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French Poly Dancers * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Paul Gauguin Cruises operates a lovely ship built for the South Pacific’s tropical aqua-blue waters, and its long-serving crew, proudly hailing from French Polynesia, are happy to share their local knowledge and enthusiasm.

Snapshot: The ship, named after the French Impressionist painter who lived in Tahiti in the late 19th century and brought to the world images of French Polynesia and their culture, plies the South Seas year-round. Owned by Pacific Beachcomber, a French Polynesian resort hotel firm, the ship has resided in these waters longer than any other, so it has become an integral part of the island scene. In August 2019, Ponant, the French small ship cruise line, announced that it had bought Paul Gauguin  Cruises and will continue to operate the ship under both its familiar name and banner. Three months later, Ponant announced the orders for two 230-passenger expedition ships for Paul Gauguin Cruises for delivery in 2022. One major innovation will be the ability to shut down the engines at day’s end for up to ten hours, and, therefore, cease all emissions.

Paul Gauguin Cruises

Paul Gauguin. * Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: PAUL GAUGUIN, built 1998, 332 passengers (ever so slightly above our 300 max. but also a more than worthwhile exceptional exception)

Passenger Decks: 7 passenger decks are numbered from 3 (lowest) to 9 (highest). Elevators, forward and aft, connect all decks but 9, the Sun Deck; and the aft set do not serve 3.

Passenger Profile: Americans, lots of French (as ship sails largely in French Polynesia), other Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders, generally 45 and up. It’s popular with honeymooners and during school breaks, also families. Younger travelers often prefer an island resort. Every cruise is bilingual English/French, and their website lists all the languages catered for.

Price: $$-$$$ Expensive

Itineraries: Cruises (many different variations) last 7 and 10 to 14 days. However, the most frequent are the 7-day circuits that take in Tahiti and the Society Islands calling at Huahine, Bora Bora and Moorea. The ship tends to anchor rather than dock and that allows changing views from the ship as it rhythmically swings in an arc of about 120 degrees. Some itineraries add Tahiti Iti, the seldom-visited other island that makes up Tahiti. Additional itineraries with more sea time add either the Tuamotus, Cook Islands, Marquesas or occasionally Fiji and Tonga.

Bore, Bora, French Polynesia.

Bora Bora, French Polynesia. * Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Included features: For Americans, roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles (unless otherwise stated), and for everyone, all non-alcoholic and alcoholic (beer and select wines and spirits) beverages throughout the ship; cabin fridge stocked with soft drinks, beer and bottled water; and all tips to crew (some like to tip extra). There’s complimentary access to retreats on Taha’a and Bora Bora when the ship calls there.

Why Go? It’s cruising in paradise, especially for those who love tropical climates and stunningly beautiful seascapes, lush landscapes that rise from the blue waters, gorgeous white-sand beaches, quiet lagoons for out-of-this-world snorkeling, diving trips, and lots of watersports to try out from the ship’s stern marina or during a day ashore.

When to Go? The summer months are hot and humid with afternoon downpours, but being near and on the water softens the heat factor. The driest months are June to August. Families come during the school holidays.

Cabins: Arranged in eight categories, cabins vary from relatively spacious suites down to windowed and twin porthole units. 70% have private balconies and as the ship is often peacefully at anchor, they see considerable use. There is a generous display of woods for the cabinetry and accenting. Many have tub baths for relaxing after an active day ashore or watersports from the stern marina.

Paul Gauguin Cruises

Veranda Suite 358 sq. ft. * Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Public Rooms: Le Grand Salon acts as the theater and lecture hall; La Palette and its bar face over the stern; Bar de Soleil serves the highest Deck 9; Piano Bar is intimate; and the Captain’s Reception Lounge is located just aft of the bridge. Additional spaces are a small casino, La Boutique, Spa and Fitness Center, and Fare Tahiti, a Polynesian art gallery with Gauguin drawings, photographs, and ceremonial items.

