Sail on MS Paul Gauguin to Tahiti. Credit: Ponant

Paradise calling: Cruising the South Pacific

Author: Dave Monk

Published on:

Scarlet sunsets, friendly sharks and strolling along the sea-bed - just some of the highlights of a sensational cruise in the South Pacific

Tahiti is a long haul. The most direct flight from Europe is a 22-hour marathon from Paris via Los Angeles, and that’s no one’s idea of a holiday. But the moment you arrive, you know that every airborne minute was worthwhile. Those white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and tree-clad islands look more stunning in real life than in any picture you’ve ever seen.

Then, as you board the 330-guest cruise ship Paul Gauguin, the gentleman who greets you is bare-chested and traditionally tattooed – one of the small onboard group of French Polynesian singers, dancers and craftspeople known as Les Gauguins et Les Gauguines. Clearly, this will be a cruise like no other.

The ship itself is 25 years old and dedicated to its route, displaying pictures painted by the French artist after whom it was named, as well as Tahitian artefacts.

Despite its modest size, guests have a choice of three included restaurants – L’Etoile, with its daily changing menu; La Veranda for a more romantic setting, and Le Grill up top, which spills out on deck from under its covers on balmy evenings.

Wherever you eat, the food is superb – enhanced by the included wines and champagne – and we were always able to get a table for two. Our favourite drinks venue was the Piano Bar, conveniently just along the corridor from our cabin, although on fine days the Pool Bar beckoned from the open deck.

The heart of the South Pacific, Tahiti is the largest of French Polynesia's islands. Credit: Shutterstock

The first stop on our 11-night voyage around the Society and Cook archipelagos was Huahine. Like most of the islands we were to visit, it’s protected by a ring of coral and a lagoon, so even a small ship like Paul Gauguin must use tender boats to take passengers ashore.

Landing at a jetty we boarded a local bus known as Le Truck (actually a lorry with a wooden cabin on the back) for a tour of ancient places of worship called marae. Next came a visit to a vanilla farm, followed by a brief stop to feed some giant blue-eyed eels swimming in a stream.

It took a sea day to reach our next destination, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Here I boarded a fast boat out to a motu (small islet) for some snorkelling, followed by a walk along the deserted sands, basking in the vivid colours and unspoilt scenery. But even in paradise, the sun doesn’t shine every day, and our next scheduled stop at Rarotonga was cancelled due to heavy swells.

Instead, we headed back to the Society Islands and an unexpected call at Raiatea for a tour of Taputapuatea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the remains of a temple where the island’s tribal chiefs were formerly crowned.

Returning to our itinerary at Bora Bora, I went on an underwater walk, wearing a diving helmet heavy enough to keep me on the ocean floor, 10 feet below the waves, surrounded by schools of brightly coloured fish.

With the ship moored overnight, we spent the next day on another tour by Le Truck, stopping at a roadside shack where the locals were making pareos, a kind of sarong that’s hand painted and left to dry in the sun.

On such a wonderful itinerary it’s hard to pick a highlight, but our visit to the cruise line’s private island of Motu Mahana was outstanding. Here the weather was perfect as we waded in the clear waters, relaxed with coconut drinks and enjoyed a beach barbecue.

Our final call was Moorea, known as Tahiti’s little sister, where we boarded a covered boat to go dolphin and turtle spotting, with a diversion to swim with blacktip reef sharks and stingrays. Meanwhile, a more adventurous group went on a snorkelling trip to see humpback whales up close.

Bora Bora is Tahiti`s most famous island. Credit: Shutterstock.

Whatever the excursion, it was always a pleasure to return to the ship and the smiles of its mainly Filipino crew, who were always ready with a cocktail or a cup of Twinings tea. All spoke English, as well as French and their mother tongue, and the ship’s announcements were also bilingual.

From their base at the stern, the ship’s dive team were happy to supply snorkelling and scuba gear, as well as life vests, flotation devices and plenty of advice.

During the day, the Gauguins and Gauguines kept us entertained with dance classes, language lessons and bingo games. They also demonstrated how to tie pareos, make shell jewellery and create flower decorations from palm leaves.

One night, crew from all departments put on a show, entertaining the passengers with singing, dancing and even comedy.

There were visiting performers, too, including a magician and a British musical duo, while the ship’s own Santa Rosa Band and pianist Jerry led tributes to the likes of Elvis, Elton John and the Beatles. Most nights there were talks about the next call on our itinerary, with some very honest guidance on shore excursions.

But on the final evening our charming captain, Michel Quioc, led a farewell party with most of the crew on deck under a red-streaked evening sky. It sounds corny, but it wasn’t sea spray that brought a tear to my eye. This really felt like a family.

It’s astonishing to reflect, too, that hundreds of years ago people from these islands set off across thousands of miles of ocean to settle New Zealand or trade with South America. Much later, Tahiti became known as the place where rebellious sailors, led by Fletcher Christian, seized control of their ship from its captain, William Bligh.

Cruising today on Paul Gauguin is a very different experience. As pampered passengers we certainly enjoyed the bounty – but there was absolutely no danger of a mutiny.

Fast facts

  • 330 guests
  • 209 crew
  • 3 restaurants
  • 1 pool

My verdict

Great for: A taste of South Pacific paradise
Don’t miss: The chance to swim with sharks, rays and even whales
Best bar & restaurant: The Piano Bar and La Veranda restaurant were our favourites
Value for money: All food and drink – even champagne – are included in the fare, as are tips
Saving the planet: Parent group Ponant is planning an emission-free ship by 2030
Star rating: 5/5

Get onboard
An 11-night ‘Cook Islands & Society Islands’ cruise aboard Paul Gauguin, roundtrip from Tahiti via Huahine, Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Bora Bora, Motu Mahana and Moorea. Departs April 13, 2024. Prices start from £5,195 per person.

Most recent articles