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More than 120 species of fish make for amazing snorkeling at St. Regis Bora Bora’s Lagoonarium. (Photo by David Dickstein)
More than 120 species of fish make for amazing snorkeling at St. Regis Bora Bora’s Lagoonarium. (Photo by David Dickstein)
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“Welcome to paradise!”

Experience should tell well-traveled warm-weather wanderlusters that when offered this greeting at a tropical resort, it’s best to take it with a grain of sea salt. Too many times has this heat-seeking holiday maker been burned, not by the sun’s rays, but that seemingly hospitable phrase.

At the five-star GoldenEye resort in Jamaica, for one, “paradise” had me waking up in a bedsheet speckled with blood despite having the protection, or not, of a mosquito net and generous layer of insect repellant. Las Brisas Acapulco is a luxury property affectionally called “The Pink and White Paradise,” but the only color I saw was red due to loud service carts whizzing past our room at all hours of the night. A drive-by shooting across the street was the cherry on top during a visit that was far from utopian.

If I had a nickel — or other small-value coin of foreign currency — for every time a tropical destination failed to live up to the paradisical hype, that would be a tidy sum and fodder for a tell-all travel book. But since life is short and we need more positivity in this topsy-turvy world, let’s not dwell on places where slices of heaven are inadvertently mixed with bits of hell. We should instead focus our travel binoculars on a corner of the world that rarely disappoints.

A couple from Mexico celebrates their fifth wedding anniversary on a motu. (Photo by David Dickstein)
A couple from Mexico celebrates their fifth wedding anniversary on a motu. (Photo by David Dickstein)

We’re talking about French Polynesia in the center of the serene South Pacific. Made up of five archipelagoes and 118 islands, nearly half of them uninhabited, this pinch-me place is a popular setting for screensaver graphics and wall calendars. It literally is the model of what many of us picture as the quintessential tropical paradise.

Who doesn’t dream of cooling off with a fruity libation while lounging beside palm trees swaying in the breeze on a pristine white-sand beach? Here’s where that vision becomes reality, and the icing on the coconut cake are views of crystal-clear turquoise waters surrounded by lush, green mountains. Even sweeter, unlike many vacation destinations near the equator, French Polynesia gets the seal of approval — a Level 1 travel advisory — from the U.S. State Department for safety.

A floating bar on a private motu redefines “watering hole.” (Photo by David Dickstein)

Air Tahiti Nui, American, Delta, French Bee, Hawaiian and United airlines all fly between Tahiti and Los Angeles or San Francisco, and it’s a minimum of eight hours in the air. Although not a short trip, or a cheap one with roundtrips costing north of a grand, the ROI is a French-accented dream vacation with a joie de vivre.

Blessed with unmatched beauty, unique culture, friendly people and an alluring sense of seclusion, French Polynesia is a favored nation for honeymooners, celebrants of milestone anniversaries and others with the urge to splurge somewhere sultry besides the likes of South Florida, Hawaii, Costa Rica and the Caribbean.

The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort is famous for its overwater villas and majestic views. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort is famous for its overwater villas and majestic views. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Staying at a resort is how 80% of visitors do French Polynesia, per the country’s tourism authority (), and many go big with lodging at one of those luxurious overwater bungalows synonymous with the destination. The pinnacle of posh is arguably The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort (), where from inside your high-class hut you can watch sea life though glass-bottom flooring, and outside jump into an aquamarine lagoon off your private platform with a perfect view of iconic Mount Otemanu.

Making a full-service, five-star resort your base for an entire vacation sounds like paradise, and the majority of visitors would seem to agree. But know that if you ever want to explore other islands to get a different taste of Tahitian-French culture, that, mon amie, can be a hassle. Because flights and ferry service are limited to certain islands and days of the week, even the most resourceful hotel concierge may try to talk guests out of this well-intentioned, yet impractical idea.

The luxury, 332-passenger Paul Gauguin is specially built for Polynesian waters. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The luxury, 332-passenger Paul Gauguin is specially built for Polynesian waters. (Photo by David Dickstein)

If catching “island fever” after spending a few days on one property is a possibility, then your best ticket to paradise could be a cruise. By ship is the easiest way to visit multiple islands in a sprawling destination that’s roughly the size of Europe. On a typical 7- to 10-day journey around the Society Islands, for example, ships make calls in Moorea, Taha’a, Raiatea, Huahine and, of course, Bora Bora, before returning to Tahiti. Paul Gauguin, Windstar and Silversea are offering the most roundtrips with this itinerary over the next year, give or take a port, and of special note are those that anchor overnight in Bora Bora.