Dining: Cuisine reflects both French menus and ingredients and Polynesian with its locally available fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. The formal dining room, L’etoile, with views aft on Deck 6 offers a French menu for dinner only, with reservations. La Veranda, with 180-degree views located aft on Deck 6 serves buffet breakfast and lunch and dinner by reservation at night. Le Grill outside and aft of the swimming pool on 8 serves buffet breakfast, lunch, and an elaborate afternoon tea and Polynesian dinner by reservation. There are no extra charges for any of the restaurants, and wines are complimentary.

Activities & Entertainment: Watersports are based at the stern marina for scuba diving excursions, kayaks, wind surfers, paddle boards  and snorkeling — the gear is also often offered from the beach as well. Enjoy onboard special interest lecturers in history, nature, Polynesian culture, and storytelling, and also live music and performances from the on-board entertainment troupe known as Gauguins & Gauguines. Spend a day on the line’s private islet Motu Mahana with watersports, snorkeling gear, barbecue and bar service.

The dancers of French Polynesia are mesmerizing and so is the backdrop. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The dancers of French Polynesia are mesmerizing and so is the backdrop. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Shore excursions may be a day at a beautiful beach with a barbecue or by the pool at one of the owner’s Intercontinental Hotels, on Bora Bora or Moorea; bumpy off-road safaris to visit a pineapple plantation and archeological ruins, driving through forests and past pink and red ginger, white gardenia, red hibiscus and tiare, the red flower the Polynesians wear over their ear, and finally upward to scenic viewpoints; Aquabike underwater scooter for two to view undersea life such as reef sharks and stingrays; ATV excursions; and snorkeling and diving outings. Some trips are quite expensive.

Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Tuamotus, French Polynesia. * Photo: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Special Notes: Be sure to bring insect repellent with DEET.

Along the Same Lines: Windstar Cruises operates WIND SPIRIT (148 p) year-round in French Polynesia; Captain Cook Cruises and Blue Lagoon Cruises both use much smaller ships to sail amongst the Fijian Islands.

Contact: North Americans, contact Paul Gauguin Cruise at 11100 Main Street, Ste 300, Bellevue, WA 98004; 800-848-6172. EU contact: Beachcombers Croisieres Limited, 3rd Floor Ulysses House, Foley Street, Dublin 1 Ireland; +1 (425) 440-6171; www.pgcruises.com.

TWS

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Tahiti silver discoverer

By Art Sbarsky.

The Silver Discoverer cruise I took was titled “Peaks and Atolls of French Polynesia” and the 10-night voyage roundtrip from Papeete, Tahiti, was a perfect example of the far-out, off-the-beaten-path experience you get on a Silversea Expeditions trip.

Art Sbarsky Tahiti arieal sea

Tahiti from above. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

The names of places we visited on this cruise don’t fall trippingly off the tongue: Ahe, Rangiroa, Hanavave, Puamau, Tahanea, Fakarava and more. None of them would be considered prime cruising destinations, but that was part of the fascination and excitement of being in this area. They’re all part of the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands located northeast of Tahiti. Adding to the remote and undeveloped nature of the voyage is the fact that we never docked anywhere; we took zodiacs (high-quality solid-riding ones) to get from the ship to either a snorkeling/diving site or to the small villages ashore. When you see pictures of the gorgeous South Pacific water or the amazingly green volcanic mountains in the region, these are the places you see.

Tahiti silver discoverer

The Silver Discoverer in remote French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

An expedition cruise is the same as a regular cruise in that it goes places, feeds it guests, pampers them, gives them a very comfortable place to stay, and makes the entire operation seamless. But the whole vibe, especially when going to the far-flung places reached by Silversea Expeditions, is different; just reading the massive brochure creates interest in so many places for true travelers, not just tourists. People I spoke with on board from places like Seattle and Lake Arrowhead, CA, as well as various folks from the UK and Australia, had an affinity towards expedition cruises that makes them quite loyal to this type of cruising. There were lots of 60+ guests on board, and a good number went back and forth between Silversea’s smaller ships and their larger ships. The level of repeat guests to the brand was quite high, regardless of where and how they traveled. The largest percentage of guests came from the United States at about 21% with slightly lower numbers from Australia/New Zealand and the UK. Most of the rest were from Europe, making for a nice mix of accents on board. Because of the sufficient numbers from Germany, special lectures and slide/video presentations were set up for them.

