M/S PAUL GAUGUIN: MUSING ON CRUISING

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Pool deck in Paradise; on board the Paul Gauguin off Moorea. Photo copyright is that of the author

Well, today is our last full day here on board the Paul Gauguin. We’re still anchored in the gorgeous embrace of Moorea but, at around five o’clock this evening, we will weigh anchor to make the short, ten mile or so canter back to Papeete, where I’ll be spending the night on board before disembarking tomorrow.

I am going to miss these islands- and this ship- more than I can possibly describe. ‘Dream Trip’ is an over used cliche that I personally detest but, in this case, nothing else will do to describe the deep sense of peace that this part of the world engenders in you. That, combined with the ease of accessibility, the casual, spectacular luxury of the Paul Gauguin herself, and the attentiveness of one of the best crews that I have ever encountered on any ship, all makes this one a very hard act to follow.

Not that I won’t try, mind you. Yep, I’m looking at you, Bermuda….

Highlights of this trip have come and gone like so many muffled drum rolls. Last night’s Polynesian themed dinner in the L’Etoile Restaurant is simply one of the best meals that I have ever eaten anywhere. The lobster was out of this world, and don’t even get me started on how scrumptious Tahitian vanilla actually is.

Our tenders- my preppy little ‘Gauguin Water Beetles’-run with the smoothness and efficiency of a Swiss watch. To be fair, they have now had twenty years to get this right, but the organisation remains impressive for all that.

The Paul Gauguin herself is spotlessly clean, and I mean ‘immaculate’. No sooner does someone get up out of one of the rattan chairs, than a staff member appears to plump the cushions, perking it up ready for the next weary lotus eater to sag into like some broken puppet with it’s strings cut.

I suspect that the sound of a ukulele will haunt me for many a month to come, and at odd, random moments when I least expect it, too. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not a complaint of any sort. It’s just a way of explaining how the sound and the soul of French Polynesia have seeped so deeply into so many of us.

I’ll miss the sense of care and palpable concern that this crew has for the passengers in it’s charge. Like the receptionist who called me back the other day to advise me to take an umbrella ashore, as it looked like it might rain. None fell right then as it happened, but you get the picture. And I’ve seen so many examples of this kind of thing happening all over the ship.

I’ll sure as hell miss those magical evenings spent lounging on the terrace outside La Palette, with the stars twinkling over the darkened, dreamy peaks of Moorea as a brilliant half moon shines down on the waters below us. That warm breeze, the easy manner and sense of elegant fun of my fellow travellers, and their kindness and generosity of spirit. That last remark also applies unreservedly to this splendid, selfless crew.

Needless to say, there is always at least one unpleasant person aboard any cruise. In our case, it’s an irascible, addled ‘lady’ with a hefty sense of self entitlement. The poor dear seems possessed of the notion that the entire ship is her own, personal fiefdom.

To be fair to her, she may simply be in the last throes of Mad Cow disease, or something similar. In any event, she’s the one person on board that most definitely puts the ‘moo’ into Moorea. Most of us avoid her like the plague, but she has still contrived to make life hell for the crew who, unlike us, do not have that simple luxury of side stepping her.

Obviously, being the professionals that they are, they still treat her with unfailing courtesy. Personally, I’d tie a pork chop to each of her legs, and then tip her overboard for the sharks to play with.

Ah, but such things are like the rain clouds that glower over us for a few moments, only to be replaced by a rainbow. My own, personal rainbow awaits in the seductive little shape of the post breakfast Mimosa that I will shortly be taking on board. Because, while it is almost over for this trip, ‘almost’ is not quite ‘finished’, as it were.

And here, in the charmed universe that is the Paul Gauguin, many of us are still dreaming, wide awake……

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M/S PAUL GAUGUIN: A SERENADE IN GREEN

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Good morning, Moorea! Photo copyright is that of the author

This morning, the Paul Gauguin arrived in Moorea for our penultimate, two day stay before we head back to Papeete on Friday evening. The weather has cleared, and the sky is such a brilliant shade of blue that it hurts to look at it for too long. A handful of yachts sit bobbing at anchor nearby us, looking like a gaggle of sated swans. The sea all around us is like warm bath water.

Moorea is the stuff of legends. It was the setting for James Michener’s famous book, Bali Hai. The mountain of the same name was immortalised in song in the world famous movie and musical, South Pacific.

Bali Hai itself sits about half a mile away from me as I write this. It resembles nothing so much as some mythical dragon’s molar, standing sharp and proud against the early morning sky. The other long, rolling hills and peaks draped around it look like ancient courtiers, bowing at the feet of this benign monster. Out here, everything seems to have a deeper, more mystical significance than a mere physical presence alone might suggest.

