Finding our way in exotic Tahiti

Someone once said that traveling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer and as far as we’re concerned, no truer words were ever spoken. There is little doubt that we are richer by far from the past five weeks of travel in the South Pacific – beginning in Tahiti.

Just say the word to someone buried under a mountain of snow in the dead of winter and it conjures daydreams of palm trees, mysterious, mist-covered volcanoes in the distance and bungalows hovering over the azure blue of the South Pacific waters. All of these daydreams of ours came true.

Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.
Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.

We arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti aboard an Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles. One of the best air travel experiences we have ever had, this airline is on our list of carriers to revisit whenever possible. We did our homework – visiting Seatguru, reading the reviews etc. as all discerning travelers do. We were traveling business class so expected extra room, better meals and perhaps some in-flight entertainment. What we were greeted by were refurbished planes with fully-reclinable seats, wonderful, flat-screen computers at every seat with a terrific selection of entertainment and on-board staff who were the nicest, most attractive, most efficient we’d seen since we traveled on Hawaiian Airlines two years ago. So when we arrived at our destination, we were already relaxed and in vacation mode.

The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)
The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)

We chose to stay at Le Meridien some fifteen minutes’ drive outside of Papeete rather than at the Intercontinental which had been initially recommended. This was partly because we didn’t really want to be that close to the city, and partly because the Intercontinental was offering only standard rooms. This was a special vacation and we opted for a Senior Suite. The hotel’s web site did not do it justice at all.

The hugely spacious two-room suite’s best feature as far as we were concerned was the huge terrace with 180 degree views – and the island of Moorea in the distance. Although many travelers like to search for the cheapest way to travel, we believe that you should look for luxury (for less if you can) that you can afford. The funny thing is that when we treat ourselves, we are never disappointed.

Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti
Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti

The first thing we noticed about Tahiti was how nice everyone was – smiling, attentive staff, eager to please. Then, of course, there was the water – so blue and so warm, warmer by far than even the Caribbean. So we had to see the island.

The hotel concierge helped us to arrange a private driver and car for a full-day, private circumnavigation of Tahiti Nui (Tahiti actually consists of two islands connected by a causeway: Tahiti Nui – which means larger; and Tahiti Iti – smaller and less navigable all around). Our driver was deeply versed in the flora and fauna of the island and took use to a number of truly wonderful gardens and grottos.

We lunched at the Paul Gauguin Restaurant sampling a number of local delicacies and visited Point Venus, the beach on Matavai Bay where Captain Cook came ashore in 1769, and where Marlon Brando (who later bought an atoll near Tahiti, built a house and lived) played Fletcher Christian in the 1960’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the movies we had watched on the plane!

While we were in Tahiti we walked the beaches, ate wonderful food and bought a Tahitian black pearl for Patty in Papeete. After five wonderful days, we embarked on our cruise.

Now that was interesting…

Art at the market in Papeete -- not to be missed when you visit.
Art at the market in Papeete — not to be missed when you visit.

Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.

The Seabourn cruise – A luxurious experience to top the list

Seabourn lays out the red carpet on the pier for its guests.
Seabourn lays out the red carpet on the pier for its guests.

On a six-star, so-called luxury cruise a few years ago, we were in the bar one evening, everyone dressed to the nines, sipping cocktails and getting to know one another.  We asked a selection of our new friends who hailed from various parts of the world, what the term luxury meant to them.  Most of them said that they had never really thought about it.  Indeed, these were people who, by all external standards, might be considered to live a luxurious life as a result of their income and standard of living.  They were, however, not among the idle rich.  All were successful in their chosen fields: medicine, law, business (the latter of which seem to have the most money of all).

When they were finally able to answer the question, they didn’t suggest jewelry, designer duds and handbags, or even private jets (although, admittedly, the private jet experience might be a luxury we might enjoy – but only if the service was terrific – which is at the heart of this story).  Luxury to them included things like “having someone to wash my hair every day for me,” and “fresh sheets on my bed every single day.”  Not quite what you might have imagined.  But luxury means different things to different people, and for these discerning travelers, service is at the heart of the luxurious experience.  Our recent cruise on the Yachts of Seabourn (on the Seabourn Spirit) was, then, one of the most luxurious experiences we’ve ever had.  Bar none.

