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After much anticipation we flew on Aug 20 from Norfolk, VA at 6am to Papeete, via Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles was delayed 5 hour for mechanical reasons, making our travel day about 28 hours long. They did provide meals $20 per person meal credit in the airport by showing our boarding passes. The 8 hour flight provides two meals, and the seats, with 34 inch pitch and foot rests, include individual video screens with a selection of movies and games, as well as audio programs. Service by the Tahitian crew is gracious.
Upon arrival in Papeete at 11:15pm local time there is a long line for immigration/passport control that took about 1 hour. After clearing immigration we claimed our bags and moved them to the waiting bus area outside, where porters took the bags and loaded them in a truck. The bus ride is only about 10 minutes to the pier in Papeete. The check-in at the pier provides no expedited check-in for past passengers, so the lines were long again. When we arrived on the ship and proceeded to our balcony cabin, 6057, the bags arrived within 30 minutes. While we were 5 hours late arriving and missed the evening meal on the ship, we had been fed on the plane, and the buffet area did have finger sandwiches and fruit available even at 2am due to the late arrivals. The cabin has a small refrigerator and plenty of storage, with spacious storage in the desk as well as end tables, and closets. There are cabinets below the TV, one with a safe and some space, and another large cabinet. The beds were very comfortable, with duvets, and two extra pillows I had requested online before sailing. A sofa and coffee table are provided, and there are two chairs, not recliners, and a small table on the balcony.
We had cruised on Oceania Nautica last year. Tahitian Princess, a sister ship, one of the former Renaissance ships was identically designed. The two specialty restaurants, normally called Sabatini?s and Sterling Steakhouse on the other Princess ships, are simply termed The Grill and The Italian Restaurant on this ship, and they are not both open on the same nights, alternating service each night. The ship carries 673 passengers and nearly 400 staff, has a small casino with blackjack and poker tables, roulette, and slot machines, and two lounges. The Tahitian Lounge on deck 10 forward is the site of evening dancing and DJ, Captain?s Circle reception, and dance classes. The Cabaret Lounge on deck 5 forward is the site of the Captain?s reception, movies, and the evening entertainment, which included three excellent production shows, a singer, and a comedian and a magician. As there is no slope down toward the stage, the views become slightly obstructed by rows in front, but the lounge was never very crowded. The house band is a 4 piece group, and the featured 2 person group, Spice, was excellent, playing both at the pool and in the Tahitian Lounge in the evening for dancing.
Dining in the Club Restaurant is traditional early and late seating. The design is similar to the other R-ships, but with somewhat less tables for 2, which we had requested and received. It is also open every day for breakfast and lunch. The menu featured all the usual, prime rib, beef Wellington, lamb..twice, pork, chicken and turkey, a different variety of fish every night (to my wife?s delight), prawns, snails, cr?me Brule, baked Alaska, and much more. Only the salads were somewhat monotonous, but a premixed Caesar salad is available every day. The Buffet on deck 9 aft has both indoor and aft outdoor seating. Fruits and desserts are plentiful, and a varied selection of items was available. The BBQ grill by the pool offers omelet?s and eggs to order in the morning, They offer pizza during lunch and the afternoon until the evening meal. Room service is very punctual, even arriving a few minutes early in the morning. Other than the standard continental breakfast, the room service menu is quite limited. We did arrange, before the cruise, for a Princess Champagne Balcony breakfast the morning we weren?t scheduled to arrive in Bora Bora until noon. We have done it before and it is a great value, four courses plus a half bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne. Dining room service was excellent.
There were two formal nights, the 1st sea day enroute Raratonga on the 4th day of the cruise, and the 2nd was the night we left Bora Bora. This is the night they had the Captain?s Circle reception at 5:30pm, quite early for us scheduled for second seating dinner at 8:15pm
The ship shows some wear and tear. On our balcony the wooden railing had no varnish/shellac remaining on it and some rust was evident. In fact, the balcony needed painting. There are some cracks in the fresco?s on the ceiling of the Club Dining Room and the Club Bar outside. But overall it is in nice condition.
