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Best Tahiti Cruises: Windstar vs. Paul Gauguin

Ever since the legendary artist Paul Gauguin painted Tahitian landscapes with raven-haired beauties, French Polynesia has seduced visitors with its turquoise blue 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!) Plus you get to explore several different French Polynesian islands.

So what are the best Tahiti cruises?

We’ve cruised with both Windstar Cruises (twice in Tahiti) and Paul Gauguin Cruises in French Polynesia. They’re the main cruise lines that go to Tahiti and French Polynesia.

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

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

Best Tahiti cruises

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.

By this, we mean ships based out of the capital of Papeete (on the island of Tahiti), which offer French Polynesia and Tahiti island cruises on a regular basis.

We’re talking about the Wind Spirit (from Windstar Cruises) and the Paul Gauguin cruise ship.

Let’s start with Windstar Cruises.

Windstar Cruises in Tahiti
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit cruises French Polynesia year-round

It’s one of the best small ship cruise lines, with a fleet of six small ships.

Three of its ships are all-suite “Star Class” ships. (See our Windstar Cruises review.)

The other three vessels are tall ships. One of these, the Wind Spirit, is based in French Polynesia. She sails 7-night roundtrip cruises from Papeete, year-round, on her “Dreams of Tahiti” itinerary.

Moving on to Paul Gauguin Cruises

The PG line is a separate brand under the French Ponant Cruises umbrella.

It has one ship, the 5-star Paul Gauguin.

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

Two kayakers paddle around the Paul Gauguin cruise ship in Tahiti.
The Paul Gauguin has a watersports platform for kayaking from the back of the ship

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

So naturally, these two small dedicated-to-Tahiti cruise ships are couples-oriented.

They visit at least four islands.

Snorkeling with tropical fish in coral gardens, swimming in warm waters and beach days on private motus (tiny islets) are among the most popular activities.

Young woman with snorkeling gear on a Paul Gauguin cruise in Tahiti
Of course you’re going to snorkel on your Tahiti cruise!

But introducing you to the French Polynesian culture is also an integral part of your cruise.

For example, a troupe of Tahitian dancers came onboard in Raiatea on our Paul Gauguin cruise to perform.

Little Tahitian dancing girl
A little Tahitian dancer from Raiatea

What cruise lines go to Tahiti and French Polynesia?

There are a few other cruises that go to Tahiti and French Polynesia.

For example, Seabourn is a luxury cruise line that offers several long South Pacific cruise itineraries in spring and fall, often departing from or arriving in Sydney, Australia.

(You can read our Seabourn Cruises review – think all the complimentary French champagne and caviar you could want!)

Oceania Cruises is another visitor to the South Pacific, typically combining the Hawaiian islands with other islands in the South Pacific, like Samoa and Vanuatu.

These other cruise lines don’t specialize in South Pacific island cruises, however, and may only visit one or two French Polynesian islands.

There’s also Aranui Cruises. It offers trips from Tahiti to the Marquesas on the dual-purpose passenger and freighter ship, Aranui 5.

But because it acts as both a working cargo ship and a passenger ship, it’s not for everyone, and so we’re not covering it here.

We’re going to compare Windstar with Paul Gauguin later on in this post.

But you might like to know what you can do on your French Polynesia cruise – so let’s go and explore some of the islands!

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

Islands visited on a Tahiti cruise

Tahiti island and Papeete:

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

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

After flying into the international airport in Papeete, it’s a good idea to stay overnight for a couple of days to shake off jet lag before starting your cruise.

We like the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort & Spa. It’s just a few minutes’ drive from the airport and set on a lovely lagoon with azure waters.

In Papeete, 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 island nation’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?

A beautiful Bora Bora motu
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 white-fringed motus, many sprinkled with palm trees.

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

We took a jeep excursion – bone-jarring but thrilling – and one of the most fun things to do in Bora Bora!

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 on Bora Bora
A jeep safari tour is a must-do in Bora Bora if you like adventure

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 reef 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:

Coral reefs around the islands teem with galaxies of rainbow-hued fish and exotic sea life.

Snorkeling and diving are superb throughout the islands of French Polynesia!

Snorkeling in Tahiti
See candy-colored fish when snorkeling

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.

Cruising Moorea Island:

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:

Raiatea is where we kayaked the peaceful Faaroa River.

What to do in Raiatea? Kayak the Faaroa River

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

Get thee to a motu:

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

And the white-sand 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 motus (most uninhabited) to experience life as dreamy as it gets.

