PAPEETE, Tahiti - Already immortalized by the paintings of Paul Gauguin and the writings of James Michener, French Polynesia is without doubt the closest place to paradise we're likely to find on Earth.
But a new way to visit some of those 118 islands is aboard a small cruise ship that offers a close-up view of the islands. The sparkling-white Regent Seven Seas Paul Gauguin carries fewer than 400 guests and can navigate waters that are too shallow for most cruise ships. Half of the staterooms have balconies where travelers can relax and watch as Eden floats by.
Anchored close to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea or Raiatea at dawn, you can hear the roosters crowing, see colorful sarongs drying on clotheslines, and smell the perfume of the vanilla orchid.
It takes 131/2 hours from New York nonstop via Air Tahiti Nui to the capital, Papeete, where the ship is moored. Most people like to stay over in Papeete for a day or two. Several fine hotels there include the InterContinental Resort Tahiti (rooms start at about $367), which features Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti, a terrific 120-member folkloric dance troupe and a sumptuous barbecue on Wednesday nights for $78.
There's much to see in Papeete, including Le Marche, the downtown local market with colorful vendors and a cornucopia of produce: tapioca, yams, tomatoes, cucumbers the size of baseball bats, glorious flowers, multicolored fish. Le Marche is just off the Boulevard Pomare, which has two taxi stands.
Black pearls are sold everywhere. You can find them at the Vaima Center, a sort of shopping mall with a pearl museum. But you need to know your pearls to make sure you're getting quality goods.
Transportation is either by taxi - agree on a fee up front - or the local bus for about $1. Taxi fees go up after dark.
Sites to see include the black sands at Matavi Bay, the royal town of Arue, and the Gauguin Museum - though it has none of the artist's original works except for some sculptures.
For on-site information, check out the Visitors Bureau, on the wharf at the Quai d'Honneur.
One of the Paul Gauguin's cruises is the eight-day, seven-night trek out of Papeete exploring historic Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora and Moorea.
The balcony staterooms run $3,295 per person, double occupancy; porthole cabins cost about $2,195. The prices include all gratuities, wine with dinner, all meals, and water sports - including wind surfing, kayaking, and diving off the stern of the ship. Snorkel equipment is provided throughout the cruise.
Since the waters are calm as a bathtub, there's no concern about seasickness.
The tour includes two nights in Bora Bora and two in Moorea, with a variety of excursions available at the various ports. You can prebook these online at www.theregentexperience.com/excursions, or request them once on board.
The first stop is the sleepy little island of Raiatea, where you can take a 31/2-hour guided tour by jeep and boat up the Faaroa River for $72. This journey ventures into the valley formed by the now-dormant volcano. Here you'll spy gorilla bananas (huge brown cylinders), coconut palms, a variety of colorful ginger plants, the medicinal nono plant, birds of paradise, avocados, and vegetation so thick you'd need a machete to hack your way through.
Raiatea is called the "sacred" island, as it was once the religious center of ancient Polynesia and still houses its most revered temple. Because it has no natural beaches, the island has never been developed for tourists.
Enclosed in Raiatea's reef is the small island of Taha'a, famous for its vanilla plantations. Motu (island) Mahana is a private islet here where the ship dishes up a barbecue lunch, drinks, and various water activities. Seaside stands squat on the motu, where trinkets and souvenirs are hawked for dollars, Euros or Pacific francs. Or credit cards.
Many hail the island of Bora Bora as the most beautiful in the world, and its helicopter flights on Mondays and Tuesdays validate that praise. A 15-minute ride runs $195 - the best way to view the luminous sea colors as they melt from cobalt blue to glacial white.
It costs about $120 to rent a car in Bora Bora for half a day. But taxis are eager to guide you, and they're less expensive. The ship's excursions include a stingray ballet and snorkel safari for $79, a glass-bottom boat ride for $52, and an off-road adventure for $95.
Locals are eager for your business, and you can negotiate a trip of your own once you're on shore. But remember, nothing in Tahiti is cheap.
The island circumvention by jet boat takes you to all the desirable places and runs $110. The cheapest tour is a 21/2-hour truck exploration for $42.
Should you want to jump ship for a night, there are 15 hotels and B&B's in Bora Bora. Fab places include the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, the Pearl Beach Resort, the InterContinental, and the most spectacular of all, the Bora Bora Nui, with the longest white-sand private beach on the island.
Moorea is only 11 miles from Tahiti. Ferries make the 35-minute run between Papeete and Moorea, and you can walk from the airport to one of its nicest beaches, Temae. Two picturesque bays, Opunohu and Cook's, punctuate the heart-shaped isle of Moorea. Most island tours wind up at Belvedere lookout, with its spectacular view of both bays. Capt. Cook actually landed in Opunohu Bay, not Cook's Bay.
One of the outstanding excursions here is the enlightening 41/2-hour trek-hike on the Trail of the Ancients, where Kiwi anthropologist Mark Eddowes unspools the history of the unique people who settled here. The cost is $72 and worth it.
Although each island harbors its nightspots and eateries, there are three restaurants on board the Paul Gauguin: the luxury La Veranda, the less classy l'Etoile, and the casual Pacific Grille. Most patrons are limited to two nights at La Veranda, to make sure everyone gets to eat there. Reservations are required, and you can make them in advance online at www.rssc.com.
There's plenty to do on board, too: casino games, demonstrations, workouts, lectures, swimming. The cruise is ideal for honeymooners (who never have to leave their staterooms) or senior citizens who may have physical limitations.
You may be on this side of paradise, but you're never far from home, either. The ship offers wi-fi for 35 cents a minute.
Getting there. One-stop flights to Tahiti and the ship, via Air New Zealand, leave from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,788, but you can save almost $400 and fly nonstop on Air Tahiti Nui out of JFK International.
Insider info. Currency is the French Pacific franc, 100 to $1 . . . Tipping is not the custom on or off the ship . . . You'll need hard-soled shoes that can get wet and will protect your feet from sharp coral . . . Tahiti is an overseas territory of France. That means sometimes topless beaches, lots of smoking, and French as the official language . . . Tahiti is currently five hours behind Philadelphia time.
For the Regent Seven Seas
Paul Gauguin, on the Web: www.rssc.com/ships/ship.jsp?
Tahiti. Information at www.tahitiguide.com.
Bora Bora. www.boraboraisland.com.