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Cruising French Polynesia: As romantic as it gets

Ever since the legendary artist Paul Gauguin painted Tahitian landscapes with raven-haired beauties, French Polynesia has seduced visitors with its turquoise lagoons and islands blooming with hibiscus.

The 118-island nation invented deluxe overwater bungalows which perch on stilts over the sea.

Try to stay in one if you can. (We slept in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora.)

But cruising French Polynesia is often the most affordable way to see this region. (It’s très romantique!)

Cruising French Polynesia
A French Polynesia cruise is a dreamy way to see the islands

And if you can add a pre- or post-cruise stay on one of the islands, so much the better!

Cruising French Polynesia

Cruising French Polynesia

Tahiti, Bora Bora and the French Polynesian islands simply ooze romance.

Naturally, the small ships that focus on Tahiti cruises are couples-oriented.

Paul Gauguin Cruises, for example, has one ship, the 5-star Paul Gauguin.

It operates exclusively in the waters of Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific.

The Paul Gauguin has a watersports platform for kayaking from the back of the ship
The Paul Gauguin has a watersports platform for kayaking from the back of the ship

Windstar Cruises has its tall ship, the Wind Spirit, based in French Polynesia.

It also regularly sails year-round cruises in Tahiti.

Cruising French Polynesia
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit cruises in French Polynesia year-round

(We’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed three French Polynesia cruises now – two with Windstar Cruises and one with Paul Gauguin.)

These South Pacific cruises usually visit at least four islands.

 Of course you're going to snorkel on your Tahiti cruise!
Of course you’re going to snorkel on your Tahiti cruise!

Introducing you to the French Polynesian culture is an integral part of your cruise. (A troupe of Tahitian dancers came onboard our Paul Gauguin cruise in Raiatea to sing and dance.)

Several other lines also offer Tahiti island cruises.

They include Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea Expedition Cruises and Celebrity Cruises.

They don’t specialize in these South Pacific island cruises, however, and may only visit one or two French Polynesian islands.

 French Polynesia is made up of 118 beautiful islands.
French Polynesia is made up of 118 beautiful islands (Credit: Tahiti Tourisme)

Which is the best South Pacific cruise?

Scroll to the end for more information on this.

Tahiti island and Papeete

Tropical fruits in the Papeete market
These tropical fruits in the Papeete market look tempting, don’t they?

The starting point for most cruises is typically the port city of Papeete on the main island of Tahiti (where more than 60% of the country’s people live).

We checked out the lively market with fresh fish, baskets of seashells, exotic star fruit and pineapples (reminding us of the delicious Hawaiian fruit we love in Hawaii) and carved wooden warriors on display.

Shells for sale in the Papeete market

If you plan to buy black pearls on your cruise, you’ll want to stop at the Robert Wan Pearl Museum to learn about the country’s pearl industry.

Cleaning oysters at a black pearl farm in Tahiti
Cleaning oysters at a black pearl farm

Cruising to Bora Bora

But for that true paradise feeling, you need to visit the less-developed islands. Take Bora Bora.

Author James Michener dubbed Bora Bora “the most beautiful island in the world.”

Who can disagree?

Tahiti cruise
Pretty dreamy! A beautiful Bora Bora motu

Craggy Mount Otemanu, crowned by creamy clouds, towers over the island center.

Encircling Bora Bora’s popsicle-blue lagoon is a ring of palm-studded, white-fringed motus or islets.

Cruising to Bora Bora
Beautiful Bora Bora (Credit: Tahiti Tourisme)

On a jeep excursion – bone-jarring but thrilling – we saw every tropical fruit imaginable (from bananas to mangos) growing wild, as well as massive 20-foot cannons left behind by the Americans after WW II.

Jeep safari of Bora Bora
A jeep safari tour is one of the fun things to do in Bora Bora

On a ray feeding tour, we caressed soft stingrays swirling about us as we knelt in the lagoon.

Janice pets a stingray in Moorea – they’re so soft!

Snorkeling with sharks is another popular Bora Bora shore excursion.

And don’t worry about the sharks – they’re safe.

It’s the kicking feet and bobbing elbows of your fellow snorkelers you have to worry about!

Snorkeling with sharks in Tahiti
Snorkeling with sharks in Bora Bora is a popular shore excursion (Credit: Tahiti Tourisme)

Snorkeling in Rangiroa

Snorkeling in Tahiti
See candy-colored fish when snorkeling

Coral reefs around the islands teem with galaxies of rainbow-hued fish and exotic sea life, so snorkeling and diving are superb throughout.

But Rangiroa is special.

When conditions are right, divers and snorkelers can shoot through a pass between the ocean and lagoon in a surge of rushing water – and watch sharks (harmless to humans) devour hapless fish washed in with the tide.

Have you thought about a river cruise? Check out the best luxury river cruises here!

