Follow the stars
From ship to shores in French Polynesia
Every evening after dinner I check in with barman Jerome at La Palette on Deck 8 for a spot of stargazing. So vast, clear and satiny-black is the sky that it seems to wrap around, and hold fast, our cruise ship M/S Paul Gauguin. We stand outside and peer up at Orion’s Belt and debate the exact position of the Southern Cross.
Jerome talks about his wife and growing family back in Manila and we mock-toast his soon-to-be-born second child by clinking glasses of water. It becomes a little ritual across seven days aboard this 332-passenger boutique cruiser on a round-trip of the Society Islands from its home base of Papeete.
We begin the voyage under lowered skies and grey clouds but we are to be lucky, as last week’s cruise was hampered by torrential rain and high winds.
“Passengers couldn’t go ashore at some ports,” says the lovely Urahei, one of seven members of Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines, the on-board guys-and-gals entertainment troupe dubbed “Tahitian ambassadors” who provide a most enjoyable underlay of French Polynesian style and culture to the cruise. She makes a point to seek me out on shore excursions and we giggle like schoolgirls. “Please stay out!” she commands the sun as we bask in its tropical warmth and she shows me how to weave a headdress of tiare flowers and bendy vines.
Other encounters with crew are as personal and memorable, from cabin attendant Reahlyn to the remarkable Juan Miguel, a waiter at La Veranda who makes my handbag “disappear” at least once a day with the seeming ease of the featured guest entertainer Nicolas del Pozo, a French magician and illusionist whose performances draw such admiration that there’s virtually a queue of passengers demanding to be levitated.
No matter that Juan Miguel does nothing more magical than simply popping my bag behind his back while his cohorts distract me. We all play along and laugh like loons. I can say, hand on heart, I have never encountered better-natured crew on a cruise ship.
Here’s my theory: the (almost exclusively) Filipino crew appear to operate with a high degree of empowerment and independence. While Captain Toni Mirkovic and his team of officers are primarily Croatian, there’s no middle layer of uber-managers strutting about and adding unwanted degrees of formality. And so there is an unstinting sense of fun, which enhances the holiday mood. “Best cruise ever!” is one of the most common responses when I quiz fellow passengers. “Third time for us. Can’t wait to return and do a longer itinerary,” replies the couple from Alabama who are on their way to the tour desk to sign up for their next holiday
So, with the gods of weather smiling upon us, we bounce about in an open-sided bus, decked with flowers like a carnival stall, on the so-called Garden Island of Huahine and on Bora Bora. Such a conveyance is known as Le Truck and its seats are massively hard on the derriere, but this transport is a great way to see the islands, jiving along coralstone roads, dodging pick-up trucks laden with waving kids, stopping at roadside stalls to scoop up brightly coloured pareo, or sarongs, patterned with leaves and pineapples. I am shown by stallholder Edna how to fasten the material correctly, tied tightly and not flapping. “Don’t forget to shut the door!” she says, rearranging my front folds.
On Huahine, we pitch up at the bar at the end of the universe at the Huahine Yacht Club, decked out like a bamboo-and-tiki beachcomber joint with log tables and faded travel posters. As we sail back on the tender boat from the town of Vaitape, on Bora Bora, boys in outrigger canoes catch our wake and skim alongside, hands-free and grinning.
The landscapes everywhere we visit are of such immoderate colours that, yes, it does feel like stepping into a Gauguin painting. It is dizzyingly beautiful, all those hibiscus hedges, the intoxicating sweetness of tiare petals, velour-like vegetation and engorged tropical fruit. We marvel at grapefruit the size of cannon balls. The passion- fruit is yellow-skinned and spurting with pulp. It feels as if we have tumbled into a giant fruit bowl.
On Moorea, guide Gerard, built like a rugby frontrower, shows us how to crack open a coconut with two deft movements and then does a version of the haka, which thrills the Australians and terrifies the Americans.
His vehicle is a crazy four wheel-drive with a rear-end that resembles a ute. It’s been customised with bench seating and a thatched top and every time we round a bend, we all slip sideways.
Then up and up to the island’s sky-scraping Belvedere lookout for deep green views of this volcanic isle. We are so high it feels as if we can touch the clouds, all of which are forming fantastical shapes. We imagine kangaroos and galleons. “Hold on!” he calls back to us as the vehicle bronco-bucks to the top. It is enough to dislodge the hibiscus he has positioned behind my ear.
Then we visit archaeological sites, guarded this humid day by hard-eyed hens pecking about. Other passengers across this week have been swimming with dolphins and stingrays, visiting black pearl farms, snorkelling over coral gardens and trekking volcanic trails. There are few deckchair-sitters among us and nary a grumbler.
But the two most remarkable shore excursions are, paradoxically, the most exclusive and the pair that are free of charge. Top of the pops is a day on the private Motu Mahana off the island of Ta’haa. The ship is a regular caller here and a permanent thatched bar and buffet benches, volleyball nets and alfresco massage cabana have been installed.
Staff ferry ashore the makings of lunch (poisson cru, burgers, hot dogs and reef fish) and all the equipment needed for a beach day. Passengers follow at a leisurely pace aboard the tender boats and can leave when they
Le Truck, a great way to see the sights, left; snorkelling at Motu Mahana, right