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Yachts at sunset in Papeete, Tahiti
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updated 6/9/2006 1:27:51 PM ET 2006-06-09T17:27:51

Paradise on Earth. The Ultimate Honeymoon Destination. The Most Stunning Water. The Most Beautiful People on Earth. The superlatives that have built up in our shared consciousness about Tahiti and her 118 unique islands may seem over-blown, except for those who've experienced a leisurely and romantic cruise through this magical South Pacific archipelago. The too-perfect-to-be-true turquoise and azure blue waters, majestic tropical scenery, gorgeous white sand beaches, year-round sunshine and the remarkably welcoming people you'll find throughout the main Society Islands (Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Raiatea, Taha'a and Huahine) are, well, perfect in many respects. Few places in the world consistently live up to the abundant hype surrounding their marketing campaigns, but Tahiti is one of the few that actually deliver. The promise is that you can "bring your dreams to Tahiti and feel them come true." After visiting this idyllic destination, most visitors feel some of their dreams fulfilled.

Because of the tranquil waters beyond the reefs, short distances between islands and generally superior onboard service and cuisine, cruising is an increasingly popular vacation option for in-the-know visitors to Tahiti. Besides being an easy way to hit the most well-known Tahitian islands all in one trip, all-inclusive cruising offers the added benefit of being a "value" choice, given the exorbitantly high costs of staying solely on land. For example, the famed over-water bungalows in Bora Bora or Moorea can easily cost $800 per night and up, while costs for good food at the major hotel restaurants make London seem like a bargain (a salad for $30 at lunch, a fish entree for $40 at dinner, high mark-ups on wine, etc.). If you add up hotel, dining and transportation costs, a luxury land-only one-week vacation in a couple of the Tahitian Islands can easily cost double or more than a one-week cruise on a luxury ship (and without the top-notch service at sea). Of course, many Tahitian cruise travelers do take advantage of their short-lived jaunt in paradise by extending their trip to stay on land before or after their cruise, a logical way to get the best of both experiences.

One of the most surprising facts for first-time visitors to Tahiti is that it's not as far as you think. Less than eight hours nonstop from LAX on the national carrier Air Tahiti Nui (additional options include Air France, Qantas and Air New Zealand), the capital of Papeete and its Fa'a International Airport will be your gateway to the islands. Tahiti is in the same time zone as Hawaii, but frequent visitors to the Aloha State will immediately note differences when they land in Tahiti -- more unspoiled terrain, calm and crystal-clear waters, a complete lack of crowds, and a chic, cosmopolitan French cultural influence.

Cruising through the Tahitian Isles and enjoying one of the many shore excursions is extraordinarily relaxing as well; you will never encounter a crowded port as you do so often in the Caribbean. And you'll soon agree with the numerous repeat Tahitian visitors who know that each island is different, with its own history, scenery, characteristics and one-of-a-kind shore excursions. Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, is where most cruises begin and end, and the cosmopolitan vibe of the city is complemented by spectacular scenery on every stretch of this large island. Bora Bora's magnificent lagoon is a James Michener-styled South Seas fantasy come to life, with many water sports and outdoor activities. Moorea, an easy ferry ride across from the island of Tahiti, is well known for its towering peaks and scenic bays. The sister islands of Raiatea and Taha'a are sparsely populated, yet hold many attractions beyond the typically stunning land and sea. Raiatea is the second largest Tahitian Island and the center of the Polynesian religion and culture for hundreds of years, while the gentle scent of vanilla permeates Taha'a, "the Vanilla Island."

The lesser-traveled Tahitian islands include Huahine, known for its lush forests and deep lagoon, and Rangiroa, the second-largest coral atoll in the world and a premier dive destination. Fans of CBS' reality show "Survivor" are sure to remember the faraway setting for Season Four, the rugged and dramatic Marquesas Islands, located 930 miles northeast of Tahiti. The major cruise lines in Tahiti (Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Princess Cruises) have occasional itineraries that stop in Nuku Hiva and Hiva, the two ports in the Marquesas, while the mixed passenger/cargo vessel Aranui 3 runs to the Marquesas regularly.

Who Goes There?

Tahiti is still a specialized and unique cruising market, which makes choosing a ship and itinerary quite easy compared to the Caribbean or Europe. The two major and familiar cruise lines that service the Tahiti Isles year-round are Regent with its M/S Paul Gauguin (320 passengers on week-long cruises) and Princess with its Tahitian Princess (670 passengers on 10-day cruises that hit the Cook Islands, or Samoa and the Marquesas, depending on itinerary).

Keep in mind that other major cruise lines make occasional stops to Tahiti on world cruises or on one-of-kind itineraries. The three lesser-known but worthwhile cruise choices in Tahiti are Bora Bora Cruises, with its two stylish cruise yachts (70 passengers each); the fabled Aranui 3, a mixed passenger/cargo vessel that makes regular 16-day trips from Tahiti to the Marquesas and Tuamotu atolls; and Archipels Cruises, five eight-passenger catamarans with three- to eight-day cruises that provide a true sailing experience.

Choosing an Itinerary

Slideshow: Explore New Zealand First-time cruisers in Tahiti usually opt to take either the Paul Gauguin or Tahitian Princess, since both give an excellent overall introduction to the beauty of the islands with all of the familiar amenities and cruising style. Besides the comfort of knowing that the level of service you'll encounter onboard is usually far superior to that on land, the Paul Gauguin and Tahitian Princess both showcase local Tahitian culture through authentic dance and music shows as well as local artisans who come on board to demonstrate pearl production, painting, handicrafts, etc.

The luxurious Paul Gauguin departs year-round every Saturday from Papeete on week-long cruises that stop at the "must see" islands of Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha'a, Moorea and Regent's own private "motu" or small island (many say that this all-day visit to their private motu is one of the highlights of Tahiti, with wonderful food, drinks, and outdoor activities, all in blissful seclusion). Six times a year (in June - July and December 2005), the Paul Gauguin makes fabulous 10- and 11-day trips that extend to Huahine, Rangiroa and the Marquesas Islands; these trips book up very early, so plan ahead. The Paul Gauguin also features a wide variety of water sports such as waterskiing, kayaking and snorkeling, all of which are easily accessible from an aft water sports marina.

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The more mid-scale Tahitian Princess features its own "boutique version" of Princess' Personal Choice Cruising Program, and is the only cruise line with year-round 10-day itineraries through the Tahitian Islands. Itineraries on the Tahitian Princess vary, with the most popular 10-day cruise hitting Huahine and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. A less frequent 10-day cruise offered several times a year stops in American Samoa, while another special cruise makes the long journey up to the Marquesas. The The Tahitian Princess is the right choice for fans of larger ships who want more of the traditional cruising experience, such as casino, shipboard entertainment every night and nonstop onboard activities, while the Paul Gauguin offers much of the same but in a more luxurious setting and with better cuisine and service (partly due to its smaller size).

An ultra-deluxe alternative to the familiar Regent and Princess brands is Bora Bora Cruises, which operates two identical cruise yachts: Tu Mona and Ti'a Moana. Each holding 70 passengers, these two vessels are prime examples of boutique luxury cruising and are renowned for their extraordinarily intimate experiences (don't be surprised if you dine with the captain and his crew every evening).

In addition, an excellent local Tahitian naturalist/historian leads unique shore excursions to undiscovered snorkeling spots, working pearl farms and isolated inlets. Note that Bora Bora Cruises departs from Bora Bora on its six-night sails deep into the lagoons of Taha'a, Raiatea and Huahine (no Moorea or Tahiti), and features elegantly appointed rooms and common areas, including teak wood decks. Similar in itinerary to Bora Bora Cruises, Archipels Cruises, departing from Bora Bora, features five 57-foot sister yachts, each with 4 cabins. Fans of true sailing will love the freedom on Archipels' comfortable catamarans, as well as the chance to bond with the skipper and chef-hostess while exploring smaller bays and inlets. Archipels also offers three- and four-day "Robinson Crusoe" sails around Rangiroa, the diving star of the Tuamotu atolls.

Repeat visitors to Tahiti often want to go off the beaten tourist path, and the mysterious and rugged Marquesas Islands are far from the hustle and bustle of the cruise dock at Papeete. While certainly not luxurious, the 200-passenger Aranui 3--the mixed passenger/cargo vessel -- offers a remarkable 16-day adventure trip from Papeete to the Tuamotu islands, then through the major islands of the Marquesas. No other cruise line in Tahiti lets you explore this uncharted part of the world in such an in-depth manner. You'll be up close on the deck to watch cargo loading and unloading at each port; the Aranui 3 is truly the vital shipping source for many of the remote islands. The naturalist talks, interactions with the Marquesan crew and spectacular unspoiled scenery at every port make the Aranui 3 a memorable alternative to Regent or Princess.

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Bear in mind that the smaller the vessel, the greater the possibility of seasickness. Obviously, you'll experience much less on the Tahitian Princess or the Paul Gauguin than on the relatively tiny Archipels. Sailing among the tranquil main Society Islands is usually gentle and not rocky, except for long stretches between Papeete and Bora Bora. Far out on the ocean headed towards the Cook Islands or Tuamotu or the Marquesas Islands can be as unpredictable as any other wide-open stretch of sea.

Best Time to Go

Tahiti is blessed with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, rarely deviating from the average of 79 degrees. The absolutely best weather, with little to no rain, occurs from June to October (although the trade winds do pick up during these months). Between November and May, the weather gets a bit warmer (up to 85 degrees) and more humid, with more intermittent rain -- usually a couple of hours or so in the afternoon -- hardly enough to dampen your travel plans. All throughout the year, Tahiti's abundant sunshine, cooling breezes and constantly warm water temperatures (again around that average of 79 degrees) mean that it's truly a year-round destination. And since none of the cruise lines hold formal nights -- despite the chic French flair -- lightweight packing with casual outfits (and country-club casual for some evenings) is a breeze.