The Silver Discoverer, the ex-Clipper Odyssey (Clipper Cruise Line/Intrav) taken over and refurbished by Silversea Cruises in May 2014, carries 120 when full and with its 5,218 tonnage, the space ratio is a comfy 43; not as spacious as the regular Silversea ships, but it never felt crowded. With 101 crewmembers, service was exceptional. Bar and wait staff got to know everyone quite quickly and service became personalized to an impressive degree.

A Veranda suite. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

A Veranda suite. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

The superb 15-member expedition team was responsible for snorkel and dive guidance, driving the zodiacs, handling logistics, conducting lectures and video presentations, and running everything else that went into making the local stops easy to enjoy. They really got to know individual guests and made beginner snorkelers (such as me) and experienced divers all capable of enjoying the marine life. And this is important because a major reason to go to a place like French Polynesia, where the waters are so clear, is to see and experience the abundant fish life and coral.

Off to explore a remote spot via Zodiac. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Off to explore a remote spot via Zodiac. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Here’s a typical wonderful day in the Marquesas Islands:

Breakfast was served in the Discoverer Lounge from 6:30 – 8:30am. It was a lovely buffet and there were specialty items cooked to order for guests sitting inside or outside at the aft pool deck dining/drinking location. Then it was a visit to the Tahanea Atoll, part of the Tuamoto Archipelago. It’s only about 28 miles in length with a maximum width of 9 miles and we stopped inside the atoll itself. A snorkeling platform was set up and the colors were simply amazing and the fish life and coral fascinating.

Excellent snorkeling and diving are big reason to visit French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Excellent snorkeling and diving are a big reason to visit French Polynesia. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

After a morning of water adventures the ship left and headed toward the Motutunga Atoll, even smaller than Tahanea. On the way, of course, we had lunch, one of many great buffets with a set menu as well. We had to zodiac to the snorkeling platform because there were no entries large enough for the ship to get inside the atoll ring itself. Hard to believe, but here the ship’s crew brought ashore beverages, snacks and even ice cream for a sunset cocktail celebration at the end of the day. We sailed for Fakarava at about 6pm. Dinner of course followed on board with guests enjoying terrific cuisine in the main dining room; menus were more than sufficient, but the staff was also flexible when guests wanted something as simple as an unlisted pasta dish — if they had it on board, they cooked it. Hot Rocks was another option, a truly fun outside dining experience where guests mostly cook their own steaks, shrimp and more. After dinner, it was quiet music in the lounge, conversation, strolling the decks and enjoying the weather/stars or, in most cases, making it an early evening to get ready for the next day’s outings.

Normally, in the early evening, there was a talk by members of the expedition team about what we had seen that day and what to expect tomorrow. This was a very knowledgeable group of guides, catering to all skill levels and making it easy to enjoy the experience. Virtually every place we went ashore where there was a village, locals entertained us with music, song and dance. The welcomes were warm and friendly and the villages interesting. In at least one case, there was an opportunity to choose from many kinds of hiking, from relatively simple strolling and birdwatching to some extremely strenuous hikes. I chose the middle walk to a waterfall. Didn’t quite make it all the way, but the pictures looked great.

Friendly locals perform folk dances and demonstrate their arts and crafts. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Snorkeling equipment is supplied on board for everyone, but many guests seemed to bring their own. Lifejackets, mandatory for all zodiac rides, aren’t the normal clunky type on big ships; they aren’t lightweight, but they are compact and give guests a real feeling of safety should the need arise. Happily, it didn’t.

On a cruise aboard a ship like the Silver Discoverer, guests need to realize what an expedition cruise is all about. For example, traditional evening entertainment and casinos don’t exist on board such a small ship as Silver Discoverer. Two nights, however, the evenings were particularly enjoyable with a great BBQ on deck about halfway through the cruise and then a crew show scheduled nicely on Halloween night. Both evenings were among the very best I have ever experienced at sea.