Yesterday, we said our farewells to Bora Bora, and it affected some of our passengers quite deeply as we sailed away from the massive, majestic presence of Mount Otemanu. A pod of dolphins formed a guard of honour for the Paul Gauguin, leaping and diving in and out of our bow wave as we stood out into the azure hue of the early evening Pacific.

As a moment, it was exquisite. As a memory, I’m pretty sure that time will prove it to be indelible. Truly, this region seeps into your bones, into your very soul, like nowhere else that I have ever seen.

Strolling inland on Bora Bora, you encountered the reality of daily life in the South Pacific. Chickens and roosters strut across patches of bare, red earth where docile dogs sleep in the hot afternoon sun. The plants, flowers and other fauna everywhere is so rich. full and intense both in colour and scent, that you feel as if you are wide awake in some vast, vivid dreamscape that is far too good to be true, And yet, there you stand.

Cobalt blue waters lap at the edge of a shoreline studded with masses of palm trees. Canoes in a myriad shade of hues dot the water’s edge, together with clusters of rickety houses. These are mostly single storey building erected on blocks, where lines of washing hang limp in the ghost of a breeze. Fruit sellers ply their wares from makeshift stalls that sprout along the edges of the roadsides. Surprisingly, there is far more traffic than you might expect in this rugged, remote slice of Nirvana.

Scooters buzz like agitated wasps around the hairpin bends. School buses that have long since seen better days wheeze and splutter in random, asthmatic spurts as they attempt to run through all of this gorgeous scenic splendour.Open top trucks and small, pristine hire cars rock and roll along the winding expanse of the sun kissed Pacific coast.

Fishing boats on raised stilts crouch like birds of prey, hovering over the still, largely silent waters of Bora Bora. On the landward side, hundreds of small holes betray the burrows of the local land crabs, a spiky, diminutive breed that often braves the barrelling traffic, and not always successfully.

Needless to say by now, I have gone more or less totally native out here. No looking for smart, waterfront, touristy bars to slake my thirst now. Instead, I make do with a perch on some worn, slatted wooden pier, where I can dip my feet in the water as I enjoy a cold beer or two from the ’emergency provisions’ pack that I have brought with me from the Paul Gauguin. Out here you learn to improvise and, as a result, you connect with all the wonderful stuff around you in a way that you would never do back at home. You raise your game on so many levels out here and, of course, it’s all life affirming stuff as well.

Later, as we catch the tender back to the ship, I’m musing on a million different technicolor memories, each one woven into the fabric of my mind like so many strands of fine stitching. Those tenders themselves- I have nicknamed them the ‘Gauguin Water Beetles’-have become such an intrinsic part of our daily lives out here, that we truly do take them for granted.

We climb down a stairway from the ship, and onto a floating pontoon. From there. we step into the tenders one at a time. We bumble backwards and forwards across this sublimely seductive seascape, before making landfall in this magnificent scenic smorgasbord called the South Pacific. Later, with the afternoon breeze in our hair, we tender back to our beautiful little ship. Truly, in a short space of time, the Paul Gauguin has become the centre of our universe. I wonder how I ever existed without her at odd moments.

We keep learning on board, too. I have discovered a new love, in the shape of the gorgeous, cinnamon flavoured scones served up each day at four at Le Grill. They are serially addictive stuff, but I had to bite back my laughter when one lady told her friend that these were actually invented by Paul Gauguin himself. Not only a first rate artist, but also a world class pastry chef as well, apparently. Clearly, quite a guy…..

My other epic discovery is the Blondie Martini. It’s a heavenly little glass full of magic that will get you, get you, one way or another. (OK, that’s quite enough Debbie Harry references right there, sailor).

Last night, I celebrated the summer solstice out here with a bottle of champagne, lounging in an armchair under a sky so full of brilliant stars that it drew people out on the deck in droves. A wry, smiling half moon hung over our wake, glowing ghostly silver as we surged towards Moorea. Venus and Mars were both plainly visible to the naked eye that night, and on every other night as well.

Benign and lustrous as they both were, I really didn’t need their twinkling, mesemerising brilliance to realise that I was already in Heaven.

M/S PAUL GAUGUIN: GEMS OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN

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The private Motu, with Mount Otemanu off to the right. Photo copyright is that of the author

This morning, the Paul Gauguin is lying quietly at anchor off the island of Bora Bora, and the weather is just beginning to clear. The rain clouds are retreating at a rate of knots, and the sun is beginning to shimmer across the mostly low, rolling green carpet of Bora Bora’s sensuous shoreline.

