I‘ve dreamed of going to paradise since Gilligan, Mary Ann and the Captain made being shipwrecked look so darn appealing. So when I had the opportunity to tour French Polynesia, I knew my ship had come in, so to speak. A first-time cruiser, I sat on the flight in Los Angeles that would bring me to Papeete, Tahiti, wondering what it was going to be like. Would I be bored during the 10-day passage? Seasick? Claustrophobic?
But by the time I boarded the Tahiti Nui flight, anxiety gave way to excitement. Polynesian stewards and stewardesses dressed in colorful florals offered a glimpse of what lay ahead: an adventure that combines Love Boat, South Pacific and a little bit of Survivor, all in the lap of luxury. My ship, the Silver Shadow, is part of Silversea, an Italian cruise line reputed to be the most exclusive of seafaring resorts. Guests number in the low hundreds (there were 260 on my ship) and the staff-to-passenger ratio is somewhere around 1:1.
Arriving in Papeete at dinnertime, we spent the night at the Intercontinental Hotel, one of Silversea’s ‘land partners.’ A bellhop clad only in a headdress and sarong (unless you count the big shell necklace) was a sure sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. His body was covered from forehead to ankles in native body art. I later found out that the word ‘tattoo’ entered the English language via Tahiti, courtesy of Capt. James Cook’s explorations of the area in the 18th century.
Once we boarded, it was obvious this was not going to be your grandmother’s cruise. Even a sailing neophyte like me was pretty sure most cruises didn’t leave a bottle of chilled Pommerey in your room, or big arrangements of protea and bird of paradise. Our ‘stateroom’ I think that’s what it’s called, was a suite with a walk-in closet, private deck and a sitting room that could be curtained-off from the sleep area. Not only did it include a leather-topped desk, flat-screen TV and sofa, but the built-in cabinetry had inlaid wood and the bathroom was tiled in marble.
Because the Silver Shadow is considered a ‘small’ vessel, it can cruise to some very out-of-the-way places, and that’s where paradise comes in. Our first stops were two completely unspoiled French Polynesia islands, where horses and bicycles far outnumbered cars, and fruit went directly from tree top to table. Rangiroa was our first port of call, a large atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago. While the ship anchored in deep waters just off the coast, we were shuttled by ‘tender’ (small boat) to the Ohotu pier, where we were greeted by a single restaurant, with very good grilled fish, and a few makeshift artisan stalls laden with colorful pareos, shell jewelry and tropical oils.
We enlisted the services of Francis, a wizened French ex-pat who offered to take us around the island in his truck for 1,000 Pacific Francs (XPF), or $12 each, for the grand tour in French, of course. More bronzed beach bum (complete with tattoos) than Frenchman, he first took us to the island’s Catholic church. The one-room sanctuary was breathtaking in its simplicity: wooden pews, tall ceiling and colorful garlands fluttering above our heads in preparation for a local holy day.
When a member of our party asked to use the church restroom, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t one. No problem, Francis walked across the road, knocked on a door, really a doorway since the doors and windows of the island’s homes were covered only by fabric, and received permission to use the resident’s bathroom. Can’t imagine that happening outside of paradise.
Next stop: a pearl farm, where we watched an expert ‘grafter’ gently open an oyster and insert a ‘mantel’ and ‘nucleus’ that would eventually grow into one of those famed Tahitian pearls. Then Francis did another remarkable thing that doesn’t happen too often in the real world: He took all four of his passengers to his home, a one-room structure with guest loft above and tall wooden tikis out front, to show us how Rangiroans live. That was the best $12 I ever spent.
We got back to the pier just in time for our snorkeling session. Surrounded by a barrier reef, Rangiroa provides a rich panorama of eels, clownfish, pencil fish and multi-colored coral beds, so for 90 minutes, our party of 20 bobbed happily in the middle of nowhere, while our motorboat drivers tossed bread into the water to draw armies of fish for our entertainment, or in my case, alarm.