And now that the line has converted one of its smaller ships, Silver Cloud, to expedition cruising, there are four Silversea expedition ships to offer up an even wider and more exciting range of places to go all over the world. Perfect for guests who want to steer clear of ordinary cruise destinations.

Click here to read more about Silversea Expeditions.

Gorgeousness at every turn. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

Gorgeousness at every turn. * Photo: Art Sbarsky

 

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Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos affords views of marine iguanas

Celebrity Xpedition

By Jai Vir (age 11).

What do you think about when you hear the name Galápagos? I think about the most beautiful, extraordinary islands in which evolution was first theorized, and also where I spent a very enjoyable vacation. When you first arrive, on the island of either Baltra or San Cristóbal, you will step out onto the tarmac of a barren, desolate landscape.

What you don’t realize is that many of the best parts of this volcanic archipelago are underwater, such as sharks, seals, sea lions and fish, brought by the cold Humboldt Current. If you are lucky, you might even be able to spy a Hawaiian Sunfish leisurely drifting through the ocean.

small ship cruises to the Galapagos

Check out this turtle gliding through the sea! * Photo: Celebrity Cruises

One night, while I was walking through the ship and exploring its numerous staircases and hallways, I was curious as I saw two seals jump aboard the back of our ship, the Celebrity Xpedition. Then I looked closer, amazed at what I saw. I could not believe my eyes. There was a school of about twenty 10-foot sharks just swimming, right behind our ship.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A few days after during a snorkeling expedition, we saw a shark, many sea turtles, beautiful fish, and a few sea lions that frolicked in the surf.

An adorable sea lion. * Photo: Jai Vir

On the down side, when on an excursion to the island of Fernandina, my family grew sick of seeing every possible iguana (dead or alive) in the Galápagos. There were mountains of them, just basking in the sun, like you could step on them. Others were swimming, and others still were nothing but carcasses slowly rotting away while a heavy flesh-like smell hung in the salty sea air.

My favorite island was one which I don’t know the name of. We were not allowed to go ashore because of high waves, but we went for a little cruise in zodiacs around some mangrove islands in close proximity to the main island. I saw sharks, sea lions, turtles, stingrays, and many birds while on the mini-island excursion.

Galapagos turtles are BIG! * Photo: Jai Vir

I also loved the island of Floreana, because there were flamingos and stingrays. My favorite animal has to be the nazca booby. I managed to capture a photo of two nazca boobies doing a mating dance in which the male hopped on the female’s back! It was hilarious. Our stay on the cruise was fantastic. There were fun activities such as crosswords, fantastic food like ceviche (mixed seafood), and many excursions.

The nazca boobies have interesting mating rituals. * Photo: Jai Vir

The one thing that was not appealing to me was not having a big boat. Even though the Celebrity Xpedition is the biggest boat allowed in Galápagos, there was still a fair amount of rocking in harmony with the waves. At least nobody threw up! (Except for my sister.)

Otherwise, the Galápagos islands make for a truly beautiful getaway fit for children and adults.

The sleek Celebrity Xpedition is the largest ship in the Galapagos. * Photo: Celebrity Cruises

QuirkyCruise Review

Fond Memories of Lava, Iguanas, Sharks & Sea Lions

by Kimaya (age 8).

For a school essay, Jai Vir’s sister Kimaya describes her favorite memories of the Galapagos cruise.

small ships cruises to the galapagos

School essay about Galapagos cruise, page 1

small ship cruises in the galapagos

School essay about Galapagos cruise, page 2

 

Jai Vir and Kimaya are from California and have done some pretty cool trips with their family.

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QuirkyCruise reader review
Reviewer

Mala from the USA.

Cruise Line

Celebrity Cruises.

Ship

Celebrity Xpedition.

Destination

The Galapagos Islands.

# of Nights

7.

Departure Date & Ports

February 7, 2016, round-trip from Balta Island, Galapagos.

OVERALL RATING

4 out of 5 stars      (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

Have you been on a small ship cruise before?