I opened the balcony door this morning to see Mount Otemanu wreathed in mist, looking like some menacing beast of yore. Think Grendel’s mother from the Beowulf fable, maybe. With the rain lashing down, I retreated indoors at a rate of knots that made the Mauretania look positively sloth like.

Yesterday was another tender day ashore to a remote beach area, owned by Paul Gauguin cruises. This time, the tender transfer took about twenty five minutes in either direction, bumping, shuddering and bouncing across a breezy South Pacific. We had to get out of the tender a good hundred yards or so from shore, and then wade through the warm waters to our beach. Quite hard work against the deceptive current, but good fun all the same.

This gorgeous belt of sand was studded with egg shell plastic recliners and, this being a Paul Gauguin cruise, there was naturally a ukulele playing gentleman standing in the surf to serenade us on our trek to shore. Blackpool Beach this most certainly is not.

That said, this is no Motu Mahana, either. This is a much more rugged, rustic sliver of paradise. No bar, buffet, or restrooms; just an ice box full of soft cold drinks, some canoes for personal use, and a plethora of languid, waving palm trees that gave welcome shade from that searing, early afternoon Pacific sun.

I soaked up this pleasant little playground for an hour or two, before taking a tender back to the Paul Gauguin, where delicious, cold ice cream and even colder champagne welcomed us returning beach babies back home.

Last night’s dinner was enjoyed in the hushed, spacious splendour of La Verandah, and it was simply sublime. Naturally, our resident, on board Polynesian troupe- the Gauguines and Gauguins- dropped in to serenade us with an evocative island tune. But, for the most part, this stunning restaurant- with walls of windows overlooking the ocean on three sides- is all about matchless food and flawless service.

Later, there was soft, subtle jazz and salsa in La Palette with our on board, Santa Rosa band. The gorgeous lead singer has a voice that could melt snow, and the rest of the band is a tight, nimble little combo that knows exactly which chords to strike, both literally, and also with the audience. Did I mention that the Blondie Martinis were like liquid gold? I recommend that you try one soon.

Really, there’s nothing more that could be needed out here. We exist in a kind of dream like cocoon, suffused in some sort of smiley, pampered stupor that will burst like a balloon upon our first, renewed contact with reality.

But reality? Really? I don’t think so. Not today, mes amis.

A bientot!

M/S PAUL GAUGUIN: INTO THE BLUE

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A musical welcome to the beautiful Motu Mahana. Photo copyright is that of the author

It’s mid morning out here in French Polynesia, and the Paul Gauguin is swinging skittishly at anchor in the shade of the South Pacific’s most instantly recognisable landmark, the monolithic Mount Otemanu on Bora Bora.

The jagged, awe inspiring brute is literally right outside my balcony door, almost close enough to touch. To put it mildly, she really is quite a sight.

I grabbed a late breakfast on the terrace of La Palette, admiring the svelte shape of the nearby Wind Spirit over the rim of my glass of bubbly. After so many years away, it’s nice to see Windstar back in the Tahiti game.

Alas, I had another, rather more unwanted breakfast guest whose persistence became more than a bit annoying. Hovering at head height, it was an orange, eight legged thing and, from it’s stance and gimlet eyed stare, I realised that it was more than interested in the contents of my breakfast plate.

At first glance, the beast looked like something that had either been in development by the Luftwaffe during the last days of World War Two, or else something that might have come thirteenth in the Eurovision Song Contest in the mid eighties. But, either way, it was never going to prevail.

Now, most people that know me will tell you that I’m a fairly gentle soul. And that is largely true. But, try and mess with my flaky Danish Cinnamon breakfast roll, and I WILL end you. Simple as that.

So, as the thing hovered, swept and lunged around my food,  I lashed out at it with a fork, a knife, a deck chair…. I must have resembled the deranged conductor of some invisible orchestra as I swatted, stabbed and spat at the thing.

OK, I didn’t actually spit at it. But that was most definitely part of Plan B.

Eventually, truth and justice prevailed, and the creature buzzed off elsewhere to conduct it’s scurrilous mischief. My valour was rewarded with a well deserved, post breakfast Mimosa. Wasps of Polynesia be warned; Mrs. Nicholas’ little boy does not take prisoners. Or karaoke requests either, for that matter.

Yesterday, we tendered ashore to a place that looks as if it was lifted intact from one of those Bounty Bar TV commercials of the 1980’s. Who knows- maybe it was.

There were Tahitian singers and dancers actually in the water, playing on ukuleles and wearing flowers in their hair. Nearby was a free floating bar, just in case you were too lazy to walk to the other, free bar on the beach. And a beach side barbecue was cooking up a sizzling conga line of burgers, minute steaks and hot dogs. The smell alone was to die for.

Motu Mahana is a small, almost totally flat atoll that is actually owned by Paul Gauguin cruises. A flotilla of sun loungers was scattered across the soft, brilliant white sand. They are nothing less than the entrees to a beach day experience that is literally like no other.

The water here is almost gin clear. Scores of supine fish swim and sashay in and out between your feet as you saunter through that milk warm water, cradling either a beer or a cocktail. In the lagoon, a gaggle of manta rays frolicked under a sky so clear and blue that it almost hurt to look at it, with serried tiers of clouds stacked up as far as the eye could see. If this all sounds too good to be true, well- that’s exactly how it felt, too.

Brightly coloured kayaks bobbed gently up and down on the swell as our shipload of Robinson Crusoe tribute acts sagged onto sun loungers, set in the shade of a battery of spindly, waving palm trees. There was even a private tent where passengers could get a massage, on a trellis set literally over the waters of the South Pacific itself.

In this charmed universe, time itself seemed to stand still. A kind of pampered, indolent ease swept that island like a warm breeze, bringing smiles to the faces of even the most inscrutable of our pampered passenger load. For sure, Motu Mahana is a definite highlight of this cruise. There’s simply no other private island quite like it anywhere, and the fact that the numbers going ashore are in the low hundreds rather than the thousands, lends it an intimacy that is marvellously compelling.

As the sun began to sag, we tendered back across the sparkling briny to where the Paul Gauguin sat waiting for us, as perfectly poised and serene as a swan. There was ice cream being served on deck, and a live band playing by the pool as our proud, pristine little ship unshackled herself from the floor of the lagoon. She executed a graceful pirouette as her siren boomed out over a glistening silver seascape, and yet another fabulous, flaring Polynesian sunset flooded our sight and senses alike.

Next destination would be the mythical, long since legendary island of Bora Bora.

M/S PAUL GAUGUIN IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC: DREAMING WIDE AWAKE

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Huahine, French Polynesia. Photo copyright is that of the author

I’m sitting on the edge of a stone pier that juts out like some bleached, skeletal finger into the vivid blue hue of the sparkling South Pacific, nursing a beer as I idly contemplate a small, scurrying crab that scampers up and down that pier like some agitated commuter back at home.

He does not bother me so, of course, I don’t bother him. After all, I’m the visitor to his home on the gorgeous island of Huahine, one of scores that are scattered like gemstones across the vibrant blue carpet of the South Pacific.

I can’t vouch for the crab’s eye view of course, but mine is pretty damned spectacular. Rows of jagged, rolling peaks and escarpments in countless shades of deep, rich green range against the vast, powder blue sky. Clouds hang above us like still life portraits, defying both age and time. Slow, surging rollers of surf drum the blinding white sand of  a near perfect stretch of beach, it’s length speckled with jagged rocks and beached canoes in a riot of pastel shades. As a backdrop, lines of serried, swaying palm trees perform a hula dance of their own, just as they have done here for centuries.

Great artist that he was, even Paul Gauguin himself could not have conjured up anything so vivid, immediate and irresistible as the scene that was in front of me right then, but then I doubt that anybody else could have, either. French Polynesia is as rewarding as it is remote; a series of rugged, rustic, impossibly romantic islands, lost in both space and time. If travel truly is a drug, then I suspect that this rugged, barely accessible landscape may well be the ultimate high.

Already, life aboard the small, perfectly sculpted M/S Paul Gauguin has morphed into one long, smiley blur. We breakfast outdoors on lamb chops, steaks and waffles, together with the most exquisite spread of tasty, tempting fruit options that I have ever seen or savoured in my life. By Day Two, my post breakfast Mimosas did not seem at all unusual or self indulgent.

At sunset, we take our Martinis outside on the terrace at La Palette, lounging around in wicker chairs and wearing our unfeasible Polynesian short sleeved shirts. Though we’re many miles from San Francisco, one or two even wear a flower or two in their hair, and nobody bats an eyelid. French Polynesia gets deep into your soul, like some deliciously tasty, totally addictive cocktail whose potency is near hypnotic. It’s truly wonderful stuff.

Sunsets and sunrises alike are indescribably languid, mellow affairs. But sometimes, the rain pours down for an hour or so in vengeful torrents, to be followed often by a mist so dense and overpowering that the islands literally disappear behind it.

