It’s hard to believe that it’s already been more than a week since I returned from what was truly an extraordinary experience sailing around French Polynesia on a luxury cruise with Windstar. It was the culmination of decades of dreaming and to finally be swimming in the warm turquoise waters of Tahiti was a once in a lifetime experience I know I’ll never forget. The South Pacific wasn’t just at the top of my bucket list though, it has the same honor for millions of others and how to visit and experience French Polynesia differs from person to person. Covering 118 islands, it’s a large and dynamic place where no two islands are the same, which makes it important to know where to go and what to do once you get there. From my own experience though, I can’t imagine a better first introduction to this remarkable part of the world than on a cruise ship. Today I want to share a few reasons why I think a cruise around the islands is the ideal way to experience them whether it’s your first time in French Polynesia, or if you’re an old pro.
The Society Islands have a lot of names. The South Pacific, French Polynesia and here in the US we tend just to say Tahiti to encompass all of them. In truth though, Tahiti is just one of 118 different islands comprising the chain, each one with its own unique look, feel and experiences to enjoy. Getting to these islands isn’t always easy; even the most popular of the islands take some planning if you want to visit. Moorea and Bora Bora are the easiest to visit from the capital city of Papeete on Tahiti, but even then you’re talking about either ferries or short flights. For my first experience in French Polynesia though I knew I didn’t want to be stuck on just one or two islands, that I wanted to see and do as much as possible. A cruise really is the only way to accomplish this and is, I think, the perfect introduction to this beautiful part of the world. There are several cruise lines that offer trips around French Polynesia, but I preferred Windstar Cruises for a variety of reasons, many of which I’ll detail later in this post. But a small yacht experience in French Polynesia was pure perfection and provided intimate access to some of the most remote spots on the planet, a feat few others can achieve.
Boutique travel experience
Boutique is an oft-used phrase, but what we mean by it is that the travel experience is smaller and features specialized services for the guests. It can be luxury, but not always, and it can be adventurous, but not only. Boutique travel in my experience though is offering something unique, something different in a way that is comfortable, stylish and forward thinking. Windstar Cruises lauds itself as a boutique cruise line and from my own experience, that’s definitely true. I sailed on the Wind Spirit, a 4-masted yacht that, at maximum occupancy, can accommodate around 150 people or so. On my sailing there were 125, which, by cruising standards, is a very small group. The experience actually reminded me more of expedition-style cruising I’ve done in the Galapagos and Antarctica rather than other small-ship cruises I’ve enjoyed. It’s not just in the number of guests, but in the overall feel of the trip. The guests were there to be spoiled, sure, but also to experience a new destination. They were excited and eager to get out there and get their hands dirty all in the name of adventure. Onboard, the crew went to great lengths not only to enable this adventurous spirit, but to also provide an incredibly comfortable home for passengers to return to. It was intimate, personalized and fun and that, more than anything else, is what boutique travel should be.
Any time you visit a new destination, having the inside scoop isn’t only nice, it’s essential. That was one of the best perks of my Windstar Cruise experience and it’s not something the cruise line even discusses very much. The ship sails around French Polynesia year-round and the crew onboard knows this part of the world very well. That translates into advice and encouragement based not on brochures, but actual experience. On the first day of my cruise, the activities director approached me to talk about one of the excursions I had booked. She thought there was another one that, based on my background and interests, I would enjoy more. I took her advice and you know what, she was right. The excursion she recommended was even slightly cheaper than the one I had booked, but she was much more interested in my personal enjoyment than anything else. That’s just one example of many I noticed throughout the week, whether it was recommending a local restaurant in port or where to go to skip the trinkets and instead find the “real” souvenirs to take home. The entire crew served as both concierge and counselor, and it added to my own personal enjoyment in ways I didn’t even realize at the time.
