Casey Sagisi is a Seattle-based designer, educator, product engineer, and writer. He designs and creates custom garments for fun clients and engineers’ apparel, and helps to build Seattle's ethical local manufacturing economy through Muses Conscious Fashion Studio and Seattle Sewn. Casey enjoys traveling and has started to document his fabulous journeys at home and abroad.
Hello, kind readers! I’m so excited to tell you all about my (and my partner Rafael’s) recent cruise on the m/s Paul Gauguin. We had the great pleasure of embarking on a 10-night tour of the Society and Tuamotus Islands. This was my first cruise, and I’ll admit that I had some apprehension leading up to it. I had many negative preconceived notions about this type of travel, all silly enough to be forgettable in the midst of my actual experience, which follows.
Society Islands, Part 1
We arrived early morning in Papeete, Tahiti, and were greeted with sun and sweet music from local performers. Transition from the plane to the ship consisted of a friendly cab ride through the small but already bustling city. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but I knew I was about to have an unforgettable experience the moment we stepped on board. The staff impressed us immediately, from seamless check-in to our room to the delicious lunch that awaited us. Our balcony stateroom was opulent and comfortable, and made me second-guess my mattress purchasing decisions back home. After a quick nap, we took to exploring the ship stem to stern. Seeing all of the spaces and amenities kicked us into full vacation mode. From the restaurants and spa to the onboard marina and gym, we were like kids in a candy store.
The first sailing kicked off at midnight. We woke up to a picturesque sunrise expertly timed with ship’s arrival in Huahine. This was a great touch, and evening sailings with morning arrival was a repeated theme that allowed us to maximize our days on the islands. Huahine and the following two days in Bora Bora were filled with excursions led by expert guides. We swam with sharks, fed manta rays, learned about the history of the islands, took private boat tours, and met sacred blue-eyed eels. With twelve daylight hours, we were able to alternate activities with periods of rest and still feel what I call “vacation accomplished.”
While adventuring, I noticed many local men and women wearing lovely wrap-style garments called pareos. I am a designer and was naturally intrigued by the vivid colors and prints. I was pleased to find that our gracious hosts on board, Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, offered info sessions about the pareo’s history, designs, and tying methods. I’m a bit of a textile nerd and found it interesting that original pareos were made using tree bark that was beaten to make it more pliable, then dyed or decorated. Though men originally wore a loincloth version called a maro, the pareo nowadays is worn by both men and women. Colonization in the 1700s westernized production methods and wearing styles. Nowadays, most commercially available pareos are made from cotton and dyed. The motifs are applied in numerous ways from screen printing to sunbleaching using flowers and leaves as stencils, making each one a unique work of art. Pareos are worn and sold nearly everywhere in French Polynesia, and we had a great time finding and discussing our favorites, one of which was worn by Patrick, our stellar guide in Bora Bora.
This was hands-down my favorite segment of the trip. I didn’t think I could be any more stunned by the beauty of French Polynesia until we approached the narrow Rangiroa pass. The Tuamotu archipelago consists of coral islands and is designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Sparsely populated slivers of land are surrounded by azure water, rife with coconut palms and white sand beaches—quite possibly the purest distillation of what your brain conjures up when you hear the word “paradise.”
Rangiroa was host to incredibly biodiverse snorkeling, and I’m certain we saw marine life in every vibrant color of the rainbow. We also toured a working pearl farm where we learned about the history and production of the famed black pearl, complete with a technical demonstration of the delicate grafting process. I could write an entire article about that, but I encourage you to visit the experts yourself!
Rafael and I are both artists who work in technical media, so we naturally took to carefully evaluating the stock of the countless pearl markets and jewelry stores we visited. I think we were both surprised to find that the best of the best was found at Hinerava, in the boutique aboard The Gauguin. The farms had great-quality pearls but were not the most design-savvy in their jewelry creations and had limited or no men’s sections. We found that Hinerava covered all the bases. The men’s collection combined the traditional delicacy of pearls with rugged, lasting settings from cufflinks to leather bracelets, all impeccably made. But most impressive was how closely they were able to match pearls to one another for sets. I can’t convey how difficult and time consuming this would be at a pearl farm! Beyond variations in quality, a “black” pearl can have many over/undertones from green to gold. Pairing even two is no small feat, yet they have created multi-pearl pieces that look like they all came from the same oyster. We also learned so much from Esther and Jessica at the boutique and appreciated their knowledge and no-nonsense approach.