A restful day at sea came next, as the Silver Shadow made its way to the Marquesas Islands. Actually, ‘restful’ doesn’t begin to capture the onboard experience. Two lounges, on decks 10 and 8, offer continental spreads starting at 6:30 a.m. The main restaurant and the Italian La Terrazza serve all-out breakfast at 7:30. And then there’s always room service, available 24 hours a day, in case you need to supplement the ‘anything you want’ meals, say at 2 a.m. The crew was so attentive that my daughter and I actually devised a game to see how often we could: carry our own plates from the fruit bar to the table; sneak leftovers into our room without the aid of a busboy; pour our own tea; or position the pool chairs without help. Final tally: Us, 4; Silversea, well, let’s just say we stopped counting.
Our days at sea, which were numerous in order to accommodate the great distances between South Pacific islands, were anything but boring. In fact, one of the most valuable things I did was learn to relax. After all, we were now on island time. We could go to a lecture on ‘Coral Reefs: Past, Present and Future’ by Prof. George Losey, or not, and listen to Dr. Larry Herson expound on ‘Magellan, Drake and Darwin’–or not. There were also dance classes, violin performances, magic shows, pool volleyball, bridge lessons and language instruction in Italian and French. What, no Tagalog?
And, of course, there were the meals, poolside food and liquor bars, cocktails of the day and tea times—all of them included in the cost of the cruise (about $9,000 for 16 days). While that is not a small figure, the wine (premium) flows freely, the food is always available and gratuities are included. And did I mention that everything is fresh and made–to–order, using provisions re-stocked at every port? The chef calls ahead to get whatever is available locally, say barracuda, pineapple, coconut and mahi mahi. A tour of the galley revealed coolers stacked with premium beef, liquor, wine and fresh fruits and vegetables. The morning juices are hand-squeezed overnight, which means you could even have some with that 2 a.m. room service tray.
Our second port was Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. Talk about remote. As the Silver Shadow approached land, surreal cliffs jutted up from the sea in such wild formations it was hard to imagine human life there. But sailing on a little farther, we saw a cove dotted with hillside dwellings. When we disembarked, in Taiohae (pop 2,000), we knew tours would be as hard to come by as cars, and we hired the first driver we saw, Tomas. As a bonus, he even knew a smattering of English.
Tomas took us to the other side of the island where his village, Taipivai (pop. 400), was the site that inspired Herman Melville’s Typee and where a segment of Survivor was filmed! Tomas had actually worked for the film crew delivering mail (which could explain his $50 fee), he told us, in a mix of French and broken English. Traveling the single, one-lane road around the island, we saw a wealth of biodiversity, from pigs, cows and horses to wild hibiscus and gardenia everywhere. Tomas pointed out the stunning waterfalls, 1,150 feet of water cascading down sheer cliffs in the island’s interior, and the various mango, banana, breadfruit and Jackfruit trees.
He took us to a promontory overlooking the Survivor beach and to his home (that paradise thing again), a modest two-room dwelling with outdoor plumbing, where he removed his shoes before entering and we did the same, despite the concrete floors. Offering us mango, he climbed 40 feet up a tree in his front yard to retrieve the sweet snack. He introduced us to his teenage son, who respectfully greeted the women of our party with a kiss on each cheek, in the French custom, although we were complete strangers. Many hills and valleys later and after several close calls with bigger trucks on the one-lane road, we returned to the Silver Shadow to prepare for a busy evening of cruise activities.
There were dance lessons with Ken, the Gentleman Host, a presentation titled, ‘Fish of the Coral Reef,’ pool volleyball (a real challenge in 6-foot water) and, of course, the highlight of every cruise day: dinner. As you may have guessed by now, this trip was more about sommelier-guided meals than gluttonous buffets. The food was all gourmet and made to order, served to us at table by no fewer than three waiters. If we so much as craned our necks to glance around, someone appeared to ask, May I get you something, Mrs. Weiner? The entire staff, all 280 of them, addressed us by name and after Day One knew the kind of water we liked, the foods we didn’t and how we took our coffee.
The Silver Shadow went on to stop at three ports of call in Hawaii: Hilo on the Big Island, Honolulu on Oahu and Lahaina on Maui, each of them magnificent, and ended with a couple of nights at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui. That was a good way to re-enter reality, if you can call lounging at the Ritz overlooking the Pacific reality. I still call it paradise.