also cancelled. We were allowed to change to the Emerald Lagoon tour. We were not too disappointed because the former would have been a 1 1/2-hour ride to the motu in a small open boat. The Emerald Lagoon was very close.

We then boarded various kinds of sailing vessels. We were assigned to an outrigger canoe, the preferred method of water transportation. After venturing in one for the 20-minute ride, we found out why: they are extremely stable, more so than the fishing boats that carried some passengers to the motu. Friendly native people greeted us, and then serenaded us on the beach. There was a thatched lean-to set up with picnic tables for getting out of the sun if you wished. Women demonstrated hat weaving and then pareo tying. Women truly do wear pareos for everyday wear.

We had the entire beach to ourselves, all 30 or so of us. The clear, warm shallow waters off shore were too tempting to resist, and soon everyone was wet. The sights truly exceeded our expectations! We also walked around the area and found some houses where people lived. We wondered if they realized how lucky we considered them to be, living there with oceanfront property. They live in the open air, no windows or doors or screens. The stove and cooking area was outdoors. The eating area or kitchen is on the porch outside the building under a covered canopy. We snorkeled all afternoon. With the clear waters, you really didn't need to snorkel to see a lot of different types of fish.

Rangiroa Beach

The second day we spent on an unspoiled beach swimming and snorkeling. This port was the best for shallow clear waters in the most remote location.

RAIATEA

Raiatea and its sister island Taha'a share the same lagoon and make up the second largest island. After tendering to the dock we enviously studied all the sailing ships harbored here. We dreamed of someday owning our own yacht and sailing here ourselves. The ship provided transportation to the town (but it was not advertised anywhere). "Le Truck" (the quaint mode of transportation throughout French Polynesia is an open-air flatbed truck with long wooden benches on which you sit sideways and watch your head as you enter) picked us up and took us for an interesting ride to town. The town is interesting in that it is not frequented by tourists, but is a shopping mecca for the residents. We walked through a hardware store, an all purpose "department" store, and a grocery store. We stopped for an ice cream cone -- you must try the vanilla -- it is made with real Tahitian vanilla and is out of this world.

Within five minutes of arriving, it started pouring rain. Remember that the ship provides umbrellas in the cabins and on the gangway as you exit the ship - we didn't. We sought shelter under a canopy as best we could and quickly took the next shuttle back to the ship, where it was sunny. This was the only rain we encountered the entire week. Unless you like talking to or observing the local people in their own environment, there is no reason to go to the town. Take a tour instead.

We did not take any tours -- we took the rest of the day to relax aboard the ship. But I would recommend the Jeep Safari. It takes you to the interior of the island among green tropical vegetation, to a sacred site and through a small vanilla plantation, then an outrigger canoe ride to the Faaroa River.

BORA BORA - overnight

The name conjures up an image of the exotic, romantic islands everyone thinks exist in the South Pacific. And they are correct. It inspired Michener's Bali Hai. The island was used as a US air base during World War II. The people still use the bunkers as shelter during storms. The ship remains here overnight, giving you two days to explore. Probably the best way to see this beautiful island is to see it from above. The helicopter tour was highly recommended. The coral reefs protect the island, and the best way to see the diversity of colors waters is to see it from above.

We did not take the Round Island Guided Jet Ski Tour, and we regretted it. It received rave reviews from everyone who took it. The waters in the lagoons are calm and clear, and it is a fun and easy ride around the entire island, which is only a few miles around. There was a stop at a motu for snorkeling. The jet skis are large and very stable.

Lagoonarium Experience is the tour we took. You take an outrigger canoe across a lagoon, past some interesting scenery to the motu. This is a family-owned enterprise on their motu. They have enclosed three different areas right off the shore, fenced in at differing depths. You can swim with the marine life they have in the different areas. There are turtles, manta rays, small sharks and many different types of fish. The guide handles the turtles and explains what you are seeing. This is an excellent way to be introduced to snorkeling. You start at one end and the current gently carries you to the other end so that you can snorkel with the fish.

Some people just wanted to swim and walk in the enclosed areas. The water is so shallow and clear that you could see most of the fish without even snorkeling. Our hosts provided entertainment and fresh coconuts. We visited the Lagoonarium twelve years ago when it was first started. It was a 10-people-at-a-time tour in a small outrigger and one fenced-in area, with no buildings. Grandpa lived or visited the motu for the tours and had one table, one chair and a plastic covered area. The sons, wives and their children now live there and operate the tours. It has now grown to several large outriggers, several buildings, a gift shop, changing rooms, covered area for picnics, and even some guest cottages. This is a must tour.

Shark and Ray Feeding also received rave reviews. The locals attract the black-tipped sharks and rays with bait. Although they consider them harmless, we were not that adventurous.

Bora Bora Jeep Safari is off-road and includes a rough ride up into the mountains. You are in an open Jeep seated sideways, which is great for viewing, but if you don't hold on tight, you tend to bounce out. We understand that tends to happen, so they installed seat belts the week before we arrived. You cannot have a bad back for this tour.

Bora Bora On Your Own

We wanted to rent a car, but had not made a reservation (Eurocar or Avis are on all the islands). The telephones do not accept coins and require a prepaid island telephone card. You can go to the post office next to the pier to pay the postal clerk for a call and she acts as a switchboard operator to place your call. We could not find a car to rent. You have to specify in Tahiti that you want a "four-door" car, what we would call a regular car. Or a "five door" car which would be a utility vehicle or car with a hatchback. Otherwise, they have this thing called a "fun car," which is a large version of a motor scooter, open except for a roll bar. It has two wheels in the front, one in the middle back, with two training wheels in case you start to tip over. You can barely fit two normal size persons in it. They provide a rather rough, noisy, smoky ride at a lighting speed of about 10 mph. We were hesitant to rent these, but could not find a four-door car to rent, so we took it. I'm glad we did, although I was worried while driving. There is not that much traffic once you leave the pier area.