This was my first.

Review

A ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience.

Be prepared for a very different cruise experience. Most of the islands are very rugged and uninhabited. The only way to visit them is via rubber Zodiac rafts. Some landings were “dry” where we could step directly onto the lava rocks. Others were wet where we jumped into the surf at a beach. The contrast between the remoteness of the islands and the luxury of the ship was quite striking.

The most interesting thing about the animals in the Galapagos is how tame they are. Not having lived around humans or other predators, they will allow you to get within touching distance. Of course you also get a tremendous appreciation of the power of evolution by observing iguanas that have learned to swim and live off underwater algae or cormorants that have lost the power of flight.

The naturalists were very knowledgeable and we were given a good briefing about each island prior to visiting it. We really liked these presentations as they helped us look out for various highlights and helped identify the flora and fauna. There were daily hikes which enabled us to appreciate the variety and differences between the islands.

We traveled as a family of 4 (kids ages 8 & 10) and were the only family with kids. Most people were retired, and the average age was probably 60+. I believe there are more children June-Aug. If someone is traveling with kids, it would be a good idea to plan it with family or friends.

The suites have a 3-person maximum occupancy, so a family of 4 would need to get two cabins or suites. You also need to book well in advance. Our suites were spacious for such a small ship and well maintained.

The staff was mostly friendly and worked hard to please, but the cruise is geared more for adolescents and up rather than pre-teens.

The sunset dinners out on the deck were spectacular and we were able to enjoy several such evenings.

We did miss the Galapagos Waved Albatross as the season wasn’t right, but we saw all the other species of flora and fauna which was spectacular.

One of the most amazing experiences came one night post dinner when our kids noticed a couple of sea lions jump on board. It turned out there were about a dozen Galapagos sharks trailing the boat and the sea lions probably came aboard to get away from the sharks!

See more QuirkyCruise Reader Reviews here, honest feedback from real passengers!!

 

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Indonesian Archipelago Cruising

By Heidi Sarna.

Indonesian archipelago cruising is a great way to get away from it all. Literally. I’ve been to Bali and Borobudur, but the rest of Indonesia was largely a mystery to me until I discovered a small off-the-radar outfit called Seatrek Sailing Adventure  who has been quietly tootling around the far-corners of the Indonesian archipelago for 25 years. The two-ship company focuses mostly on the eastern islands, but in April, an old school friend and I signed up for a weeklong trip on a new exploratory route along the northern coasts of Java and Sumatra. The 16-passenger 108-foot Katharina, built in the style of an old Indonesian “Phinisi (or Bugis) Schooner,” was home base for our adventure. Though our one-off voyage is not on the schedule going forward, it was a good taste of the unconventional SeaTreak experience.

Sailing ships in Indonesia

The Bugis schooner Katharina takes the adventurous back in time. * Photo: Seatrek Sailing Adventures

Go With the Flow

Though most Seatrek journeys start in the Indonesian islands of Bali, Flores, Maluku, Sulawesi or West Papua, ours began in the industrial port of Semarang, Java, next to a loud flourmill. Our charming old-timey schooner looked like a prop in a pirate film, though Kartharina is only 15 years old and Jack Sparrow was nowhere in sight. A helpful crew of Indonesian sailors were on hand to help us take a big step over the chunky railing and steady ourselves on the dramatically sheered (curved) ironwood deck. A thick wooden dining table protected from the sun and rain by a tarp was positioned between the two masts and it would be our eating and hang out spot all week. The compact cabins, with bunk beds, a slim armoire and a bathroom with a shower nozzle above the toilet, were down a steep set of steps and meant for sleeping and not much else. The life of a ship like Katharina, after all, is up top on the open decks, where, for one thing, lectures were held.

The top deck is the ship's hub. * Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

The top deck is the ship’s hub. * Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

In the past few years, Seatrek has started offering a handful of expert-led cruises every year, including the popular “Wallace Cruise” through Indonesia’s eastern Raja Ampat Islands. Led by Dr. Tony Whitten, a Cambridge educated conservationist, author and Indonesia expert, the route follows in the footsteps of the great British naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace and it was recently named one of National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime.”