The photographers were personable and accommodating and the lines were short. Prices continue to rise! The purser?s desk was able to exchange USD for CPF (Central Pacific Francs). The bank exchange rate in Tahiti was a bit over 83 CPF to the dollar. While many places will take USD, the rate is lower.
The ship arrives back in Papeete the evening before debarkation day, and they asked that baggage be packed and outside the cabin door by 10pm. The last day they ask that we vacate the cabin by 10am, and they will store carry-on luggage in the Grill from 8am ? 8pm. After the day touring Tahiti Nui, we returned to the ship, claimed our carry-on?s and changed in the bathroom nearby. We went to the buffet for dinner and they called the first airport transfer bus, which we were on, at 5:55pm. The flight back was scheduled for 10pm. We claimed our luggage at the airport, and waited in line for the ticket counter to open, which it did about 6:45pm. There was a long line at the immigration and a longer line at security, where there was only one screening machine. There was still about 90 minutes to wait in an un-air-conditioned terminal. There are no water fountains, but the duty free shop sells bottled water. Being tired from a full day, after a meal on the plane we slept till awakened for breakfast and arrival in Los Angeles shortly after 9am. After clearing customs and immigration in the International Terminal, there is no baggage conveyor operating for connecting flights, even though our baggage was already tagged for the connecting flights. We used a cart to move several blocks to the Delta terminal for the flights home, arriving about 9:40pm EDT, the day after leaving Tahiti.
The passengers were an international mix. Only 320 US passengers were aboard. There were large numbers from Argentina, Chili, and some from Spain, Mexico, and Italy, and smaller numbers of Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. The couple sharing our table at both wine tastings was from Tasmania. Announcements were in English, and Spanish or French, but they were limited to twice a day.
Notes on the itinerary: Papeete overnight, Huahine, Raritea, Cook Islands (Raratonga), Bora Bora overnight, Moorea, and Papeete overnight.
The day after arrival on the ship we had the full day to explore Papeete before the ship sails in the late afternoon. There is a tourism office across from the pier which provides maps. We exchanged some additional USD for CPF at the Bank of Polynesia, but found that the exchange rate on the ship was better. We walked the streets, visited the local church, looked in some shops, and enjoyed the Marche, the open market where the local products were on display. I had no idea that there was so much tuna in those waters. I sampled the local beer, Huahine, the first of several over the next 10 days in each of the islands, in restaurant in the Marche where several local Tahitian musicians were jamming. In fact, throughout the islands we encountered individuals strumming guitars and ukulele?s and singing?in parks, on sidewalks, at the beach. We purchased a beautiful tropical flower display in the Marche for 1500 CPF, about 17 dollars which we carried back to the ship and enjoyed in the cabin all cruise. There was a welcome aboard show after dinner.
The next day we arrived in Huahine and the first real site of unspoiled French Polynesia. It was breathtaking! We even saw a whale spouting. Practically no buildings in sight. Just what I hoped it would be like. We took a tender ashore but purchased shuttle bus tickets first at the purser?s desk, $5 pp one way/$20 for two roundtrips to the town, Fare. We walked a few blocks to the Europcar rental agency that we had reserved online. We paid $74.59 by credit card for 6 hours, plus 1000 CPF for gas and drove around the entire island. We had purchased the Moon Tahiti Guide book from Amazon.com and used it to guide us around each island. With it we found a beach by a closed hotel and I snorkeled. This was a spot where snorkel excursion boats showed up. The excursion cost for 1 person was more than the cost of the car rental and we had it all day to tour the island. We found hotel/pension on the south end of the island where we enjoyed salad with grilled tuna, a huge grilled tuna sub sandwich and fries, a Huahine beer and a rum punch for 4000 CPF, about $45. It would have been a good place to snorkel, too. When we returned the car, there was still time to walk to the beach just north of town for a swim and then the shuttle back to the tender at 3:30pm. That night there was a magician show at 7:30pm before the 8:15 dinner.
The next day was our first at sea day, enroute the Cook Islands. The weather was windy and there was some ?motion of the ocean?, but not bad. It did complicate trying to learn the tango in the dance class, though! There was a superb Italian lunch at the buffet, and a Matre? D Wine Tasting with some special wines for $25 per person. That evening they held the Captain?s Reception, followed by the first formal night, which included crab legs as an option on the menu. After each seating they presented a production show in the Cabaret Lounge. Just 7 dancers and 2 lead vocalists, but with an occasional miss by the female lead singer, the show was excellent. The ?throws? and moves were more remarkable in view of the fact the at the ship was moving about considerably.
The following day we arrived at Raratonga in the Cook Islands. It was too rough to tender and the ship turned around and spent the next two days returning to the Society Islands. In fact I knew from other travelers in the past, and verified with the crew, that 3 out of 5 times they can?t tender and passengers don?t get to go ashore. We were scheduled for a Sunday there, and most excursions weren?t operating on Sunday anyway. The chances are better, I believe, if you choose the Polynesia and Marquesas itinerary instead, but it is not offered as often. Three consecutive days at sea in a 10 day island cruise was too much, in my opinion, but the weather was fine and it was relaxing. That evening there was no show, only a movie in the Cabaret Lounge after dinner.
The next day was a sea day and they featured a culinary demonstration in the Cabaret Lounge with samples for the audience, and ice carving on deck. This was followed by a galley tour, but their was not vocal guide as we paraded through. In the afternoon they presented another, only $10, wine tasting. Dinner was Italian night, with such entrees as swordfish and shrimp Diablo.
The second production show was presented after both dinner seatings.
On the following day we arrived in Raritea in the morning, and were berthed at a pier. We had reserved a car from Europcar online in advance. They met us at their booth and drove us to the agency where they couldn?t find the reservation but they had a car for us. We drove counter-clockwise around the island. There are few sandy beaches, but we did find one near an old temple site where I snorkeled for about 1 hour. We continued around the island, stopping at Hotel Atiapita for lunch on the south coast. They had a pier, beach, but no coral for snorkeling. Lunch was a curried shrimp dish with rice, rum punch and Huahine beer. They also offered fish and shellfish/crabs. Lunch was 3,350 CPF, about $39. By the way, while American Express card logos are seen throughout the islands, VISA and M/C are not. I was able to use M/C for the car rentals with no problem. We drove back to town and turned in the car in the late afternoon, and they shuttled us back to the pier. The price was $110.27 for 6 hours. There are some shops, a market, and several restaurants/bars there, and some ladies selling flower leis, which we purchased, since there was an island party scheduled for the evening. I developed an eye infection and had to stop at a French speaking pharmacy where the pharmacist looked at my eyes, said ?infection? and got me a bottle of antibiotics for conjunctivitis for 1,200 CPF, just under $14. After dinner the island party started at 10:15pm on the pool deck with local a local Tahitian dance troupe, dancing, conga line, and a fruit dessert buffet. The ship doesn?t sail till the following morning.
The next morning we sailed at 6am around Tahaa headed to Bora Bora. The sights are marvelous, with many over the water bungalows on the islands, called motu?s, and beautiful green volcanic mountains. We anchored and took a tender to the pier, where the Europcar booth was across the street. They had our reservation but were charging, with posted rates, 150% of the quoted internet rate. Haggling didn?t work, and they have limited English in negotiations like this! The price was 12,700 CPF, or about $146 for 24 hours, plus 1000 CPF for gas. We drove around the island, and it only took about 1 hour. We then drove to Mateira Beach, south of the public beach where there is a shuttle bus to, and we parked and found a spot on the beach in front of the Mateira Restaurant, which doesn?t open until the evening. It had lounge chairs and sandy beach, but no coral to snorkel. The best snorkeling is just south of there, from the Bora Dive Shop on Mateira Bay along the beach to the Bora Bora Hotel property. After beach time we drove the Bloody Mary?s Restaurant and Bar, an institution there since 1979, and visited by many celebrities. We met one of the owners and enjoyed a ?Bloody Mary and a vanilla rum punch. The entire place has sand for a floor. For the evening dinner they have a fish display of all the day?s local catch, such as wahoo, tuna, mahi mah, and much more. You pick your fish from the display and the chef takes it to the kitchen. However, we chose to return to the ship for the evening, parking the car near the pier.
