In the January/February, 2000 issue of Prow's Edge, our editor joined the the m/s Paul Gauguin as she sails the islands of French Polynesia...

Imagine a cruise ship with the style and elegance of a top-rated French resort – with cuisine you'd be hard pressed to find outside of the best restaurants in Paris – and then imagine the timeless grace of some of the most beautiful islands on earth.Put the two together – and you have an enigmatic blend that is irresistible.

This is what cruising French Polynesia aboard Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' m/s Paul Gauguin is all about: sophistication and simplicity in perfect harmony.

Imagine a balmy, moonlit night in Papeete, Tahiti, where the stars look bigger and brighter than on the backdrop of a Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. Imagine a South Pacific waterfront where the fragrances of the night blossoms are more seductive than anything out of a bottle from the best perfumeries in Paris.

And then imagine, in all this natural splendour, the sleek m/s Paul Gauguin sitting poised with promise for her 320 guests from all the far flung corners of the world.

But you don't have to imagine too hard. This isn't all just a fantasy. It's very real. I was there.

Les Gauguines, the m/s Paul Gauguin's troupe of beautiful Polynesian women, whose sole purpose is to entertain, and pamper you on your seven night French Polynesia cruise, were waiting on the quay side in Papeete with garlands of fragrant orchids and winning smiles.

A local melody highlighted with soft, lilting voices wafted in from the background as we were escorted up the gangplank though an extraordinarily swift registration process (accompanied by a glass of champagne) and then on to our staterooms complete with more champagne, handmade chocolates, and vases filled with local Tahitian orchids, ginger blooms and Polynesian lilies. This is just the start of the adventure in the South Pacific islands.

The blend of European-style luxury and local culture is ever-present aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin.

Subtly furnished with beautifully crafted pearwood, cherry and mahogany cabinets, and accented by soothing coral pink fabrics highlighted with rich tropical reds and purples, the skilled contrast of simplicity and sophistication creates a haven with both a distinctive Polynesian flavour and all the amenities of a top-rated European hotel.

And with sweeping ocean views from every stateroom, you never forget that you're in French Polynesia. There is even a stone Tiki god in a mirrored niche standing guard over your private abode.

The corridors and public rooms are likewise subtly furnished. Framed originals and prints of the first explorers’ encounters with the islands line the corridors and a small gallery has unique art and artifacts conveying even more of the fascinating history and culture of the islands.

For it is the islands that are the real focus of this cruise aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin, no matter how tempting the pampering and elegance on board may be.

Just one of an array of Radisson Seven Seas’ cruises exploring the waters of French Polynesia, the seven-night Society Islands itinerary aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin sails from Papeete, Tahiti and visits Raiatea, Tahaa, spends two days at Bora Bora, which James Michener described as “the most beautiful island in the world”, and then almost two days at the verdant Moorea, known as the “island of flowers and dreams”, before arriving back in Papeete ready for disembarking the next day.

A well-seasoned traveller on board, 70 year old Marjorie from New York summed up the beauty of islands: “ I have never seen anything like it. So beautiful, so natural, so magnificent – it's almost frightening.”

There's nothing frightening about the ship, however, no matter how beautifully it is appointed. From the warm woods and leather upholstery of the Connoisseur Club to the rich colours and polished woods and hand-wrought Moroccan brass of the spacious casino, the emphasis is on understated elegance and simplicity.

But there's nothing simple about the food or the menu choices aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin. With even more dining alternatives than those offered in the largest cruise ships afloat, we were spoilt for choice at every meal. The main dining areas are L’Etoile, La Veranda one deck higher, and the Le Grill on the Pool deck for alfresco dining. As well, there is 24-hour room service with an extensive menu that Radisson Seven Seas Cruises modestly calls “limited”.

There's nothing limited about it, nor is there anything limited about the menus offered in L’Etoile.

The elegance of prewar Paris is the key note of the L’Etoile Restaurant. This spacious, understated dining room, with classic lines and art deco furnishings, offers the best in French and Continental cuisine. Personal favourites of mine included those dishes with a Polynesian twist – like local bananas (plumper and sweeter than the one's we're used to) flambéed at the table and dripping with Cointreau and butter and all things good. (Open seating between 7 and 9:30 pm allows you to dine where, when and with whom you chose.)

The more intimate La Veranda, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and atmosphere of an exclusive yacht club overlooking the French Riviera, serves an open-seating, buffet-style breakfast and lunch both inside and out on deck. For dinner, this alternative restaurant features, on a rotation basis, two menus created by the award-winning, 2-star Michelin Chef Jean-Pierre Vigato.

For those after a more relaxed atmosphere, or for those who just don't want to lose sight of the sea or the islands slipping by, the open-air bistro, Le Grill offers yet another dining alternative.

Le Grill serves an open-seating, buffet style breakfast, light luncheons and afternoon snacks, and a casual, alfresco dinner under the stars with grilled à la carte dishes and salads. Nothing can be better than revelling in a dish of grilled local catch delivered to the ship's side that morning by local fishermen in brightly coloured boats with jovial bantering with the ship's chefs and officers.

At both L’Etoile and La Veranda restaurants, and at the Le Grill bistro, selections from the wine cellar are poured with the m/s Paul Gauguin's compliments.

The influence of the local cultures plays a large part on the entertainment aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin. And again the contrasts between European elegance and local simplicity is always present.

Imagine the impact of a troupe of barefooted warriors in grass skirts performing their impromptu war dance complete with disconcerting grunts on the pool deck, as we sat back in padded armchairs and juggled with cameras and rum cocktails. And then imagine the group of women and children, sitting cross-legged on the deck, sharing a Polynesian lullaby with a tone so pure it made grown men shed a few tears.

Imagine the Captain's farewell party where a beautiful Polynesian singer from Bora Bora sang a couple of duets with the American born cruise director, Michael Shapiro. First a love song from a New York musical, and then a local melody so beautiful it needed no translation.

And then - if this is not all too much, imagine waking up the next day as the m/s Paul Gauguin slips into yet another exotic bay, with jagged peaks looming down above you, luscious, green hills and water so clear you can actually watch the turtles swim by beneath you. This is the world of French Polynesia, and it's a world you can watch from the luxury of one of the finest appointed ships afloat. It's not a dream. It's attainable. I did it. I watched the primitive beauty of the last Eden on earth while still enjoying all the luxuries of home - and more.

For this is exactly what a cruise aboard Radisson Seven Sea Cruises’ m/s Paul Gauguin is all about: this curious juxtaposition of things intrinsically opposite – the old world with the new, European influences with native charm, sophistication and simplicity – in perfect harmony. The art of good living.

Photos: (from top to bottom) Kevin Retief, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.

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