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South Pacific Cruise

Author: travelmel (More Trip Reviews by travelmel)
Date of Trip: February 2007

A solid wall of humidity slammed into me as soon as I exited the plane at Tahiti's Faaa Airport -- but so did the scent of fresh flowers as dark, voluptuous women with glistening skin beamed at the new crop of tourists and ringed our necks with leis. People throw the word "paradise" around -- a lot -- but in this case, as I walked toward an open-air terminal to collect luggage, clear customs and ultimately board a 10-night cruise on Tahitian Princess, I knew I was "there."

Tahiti may be in the same time zone as Hawaii, but it is still a nine-hour flight from Los Angeles -- and that's after the multi-hour trek folks from the Midwest and East Coast have to make! I traveled from the New York area's Newark Airport; with a layover, a few delays and a bus transfer from Tahiti's Faaa airport to the cruise terminal, my door-to-ship travel time was about 24 hours. But here's the thing: It's absolutely worth sacrificing a day to get to the isles of the South Pacific.

You won't find Caribbean outposts like Senor Frogs and Diamonds International. Tourist dollars are spent instead at independent, locally owned shops and shacks, and each time I stepped off the boat, something was missing -- in a good way. Nobody knocked me over in the rush to get to the last pair of cheap diamond earrings, a 9 a.m. margarita or a digital camera that's really not that great of a deal anyway. Where Hawaii, particularly in its cruise ports, feels modern and familiar, French Polynesia is decidedly foreign. Most residents speak both French and Tahitian; a long tube sits side by side with mailboxes for home delivery of French baguettes, baked fresh daily. On many islands, the main mode of public transportation is a rickety open-air wagon called a Le Truck that sometimes also doubles as a school bus.

Like the Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesian ports all have different personalities, though you will have to dig a little deeper to find each island's own character. We overheard one beach bum say, "If you've seen one island, you've seen them all." And, to be sure, in every port you'll see gorgeous blue lagoons and towering mountainous interiors. A lot of activities are similar too, including snorkeling, shopping for black pearls and visiting vanilla plantations.

But beyond that there are historical and cultural distinctions. Raiatea is known as the "sacred isle" because it was the place for Polynesians to congregate for ceremonies, such as fire-walks, human sacrifices and funerals. Huahine's tiny fishing villages are sleepy and authentic while Bora Bora, dependent on tourism, is a little bit slicker with over a dozen luxury resorts gleaming on the lagoon and more gathering places for tourist hordes, such as the bar at the famous Bloody Mary's restaurant.

Our cruise was a much cheaper option than picking an island and staying on land. Those luscious over-the-water bungalows you see in glossy travel magazines average just shy of $1,000 a night. Yes, a night! Compare that to a deal we saw for our 10-night cruise, just a few weeks before the sail date, of $999 per person.

We also liked the fact that our cruise would allow us to venture outside the region as well; Tahitian Princess sails to New Zealand's Cook Islands (we stopped at Rarotonga). Most of the French Polynesian ports are within a few hours of each other by cruise ship and so offer minimal sea days. Heading to Rarotonga, however, which is far enough away to warrant a sea day, there and back, adds time for onboard relaxation.

It isn't exactly a breeze to get to Tahiti -- there are only a few carriers that operate flights from Los Angeles (Air Tahiti Nui, Air New Zealand and Air France are the major players), and departures are limited to one or two daily. So if you show up late or miss a connection somewhere along the way, you might be stuck until the next day.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn in planning my trip that passengers board Tahitian Princess on, say, a Sunday (embarkation days vary) -- but the ship doesn't actually depart until Monday evening. Between embarkation and sail away, passengers can come and go as they please as if staying at an on-land resort. Having the extra day at the start of the cruise is particularly beneficial on this itinerary because if you hit an air travel snag, at least you know your ship will still be there when you finally do arrive. Well, not always. There was a huge snowstorm in the Midwest the week of our cruise, and so many passengers faced canceled or delayed flights. Yes, some arrived on the day we set sail, technically the second day of the 10-night cruise. But because the departures to Tahiti are so limited, we saw others finally reaching the ship a few days in, rolling their suitcases to the tender dock in Huahine or up the gangway in Raiatea.

Luckily, our flights were unaffected and we arrived as planned. But as a general rule of thumb, when you are cruising a region that's distant and not easily accessible by plane, it is best to plan to arrive in the city of embarkation a day or two early. This way, you allow yourself more time to explore; if you are flying all the way to Tahiti, you might as well see Tahiti! And if weather or another uncontrollable force delays you, you're less likely to miss the boat (so to speak).

Which Island Fits Your Personality?
Each island is different, with its own history, scenery and characteristics -- and excursions. Rarotonga is all about nature; because the island is so green and lush, and because there are no natural predators, hiking through local plantations and low-lying forest is a must-do (fellow cruisers raved about a local tour guide named Pa, who points out local herbal medicines along the way); there's a bird sanctuary that can be explored as well.

History buffs, meanwhile, can visit multiple maraes -- outdoor ancient worship temples used in old Polynesia for ceremonial purposes. Many were destroyed or abandoned with the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century, but there are still high concentrations on Huahine and Raiatea.

Raiatea is the only island from which you can take a tour of another island. We loved our excursion from Raiatea to Tahaa, a smaller, quieter island that shares the same lagoon. After our boat transfer we saw a woman fishing for lunch while her two skinny dogs, cat and kids ran around playing in the dirt (one of the kids was completely naked, to the delight of the camera-toting tourists -- the kids didn't seem to mind the attention, either). On Tahaa, most people don't work; they simply live off the land, fishing for their daily meals much like this mother was.

One of the main reasons I wanted to get to Tahaa is because I am an avid baker -- and Tahaa is known as the vanilla island. Three-quarters of all Tahitian vanilla is produced there, and we visited a family-run plantation where you can see where and how the beans are grown, and then purchase some to take home. I expected to see the leathery brown ribbons I see chefs slicing down the middle on the Food Network to procure sweet vanilla seeds. But when vanilla is on the vine, the beans are bright green and plump like string beans (vanilla is part of the orchard family; the vines wrap around a "host" plant -- anything tall and leafy).

I sniffed around the plants and couldn't smell the vanilla; turns out the beans don't really become fragrant until they are dried in the sun. As soon as we walked into the barn-like open-air shopping area, however, the perfume of vanilla was thick and warm like cake just out of the oven.

Now I know why that tiny bottle of McCormick's extract in my local supermarket is nearly $7. From start to finish, the vanilla takes a lengthy year and half to be cultivated and prepared for the marketplace -- and it needs to be pollinated by hand. (It is the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.) Thankfully, we learned how to make our own extract at the farm: buy a cheap bottle of rum and soak 10 Tahitian vanilla beans in there for three months. Back home, I'm not-so-patiently watching my "tub" of homemade vanilla extract develop its dark brown and delicious finish.

Starting in Papeete
Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and the typical turnaround point for cruises, accounts for well over half of the island's overall population of 180,000. Papeete is also the most urban of the ports (it was here we encountered the region's only real city bus system), and numerous shops, attractions and cafes are within easy walking distance from the cruise ship dock.

We spent our afternoon on embarkation day covering the waterfront on foot, ducking into small shops and enjoying a seafood lunch at Jack Lobster atop the Vaima Center, a four-level shopping and dining complex. It was so close to our dock that we could see many of our shipmates returning from the Marche du Papeete, a fabulous market with a French feel, with flower arrangements for their cabins -- one of the more affordable items to pick up in this most expensive region.

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