That mist- wow. You half expect the becalmed, baleful shade of the Bounty to emerge from it at times, with the tormented Fletcher Christian and the immovable, determined Captain William Bligh still standing on her quarter deck, locked in an endless conflict for the souls of her crew.

Or perhaps that half glimpsed vision was one of Graf Spee’s doomed East Asia cruiser squadron; a squat, grey ghost with her guns still bristling like so many drawn swords, leading a gaggle of her long gone fleet mates on an endless quest to achieve the waters of a home port that they can never, ever reach.

And then that mist parts like some slowly opening theatre curtain,  to reveal nothing more harmful than a handful of smart, nippy, native canoes, racing each other across the briny. The rain retreats reluctantly, but steadily, as Mother Sun once more resumes her hegemony over all of this surreal beauty.

At least, she does so until night falls, and an armada of twinkling, benevolent stars are scattered across those tender southern skies. Because the islands of French Polynesia are so far away from major industrial plants, there is an almost complete absence of light pollution of any kind. The result is a scenario that someone once described as resembling ‘so many pin pricks in the fabric of the universe’. I’ve yet to see it better put by any writer anywhere.

So, here we are. Part of the world, and yet a place apart. Dreaming, and yet wide awake. At one with the universe, and yet a world unto ourselves.

That’s not hyperbole, by the way. It’s just how it is out here.

MARCO POLO TO SAIL EPIC SOUTH AFRICAN ADVENTURE IN 2020

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Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV) has just announced an epic, seventy-eight day African adventure aboard it’s legendary, 1965 built, 22,000 ton Marco Polo in January of 2020. The 800 guest ship will embark passengers at Bristol’s port of Avonmouth on January 6th, 2020.

What follows is a truly epic adventure. Leaving winter in her wake, the veteran liner-one of the last of her breed still in existence-shapes course for the warmer, more welcoming waters of Namibia and South Africa, where highlights include calls into Cape Town, Durban, and the beautiful Mossel Bay.

From there, the Marco Polo surges towards the Seychelles, going onward to the Maldives, Mauritius, Reunion, and Sri Lanka.

The voyages continues on to Goa, India, Oman and Egypt, before sailing to the Holy Land and on through the springtime Mediterranean, before finally arriving back into Bristol Avonmouth on March 24th- just in time for the start of the British spring.

It is heartening to see this much loved ship being sent on such an epic, alluring adventure. Some of the highlights en route include two crossings of the Equator, a transit of the Suez Canal, and calls at no less than thirty-one different ports, ranged across three different continents.

In all, the Marco Polo will log a staggering 21,296 sea miles during the course of this stunning ocean safari. When you consider combining such an epic adventure with the legendary status of the Marco Polo herself, I fully expect that this cruise will be a complete sell out.

Wonderful stuff.

 

 

PRINSENDAM GOING TO PHOENIX SEEREISEN?

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The Prinsendam is one of Holland America’s most enduring and popular vessels

Stories are circulating that Holland America Line’s Prinsendam, the company’s popular ‘Elegant Explorer’,  will be sold to the German cruise operator, Phoenix Seereisen.

If true, it would re-unite the 1989 built ship with her former RVL fleet mate, Albatross, ex Royal Viking Sea.

The Prinsendam, originally built as the Royal Viking Sun,  was the largest ship ever built for the Royal Viking Line from scratch, as well as the last. And she may well now be surplus to the Carnival Group’s overall portfolio. Carnival CEO, Arnold Donald, is on record as saying that any ship of less than 70,000 GRT is likely to be sold in the next few years and, at around 38,000 tons, the Prinsendam as is would certainly fit in that planning.

For sure, the Prinsendam was at one time highly coveted by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, and indeed she would still be a great fit with that company’s own duo of former RVL veterans, now sailing as Boudicca and Black Watch. but the smart money seems to be on the German operator, for now at least.

The Royal Viking Sun had a short stint at RVL, before that legendary company was wound up and the ship went firstly to Cunard, and then to Seabourn as the Seabourn Sun. Since her transfer to the Dutch brand in 2002, the restyled Prinsendam has offered longer, more destination intensive cruises, for which her intimate size and capacity-currently around 836 passengers-makes her a perfect choice.

Recently, Holland America Line sidelined two of its four, 50,000 ton Statendam class ships off to P&O Australia. In turn, one of these will now transition over to Cruise and Maritime Voyages next April. That leaves HAL as it currently stands with the two remaining ships in the class- Maasdam and Veendam-But this duo must surely also be on borrowed time as part of the HAL roster.

In any event, the move of Prinsendam to Phoenix Seereisen would make perfect sense if it does, indeed, come to pass.