The Paul Gauguin is one of the most unique and distinctive cruise ships afloat anywhere today. In the first instance, she is a strictly one off build. There are no siblings, or indeed even cousins, to this charming, one of a kind little gem.
Secondly, she cruises almost exclusively around the storybook islands of French Polynesia, and has done so exclusively since her debut in 1998. As a result, she has become an integral part of the tourism out there, and to such an extent that she has come to be regarded as a small, pretty, Polynesian island in her own right. This is nothing less than the truth.
At 19,000 tons and carrying just 336 guests, the Paul Gauguin manages to pull off the perfect double of appearing both spacious and intimate You’ll always find your own space and place on board, but there is ample scope for socialising when the mood suits you as well.
The decor throughout is cool and restful, with lots of pastel shades and wood accents, and a complete absence of any kind of glitz anywhere. There are no surf parks or rock climbing walls here; the amazing scenic smorgasbord that is French Polynesia will provide all the on board diversion that you can handle, and then some.
All cabins are outside, and the great majority have private balconies. My seven deck balcony room was just below the pool, and contained a bed so soft that it felt like falling into a giant marshmallow at the end of every night. There is a TV and a DVD player, and a mini bar stocked with free beer plus soft drinks, replenished as and when required. There was no expected welcome champagne on ice but, as the ship is fully inclusive throughout, this was not exactly a hardship.
The sitting area in this room was small but beautifully styled, with cherry wood door frames and cabinetry. The bathrooms all have bath, shower and toilet, but are pretty functional in comparison to the marble clad enclaves of Crystal and Silversea. But they do come with top end L’Occitaine products, deep, fluffy towels, slippers, and a terry robe.
The room also has a walk in wardrobe that allows for ample storage space but, truth be told, the Paul Gauguin is not a ‘dressy’ ship. The atmosphere on board is pretty informal, and matches the languid vibe of Polynesia itself quite seamlessly. Apart from the ship’s officers, I never saw anybody wearing a tie for the whole week on board.
The balcony was more of a large ledge, with room for two chairs and a small occasional table. You can’t recline on the balcony in any comfort, but it was still the perfect spot for breakfast coffee, or a nightcap. The sunrises I saw from mine were almost heartbreaking in their sheer, lustrous beauty and intensity.
Food from the restaurant menus can be served in your room, course by course. There’s also an additional, very extensive room service menu available, again at no charge, And what food it is. But I’ll get to that in a minute…
There are three main dining rooms; quite a handle for such a small ship. L’Etoile is the main dining venue, and has windows facing out over both port and starboard, as well as across the stern. Midships, Le Grill offers up buffet breakfasts and lunches, as does La Veranda on the rear of the next deck done.
La Veranda was my personal favourite; somehow, lamb chops or minute steak for breakfast, followed by crepes with chocolate sauce and steaming hot coffee, just seemed to become second nature, and not remotely serial self indulgence. There was a clutch of small tables that looked out over the stern, where you could always eat alfresco if the mood suited you. Most passengers seemed to take a few days to discover it, which was just fine by me.
But regardless of where you ate, the food was simply magnificent, both in terms of taste and presentation. The attention to detail is right up there with the six star ships, and the fruit- especially the melon- was serially addictive. The logistics of supplying a ship of this size with the quality of onboard catering we experienced cannot be overestimated. That it works so spectacularly well testifies to the working relationship that the Paul Gauguin people have established with victuallers ashore.
There are a handful of idyllic, cosy little venues that form the nucleus of social life on board. La Palette is at the rear of the topmost deck, and functions both as a daytime lounge and a late night disco. Its back wall slides open onto an expansive outdoor terrace, where people gather for cocktails both before and after dinner. The room itself is decorated in honey and biscuit coloured tones, and has floor to ceiling windows along both sides.
While that open terrace was bliss at night, the daytime heat made it all but unusable. It has no awning but, to be fair, most people would be ashore exploring during those hours in any event.
Moving forward past Le Grill you find a small, open air pool. There were no hot tubs, but some were due to be added in a later refit. There is ample space to sunbathe without feeling crowded; the nearby bar has nicely shaded areas, and gorgeous, after breakfast mimosas to go. Like everything else on board the Paul Gauguin, these are delivered with a smile, and without a bill.
Inside, the main run of public rooms begins with the show lounge on five deck. You can forget the fur and feathers style Vegas revues in here; instead, we had the gorgeous Gauguines.
These lovely Polynesian ladies live on board, and give guests a rare, real insight into the arts, crafts and traditions of the islands. There are displays of typical local dances, storytelling sessions, and lessons on how to dress, Polynesian style.
But the Gauguines are far more than mere local window dressing. Walk around the upper decks and you might come across one of them just strumming an acoustic guitar. Wade ashore at the paradise island of Motu Mahana and you’ll likely find them singing and dancing on the beach. Return to the ship after a hard day’s exploring, and one of the girls will be waiting with cool face towels, and always a welcoming smile. More than anything, they are wonderful ambassadors for the area they know and love so well. After all, this is home for them.
Moving along, you’ll find a small, beautifully styled piano bar, at a right angle to the window walled interior boulevard that leads to the main indoor restaurant, L’Etoile. On one night, this whole deck was used to stage a magnificent music, arts and crafts fair that was like some wonderful, audio visual assault on the senses. The Paul Gauguin blends into the landscape around her so seamlessly that it is sometimes hard to see where reality actually begins and ends. The line is certainly very finely blurred, but in a dreamy, smiley kind of way.
At the stern, a marina lowers right down to the water’s edge to allow scuba diving right off the edge, as well as use of the free sail boats and kayaks carried on board. For lovers of coral reefs at their rarest and most beautiful, this ship is a fabulous natural platform in a region that is famously remote and inaccessible.
Don’t expect rollicking, late night nightlife here. Many of the passengers are honeymooners and, not surprisingly, they prefer to arrange their own entertainment in private. But the ship is sublime on every level; beautifully run, and never less than warm and welcoming at any hour of the day or night.
The Paul Gauguin overnights at many ports, but this does not mean that you can go ashore at all hours of the night at tender ports. Typically, the launches to and from shore usually stop running at around eleven thirty each evening. Because of the relative proximity of the islands to each other- just thirty-seven miles between Moorea and Tahiti, for example- very little time is actually spent under way. That may well be because, for all of her undoubted style and charm, the Paul Gauguin is a bit of a snappy roller out on the open ocean.
But if you want to try something that is utterly out of this world and boasts true, real originality, then the Paul Gauguin is definitely something for the bucket list. She is almost chocolate box pretty, with fantastic, unfailingly good service, and a welcome as warm as the most sublime Polynesian sunrise. Everything about this precious little jewel of a ship will charm and enchant you.
One thing I know for sure; the experience of sailing on this pretty little lady will stay with you long after you return home. And the memories will certainly always make you smile. Bon voyage!