Beyond pareos and pearls, Rafael and I also started mentally cataloging tattoos, with which I’m obsessed. I have always loved hearing the stories around people’s tattoos and was elated to find myself in a place that honors the art. The symbolism in a Polynesian tattoo is unparalleled, and the practice fortunately survived missionary efforts to suppress it. Motifs factor in the elements, landscape, flora, and fauna; meanings shift depending on placement on the body. The art is so culturally ingrained and codified that many people talk about the process in terms of how the tattoo chose them, seeing their artists also as spiritual guides. As somebody with tattoos, I enjoyed this welcoming mindset!
As we sailed away from Rangiroa that night, the crew pulled out all the stops and staged a jaw-dropping, entirely self-produced talent show! We were floored, and the whole ship was still buzzing about the performances as we sailed into Fakarava, hands-down my favorite location of the entire trip (possibly the world). We took a breezy ATV tour across the entire island, stopping often to take in its beauty, including the Topaka lighthouse. The already perfect day of warm sun approached spiritual when we quickly dipped into the crystal water for a brief swim as the last tender of the day came to retrieve us from the dock.
Society Islands, Part 2
We had one sailing day to head back to the Society Islands, and we used the time to continue important work on a puzzle, exercise, read poolside in the sun, attend afternoon tea, and have a steam at the spa. It’s entirely possible that the relaxation meter broke that day.
We hit the ground running on Taha’a, and our time there set a jovial tone to the last leg of the trip. We visited an exquisitely fragrant vanilla farm that also grew many other fruits and vegetables. The tour was fun, informative (the island produces roughly three quarters of French Polynesia’s vanilla), and short enough for us to spend the rest of the day kicking back at The Gauguin’s own private islet, where we enjoyed a delicious barbecue (read: heaven). The food and atmosphere were great with no shortage of activities from kayaking and snorkeling to sunbathing and spa massages. The merriment continued on board as we set sail to the sounds of the awesome house band. Trust that I sang a few tunes at the Les Gauguines/Gauguins-hosted karaoke in the lounge that evening. I will neither confirm nor deny that I guiltily indulged in some late-night room service upon return to our stateroom. P.S., try the fries.
The trip closed with two days in Moorea, a dreamy end cap to the cruise. The island struck a nice balance between the solemn Tuamotus and the vibrant hum of Papeete. We toured the island extensively, the highlight being an e-bike ride to Belvedere point overlooking both Cook’s and Ōpūnohu bays. The ascent included a tour of the local agricultural school, with samples of tasty ice cream and jams. We paused our descent to learn the history of a hallowed burial site and experienced an abrupt, short-lived deluge that left us comedically soaked, but ultimately safe and well cared for by our guide. This peace of mind was important to me, as I have lifelong injuries due to a serious vehicular accident a couple of years back. Not once on the trip did I question that I was in good hands, and I always felt empowered to ask for help or slow down when I experienced pain.
A farewell celebration was hosted on the pool deck our last full day on board, and dinner that night was superb as usual. The dining room was busy with the sweet sight of table-hoppers exchanging contact information with newfound friends. We woke early the next morning to finalize packing, safely docked back in Tahiti where it all began. We started the disembarkation process, but not before a pleasant and inflective breakfast on deck and a round of wistful goodbyes and thanks to the incredible crew.
In short, we were (and still are) dazzled. With everybody and everything that made this experience come to life. I’m one of the pickiest people you’ve yet to meet and not only would I change nothing about the cruise, I would happily book again. Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I did writing it! Until next time.
To learn more about the Society Islands & Tuamotus voyages, please click here.
For a listing of shore excursions, please click here.