Ia Orana

Exploring Tahiti and The Society Islands

First and third photos by Ethan Chung; second photo courtesy Paul Gauguin Cruises

My recent trip on the MS Paul Gauguin took me to Tahiti and The Society Islands for seven nights. Stops included the islands of Tahiti, Taha’a, Raiatea, Bora Bora and Moorea. Your shore excursions are really the only extra expenses that you’ll be paying for on your cruise, aside from souvenirs, dining off the ship or spa treatments. Paul Gauguin Cruises recommends you book your excursions in advance because they tend to fill up quickly. You can always make additions to your excursion itinerary while onboard the ship. Most excursions average about $90. Note, all currency on board is in the American dollar. Anything off-board, for small souvenirs or snacks, will be paid for with Polynesian francs. However, aside from the occasional mom-and-pop traditional craft stand, most places accept credit cards.

tahiti_IMG_2935Each island has different sights to see. Taha’a is well-known for its vanilla; Raiatea for its black pearl farms. Bora Bora has some incredible beaches and resort attractions. Moorea is famous for its mountain landscape, specifically Moua Roa (or, Bali Hai in the musical “South Pacific”). And Tahiti is where Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is located. It’s a bustling city compared to the sedate life on the outer islands, and I was pleasantly surprised by the farmers market I discovered on Saturday upon disembarkation.

One special stop you will not want to miss is the day you have access to Motu Mahana, the MS Paul Gauguin’s private island. A little tender boat takes large groups from the cruise to and from the island, which is probably the size of three or four football fields. Guests are treated to a barbecue lunch with all the fixings, beach access, excellent snorkeling and cultural activities such as coconut peeling and basket weaving. There’s even a floating bar. Be sure to check the ship schedule before you book your excursions and make sure you block out some time to experience Motu Mahana.

One of my most memorable excursions was to the Anapa Pearl Farm on Raiatea. A representative from the pearl farm takes you on a small boat out a few hundred yards off shore to a little hut in the middle of the ocean. The hut is situated on a coral bed, and the view from three sides of the hut are of water shallow enough to see tropical fish swimming around. The fourth side of the hut looks out into cold, deep-blue ocean and buoys bobbing just under the surface, each one holding onto strings of oysters.

Summer Rotu, a San Diego native who manages Anapa Pearl Farm, talks with guests about the black pearl grafting process while a pearl grafter demonstrates his delicate work. The growing process is slow and arduous, and the extraction requires knowledge and precision, and so it’s no wonder the product fetches high prices. If you’re hunting for the perfect souvenir, do chat with an expert either at a pearl farm or at the boutique on board the ship. You can buy black pearls from small stands at many different spots throughout your trip, but buyer beware — black pearls come in many different shapes and grades. If the price seems too good to be true, you might be buying a low-quality pearl. Do your research and find out what it is you’re looking for before you purchase.

tahiti_H_BoraThalasso_6418smAnother highlight was a “day at the beach” excursion to the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa. Seems like a strange choice, since I was already staying on a floating hotel. This excursion did not disappoint. The impeccable property offers world-class bungalows, all with 180-degree ocean views and ridiculous amenities like glass-topped coffee tables that slide open so you can feed the fish. The spa is a one-of-a-kind experience, using deep ocean water in many of its therapies. The resort also offers access to beach toys like stand-up paddle boards, canoes and kayaks, cultural activities and a fun and safe “feed the stingrays” session. Also, it sounds silly given your proximity to warm tropical water, but the infinity pool is not to be missed.

While at port on Bora Bora, consider an evening trip to a Bloody Mary’s, a local fish house restaurant. The food is excellent on board, but many guests who have made the trip rave about this restaurant. It’s sort of kitschy, bordering on gaudy (sand-covered floors, coconut stumps for chairs), but has plenty of celebrity appeal (a whole wall is dedicated to the celebrities who have visited). You have to make a reservation with the travel concierge onboard, and they will set up a taxi to take you to the restaurant, which is about a 10-minute drive away. Once there, you check in and make your way to a counter where a manager explains the night’s fresh-fish choices, plus other proteins such as beef, pork ribs and chicken. But I was there for fish. I ordered meka, a type of broad-billed swordfish only found in the South Pacific at extremely deep waters. The freshness was without compare and the meal was a highlight of my trip.

tahiti_IMG_2939I had expected all my enjoyment from the Paul Gauguin cruise to come from water-based activities, but my final excursion on Moorea was the Aito Off-Road Safari, a land-based adventure that takes you through the lush landscape of the island. The tour lasted about three hours, and included a stop at an agricultural school where you could purchase fresh juices and jams made by local students. We also got up-close looks at Moua Roa, the epic jagged mountain that looks like a shark’s tooth, and even made a stop at a local distiller where we could purchase Tahitian rum and something called Tahiti Drink, a delicious concoction of rum and local juices packaged in a milk carton.

One element that stood out for me with the Paul Gauguin cruise was the variety of excursions. At the end of my trip, I had done and seen so much, but felt like I’d missed out on plenty. I don’t doubt I could go back next year, book the same week-long cruise, but have a totally different experience. In fact, the staff told me that a couple had taken the cruise to celebrate their anniversary the week before I was there, but loved it so much, they booked another week and picked different excursions to fill the second leg of their cruise. That’s a testament to the variety, service and overall feeling of luxury of Paul Gauguin, all reasons to experience the cruise line for the first time, or again.

Click below for the story, plus web-exclusive bonus interviews with captain and chef!

The ShipCaptain ToniChef Paul Ellistahiti_bonus

is a contributor to 425 magazine.
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