Why We Chose a Cruise as a Way to See French Polynesia

My wife and I had wanted to visit French Polynesia for a long time – who hasn’t dreamed about this remote idyllic paradise as a place to spend a romantic vacation? Luckily, we made the trip just before the pandemic, and we’re so glad we were able to go. The challenge for us was how to visit – pick one island and stay at a resort? Or visit two islands? Do a cruise? Although cruising isn’t usually our first choice for a vacation (we prefer more independent travel – hence the name of this blog), cruising can be a great way to go for certain locations, and French Polynesia is one of them, especially if you want to see as many islands as possible and do so relatively economically. Air travel between the islands is expensive, as are the resorts (especially the over water guest rooms!).

There are only two major lines that cruise exclusively within the islands – Windstar and Paul Gauguin. It was a bit of a toss-up for us between the two, but we chose Windstar and we were very happy with our choice. Our particular ship provided a bit of an actual sailing experience – the four sails help propel the ship (in addition to diesel engines) and what we especially loved was the fact there were only 150 passengers. Paul Gauguin is more like a typical (although smaller) cruise line/ship that accommodates about 300 passengers.

The Wind Spirit, our home for seven days of cruising in French Polynesia, at dock in Papeete, Tahiti.

Because the ship is small, by the end of the cruise you at least recognize most of your fellow travelers and have become friends with some of them – through participating in some of the same sightseeing tours and onboard activities. With fewer passengers the port stops and embarkations don’t seem overrun and it’s more like a large family reunion on shore and at dinner as well as for the entertainment. The crew is also very friendly. Early one morning while at anchor in a beautiful bay in Moorea I went up to the bridge and had a casual conversation with the Executive Officer – he showed me the bridge controls and gave some great insights about his experience and cruising in the islands.

The Bridge of the Wind Spirit

One night they held a crew talent show and I have probably not laughed as much as during that show – some of the skits were hilarious! Most of the time onboard we just enjoyed sitting on the deck, watching the sea and islands and enjoying the fresh air. The ship also had a water sports deck, where you could borrow kayaks, snorkel gear and use a floating swim dock. They also had a small outboard motor boat that took us water skiing and wakeboarding simply at your request for free – I got to do both, and that was a blast! At the end of this post, I provide a few tips and comments about this beautiful country and Windstar cruises.

The aft deck and pool and hot tub on the Wind Spirit.

The staterooms were a reasonable size, the food was excellent, and there were just enough entertainment options on board to keep us occupied (if desired) without it feeling like we were at a Las Vegas casino hotel.

Our stateroom aboard the Wind Spirit.

Our cruise visited 5 islands (7 day cruise, see map below) and we decided to stay an extra few days afterwards on Moorea in an overwater bungalow–highly recommended (Hilton), and then we toured a bit of the island of Tahiti on our last day before our flight left for the mainland that evening.

Our cruise visited 5 islands, and gave us a good feel for this part of French Polynesia. The ship spent two nights in Bora Bora. Bora Bora is about 172 miles from Papeete. Moorea is only a ~30 minute ferry ride from Papeete.

Since our cruise started and ended in Papeete, Tahiti, I’ll show a few images of this island and city and in future posts we’ll cover the other islands we visited.

A view of Papeete, Tahiti.
A street scene in Papeete, Tahiti. Most roofs are made of corrugated metal, they probably hold up best in this tropical climate.
A big market in Papeete, Tahiti. Lots of local items available here, a good place to shop before heading home.
Our guide for our afternoon tour of Tahiti before we flew home, in front of the LDS Temple in Papeete.
Locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the beach near Papeete. The beaches on the north shore of Tahiti are black sand.
Another view of the north shore of Tahiti, a rugged and beautiful coast line.
On our short tour of the island of Tahiti, we visited some falls in the Fa’Aruma’i Valley, one of the falls is 300 feet high.
The Arahoho Blow Hole, near the Fa’Aruma’i Valley.
Another beach with surfers along the north shore of Tahiti.
Robyn overlooking the north shore of Tahiti. The island of Moorea is just barely visible on the horizon.

We’ll share more of the French Polynesian islands in future posts. Here are few tips and observations for visiting French Polynesia and cruising the islands:

  1. French Polynesia is not Hawai’i. Outside of Papeete (population of about 100,000), the towns on the islands are VERY small, and the islands (even Moorea) feel remote. While there are a few high-end resorts on several of the islands (especially Bora Bora), in general the islands are very quiet and rural. It’s not hard to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago.
  2. This is the South Pacific – plan for rain, but mainly short bursts. We went in November, a shoulder season, and had great weather overall, with occasional cloudy skies and some showers. The ocean water was warm and very pleasant for water sports. Plan on diving or snorkeling. We saw lots of friendly sharks and rays.
  3. There are activities on board the ship, but they are limited, and there’s just one small shop. If you want 24/7 entertainment, this may not be the cruise for you. Personally, we enjoyed the quiet downtime.
  4. Arranging port tours. There is always a question in my mind as to whether to sign up for the cruise ship tours (which tend to be more expensive) or plan one on your own once you get off the ship at a port. We did some of both. Since these islands have small populations, we weren’t sure what the availability of tours/transportation would be when we got off the ship, and so we booked several tours ahead of time as part of the cruise. Don’t expect a ton of tour guides mobbing you as you get off the ship (we were actually ferried to shore in tenders at all stops), usually there was one little desk with a tour agent, and that was it! In Bora Bora we decided to wing a tour of the island, and had a great time doing a land tour and private boat tour of the lagoon (HIGHLY recommended – seeing the island from all sides was really great, and the water adventures as part of this tour were great too). In addition, I did a diving tour on Bora Bora as part of the cruise offering. I would say in general it made sense to book through Windstar for these islands.
  5. The French Polynesians are extremely friendly and relaxed, they take the tourism in stride and are rightly so very proud of their history and culture. There are ancient connections between the natives of Hawai’i, New Zealand and French Polynesia. Since this is an “overseas collectivity” of France (part of the French Republic), you do find some caucasian French citizens making their home here.
  6. English is widely spoken, along with Tahitian and French of course.
  7. Papeete is about an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles.