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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 and exciting way to visit some of those 118 islands is aboard a small cruise ship that offers a close-up view of the islands. The Regent Seven Seas Paul Gauguin, a sparkling white vessel housing fewer than 400 guests, boasts a measly 17-foot draft. It can navigate waters that are too shallow for most ships. Half of the staterooms feature balconies where the traveler can relax and watch as Eden just floats by.
Anchored close to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea or Raiatea at dawn, you can hear the roosters crowing, see the colorful sarongs drying on invisible 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. Most people like to stay over in Papeete for a day or two. There are several fine hotels here including the InterContinental Resort Tahiti (rooms start at $331), which features Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti, a terrific 120-member folkloric dance troupe and a sumptuous barbeque on Friday and Saturday nights for $80.
There's much to see here, including Le Marche, Papeete's downtown local market with colorful vendors and a cornucopia of produce: tapioca, yams, tomatoes, cucumbers the size of baseball bats, glorious flowers, multi-colored fish. Le Marche is just off the Boulevard Pomare which sports 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 upfront - or the local bus for about $1. Taxi fees inflate 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 information, check out the Visitors Bureau located on the wharf at the Quai d'Honneur.
One of the Paul Gauguin's various cruises is the eight-day, seven-night trek out of Papeete exploring historic Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora and Moorea.
The balcony staterooms run $4,395 per person, based on double occupancy, porthole cabins cost about $2,795. This includes all gratuities, wine with dinner, all meals and water sports - including wind surfing, kayaking, 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 need to worry about seasickness.
This tour includes two nights in Bora Bora and two in Moorea with a variety of excursions available at the various ports. You can pre-book these online www.theregentexperie n c e .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 jeep and boat tour 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, the medicinal no-no 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 there are 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 barbeque lunch, drinks and various water activities.
Seaside stands squat on the motu where trinkets and souvenirs are hawked for dollars, Euros or Pacific francs. They even take 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 but there is no better way to view the luminous sea colors as they melt from cobalt blue to glacial white.
It costs about $120 to rent a car here 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. But locals are eager for your business and you can negotiate a trip of your own once you're on shore.
The island circumvention by jet boat takes you to all the desirable places and runs $110. The off-road adventure goes for $95. The cheapest tour is a 21/2-hour truck exploration for $42.
(Of course, once ashore, you can book your own tours and negotiate the price. But remember, nothing in Tahiti is cheap.)
Should you want to jump ship for a night, there are 15 hotels and B&B's in Bora Bora. Fab places among them 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 provide the 35-minute run between Papeete and Moorea and you can actually 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, even though it bears his name.
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. Cost is $72 and worth it.
Although each island harbors its nightspots and eateries, there are three restaurants onboard 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 onboard, 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. ?
If you go
There are non-stop flights via Air Tahiti Nui from New York and Los Angeles; Air New Zealand and Air France have flights from the West Coast. Check for low prices. www.orbitz.com or www.cheap flights .com or www.airtahitinui.com.
Store hours: Most stores are open Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. half days on Saturday. Most are closed on Sunday.
Currency: French Pacific Franc, 100 to $1.
InterContinental reservations: reservationspfinter conti.com.
Necessities: Bring along reef shoes, hard-soled shoes that can get wet and will protect your feet from sharp coral. Flip-flops are not substantial enough. These are sold in Papeete for about $10.
INFO ON RAIATEA
www.raiatea.org. The market in Raiatea is open from 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Sunday.
Time zone: Six hours behind Eastern time.
Nightlife in Papeete: Clubs open at 10:30 p.m. and close at 4 a.m. Locals caution you to stay on the main streets.
Weather: Rainy months are January, February and March, and the rates are lower during the off-season. Low season is December though May. High season June through November. During their summers (our winters) the weather is hot and humid.
INFO ON MOOREA
www.mooreaisland.com/; Bora Bora: www.boraboaraisland .com; Raiatea: ww.raiatea.com.
Temperatures: Vary between 68 and 89 degrees F. during its summer (our winter) months. Coolest months are June, July, August.
Info on the cruise: www.the regentexperience.com or call (866) 284-4079.