The following morning we drove to the Bora Dive Shop parked and I entered the water there to snorkel, drifting among the coral along the private hotel beach. Water was clear and I even saw what appeared to be a grouper. Great location. We had lunch at Bloody Mary?s with Huahine and a glass of wine for 3000 CPF, about $34 USD. After returning the car we tendered back to the ship. This was the second formal night, with Captain?s Circle reception at 5:30 pm. Dinner included 2 lobster tails as a selection, and was followed by the third production show, which was even a bit better than the others. We really enjoyed them.
Our final island day was to Moorea. This is where some scenes from South Pacific were filmed. Since Regent?s Paul Gaugin was anchored in Cook?s Bay, we anchored in the next bay, just east of Cook?s Bay. The scenery here is absolutely breathtaking. Jagged green peaks, multicolored water, palm trees. It was easily the most beautiful of the islands, and Huahine was the other, and least developed. We had opted to take a ship sponsored excursion and after a tender ride to the pier, we boarded an excursion boat that took us through the coral lagoon, past shark and sting ray feedings sites, which we observed, and on to an island (motu). They had tables set up under the palm trees and started with sting ray feeding right off the beach. The snorkeling and coral were excellent with lots of coral and clear water, and a wide variety of fish. They provided a BBQ lunch with grilled mahi-mah, chicken and sausage, salad, pasta, and fresh pineapple, and lemonade, followed by a demonstration on how to husk, and crack a coconut, remove the meat, and squeeze it for juice. They also showed the women how Tahitians tied parea?s. The cost was $84 per person. After the boat ride back to the pier, we tendered back to the ship, which sailed at 4pm for the 3 hour sail back to Papeete, on Tahiti. After dinner, we packed and placed the baggage outside the cabin.
The last morning, in Papeete, after breakfast we vacated the room, checked the carry-on?s, and walked into Papeete to the AVIS office, just about 4 blocks from the pier. I had reserved online before leaving home. We drove clockwise around the entire island of Tahiti Nui in a little over 5 hours, including stopping for photos, and at black sand beaches to watch the surfing, and a visit to a Lagoonarium on the was back to Papeete. We returned the car ($84.83 plus 1000 CPF for gas ($11+)) and returned to the ship just before 5pm.
Final thoughts: I left home knowing this would likely be our once in a lifetime trip to French Polynesia. We loved the islands, especially once out of the hustle and bustle of busy Papeete. The beauty of the foliage and the colors of the water even inside the lagoons were striking. Prices are high, as almost everything is shipped in except fish, beer and many fruits. It is a scuba diver?s paradise, and the snorkeling was very good even when not on excursions. We saw a lot more of the islands by renting the cars (they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the US) than by going on excursions.
We enjoyed the ship and staff. Princess had a 5 year contract in Tahiti and did not renew it. The Tahitian Princess will leave the islands in May 2008 to sail in Alaska, returning from September to December. It will then leave permanently to make a 100+ day world cruise, ending in Europe in the spring of 2009. The only ships still sailing from Tahiti would be the Regent?s Paul Gaugin, and Star Clipper?s Star Flyer which will be home ported there beginning in January 2008. Princess has a 5 year contract in Tahiti and it has not been renewed.
Never say ?never?! We enjoyed it so much in the islands we might even consider a land stay there, but not in Papeete. Perhaps Moorea or Huahine. Accommodations are limited unless you are prepared for very expensive lodging, with over-water bungalows running $800 per night. Breakfast and lunch for $100 per person. But there are other options. The only drawback is the LONG time to travel from the east coast. Breaking the trip with a stop in Los Angeles on the way there would help. Half of the cost of the cruise was the airfare.