Tahiti brims with such beauty that doing justice to its temptations can be a daunting challenge. The French Polynesian island has no doubt defeated many lesser men but French artist Paul Gauguin took up the challenge and dedicated his final years to committing this Eden to canvas.
My digital camera couldn’t muster enough megapixels to bring out the best in the midday sapphire sky as it seamlessly merged with the South Pacific, like paint on Gauguin’s palette. And its wide-angle lens proved to be not nearly wide-angled enough at dusk, as the sun gave way to an infinite planetarium above my head.
French Polynesia is the supermodel of scenery, so don’t expect to get the genie in the bottle – no matter how flash your camera. Only seeing is believing.
The only catch with a destination promising the earth is that it tends to cost it. Hotels start at around £300 a night, not including meals, which will set you back around £60 each for a basic buffet. Tourist hot spots are pricey (£30 for a beach bag) and you’ll do well to find a beer for under £5. Even the no-frills cafe at Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport is tellingly called Bar Revenu.
Unless you’re a rich and famous regular like the once happily married Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, you’ll be looking for high-end flare at a price that’s fair – which is where a cruise on a swish ship really comes into its own.
Five-star dreamboat The Paul Gauguin gives you the South Pacific on a realistic budget. All-inclusive seven-night island tours start from £2,998 per person (including flights from the UK and transfers), saving serious French Pacific Francs compared to a shore stay.
The ship sails from the capital, Papeete, where 330 guests are welcomed with song and a smile by the Les Gauguines. These nine raven-haired hostesses are the stars of the voyage, overseeing shore excursions, teaching local skills like tying a pareo (sarong), cracking a coconut and performing exotic Polynesian belly-dances that really put the ‘hip’ into ship.
With a bouquet of flowers around our necks and a flute of bubbly in hand, the new Mrs Ferrer (looking lovelier than any Les Gauguine) and I check into our spacious stateroom suite with its private balcony before excitedly exploring the neighbourhood. With so many lifts and staircases leading to so many decks and lounges, bars and restaurants, shops and theatres – all attached by long corridors of identical doors – it can take a day or two to figure out the lie of the sea.
Most new arrivals hungrily head full-steam for the cruise cuisine. There are three restaurants dishing up everything from multi-course sit-down meals to barbeques, buffets and poolside snacks. The focus is always on Polynesian fare, which means platefuls of exotic fruit and vegetables and line-caught fish like mahi-mahi and moonfish, all doused in local herbs and spices.
Guests can swim with their future supper at the unique water sports marina, stepping straight off the ship into a canoe or kayak, or scuba diving and snorkelling in the sea.
There are around 70 excursions to choose from, from water sports and coach tours to unique treats. The round of golf at Jack Nicklaus’ Green Pearl championship course on the island of Moorea got booked up early, so I splash out on the ‘Aqua Blue’ underwater walk. Wearing an old-fashioned goldfish bowl oxygen helmet, stingrays, eels and reef sharks slither between your arms and legs during a thrilling 30-minute moonwalk on the sea bed. It’s like strolling in a tropical fish tank.
The emphasis onboard is on ensuring guests gain new-found respect for island life and the local people that won’t fade with the tan. This is reflected in daily talks and demonstrations by experts on everything from art and architecture to the environment and even tattoos (a Polynesian invention).
Our first port of call is Raiatea. Known as the ‘Sacred Island’, it was the religious heart of prehistoric Polynesia and home to the Taputapuatea Marae – a 3,000-year-old temple where locals and sailors prayed, sacrificed and shared knowledge.
An overnight drift north takes us to the island of Tahaa for the week’s highlight – a perfect day on Motu Mahana, the ship’s very own fantasy desert island. Here crystal waves crash on silver sand, hammocks sway between arching palms and the ocean seems so luminous it could be backlit.
We spend eight pinch-me hours swimming, snorkelling and kayaking in green and blue lagoons, barbequing beneath a sizzling sun and being serenaded by the Gauguines (I requested Belinda Carlisle’s 1980s hit). We felt more like castaways than cruisers, suppressing the urge to build a fire, elect a leader and shout, ‘Wilson!’
Like Robinson Crusoe leaving Friday, we grudgingly bid farewell to magical Motu Mahana for a two-day stay anchored in a lagoon off the rugged coast of Bora Bora. Here we flop on the sand of another magnificent motu and have our hopes raised that we might even be stranded after the ship’s captain, Rajko Zupan, twists an ankle playing beach football (perhaps thinking he was skippering Paul Gascoigne not Paul Gauguin).
Unlike my Honda Accord, the ship doesn’t rely on clutch, break and accelerator pedals, so Rajko is passed fit to set sail for the island of Moorea, where Jen and I are among 14 honeymooning couples (cruise director Michael Shapiro puts seven on each side of the ship ‘to provide ballast’) invited to a time-honoured Tahitian wedding and anniversary ceremony.
This features a spot of poetry and being wrapped in a traditional blanket. Just as we are being blessed a rainbow appears, (no doubt to get hints about enhancing its own colours from the local scenery), and suddenly this simple and slightly clichéd ritual seems about as romantic as it gets.
Shows at sea tend to mean second-rate versions of West End productions, but the entertainment onboard offers genuine South Pacific flare. Guests are charmed by disarmingly friendly local children who come aboard to sing and dance and by the hypnotically-hipped Les Gauguines who wiggle and jiggle to the sound of ukuleles and drums.
On the final night a raven-haired Gauguine called Ravahere (‘Rare Love’) evocatively dances to the songs ‘Pua Noanoa’, about the scent of a rare flower and ‘Hine Paumotu’, about a girl’s homesickness for her island. The performers are all full of smiles and good cheer, which is hardly surprising seeing as they’re not the ones catching a long-haul flight home the end of the week.
Next morning, stepping ashore for the final time, I consider life as a stowaway while enviously watching Ravahere prepare a fresh batch of welcoming flowers for the next group of guests.
Our ship may have sailed, but we still have a post-cruise stay at the stunning Tahiti InterContinental to savour. This opulent sea-front hotel, with its own sandy beach and lagoon, offers spacious basic rooms or a chance to literally splash out on the South Pacific’s signature accommodation – an overwater bungalow on stilts, in an ocean so shallow you can walk hundreds of meters out to sea.
Some come complete with glass-bottomed coffee tables offering underwater views from the living room.
Once back home we take our minds off the stack of unwritten thank you cards by fantasising about making Tahiti more than just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By the time we return the ship will have undergone a multimillion-dollar facelift, planned for early 2012. A name change is advisable too.
Forget The Paul Gauguin. This ship deserves to be rechristened… ‘The Paul Goagain’.
• First published in the Sunday Mirror.