My April voyage offered a humbler version of the Wallace cruise, with National Geographic magazine writer and guest expert Simon Worrall speaking about the ancient Maritime Silk Route. Worrall spoke with the flair of a thespian, at times putting on accents and asking us to close our eyes, to help us imagine what it might have been like sailing on an Arab dhow in these waters 1,000 years ago carrying cargo between China and the Middle East. He focused his talks on the famous ninth-century Belitung shipwreck discovered some 15 years ago close to where we were sailing with most of its Tang Dynasty ceramic, gold and silver cargo in tact. The Singapore government now owns the collection.

Down Time

A Seatrek cruise is hardly an all-cerebral affair, though, mostly it’s a lot of hanging out, soaking up the passing scenery and jumping over board. Two bouts of snorkeling in the middle of nowhere had us climbing into Katharina’s two small skiffs to zip over to a coral reef to snorkel above schools of neon-bright topical fish, moray eels, sea turtles, and crazy clusters of brain, lettuce and elkhorn coral.

When we weren’t off the boat snorkeling or exploring on shore, we were left to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t involve electronic devices (Katharina has no TVs and often no satellite signal for phones and the Internet). One spry English grandmother shared her watercolor supplies and led impromptu sunset painting sessions. Another passenger set up a slideshow of the photos he had taken so far, while others napped, read and sipped cans of the local Indonesian Bintang beer. One afternoon at anchor with no land in sight some of us dove off the rails and swam around the ship reveling in our freedom. We watched storm clouds on the horizon transform the sky into an inky canvas of brooding blues and grey and I confess to spending a moment or two admiring the sinewy physique of one of the sailors as he pottered around the ship.

Passengers entertain themselves. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passengers entertain themselves. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Sunsets were always the high point of the day and we’d all swoon over the fading burnt orange sky against the silhouette of the ship’s masts and lines. We snapped endless photos and downed glasses of Jacobs Creek chardonnay (the top shelf of the ship’s little bar), intoxicated by that “life is good” feeling. After dinner one evening several crewmembers brought out their guitars and sang local songs for us around the dining table and it wasn’t long before the liveliest of our group got inspired. I, along with an elegant sarong-wearing divorcee from England with a wickedly good sense of humor and a fun-loving American couple and their arty 40-something daughter who promised to make me earrings from Bintang beer bottle caps, got up to dance around the open decks as our funky wooden ship pushed through the waves somewhere off the coast of Sumatra.

Stunning sunsets. * Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

Stunning sunsets. * Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

Land Ho

As much as a voyage on Katharina is about being on the ship and at sea, the ports of call were a big part of the reason we were there. When the lines were pulled up and we left the clanking flourmill behind, we headed west on engine power (the sails are used only occasionally when the wind is cooperating), riding swells large enough to make a few passengers queasy. A few of us popped seasickness pills just in case, but Seatrek tends to attract experienced sailors who feel fine on a rocking ship.

The next day we made landfall in Pekalongan, Java, to visit the town’s batik museum and make a piece of real batik fabric with hot wax and traditional copper stamps. Later we shopped for batik, with our group buying dozens of sarongs and shirts. The day after we spent the morning at the palace of the local sultan in Cirebon, Java, where we were greeted with royal fanfare. We were served jasmine tea and local sweets while being treated to a classic Indonesian dance performance by a young man artfully imitating the movements of a bird. The friendly sultan, a portly Buddha-like fellow in royal headgear and traditional sarong, then invited us to dance and again we found ourselves in a circle twirling and laughing without a care in the world as the gamelan ensemble played on. We enjoyed ourselves enough that day to forget that our group’s mini-bus had been inexplicably held up for an hour by bureaucrats when we first came ashore in Cirebon.

Excursions treat you to traditional Indonesian dance and music. * Photo credit: Heidi Sarna

Excursions treat you to traditional Indonesian dance and music. * Photo credit: Heidi Sarna

At times like these our clever guest speaker Simon was fond of sharing helpful little morale boosters. Paraphrasing from the great travel writer Jan Morris, “travel without a few hiccups is no fun at all,” he told us with a smile.

