Cruise aficionado Tom O'Neil boards the Paul Gauguin for a luxurious cruise to French Polynesia.
On my honeymoon, 14 years previously, I read
— James A. Michener's short stories dating from his time as a US Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo, now part of the nation we know as Vanuatu. Ever since, I'd dreamed of Bora Bora and the mythical island of Bali Hai, as well as beautiful coral atolls marooned in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.
Researching my next cruise, I was drawn to the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin. With such a tiny complement of passengers, I was curious to see what a smaller ship could offer compared to the comparative behemoths of the sea.
Named after the French post-impressionist artist who lived in and painted everyday scenes of French Polynesia in the late 1800s, it's a more intimate and far more luxurious way to cruise than I had experienced before.
Winning almost every prize, award and accolade the industry has to offer (including selection in the coveted Condé Nast 2016 Gold List), I was drawn to their three restaurants — one serving Michelin two-star chef Jean-Pierre Vigato's cuisine, amazing "up close" itinerary and all-inclusive beer, wine and spirits.
With a wide range of cruising destinations and options to choose from, including Fiji and the Cook Islands, my wife and I travelled on the 10-night Society Islands and Tuamotus cruise to Bora Bora and Moorea, Fakarava and Rangiroa atolls and the exclusive, Paul Gauguin-only island of Motu Mahana.
To get a head start on the holiday, we travelled via Air Tahiti Nui, direct from Auckland to Papeete.
French flair combined with genuine Polynesian friendliness really made for an exceptional journey. Stepping aboard, we were greeted with a welcoming "la orana" and given a beautiful tiare flower as a token of Tahitian hospitality.
While I appreciate the incredible wines New Zealand has to offer, it was a nice change to sample a Tahitian wine and French chablis, pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as the always exciting champagne. If you are heading to Tahiti for a holiday, this is a great way to get into the spirit of it from the minute you step aboard the plane.
Checking into a garden bungalow at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort in Papeete, I was amazed at the white-sand swim-up bar pool as well as the stunning 'Lagoonarium', helping my wife Sarah and I to get up close to resident sea creatures.
The next day we were excited to board our "home away from home" for the following 11 days. Taxiing up to the Paul Gauguin at the pier, I was instantly put at ease by her decent size. At 153m long, she has only 332 passengers and 217 crew, one of the highest passenger-to-crew ratios of any luxury cruise ship.
Now came my favourite part — checking out the bars, restaurants, health spa and swimming pool, as well as discovering the special semi-private nooks and crannies that always abound on a cruise ship.
With three high-quality restaurants, the Paul Gauguin consistently wins international awards for its food, including the USA Today Top 10 Best Cruise Ships for Dining — 2016. The wait staff have to be the friendliest I have met at sea, and ensure your glass is never empty. I actually saw one waiter almost run to top up my wine during one meal, dare I put my glass down empty. I have never had that level of service in any restaurant in the world.
Later we were introduced to Les Gauguins, the cruise line's on-board troupe of Tahitian hosts and entertainers who bring the spirit of Polynesia to life. Sarah and I revelled in the retelling of ancestral legends through dance, and learned how to make local handicrafts during their hands-on demonstrations.
Our fellow travellers were a bit different from the usual Kiwi and Aussie contingent we usually cruise alongside. Mostly Americans between the ages of 40 and 60, there was also a smattering of French, English, Australians and Brazilians, providing a rich assortment of accents and languages to keep us on our toes.
Our always-fun and engaging entertainment director Steve Wood, originally from Christchurch, made sure there was never a dull moment on board, with acts from around the world such as Gustavo Vierini (a Brazilian magician who was honestly "mindblowing") and big-band swing singer Tony Tyler, who got me up and grooving with his rendition of Michael Bublé's Haven't Met You Yet.
One big difference the Paul Gauguin has over many competing cruise ships that pass through these waters is that the crew are locals who know and respect the area. As well as this, the Paul Gauguin has a relatively shallow draft, allowing her to get close to many islands and spots that larger cruises can't.
One of my highlights was the marina that folds down at the stern, allowing scuba trips, kayaking and paddleboarding to be very easily done without the hassle of checking out of the ship.
Another favourite of the cruise was Motu Mahana. The islet was replete with a large, fully stocked open bar, Polynesian buffet, loungers and brilliant blue waters, the like of which I have never seen. On the motu a large party was in full swing, with music, another separate floating bar in the sea and volleyball. They almost had to evict me when it was time to go ...
After an incredible 11 days, the hardest part of the cruise was saying goodbye to new friends (both passengers and crew).
Reflecting on the trip during my return to the cold and misty northern Waikato, I was convinced that Paul Gauguin had really gone out of its way to truly be authentic to the culture and spirit of French Polynesia.