Extending Your Cruise Vacation

If you have the time, why not enjoy some extra days in paradise? Three days or more spent in a land hotel or resort will give you a chance to delve more deeply into one or two islands' land and water attractions (like hiking in Moorea, Jet Skiing around Bora Bora or diving in Huahine), without the pressure of having to "do it all" during a one-day ship shore excursion. Prices will inevitably be high for extending your vacation (and don't forget to include extra time for air or ferry transports between islands).

If you take the Regent Paul Gauguin or the Tahitian Princess cruises, you can easily book one of their pre or post-cruise extension packages to stay on land in Bora Bora or Moorea (the two most popular islands), as well as every other major Society Island that you won't visit on your cruise itinerary, such as Huahine. Many cruise passengers prefer to start their vacations on land, by staying in a romantic overwater bungalow, spacious garden bungalow or luxurious hotel suite, since the service on land inevitably falls short of the gracious service onboard the big cruise ships.

Some of the legendary hotels whose views and bungalows are always depicted in the tourist brochures include the Bora Bora Lagoon (part of Orient-Express Hotels and Resorts), the Hotel Bora Bora (an Aman property) and the luxurious island outposts of the Le Meridien, Sheraton, Sofitel, Inter-Continental and Club Med chains.

A common way for visitors to extend their time in paradise is to take back-to-back cruises on the Paul Gauguin, since Regent runs frequent specials in the low season (our summer) that make this a rather economical choice for a two-week Tahitian vacation and also solves the frequent gripe that the seven-day Paul Gauguin cruise is just "too short!" Sometimes, back-to-back cruises are just 150 percent of the one-week cost instead of double. Plus, back-to-backers have the chance to enjoy more time onboard and be very selective about which excursions to take (as well as enjoy the cost savings compared to staying in a five-star hotel on land). In fact, both Regent and Princess have frequent specials (such as free air to Tahiti from Los Angeles) that can bring down the total cost of your vacation considerably.

Can't-Miss Shore Excursions

Not surprisingly, with the most incredible water and beautiful island scenery at every island stop, almost every shore excursion you pick will be a winner in French Polynesia. As in Hawaii, prices for shore excursions are on the high side (simple two-hour snorkel trips begin at $60 per person, two-hour Jet Skiing -- called waverunners here -- tours around Moorea or Bora Bora are around $210 per couple). The Paul Gauguin ship features its own water sports marinas, and many of the best activities are free -- like kayaking through Cook's Bay and snorkeling off of Regent's private island. On the smaller boutique ships like Bora Bora Cruises or the Aranui, the shore excursions are decidedly no-frills but still wonderful. Or you may choose just to explore one of the islands on your own by renting a car or Jeep to find secluded beaches, small covers and lovely hiking spots.

Here's just a selection of the best shore excursions in the major Tahitian Islands.

Tahiti
Take one of the many island tours that pass the beautiful west coast of the main island, following in the footsteps of the celebrated artist Paul Gauguin (or rent a car on your own to experience the same sights). Explore the dramatic cliffs and lush vegetation, tour the Paul Gauguin museum, see chic residential areas and find deserted beaches and grottos for swimming.

Bora Bora
This legendary island is justly famous for its magnificent lagoon and magical water, so the best way to see it all is by renting a waverunner for an exhilarating one-hour circle island tour. The shark and ray feeding excursion (it's totally safe!) is world-famous and will give you some of the best Kodak moments of your trip. Those who are curious about scuba and the underwater world it can reveal can try the "Aqua Safari" that mimics scuba -- all without getting your hair wet!

Moorea
While the waverunner expedition around Moorea is also exciting, the best views on the island are from the land, where you'll get an up-close view of the craggy peaks, lush valleys and the full splendor of Cook's and Oponohu Bays from the famous Belvedere Point. You'll probably stop at a pearl store to marvel at the unique black pearls found only in the Tahitian islands. The "Trails of the Ancient" trek to visit the Belvedere Point and ancient temples, which includes fascinating commentary from a renowned archeologist, is not to be missed. Encounters with dolphins can be booked, either in the more scientific/conservationist tour, or swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Center.

Raiatea
Similar to Moorea, this island's lush land scenery is more spectacular than the crystalline water itself, so join an excursion that will take you from the main town of Uturoa up to Mount Temahani and finally to the ancient marae (temples) that give this island such an important religious and cultural significance to all Polynesians. The pearl farm expeditions (also available on Taha'a) are special ways to explore the elusive pearl oysters in their native environment.

Taha'a
The quiet sister island to Raiatea (they share the same lagoon) offers similar enchanting scenes from paradise-white sand beaches, an ancient volcano and deep valleys redolent with the scent of vanilla. Since Regent passengers almost all head to the private motu picnic the day the Paul Gauguin stops in Raiatea/Taha'a, the only other shore excursion is the Black Pearl Farm Adventure (also offered on the Raiatea port day).

Huahine
This more isolated and "savage" island (actually two sister islands linked together) features velvety slopes and lush tropical vegetation. It's also the right spot to venture beyond the reef to try your hand at some deep sea fishing or to enjoy a four-wheel drive safari through the rugged terrain.

In addition to writing about cruising trends in the burgeoning gay and lesbian market for Cruise Critic, Los Angeles-based Wu is also the travel editor of westhollywood.com and Metrosource Magazine.

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