Smart way to explore Polynesia
It's well-known that French Polynesia offers some of the most expensive digs in the Pacific, but that needn't stop you making like a cashed-up Kardashian and supping cocktails in Bora Bora with the best of them.
It might just mean approaching your desired French Polynesian holiday from a new angle – like, perhaps, rolling in with the sunrise and rolling out again before nightfall.
That's what cruising offers. When accommodation is pricey, the affordability and all-inclusive efficiency of a floating hotel starts to look like a savvy option.
The Kardashian-Jenner clan of reality television fame travelled to Bora Bora in April 2011 with their film crew.
They reportedly stayed in the 300-square-metre, two-level, NZ$5800 a night presidential overwater villas at the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort.
Which takes us back to cruising: you go ashore in the morning, see the sights, swim with sharks or hang out at a hotel all day, then return to your stateroom and a selection of onboard restaurants and cafes that evening. The next morning you wake up in another part of paradise, and start exploring again.
First things first: my mother, toddler and I flew from Auckland to Tahiti.
We stayed the night at the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort – a slightly tired hotel with cheerful staff and elevators which stopped working. I took my daughter for an evening swim in the illuminated pool surrounded by tropical trees on the first night of her first overseas trip.
The next day we hired a rental car and circumnavigated Tahiti Nui, the largest part of the top-heavy, figure-eight-shaped island. Rain came pouring down in paradise – the tinny windscreen wipers struggled to keep up – but we still got a feel for the waves crashing on the waterfront roads and the island's verdant interior. Tahiti locals were delighted to have rain after a month of dry weather.
We managed to keep our pre-cruise costs to a reasonable level by shopping at supermarkets and roadside bakeries, packing lots of snacks, making sure we were well-stocked in potentially expensive essentials such as swimming nappies, and limiting our shopping to two hula-style dresses for my daughter and god-daughter (NZ$39 each).
But all of our forward-planning couldn't negate the cost of my carelessness: I lost the key to our rental car in the port-side mayhem as we boarded our cruise ship in Tahiti. Europcar charged me NZ$533, even though they had a spare, and I can't help pining for the beautiful dress I could have bought with that money.
On the port, as we worked through the boarding formalities and I lost the car key, older passengers kissed like teenagers.
Our steed was Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas – a 13-deck, 90,090-tonne, 300-metre-long ship with space for 2500 guests.
Once on board, we headed straight for the buffet to find my toddler some dinner.
Meal times at the Windjammer Cafe buffet were an experience not to be missed. A rolling buffet does strange things to people: some swamp their plates in giant mounds of soft bacon; others eat dessert every lunchtime.
There were fresh banana smoothies, create-your-own pizzas, delectable Sri Lankan-style chicken curries and American-style salad bars. The icecream machine ran non-stop from lunchtime until the end of dinner.
There was everything from bowls of freshly cut fruit and deep dishes of creamed potato to scrambled eggs with salmon, cold meat platters, and a dessert buffet with cheesecakes, tarts and biscuits. Next door was a hot dog bar, and near the pool was the Park Cafe, with an expansive salad bar, giant bowls of whole fruit, and packets of chips. It took some getting used to, but whenever you felt the slightest bit peckish all you had to do was ask for an apple or a salad and it would appear.
Main meal dining options included the Cascades dining room – a two-storey a la carte restaurant draped with heavy white fabrics and wood panelling, where your group could request to either be seated alone or at a large table.
These options were all included in the cover price. Other options incurred a charge, such as Latte-Tudes cafe (US$5.05 for a grande soy latte), and Giovanni's Italian (US$20 a head).
Regardless of whether you were dressed in a gown or tuxedo for a formal evening or wearing jandals and grabbing an icecream at the buffet, you had to sanitise your hands every time you entered and left a dining room. There was also hand sanitiser at every elevator stop, at the lower-deck entry to the ship, at reception, the library and the gym.
Alcohol, which is not included in the price, was delivered in various forms to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. You could have a martini in a lounge overlooking the ocean, a cocktail at the pool bar, or a beer at the Safari Club.
On our first night we were rocked to sleep in a stateroom with a bedroom, lounge, and bathroom.
We woke up, opened the curtains, and watched the ship come to anchor in a bay off Moorea.
WE TRAVELLED to the port on Moorea in tender boats and were met by French Polynesians dressed in coconut shell bras and feather head-dresses, playing music and standing under a thatched roof so the cruise passengers could pose with them.