One of the benefits of cruising is you go to many places and unpack only once. But when given the opportunity to abandon ship to spend a night in an overwater villa, fussing with luggage a second time is a pleasant inconvenience. On a recent weeklong “More Society Islands & Tahiti” voyage aboard the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin, at least two guests skipped out on their spacious veranda stateroom with butler in exchange for an “Overwater Deluxe Villa” at the St. Regis, the only Forbes five-star resort in Bora Bora. That coveted category starts at $1,530 a night. By comparison, the InterContinental Tahiti and Hilton Tahiti were reporting midweek availability in July with rates starting at $330 and $370, respectively, but with markedly less wow factor.

Selling points of the St. Regis include snorkeling safely in the stunning Lagoonarium stocked with more than 120 species of fish, adults-only nooks and crannies, a heavenly spa, themed dining events nearly every night at one of the six restaurants and bars (the luau-like Polynesian Evening on Wednesdays is a high-energy hoot), and among the recreational offerings is an assigned bicycle for every guest.

The farewell party on Paul Gauguin is bittersweet for guests and crew. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The farewell party on Paul Gauguin is bittersweet for guests and crew. (Photo by David Dickstein)

The good life continues back on the Paul Gauguin (). With an excellent 1:1.5 crew-to-guest ratio, service on the Paul Gauguin is solid — quite possibly the most caring and friendly this sea-legged scribe has experienced. Several among the crew flaunted other talents at a delightfully entertaining crew show on the penultimate evening.

A Polynesian revue dazzles guests aboard the Paul Gauguin. (Photo by David Dickstein)
A Polynesian revue dazzles guests aboard the Paul Gauguin. (Photo by David Dickstein)

On other nights in the understatedly beautiful 314-seat Grand Salon, Polynesian culture is shared through song and dance by impressive local acts. Late-night entertainment is often a weak link on small ships, but not here; the Santa Rosa Band and pianist-singer Jerry Lomocso are two versatile acts out of the Philippines worthy of the extended contracts they just received.

Paul Gauguin passengers enjoy a day on a private motu. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Paul Gauguin passengers enjoy a day on a private motu. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Shipboard entertainment, a stern-side marina for watersports, and most organized activities are included in the cruise fare, which for a 7-day sail can be booked for as low as $5,000, double occupancy. What’s not included are treatments at the well-managed Algotherm Spa and shore excursions. That’s typical even for luxury-category cruising. Looking at a few tours, ATVing in Huahine costs $279 per machine (single or double), but the views along the route, road and off-road, are priceless; “Coral Garden Drift Snorkeling” ($120 in Raiatea, $125 in Taha’a) takes swimmers to one of the best spots in the world; and the “WaveRunner Adventure” in Moorea ($239 per machine, single or double) includes a pitstop at a motu for a thrilling ray encounter.

A cappuccino mousse dessert caps a lovely dinner at L'Etoile. (Photo by David Dickstein)
A cappuccino mousse dessert caps a lovely dinner at L’Etoile. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Adventures of the epicurean kind were mostly successful on the recent cruise; dishes starring steaks, shellfish, lamb and veggies were of the high caliber one would expect from French-based Ponant, which acquired the ship in 2019, and is known for outstanding cuisine. A tip of the chapeau to Cheese Night at L’Etoile restaurant, featuring a dazzling spread of 15 types of prized French fromage.

Like the food, pretty much everything about the Paul Gauguin goes down smoothly. Even the ship’s bones are specially designed for smooth navigation in Polynesian waters, and at the risk of causing a nerd alert, here’s why: A 17-foot draft allows the ship to get in close to shallow lagoons and isolated islands, maximizing stopover time.

As for parts of the ship we can actually see, recent refurbishments have the 27-year-old ship looking younger and more distinguished than when I sailed on it in 2018. If only the spa’s $210 “Deep Regenerating Sun Care” treatment could have done that for me.

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