Kongo went on an 11-night Paul Gauguin all-inclusive cruise to the Cook & Society Islands from October 7-18. This is a review of that cruise. If you’re considering a cruise in French Polynesia I hope you read on.
Kongo did a two-day add on at the beginning of the trip and flew out to Papeete early. Part of the tour package includes airfare from LAX to Tahiti aboard Air Tahiti Nui, a direct flight that takes about 8 hours. The first two nights were at the Intercontinental Resort in Papeete and we boarded the ship on the third day. The “four star” Intercontinental is fine. Okay. Good enough. The hotel is undergoing renovation and the monkey’s room was a bit tired, the toilet was hesitant, the amenities dated but the view was great and the included breakfast was great. Others in Kongo’s group were in updated rooms and claimed they were great. Good for them. Although the room and some of the meals are included in the price meals and drinks outside of the package would make even a New Yorker take a deep breath. A lunch buffet went for $100/person (no lobsters either) and mixed drinks start at about $17 each.
For about $5/person you can take the shuttle into town (about five miles away) and walk around. Kongo did this and suggests that you spend some time walking about Papeete. It’s well worth the visit.
Weather concerns in the Cook Island (high winds and seas) caused the Captain to change the itinerary. The actual itinerary was:
- Day 1 (Saturday): Papeete, Tahiti
- Day 2 (Sunday): Huahine, Society Islands
- Day 3 (Monday): Taha’a, Society Islands
- Day 4 (Tuesday): Bora Bora
- Day 5 (Wednesday): Bora Bora
- Day 6 (Thursday): At sea
- Day 7 (Friday): Rarotonga, Cook Islands
- Day 8 (Saturday): At Sea
- Day 9 (Sunday): At Sea**
- Day 10 (Monday): Moorea, Society Islands
- Day 11 (Tuesday): Moorea, Society Islands
- Day 12 (Wednesday): Disembark
** We were scheduled to visit Aitutaki, Cook Islands following Rarotonga but when we arrived the wind was blowing about 35 MPH with 8-foot seas which pretty much ruled out boat operations so we sailed back to the Society Islands. The two days at sea were a bumpy ride for many guests.
As you might expect, all of these islands are stunningly beautiful. Crystal clear lagoons, good diving and snorkel opportunities abound. Except for Papeete, the ship anchors out and passengers ride tenders to and from the shore. It’s pretty well organized and getting on and off the ship is easy.
The Society Islands (Tahiti, Bora Bora, Taha’a, Huahine, and Moorea) are French. People speak French and the money is the Polynesian Franc. During this trip the exchange rate is easy: one franc equals a penny. While many (but certainly not all) islanders speak some English, it is best to say bonjour, merci, etc., to get a conversation going. They will then switch to English. You could also just go with Polynesian if you prefer since everyone speaks it. The Cook Islands are part of New Zealand so they speak English, drive on the opposite side of the road, and use New Zealand dollars (1 NZD =$0.60). They speak Polynesian here too.
While the islands have much in common such as spectacular beaches, rugged mountain interiors, wonderful flowers and fruit, there are subtle differences. Bora Bora is more commercial (touristy) than say Moorea or Taha’a. Every island pretty much has one main road that circles the main landmass with rugged tracks that go into the interior. You will need to be on a 4-wheel drive vehicle if you venture much past the main ring roads.
Outside of Papeete in Tahiti there really are no towns or cities per se. There are lots of little villages and the key word here is little. There are few stores or shops once you get past the places where the boats come in. Mostly the villages are clusters of houses around a school and a few churches.
Unlike many all-inclusive cruises the monkey has taken before, the shore excursions are not included in the package price. Now given that if you go ashore without being on an excursion there really isn’t much to do, you’re pretty much forced to take an excursion. In a few stops you could probably go swimming or walk along the highway a bit but you’re not going to see any of the good stuff. The exception to this is Bora Bora where there are taxis and plenty of shops.
If you elected to stay on the ship there were some exciting ukulele lessons, wreath and lei making classes, exotic drink mixing class, and hula dancing lessons. These alone would drive Kongo to select a tour.
Kongo rode in the back of a lot of 4X4 trucks on various safari and back road adventures. It’s bumpy for sure and if you’ve got a bad back it is probably going to get worse before you get back. These cultural tours visit vanilla plantations, look at the local fruits, and you learn a lot about the Polynesian culture and how these islands came to be populated. And you will hear a lot about Captain Cook. It’s very interesting but after awhile it’s kind of like different island — same story. Some guides tell the stories better than others.
Most tours are about four hours long and bathroom stops may be few and far between and rather primitive when you get there. Plan you pre-tour meals and drinking accordingly.
All the stops had dive and snorkeling tours and at Taha’a Paul Gauguin Cruises has its own private island (called a motu) with snorkeling off the beach, along with all the food and drinks that you can handle. It’s pretty cool and a great way to spend the afternoon or all day if you don’t want another cultural tour.
Tours will add about another $1000 – 1,500 to your total cruise cost. Kongo went on three 4X4 cultural tours, a catamaran sail, a couple of Le Truck island tours, and a photo tour. You can sign up for the tours several weeks before the cruise starts and can cancel up to the night before without incurring any additional cost. The photo tour, with only eight participants, was Kongo’s overall favorite tour.
Aboard the Ship
Since you’re going to be spending eleven nights and at least some periods of two to three days at sea without stopping you want to know that you’ve got plenty of things to do. Fortunately, the Paul Gaugin doesn’t disappoint. There’s a great spa/salon on board. Kongo had an hour long “Oriental” massage which was heavenly and pretty much took care of a stiff neck from the flight over. There’s a good sized gym, pool, casino, movies on the entertainment system, onboard shopping, library, board games, computer/internet room, lectures, shows, and several bars. And you can eat pretty much any time you want with 24/7 room service. All this is included (except of course the casino).