Windstar Cruises vs. Paul Gauguin?

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

Which is the best Tahiti cruise? 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.

Windstar Tahiti cruise review: Wind Spirit

The Wind Spirit is smaller.

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

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

Cabins:

Cabins are cozy at 188 square feet in size, but plush in a nautical way.

They have ocean views through portholes, queen-size beds and flat-screen TVs with DVD players. A fresh fruit bowl in your room is replenished daily.

The cabins don’t have balconies, however.

Stateroom on the Wind Spirit
Stateroom on the Wind Spirit (Credit: Windstar Cruises)

Restaurants:

The Wind Spirit has three dining venues.

The main restaurant, Amphora, offers multi-course dinners, while the Veranda restaurant offers casual buffet and full-service dining for breakfast and lunch.

You can also reserve to dine under the stars on deck for steaks, shrimp skewers and the like.

Watersports:

What’s unique: You can swim, snorkel and kayak right from the watersports platform at the back of the ship.

Itineraries:

The Wind Spirit’s 7-night roundtrip cruises from Papeete call in at Moorea, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Huahine.

Guests:

Fellow guests on the Wind Spirit are likely to skew toward the younger end of the age scale (ages 30 to 55). And you’re sure to bump into several honeymooning couples.

Rates:

Rates don’t include alcohol or shore excursions like snorkeling with sharks.

Paul Gauguin Cruises review

The elegant Paul Gauguin is a bigger ship, carrying 332 passengers. (But she’s still considered a small ship.)

The ship was completely renovated in 2021.

Cabins:

About 70% of her cabins have private balconies. The other staterooms have large windows.

And the cabins are bigger with full-size bathtubs (with shower). The “average” cabins range in size from approximately 250 to 350 square feet.

Balcony cabin on the Paul Gauguin cruise ship
A typical balcony stateroom on the Paul Gauguin (Credit Paul Gauguin Cruises)

Restaurants:

For dining options, there’s La Veranda for dining al fresco (reservations needed at night) and Le Grill by the pool for buffet breakfasts, grilled burgers and the like for lunch and Polynesian specialties at dinner.

L’Etoile is the main fine dining room for dinner.

Dining outside (Credit: Paul Gauguin)

Watersports:

Like the Wind Spirit, the Paul Gauguin also has a marina at the back of the ship, where you can enjoy complimentary kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

Watersports marina on the Paul Gauguin
Watersports marina on the Paul Gauguin

Itineraries:

You can choose from several different itineraries.

On 7-night cruises (Tahiti and the Society Islands), visit Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Moorea (departing from and returning to Papeete).

On a 10-night cruise, you can do the Society Islands (with two full days in Bora Bora) plus the Tuamoto Islands (for epic snorkeling and scuba diving).

There are also longer itineraries, like 14-night cruises combining the Marquesas Islands, Tuamotus and Society Islands.

As well, the Paul Gauguin combines the Cook Islands with French Polynesia, and there are other cruises to Fiji and Bali too.

Rates:

Rates are more expensive than Windstar but all-inclusive (except for shore excursions).

Complimentary features include wine, spirits and beer; stocked in-room mini-bar replenished daily with soft drinks, beer and bottled water; cruise gratuities and Wi-Fi. (You pay for these on Windstar).

So, which line offers the best French Polynesia cruises?

This wraps up our Wind Spirit review and review of Paul Gauguin Cruises in Tahiti.

When it comes to the showdown on cruising with Paul Gauguin vs. Windstar, some people prefer the Wind Spirit. Some prefer the Paul Gauguin. As you’d expect!

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

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

The Paul Gauguin offers more choice of unique itineraries too.

Either way, the islands of Tahiti and other French Polynesian islands are gorgeous – and you won’t regret your cruise vacation in this beautiful part of the world!

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

More cruising inspiration!

Viking Cruises | What’s so special about Viking Ocean Cruises that its ships keep winning awards? Read our review of the Viking Star in northern Europe to find out!.

River cruises | Say hello to the world’s best river cruises!

Star Clippers | When it comes to true sailing cruises, it’s hard to beat this cruise line. We dish on our Caribbean sailing cruise in our Star Clippers review of the Star Flyer.

Planning your next trip?

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Discover Cars | Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

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


About the authors:

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

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

Rich

Thursday 21st of January 2016

Does anyone suggest Windstar over Paul Gauguin Cruises 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 :-).

Helen

Tuesday 18th of November 2014

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

Stephanie

Tuesday 4th of November 2014

Wow this looks amazing. Great photos!

Freya

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!