Favorite Luxury Cruise: Tahiti with Paul Gauguin

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Paul Gauguin CruisesTim Mckenna

LOCATION: Tahiti BOAT: **M/S Paul Gauguin **DURATION: 7 Days

It’s been on an office wall for four years: The green peaks of Bora Bora rising from a lagoon, the ridiculous colors clinging to both paper and my mind. As I board the M/S Paul Gauguin in Papeete, I wonder if the boat can deliver on the expectations set by a photo. The ship’s small footprint will allow access to Tahitian islands no larger boat can reach. But can it match my 200-week, two-dimensional fantasy?

THE STOPS

1. RAIATEA: USING MY FEET

As soon as the boat is docked, I set off with my hiking shoes, alone, to climb Mount Tapioi (it’s an hour up). I walk through the sleepy town of Uturoa, where a pure- white church emits hymns, and free-range pigs snuffle in a yard. Breathing hard at the summit, I can see adjacent Taha‘a, distant Bora Bora and the ship far beneath my feet, and I think, “This is going to be good.”

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Paul Gauguin CruisesTim McKenna

2. ON THE WATER: GOOD DAY, ABNER

I’m sprawled out, weary from hiking, snorkeling and gawk- ing. I’m not sure I even want to answer the knock on my cabin door. But I do, and there at the threshold stands a butler, Abner, delivering a plate of fresh tropical fruit and a glass of champagne. It motivates me to wander down to L’Etoile for Polynesian-inflected renditions of French cuisine and one (just one) bottomless glass of New Zealand syrah.

3. TAHA‘A: IT SOUNDS RIGHT

Hermit crabs scuttle away as a band strolls toward us, barefoot, on a palm-covered motu. The ship is nearby, but only a few passengers have come to the beach. I don snorkel gear and walk into the warm water. Tidal currents carry me over corals, while triggerfish, jacks, and eels make sure I keep my fins off the reef. The lesson here? I never could’ve learned the aquamarine definition of Tahiti through a poster.

4. BORA BORA: SHARKS AND UKES

“They probably won’t bite you,” says our guide, peering into water teeming with lemon sharks. And with that he takes up a homemade ukulele to serenade us in Tahitian while circumnavigating the island in his small boat, the central peaks of Otemanu and Paha‘a shifting above us. He idles into a hidden cove, where six of us will crush a lunch that includes mouthwatering poisson cru (lime-cured ahi in coconut milk). Plucking at the uke, our boatman announces the obvious: “Beautiful day!”

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Paul Gauguin CruisesTim McKenna

5. ON THE WATER: OUT OF THIN AIR

Eight Tahitian angels known as les Gauguines — tiare flowers in their hair, pareos around their waists — sweep into the lounge to sing, dance, and dispense good cheer. Then they disappear, perhaps on vanilla-scented wings. Grace. It goes with the Tahitian territory.

6. MOOREA: UNDERWATER DANCE

Marine biologist Michael Poole takes us out for a rare view of wild spinner dolphins in their natural habitat. We motor past the mouths of Cook’s and Opunohu bays, but no aquatic mammals appear. “They’re free,” Michael says, “so we never know exactly where they’ll be.” Finally, in the shadow of Mount Mouaputa, the dolphins spin into the air around our boat, close enough to see their smiling eyes.

“They’re just like us!” cries an excited guest hanging over the bow. “They love to play.”