April through early September Seatrek does 7- and 9-night itineraries among the Bali, Komodo and Flores islands to see the famous Komodo lizards, trek along volcanic mountain trails and snorkel in vibrant reefs. Then the ships venture further east on longer, more remote itineraries in the Banda and Halmahera Islands, where waterfalls and white sand beaches are the backdrop to exotic wildlife like the elusive Red Bird of Paradise. Some itineraries visit Papau New Guinea to have a peak at the strange customs of the tribal people. Fares ($$) include all meals, soft drinks and excursions. Beer, wine and cocktails are extra.

Click here for more information on Seatrek Sailing Adventures.

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Tahiti cruise

Tahiti Cruise

By Heidi Sarna.

Note: Star Clippers isn’t sailing in Tahiti these days (though Paul Gauguin Cruises is), but you’ll get the picture. Read on.

It was as much the prospect of long overdue togetherness as the allure of Tahiti that motivated three busy working women living on opposite ends of the earth to coordinate their schedules. The South Pacific island chain is one of the most mythical, romantic and dreamed about places on the globe, not to mention one of the most remote. To make the trip happen, my husband held down the fort at home in Singapore and played soccer dad; Los Angeles school principal Rachael put the assistant in charge; and Chrissy happily fled the dreary March weather in New York.

Our Tahiti boondoggle came almost 20 years after our first exotic girls-only getaway to Guatemala a year after we graduated from college. A couple of decades later meant our reunion retreat had a slightly different feel, with the chatter of wide-eyed idealists fresh into adulthood replaced with talk of tough times, confidence found and fine lines. But we had traveled so far to do more than dish about husbands, boyfriends, and fat thighs, we trekked to French Polynesia to reconnect with nature too. From the decks of a rugged 19th-century style clipper ship, we set off to explore the Pacific like the Polynesians and the Europeans did centuries before.

We appreciated the creature comforts of Star Clippers’ 1991-built Star Flyer, from carpeted cabins with televisions to a cozy restaurant, but what mattered most was the authentic sailing experience created by the four-masted ship’s full sails, rigging and teak decks. When conditions are right, the Star Flyer shuts off its engines and moves under sail power alone. We spent nearly every evening watching the sun set from the top deck with the wind in our hair and the bow sprit bucking in the surf, clearing our minds and feeding our souls. Before bed, it was back on deck to stare up into the star-dusted inky black sky and listen to Rachael, our very own amateur astronomer, point out the constellations.

The Star Flyer in Tahiti in 2009. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The 170-passenger Star Flyer couldn’t have suited our tastes better. Though our lives have taken their own twists and turns through the years, we’re still in sync on the style of travel we prefer (adventurous), the kind of fun we like (goofy and down-to-earth), and the people we like to do it with (each other). We’re a trio of 40-somethings with a bohemian edge and a strong-as-ever streak to try anything once.

The Itinerary

Our voyage included stops at two of French Polynesia’s five island groups, the Tuamotu and Society islands. A vast area stretching across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, most of French Polynesia’s 118 islands and atolls are what’s left of extinct volcanoes. Many islands are surrounded by gorgeous lagoons, palm-fringed motus (islets) and barrier reefs teeming with underwater sea life. The remoteness of French Polynesia means it’s never over-run with tourists and doesn’t feel over-developed.

Spiritual Snorkeling

From one port to the next, we were continually awed by the stunning color of the teal-blue lagoons. The best snorkeling was near the island of Tahaa. We signed up for the “Coral Garden Snorkel Drift” and were taken via speedboat to a site near a remote motu. In single file, our small group glided atop the clear water, looking down at the spectacular scene. Fuchsia sea anemones exposed their noodle-y appendages and ridged clamshells seem to smile with bright purple and green lips. I’ll never forget the psychedelic colors of the Checkerboard Wrasse fish.

