Thirty years ago, a 21-year-old boy from North Carolina ventured all the way to Los Angeles and hopped a flight to Tahiti. What possessed him to pursue such a notion? Coconuts. I know, because that boy was me. Months before my journey, I had seen a photograph of one of the Tahitian isles — a island characterized by verdant volcanic peaks shrouded in wispy clouds, ocean as blue as Windex and thick groves of coconut palms. I wanted to be there, among the coconut groves, and so I charted a course for this picture-perfect paradise.
I was not alone in falling under the spell of Tahiti. Since the first sailing ships from Europe dropped anchor among French Polynesia’s lagoons and coral atolls, the magical islands have symbolized romance and natural beauty. The descriptions the first Europeans sent home planted the seed for a romantic image of French Polynesia that endures to this day.
That image would not have survived, however, if Tahiti were not such a special place. For Americans and other westerners, a visit to Tahiti and her islands is something like stumbling into a Paul Gauguin painting. The former Paris stock-broker who became one of history’s most renowned artists spent his last years — and did some of his best work — in Tahiti.
Nowadays, a luxury cruise ship bears the artist’s name. The Paul Gauguin, operated by Regent Seven Seas Cruises, was designed specifically for sailing French Polynesia year-round.
The luxury vessel offers an extension of the informal, relaxing environment of the islands, but always with Regent’s superior service and comfort. The vessel’s beloved troupe of Gauguines — part cruise staff, part entertainers, part storytellers — add the unique personality of French Polynesia to every cruise. Life on board is laid back, casual, and pampering, from the bottles of water provided prior to shore trips to complimentary wine or beer pours at lunch and dinner.
The Paul Gauguin, which boasts spacious suites and staterooms, more than half with private balconies, a watersports marina, a choice of three open-seating dining venues and an extensive spa, offers roundtrips from Papeete of varying lengths year-round. Even the shortest of these itineraries, seven nights, includes two days in Moorea and another overnight at Bora Bora.
The ship is a floating tribute to the culture-rich region. Photos of ancient Tahiti line the interior walls while “Fare Tahiti,” a mini museum, holds exhibits of manuscripts and finely carved Polynesian artifacts.
Travelers have several other choices for cruises that focus on Tahiti, including Princess Cruises’ Pacific Princess and the new Silversea expedition vessel, Prince Albert II.
Princess provides a leisurely 10-day itinerary that starts and ends in Papeete, the Tahitian capital where the ship spends two days and two nights. While in Papeete, guests can make excursions to Moorea, where they’ll see a clear turquoise lagoon on their way to a private motu (or islet) where Princess hosts a South Pacific party with music. This truly incredible spot is a perfect picture of a “South Seas” paradise. There, you can swim, snorkel or join a local guide as he attracts a school of stingrays into shallow water for you to hand feed.
An intimate ship for a major cruise line like Princess, the Pacific Princess hosts just 670 guests, providing an uncommon sense of space on board. The Pacific Princess itinerary includes only two days at sea while providing access to five other Polynesian ports so that visitors get a full taste of the region.
Silversea’s Prince Albert II
Another option for the luxury traveler is the Prince Albert II, a purpose-built expedition ship that Silversea uses to access remote destinations. With capacity for 132 guests, the Prince Albert II can access shallow harbors and inlets with her eight Zodiac boats for a truly up-close-and-personal look at the Polynesian islands. On board, Silversea always delivers a luxury experience that’s among the best at sea.
This coming spring and summer, the Silversea ship will offer a variety of roundtrips from Papeete, the shortest being 10 nights. These itineraries spend less time in Bora Bora and Papeete in favor of extended visits to the smaller, more remote islets and archipelagos. The unique voyages will allow travelers to discover the unknown beauties and treasures of all five archipelagoes that make up French Polynesia.
Ships still provide the best overall exposure to Tahiti and her isles, just as they did back when the first Europeans stumbled into this lost Eden. And modern-day travelers to Tahiti no doubt feel what I felt when I stepped off the plane. Paradise, found.