And you can always just lay on deck and watch the ocean roll by, read a book, or take a nap. Kongo particularly likes his naps.
It’s easy to get around on board. There are plenty of elevators to take you from deck to deck or you can take the stairways. Getting on and off the ship was via an accommodation ladder from the loading deck to the tender.
Overall the ship is in great shape and well maintained. The decor is getting a little tired and Mrs. Kongo felt it was time for an upgrade and she thought the color scheme dated but everything worked (except for that one six hour period when all the heads were down — not fun), it was very clean, and was generally very nice.
Kongo had a balcony stateroom on the 7th deck. It was a great location with plenty of room for the monkey and Mrs. Kongo’s shoes. This cabin had two wardrobes, a bath with a shower/tub combination, TV, safe, refrigerator, a small table, a balcony with a table and two chairs, and all the suitcases fit nicely under the bed. There is one 129 V “USA” type plug and two or three 220V European plugs that require a converter.
Food and Drink
This was an “all inclusive” cruise that included all the food you could stuff into your mouth and all the drinks you could guzzle. Best of all, the food was excellent. Kongo has been on several cruises and without doubt this was the best food overall. That’s not to say that every meal was over-the-top oh-la-la but there was wasn’t a bad meal in the bunch and they were generally excellent. The dinner menus had a lot of fresh fish, which was what the monkey was hoping for, and it was prepared superbly. Appetizers, desserts, entrees, and even the bread dishes were varied, thoughtful, and well presented.
Two restaurants required reservations for the evening meals and these had a different (but equally excellent) menu than the main dining room. Breakfasts were great as well as were the themed lunches. If you weren’t into Indian food, for example, (one of the lunch themes) you could always order up a burger and fries or fresh fish. There was plenty of fresh tropical fruit on the buffet.
There are several bars on board. Kongo’s favorite was the Piano Bar which had a piano player who played your favorite tunes. After dinner, Kongo would go up to aft end of the ship on the 8th deck and have an after dinner drink and count stars.
Hotel staff cleaned your room and left fresh towels twice daily. Everyone is pleasant, fast, and efficient. The staff are excellent, show great pride in their work, and seem genuinely happy to serve you. The super staff more than made up for the decor that was just starting to age.
Tipping is not necessary as it is included in your package price.
Most passengers were American. There was a large contingent of Canadians, a handful of British and Australians, a few Germans, a couple from Japan, and one guy from Tahiti! The ages ranged from mid-to late 30s to 80s. In general this was a very well travelled group that had cruised a lot before, been to many places overseas, and were easy to get along with. There were many onboard who had cruised with Paul Gauguin before and one couple that were on their 13th cruise around the islands! Seriously. They liked it a lot.
The package tour includes roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles. Paul Gauguin representatives are at the airport in Los Angeles to welcome you to the trip and make sure you don’t have any boarding problems. This was a nice touch. The airline is Air Tahiti Nui and Kongo suspects that at least 75% of the flight was on the cruise. Indeed, the airline schedules are tied to the cruise departures so don’t worry if your connecting flight from somewhere else is late, they are going to wait for you. This happened with Kongo’s flight out which left nearly two hours late because it waited for connecting passengers.
The bad thing about taking the package deal is that it was incredibly expensive to upgrade your flight. Going from the main cabin to the front of the plane cost about $4000/person and since Mrs. Kongo wouldn’t be left alone in the back, you would be spending about half the cruise cost just in air fare. You have to make choices. The monkey wishes he had known this earlier because it’s been awhile since he sat for so long in an economy seat and his monkey butt was feeling it by the time he landed in Tahiti. In flight meals were what you might expect in economy.
The Paul Gauguin group takes care of your bags after you clear customs (which is a breeze in Tahiti) and the next time you see them they’re either at your hotel room or in your cabin, depending whether or not you elected for an early arrival.
Flights back to LAX leave at midnight so your last day is a long, long day. Kongo got a “day room” at the Tahiti Pearl Beach Hotel & Resort to relax at before heading to the airport.
Kongo gives this trip 4.5 out of 5 bananas. But since these are the sweet little banana that you can only get in Polynesia, that’s a pretty good overall rating. The big drawback was not being able to go ashore at Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Sure the weather was bad but Kongo feels the ship should have been able to figure this out and make a diversion. Kongo later learned that the ships can only get into Aitutaki less than 50% of the time so he’s wondering “WHAT THE …” but since he doesn’t know this as an ABSOLUTE fact he doesn’t want to chew into any fake news.
Another downside was onboard internet. Satellite internet was available at a pretty steep cost ($80 for 400 minutes) and was painfully slow. I get the slow part. It’s internet via a shared connection and everybody wants to post something or read their Email but paying for a slow connection is just not something the monkey enjoys. At all.
Pretty much anything goes during daytime. Swim suits are frowned upon in dining areas but okay around the pool grille. After 6 PM it’s pretty much “country club casual” which for Kongo is slacks, a Polo shirt, and nicer shoes without socks. Mrs. Kongo wore all eight pair of shoes that she brought and always looked ravishing. A few guys wore sport jackets the first evening but Kongo never saw them after that.
Shipboard entertainment included island themed productions, an amazing mentalist, several lectures from Polynesian scholars, and an occasional movie like “Mutiny on the Bounty.” (Of Course!)
Would Kongo Go Again?
Probably not. But that’s not because he didn’t enjoy the cruise. There are just too many other places the monkey is itching to see and life is too short.
If you’ve always dreamed of a romantic South Pacific trip Kongo thinks this cruise line is they way to go. There were some larger ships going about but they couldn’t fit into all the spots the Paul Gauguin can and there were just too, too many people aboard.
Travel Safe. Have fun!