The throng headed through a corridor of expensive stalls at the end of which the crowds thinned out as people headed off on island tours.
We found an unpretentious island with echoes of Tongan village life and the smaller islands of Fiji. We walked along the quiet road, past wooden homes painted bright colours and lawns mown super-short, dodging the occasional splattered breadfruit and mangy dog. We bludged some sunscreen off an Irish ginga we found wilting in the heat, and admired the spires of the island's jagged peaks.
That night we started to get into the rhythm of cruising.
Free activities on board included a nine-hole miniature golf course, a karaoke night and a disco tribute to Elvis, ballroom dancing lessons, a sudoku competition, art classes and a makeup seminar. We watched a cringe-making talent show where an Australian contingent predictably chorused "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" after their ditty, and I attended a seminar on the mutiny on the Bounty. Paid activities included yoga, formal photography sittings and services such as personal training, beauty therapy and babysitting.
Each night I bathed the baby in our bathroom sink and put her to bed while Mum caught a show. Then I would sit in the lounge of our stateroom while the toddler slept in her portacot.
In the morning I'd push her stroller around the decks until the restaurants opened for breakfast.
ON OUR second morning on board we woke up to find Bora Bora – surely one of the loveliest places on earth. My camera card is jampacked with footage and stills which don't do justice to the stunning scenery.
There are numerous accommodation options on Bora Bora and you wouldn't have to go for outrageously expensive overwater bungalows a la the Kardashians.
On hotels.com, prices for two nights' accommodation in December ranged from NZ$604 to NZ$2761.
Our cruise dipped into Bora Bora for one long day, avoiding the accommodation issue. I could have easily stayed much longer, but it was a joy to drop in for a day and sample the Pacific's legendary capital of glitz, where overwater villas are the norm and European cars ply the busy roads.
French Polynesia's population of 260,000 live on 130 islands scattered over 2,500,000 square kilometres of ocean. We visited three of French Polynesia's most famous and endearing islands on this Auckland-bound cruise – only 127 to go.
TIPS FOR CRUISING WITH KIDS
Pack clothes for cooler weather. The air-conditioning in the staterooms can be fairly cool at times.
Request a cot when you book. You may want to bring some of your own linen if your baby is still very small to ensure you can get a flat surface. Our toddler slept on a plump duvet which was folded into a mattress shape.
Pack lots of bibs and facecloths, and some washing powder so you can clean and hang laundry in your bathroom. Also pack some pegs.
Pack lots of snacks (individually wrapped to get through customs). I took crackers, muesli bars, biscuits, unopened dried fruits and a couple of packaged baby meals. These were invaluable for the nights when she was just too exhausted to make it to dinner, and when we went on shore and didn't want to have to worry about hunting down some lunch for her.
Consider having Pamol or other forms of pain relief available in case your child decides to start teething or becomes mildly unwell.
Depending on how the concept sits with your parenting philosophies, you may want to consider a harness (aka a leash) for your child. We bought one disguised as a butterfly-shaped backpack and the toddler was excited to put it on. I used it when we walked on the outside decking or around the large staircases.
Even though the onboard toy library will lend you toys, it can help to have a few small, familiar favourites to help your child settle in to his or her temporary home.
Consider pre-booking your dinner sittings. Royal Caribbean has a system called My Time dining, where you can determine your dinner times online in the weeks before you depart. We booked the 5.30pm sitting most nights. The buffet restaurant was available for those nights when a tired toddler would have been unable to hold it together throughout a more formal sit-down meal.
If you can manage it logistically, take your stroller. I did laps of the upper decks every morning while waiting for the breakfast sitting to open, and on wet afternoons it was invaluable as we toured the lower decks. We were able to take her ashore in the stroller and it made the transfers from ship to shore very easy, and allowed her to nap while we were on the go.
Costs for children
Complimentary playgroups for babies (six months to 18 months) and toddlers, and Adventure Ocean kids programme for three- to 17-year-olds, split into age groups.
Nursery (six to 36 months): US$8 (NZ$10.60) per child per hour. Babysitting (over 12 months): US$12 per child per hour.
Children sharing a cabin with two adults pay a reduced cruise fare from around NZ$60 per day (aged under 12). Fares for older children (12+ years) start at around NZ$80 per day.
The writer travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
The Dominion Post