Fol­low the stars

From ship to shores in French Poly­ne­sia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

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

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