Cruising Moorea

Bora Bora gets all the ink, but Moorea is just as pretty

For more heart-pounding fun, Moorea has a great hike up to Belvedere Lookout Point.

Kayaking in Raiatea

Kayaking the Faaroa River in Raiatea
What to do in Raiatea? Kayak the Faaroa River

Raiatea is where we kayaked the peaceful Faaroa River.

We paddled through a sea of yellow hibiscus, fallen from the lacy canopy of foliage above, past mangroves, bamboo groves and giant ferns.

Get thee to a motu

It’s typical to spend a beach day on a motu – we chilled out on this beach on one cruise

And the beaches in French Polynesia? Well, they’re some of the prettiest beaches in the world.

You need only shake your towel out on any number of unspoiled white-sand motus (small islands, most uninhabited) to experience life as dreamy as it gets.

Best South Pacific Cruises

French Polynesia cruising
Cruising French Polynesia is one of the most romantic trips you can take

We may be a little biased here.

But we’d say the best South Pacific cruises in French Polynesia are those that are dedicated Tahiti cruises, i.e., Tahiti cruise ships based out of Papeete which cruise the Tahitian islands on a regular basis – such as the Paul Gauguin and the Wind Spirit.

(There are also a couple of dual-purpose passenger and freighter ships, like the Aranui 5, that are dedicated to sailing in the area.)

Windstar Cruises vs Paul Gauguin?

Which French Polynesia cruise is better? Tough question. We loved both.

But we’ll try to help distinguish between the two cruise lines so you can decide which would suit you best.

Wind Spirit:

The Wind Spirit is smaller.

It’s a 4-masted tall ship that looks like a sailing ship (the sails are computerized). Carrying only 148 guests, it feels more intimate.

French Polynesia cruise: The Wind Spirit
The stylish Wind Spirit in Raiatea (Credit: Windstar Cruises)

Cabins are cozy at 188 square feet in size, but plush in a nautical way (with ocean views through portholes, queen-size beds and flat-screen TVs with DVD players).

They don’t have balconies, however.

You may also find honeymooners and slightly younger guests (aged 30 to 50) on the Wind Spirit.

Recommended reading: We also love Windstar Cruises’ “Star Class” yachts

Paul Gauguin:

Paul Gauguin Cruises
The pool deck on the Paul Gauguin (Credit: Paul Gauguin Cruises)

The elegant Paul Gauguin is a bigger ship, carrying 332 passengers. (It’s operated by Paul Gauguin Cruises, which in turn is run by the French line, Ponant.)

About 70% of its cabins have private balconies.

And the cabins are bigger with full-size bathtubs (with shower) and fridges stocked with soft drinks; the “average” cabins range in size from approximately 250 to 350 square feet.

A typical stateroom on the Paul Gauguin
A typical stateroom on the Paul Gauguin (Credit Paul Gauguin Cruises)

Rates are more expensive but all-inclusive.

Your roundtrip airfare from L.A. or San Francisco, wine and beer, cruise gratuities and more are all included (you pay for these items on Windstar).

Like the Wind Spirit, the Paul Gauguin has a watersports platform at the stern

What’s it like to cruise with Ponant? Ooh la la! See our review of Ponant Cruises (we love the French twist)

Bottom line?

Some people prefer the Wind Spirit. Some prefer the Paul Gauguin.

If you’re younger or more active and would like a more unique sailing-style experience, then the Wind Spirit might be for you.

If you’d like a balcony with a more comfortable cabin and more evening entertainment, you might prefer the Paul Gauguin.

Either way, the French Polynesian islands are gorgeous, and you won’t regret cruising in this beautiful part of the world.

Flower leis are a way to welcome visitors to the islands (Credit: Tahiti Tourisme)

Read next: Say hello to Hawaii cruises for families!

More tahiti reading

See these French Polynesia and Tahiti travel guides available on Amazon. (As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.)

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Photo credits: © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)

About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!


Thursday 21st of January 2016

does anyone suggest Windstar over Paul Gauguin cruise or vice versa??

Janice and George

Thursday 21st of January 2016

We've cruised with both Windstar and Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia :-). You may find slightly younger guests (30s to 50s) on Windstar - it just has a younger feel (very romantic, perfect for a honeymoon). Cabins are smaller. You also (kind of) get that feeling of sailing. But both are excellent and highly regarded cruise lines - you're sure to have a great time no matter which you pick :-).


Tuesday 18th of November 2014

Great info here! I'm going to file it away for my future trip planning.


Tuesday 4th of November 2014

Wow this looks amazing. Great photos!


Sunday 19th of October 2014

Cruising French Polynesia is so added to my list, WoW what an amazing place. Your photos make me want to jump on an airplane right now.

Sarah Shumate

Thursday 16th of October 2014

We have yet to take a cruise, but this makes me reconsider my reasons for not going on one - what a beautiful journey!