A must stop is Bloody Mary's restaurant. The inside has a bar and an eating area with tables, and coconut stumps for seats. The floor is all sand. You must use the restrooms just to see them. The toilets are in an open garden setting with rattan half push doors, and the "sink" was a tiki god water fountain with a towel hanging next to it. Outside there are two large plaques with the names of all the famous people who have visited -- from famous movie stars from all eras and British royalty. You must stop for lunch or a bloody Mary. We also stopped at Club Bali Hi for a drink at their oceanfront bar.

I was very glad that we explored on our own. We stopped at different beaches and lagoons and could observe how people lived. It was interesting to see that everyone wears beach-type thongs as shoes, although some women were walking on the hot asphalt without any shoes.

If you just want to leave the ship to shop, there are shops within walking distance.

MOOREA

Moorea

I think of Moorea to French Polynesia as Maui is to the Hawaiian islands. It has more population, stores, shops, restaurants and diverse beauty of mountains and beaches than the other outlying island. But it is definitely still very remote and unspoiled. Don't get me wrong: you cannot compare Hawaii to Tahiti -- they are two entirely different groups of islands, each with their own culture, beauty and charm.

We took the Jeep Safari. Our six-passenger Jeep drove us around the island through the valleys, on some scary off-road "roads," through mud to the Rural College of Opunohu where the government grows bananas, grapefruit, and papaya. We also saw vanilla and pineapples. The guide actually stops in the middle of the plantations so you can walk right up to the plants to see how they are grown. We stopped at a "juice factory" where they distilled various liqueurs which we sampled -- coconut, pineapple, papaya, grapefruit, etc. At 50 proof, it's a good thing we were not driving! We stopped at the top of Mount Belvedere for a magnificent view over Cook's Bay where we could see the ship anchored.

Moorea Dolphin Experience

You can go the Moorea Beachcomber to swim with the dolphins or to go parasailing. I recommend this highly, even if you just want to watch. We stayed at the Beachcomber in an overwater bungalow after the cruise, and this was the highlight of our trip. The resort is the most beautiful we have ever seen, sprawled over many acres of perfect landscaping and lagoons. At the Dolphin Experience, we watched children's faces light up as they held dolphins in their arms. It was an experience to remember even if you just watch.

PAPEETE, TAHITI

The last night of the cruise we docked in Papeete at about 7 pm during dinner. Windows surround the entire dining room, and all of a sudden the curtains opened, revealing the lights of the town (the only recognizable "city" in the islands). We had the entire night to explore downtown Papeete. I recommend eating a light dinner or skipping it. Get off the ship and see the sights. Right at the bottom of the ship's gangway, in the dock parking lot, are "roulettes" -- trucks that set up into makeshift fast food restaurants. There must have been a hundred different places to try the local food. Crepes are a local favorite, as is pizza, which wasn't bad. You can also venture into town to see the night clubs, casinos and other restaurants. You can also just stand on the deck and look down at this interesting sight.

The last "tour" we took was of these "roulettes" and then the local Casino. Although a sign says you have to be a member, they have an unofficial exception for tourists. A woman opened the locked door and we entered into a smoke-filled room of all local Tahitians crammed into a small room intensely playing roulette, blackjack and poker. We could not get near a table and were definitely the only non-locals in the room. Although no one made us feel unwanted, we felt out of place and quickly left. We returned to the ship's casino and discovered that when the casino closed at midnight, the staff was headed to this casino.

I highly recommend staying on the islands pre- or post-cruise. Most of the stores in Papeete are closed on Saturday, the day the ship docks. You have to see the open marketplace where locals sell the daily catch, fresh fruit, flowers, and handmade crafts. Unlike the Caribbean where merchants grab you with a high pressure sales pitch when you walk by, the Tahitians consider this rude and do not engage in this practice. They quietly sit at their booths. They do not approach you or talk to you until you stop to ask questions. We found this very refreshing. People did not have a hand out at every turn and were genuinely friendly and helpful without expecting something in return. Nor would they accept something in return - tipping is not the practice. Americans tend to shy away from people who act friendly because we think they want something from us. The Tahitians do want something from us -- a smile, a friendly "bon jour", and to hear that we enjoy their islands. This is a trip that will provide vivid, wonderful memories for a lifetime.

DISEMBARKATION

When it was time to disembark, with so few people, there again were no lines, no numbers and no waiting stuck in lounges with your carry-on bags. No looking for bags when you disembarked.

As we walked down the gangway for the last time, a Tahitian band greeted us just as they did when we arrived. Their friendly greeting (really a farewell) brought tears to my eyes. I looked at my husband through those happy tears to say how fortunate I felt to have been able to be here to experience all this wonder and beauty -- this great cruise, the ship, the magic of the islands -- with him.

All photos except the cabin photo are courtesy of Mary Lou Zurawski.

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Mary Lou ZurawskiMary Lou is an experienced cruiser and a regular contributor to many cruise message boards on the internet.

When not cruising, Mary Lou practices law in the Chicago metropolitan area and plays the violin in the Northwest Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mary Lou can be reached for questions or comment at: mlzurawski@aol.com.

 


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