Is this the best cruise in the South Pacific? Wind Spirit in Tahiti is certainly a hard-to-beat combination of dazzling destination plus swoon-inducing ship.
Escaping far from the usual path of other Pacific Island itineraries, Windstar Cruises presents a more luxurious option for adventurers seeking striking scenery and serenity in style. Throw in a few adrenaline-spiking activities, a dose of Tahitian culture, great food and a beverage package, and this is one fun week on water.
Here are our hits and misses from our seven-night ‘Dreams of Tahiti’ cruise, which departs from Papeete every Friday.
Tahiti is not just for honeymooners
Families, friends and solo travellers needn’t be deterred; Tahiti is not swarming with loved-up couples and newlyweds. Even on beaches and in hotels and restaurants, we rarely spotted any PDA (public displays of affection). Our 31 July departure saw many Aussie, Kiwi and American couples, mostly aged between 40 and 65, as well as a few teenagers and their parents, and a woman in her 30s who decided to treat herself while her husband was on a business trip. The previous sailing had a larger number of retirees with their extended families including several grandchildren in their 20s.
Not many tourists
Fewer than 200,000 travellers visit Tahiti annually so you feel like you’ve (almost) got the place to yourself. According to the presentation in the ship’s lounge on the first evening, more people visit Hawaii in 10 days than Tahiti in one year. Comprising 118 islands, the five archipelagos spread across the same size as Europe and yet there are more rooms in a Las Vegas hotel than in all of Tahiti. Wow.
Few other cruise ships
We didn’t see another ship all week. Aside from Windstar, the only other cruise lines operating regularly are Aranui and Paul Gauguin Cruises, but they do a good job of avoiding each other so the islands aren’t crowded with passengers.
The tall, small ship
Refurbished this year, the four-masted Wind Spirit looks amazing from any angle. Whether the sails are up or not, it’s a showstopper, but don’t miss sailaway when its elegant grandeur is in full force. The vessel’s size and décor (immaculate white surfaces and and teak wood floors) also add to the feeling that you’re on your own yacht with friends.
— Read our updated review of Wind Spirit, after its 2015 upgrade.
Onboard water sports marina
A platform unfolds from the stern, allowing passengers to dive off the back of the ship and into the ocean. This is such a treat in a sunny, scenic spot like Tahiti, whether it’s the main focus of your day or you just feel like a cool-down in the afternoon. As there is no extra charge for any activity, we tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time and went kayaking while admiring the mountain views. Water-skiing, wind-surfing or just swimming are also possible, and there are floating mats to rest upon –- or run along, which I found to be particularly hilarious, trying to remain upright getting from one end to the other.
Windstar’s beverage package
Priced at US$116 per day per cabin (for two people to share), the unlimited drinks package elevates your luxury cruise to another level. It’s an indulgent treat to order anything from the menu – all beers, wines by the glass (up to US$12), cocktails, spirits and aperitifs. At first we wondered if we would drink enough each day for the whole week to make it worthwhile – well, we did. It was freeing to not have to think about it or sign for anything, to sample liqueurs we wouldn’t normally try, to gaze at the sunset with a sparkling wine or a frozen pina colada in hand, depending on our mood, to order different whites and reds at dinner, and to finish the night with a port. Best of all, there was no ‘bill shock’ at the end of all of that indulgence.
Unlike some big ships with beverage packages, Wind Spirit is so small and efficient that we never had to wait more than a minute for a drink and there was no drunkenness disrupting the chilled vibe. Although be careful of Casey, the only bartender wearing sunglasses at the pool bar, as he’ll suggest you go ‘off menu’ with concoctions named Diabetes and the Paralyzer. We didn’t risk these recommendations, but we liked him a lot.
Helpful, happy, wonderful crew
Our cruise had only 93 passengers and 97 crew so we were outnumbered by lovely, smiling waiters and bartenders from Indonesia and the Philippines. At the welcome talk, the team was introduced with funny songs (‘Mission Impossible’ for the chief engineer, the ‘Fawlty Towers’ theme for the hotel manager, and ‘Staying Alive’ for the doctor, who danced his way across the stage). Endro, Mike, Budi, Boon, Adhi and Aki were great fun in the restaurants, and Edwin, Raffy, Raphael and Casey took top care of our drinking needs. Our cabin steward Tenso was wonderful, and Anna, Kuba and Yuri ensured we played it safe with the water sports. Guest services manager Natasha, from South Africa, and voyage leader Ana from Croatia (her second week in the job) could not have been more helpful. It’s not often we remember so many crewmembers’ names (and of course, they always remembered ours), so they clearly made a big difference to our enjoyment.