On the way back, we three stared into the horizon lost in thought as the boat zipped through the gorgeous landscape, and were reminded of a similarly magical boat ride we took off the coast of Belize two decades before.

Idyllic Motus

Another highlight was the barbecue lunch the crew prepared on another idyllic motu near Tahaa. After snorkeling a few feet offshore and checking out the long spined sea urchins hiding in the craggy coral, we sat under the shade of palm tree and nibbled on seafood kebabs and sipped Hinano beers as a troupe of traditional Polynesia dancers in grass skirts and coconut shell bras shook their lower halves in impossible ways and a chorus of ukuleles serenaded them. My eyes welled up with tears at the sheer beauty of the scene. The music and the searing blue sky and sea behind the dancers created one of the most amazing moments of my traveling life.

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The classic dancers in grass skirts on a motu in French Poly. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Legendary Bora Bora

In Bora Bora, we signed up for the “Shark and Ray Feeding” snorkeling tour. Our motorboat moved through the azure lagoon towards the reef as we sat soaking up our surroundings and the twin peaks of Bora Bora behind us (unfortunately, our guides didn’t think anything of throwing the anchor overboard into the coral instead of using a mooring buoy). Our small group followed the two hunky guides, each with fistfuls of chum, into the sea. Soon surrounded by stingrays, we giggled and shrieked and latched on to each other like school girls as the creatures rubbed up against us.

At the next spot, we snorkeled near a group of black-tipped lagoon sharks (the Star Flyer’s many optional dive trips led to plenty of shark sightings). The excursion ended at a quiet beach where the pastel sea was as warm as bath water and the sand powdery soft. The guides scaled trees, gathered coconuts and hacked them open and we ate the delicious white meat inside.

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The twin peaks of Bora Bora. * Photo: Heidi a

Another interesting tour was a short visit to a pearl farm on the Rangiroa atoll to see how Tahitian black pearls are farmed and produced; afterwards, we each bought a pendant as a keepsake of our trip.

Onboard Fun

To teach us all something about where we were going, Cruise Director Frederic, a tall charming Belgian with sun-streaked shoulder-length hair, lectured in English, German and French from the open decks about French Polynesia’s geography, history and culture. He was also the MC of evening entertainment, which ranged from campy crew and passenger talent and fashion shows to silly games like the Miss Bora Bora contest that had everyone in stitches.

At the weekly pirate night party, always-creative Chrissy outdid us all with her eye-patch, painted-on beard, and knife-in-mouth spot-on pirate imitation. Some nights, after-dinner entertainment was mellower and mood setting, including a viewing of the 1935-version of the film Mutiny on the Bounty shown on deck and another evening, a fascinating short documentary called Around Cape Horn with footage of a tall ship in a storm in 1929.

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Pirate night theme party on board. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A big part of the Star Flyer’s appeal is the accessibility and friendliness of the crew. The captain and his staff welcome questions and expect them, and passengers are periodically invited to climb the masts and help heave the lines. We enjoyed harmless flirtations with Frederic and jokes with the poker-faced Vitaliy, a navigation officer form the Ukraine. The three young Swedish water sports assistants were popular, not just for their boy-band looks, but for their helpful attitude; they showed no impatience with three 40-somethings who couldn’t water ski quite as well as they remembered.

The open-air Tropical bar on deck is the ship’s social hub. We were definitely among the youngest passengers on board by a couple of decades, but no matter, it was a young-at-heart, outdoorsy crowd who enjoyed mingling over mai tais and sharing stories of shark sightings and dolphin encounters.

Chilling in the bow sprit net! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When some down time was called for, we hibernated in our cozy little cabin for a snooze or a gab fest. I claimed the bunk that folded down from the ceiling, while my two friends took the pair of beds below. The nautical décor was cute — navy blue carpeting with golden knots — and the storage space was adequate for Chrissy’s extensive girly dress collection, my mishmash of linen and denim, and Rachael’s practical earth-tone duds.

We didn’t mind the tight quarters one bit, after all togetherness was the whole point and French Polynesia needless to say, was the ideal rendezvous.

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