Naturally, whenever we cruise we expect certain amenities and I was pleased to see all of the small touches Windstar provides to round out the travel experience. Some of the details were small, like the L’Occitane bath products or the daily sail-away gathering on the top deck. Other amenities were more robust and added a lot to my own personal enjoyment of the trip. When possible, while the ship is anchored the back opens up and a watersports platform comes to life. From there you can just swim or use a variety of equipment including snorkel equipment, floating sunbathing pads, kayaks and even small dinghies and water skiing. I used it more than once and had a great time doing my own thing on my own time. Windstar adds a lot to the experience in more touching ways though, including renting a private island not once but twice during the trip for passengers to enjoy. The first island was an all-day hangout spot available only to passengers, complete with lunch and every amenity you could imagine. The second island was home to a very special excursion made complimentary to all guests, an afternoon and evening on a small motu (island) with an enormous island-inspired feast, a killer sunset, and an evening of Polynesian dancing and singing. It was unexpected but incredibly fun and for most passengers was the highlight of the week. When I cruise, I expect certain perks throughout the journey but it’s those unexpected experiences that I ultimately remember long after I have left the ship.
I alluded to this earlier, but one of the best parts of the trip was meeting all of my fellow passengers. I get asked a lot of questions about cruising, mostly because I tend to sail only on small vessels, whether it’s a river cruise or ocean going vessel. Mostly it’s about the demographics, my fellow Gen-Xers don’t want to be the youngest people onboard. I have a few answers to this. First, I am very rarely the youngest person onboard and I certainly was not the youngest when I sailed around French Polynesia with Windstar. Second, age doesn’t really matter when you travel. If you are on the same journey as someone else, that means the two of you have a very similar outlook on life. You seek the same things from a travel experience and in my case that means exploration and adventure. Those traveling with you feel the same as you do, and you will have so much more in common than you could ever imagine. That has always been the case for me, and it held true during the week I spent with Windstar. Regardless of age, we all got along very well and some of the discussions I had onboard were amongst the best I’ve ever enjoyed. Plus, I just loved meeting new people and learning about them and their lives. I wanted to know what brought them to Tahiti and experiencing it with them for the first time made my own journey all the more richer. It was a symbiotic relationship of everyone helping each other in creating a more fun and robust travel experience.
One criticism I hear often about cruises is that non-cruisers have the incorrect opinion that cruises are too limiting. That 1-day isn’t enough time in port and that you become part of a pack instead of an independent traveler. You know what? Some cruises are like that, no doubt there but that’s also why I don’t take them. Put me on a ship with 4,000 people, waterslides and robots and I may just throw myself overboard. No, I prefer smaller, more luxurious experiences and part of that luxury is flexibility. That was certainly the case with Windstar Cruises, almost to the point where I had too many options on how to spend each day. Like most cruise lines, Windstar offers a variety of excursions in each port of call that you can avail yourself of. I decided on a mix of planned and unplanned days, and the results were fantastic. The excursions offered were diverse, ranging from diving and snorkeling to more locally focused cultural experiences. When I didn’t have something planned, I either used the watersports platform or wandered around the island on my own. Everything was easy and I had many options no matter where we were. I never felt like a sheep or a number, instead I traveled the same way I would normally, just with the benefit of doing it from a boutique hotel that moved around every night.
Really is paradise
Tahiti is one of those places most of us want to visit because it looks like paradise incarnate. Every travel calendar features it and for millions it fuels our travel dreams. Many times when this happens though, the destination rarely lives up to all of the hype. Tahiti is not one of those places. Not only does it live up to the hype, it exceeds every expectation. I wanted a tropical paradise and I found it, from those dreamy overwater bungalows on Bora Bora to swimming with sharks through perfectly clear waters. But French Polynesia is about so much more than those postcard images. It’s full of people who are amongst the nicest and most welcoming that I’ve ever met. It’s full of jungles and rivers and other beautiful scenes most people don’t know exist. It has a complicated history, a fascinating culture and endless stories to share, if people are curious enough to ask. Tahiti is a special place and even though I had just one short week there, I know it’s not my last experience on those islands. The siren call of French Polynesia wasn’t dampened by my trip, it only grew louder.