Dining under the stars
There are plenty of opportunities to dine al fresco, which is a memorable part of any trip. All meals are included in the cruise fare, including dinner on the beach at Windstar’s Bora Bora private event, a deck party and BBQ with the crew, another BBQ lunch on a private motu (islet), and a romantic evening at the poolside pop-up, Candles Grill. Breakfast and lunch are self-service at Veranda, which has indoor and outdoor seating, but you can order freshly cooked hot dishes such as omelette, eggs benedict, waffles or pancakes at no extra charge. A la carte dinner is served inside at AmphorA restaurant, and you can wander in anytime between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m, no bookings required. Klaus, the executive chef, goes to great lengths to purchase fish direct from the local fisherman, as well as other fresh produce from the islands visited. Whole tunas and suckling pigs were highlights, as well as the local delicacy of poisson cru (raw fish pieces marinated in lime juice and coconut milk).
Fun activities in paradise
The most popular excursion was snorkelling, which is exceptional in Tahiti. Drift snorkelling in the ‘coral garden’ at Taha’a was stunning, with a greater variety of tropical fish than we’ve seen anywhere. However, the best day was snorkelling with stingrays and reef sharks (who are harmless, we promise) in Bora Bora. You didn’t know where to look between the spectacular views overwater and the slightly alarming views underwater, but it was a real thrill. Scenic tours by jeep were also excellent, reaching high peaks to see the best views of Bora Bora, Moorea and Huahine. The other big thing to do is buy black pearls, and almost every port had jewellery stores.
A great way to experience a bit of everything is with Windstar’s new all-inclusive package that includes three complimentary shore excursions: snorkel safari in Moorea, Bora Bora Island Discovery (in an open truck), and a visit to a pearl farm.
Special events on and off the ship
The peak of the week is Windstar’s private event, the Bora Bora Celebration Festival, held on the private Motu Tapu. We witnessed the huge whole tunas unloaded from a local fishing boat, which pulled up alongside Wind Spirit one (pre-arranged by the chef), and then feasted on them at the beach BBQ, on top of the two suckling pigs, other meats and seafood, various local delicacies, salads and desserts. After watching a glorious sunset and finishing our meal, everyone was treated to a fire-dancing show that is a big part of Polynesian culture. These acrobatic performers, throwing flames as they danced to the beat of traditional music, was an exciting spectacle. Other events included the deck party, with the crew entertaining us with a karaoke-style show, followed by passengers dancing the night away under the stars.
Most other nights were spent in the lounge with the duo, Christelle, choosing a different theme of music (50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, reggae, salsa) each night and playing trivia. And on one day, a local group came aboard to play the ukulele, teach us how to make a lei and how to tie a pareo (sarong) in different ways. Aside from that, entertaining yourself (sunbathing, reading, socialising with other passengers) is the name of the game onboard.
The postcard-perfect image of Tahiti is not guaranteed, and apparently it’s all thanks to that damn El Nino weather pattern. We had grey skies for the first couple of days and temperatures in the low- to mid-20s (Celsius). So pack a jacket, just in case. The beach day at Taha’a got rained out and there wasn’t as much sunbathing on deck as we imagined. We almost cried when we woke up to a gloomy Bora Bora, but luckily Wind Spirit stays there overnight and the next day was nothing short of spectacular. Never have we been so happy to have two full days in port. Thankfully, the second half of the cruise remained warm with that beautiful blue sky and crystal-clear aqua-coloured water. Bliss!
Cancelled or full shore excursions
Some tours were canned due to the weather or lack of bookings. This can happen on any cruise but a few passengers were unhappy with the late notice provided. A couple of people told us they were not informed until the day of the excursion, leaving no time to find an alternative. Of the tours left standing, popular activities were quickly booked out, so be sure to get in early and confirm your activity is going ahead. As opposed to other South Pacific islands, independent tours by local operators are quite limited in most Tahitian ports of call, so purchasing the ship’s excursions would be wise.
High costs on land
Tahiti is well known as an expensive destination but it’s not prohibitive. We hired a scooter for the equivalent of AU$70 (US$50) for four hours at Moorea and our lunch at a beachfront café (seafood lasagna, fish burger and two beers) cost the same. Alternatively, just go back to Wind Spirit for all your meals, as the ship is either docked at the pier or less than five minutes by tender at each port. The food is probably better, too.
Windstar’s seven-night ‘Dreams of Tahiti’ cruise, roundtrip from Papeete, is priced from US$2,799 per person including all meals, soft drinks and water.
– by Louise Goldsbury, Cruise Critic Australia Editor
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