After five wonderful days at The House in Barbados (the subject of our last post), we thought that the service they gave could not be topped.  We were wrong.

The hot tub forward deck on the Seabourn Spirit
The hot tub forward deck on the Seabourn Spirit

Arriving at the cruise terminal in Bridgetown, Barbados, we were greeted by a Seabourn representative who had our luggage whisked away, and directed us to the private transport.  We mention this only because two years ago when we cruised from Bridgetown on Seabourn’s competitor in the luxury cruise business, Silversea, they put us on buses with hot, dirty and damp revelers from several other mega-ships who all looked at us as if we had three heads, and gave us the stink eye for taking up space with our hand luggage.  Not this time, though.  The transport was just for Seabourn’s embarking guests.

If you’ve ever been on a mainstream cruise, especially one that leaves from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, then you’re familiar with the cavernous cruise terminals where the lineups are legion.  Even if you’re in a suite and have a dedicated, priority boarding line, the crowds are daunting and the service brisk if friendly.  This is where the luxury cruise lines have all of those others beat: personalized service where you feel important right from the start.

Once on board, we were ushered into a lounge where embarking passengers were sipping champagne and registering.  Before long we had had our photos taken, our credit card registered and were on our way to our suite.

Patty poses in our suite one evening.
Patty poses in our suite one evening.

We have been in many lovely suites in our lives, and this one was attractive – not outstanding, but delightful nonetheless.  Our suite stewardess arrived in due course to provide us with another glass of champagne (to add to the bottle chilling in a silver ice bucket on the dining table in the suite) and offer us a selection of high-end soaps (Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo, Molton Brown).  All of this is very nice, but if the service isn’t terrific, then the experience is not luxurious.  We were not to be disappointed!

After unpacking our suitcases which arrived in record time and settling everything nicely into the very spacious suite with oodles of storage space, we attended the life boat drill, explored the admittedly small ship and eventually made our way to the dining room for dinner.  As we approached the Maître d’ he greeted us by name and asked us for our table preference, since we can eat whenever we want with whomever we want – even just ourselves.  This ability to identify the guests by sight on first meeting is impressive – no doubt they have access to all of our photos!

The food was really wonderful, but the service was even better.  Every day we were on board, we ate at least two meals in the dining room and were impressed with the service from everyone from the bus boys through the servers to the sommelier who was particularly service-oriented.

Art enjoys the impeccable service at Restaurant II while docked in Antigua one evening.
Art enjoys the impeccable service at Restaurant II while docked in Antigua one evening.

Bar service (any drink you desire, sir), deck service (would you like a drink, sorbet in the afternoon, a cool towel?), spa service (how can we help?), front desk service (is there anything you’d like fixed in your suite?  Yes?  Done!).

All in all, a vacation to remember – and a luxurious experience to repeat – which we certainly will.  Seabourn, you’ve beaten Silversea and Regent.

And we haven’t even told you yet about caviar (and champagne) in the surf – but we will!

Come along with us and tour our suite: Owner’s Suite #5 on the Spirit.

And…then tour the ship if you have a few minutes…

Chasing art on vacation: Not just another gallery!

Erte's Manhattan Mary hanging in her permanent home above our fireplace -the shot doesn't do her justice!

We doubt that there is anyone among the discerning travelers of the world who has not spent inordinate amounts of time visiting museums and galleries when on vacation. This is perhaps especially so in Europe, but it can happen anywhere.  Whether it’s the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, or even – believe it or not – on a cruise ship, art has often been a memorable part of our travels.

It happened most recently last summer when we were visiting London for a few days before ticking a trans-Atlantic voyage on a Cunard Queen off our bucket list.  Patty had a yearning to visit the V & A to find a handbag once owned by Napoleon that was reported to be in the museum. Museum folks (and librarians) are among the most helpful of people and like nothing more than to be asked to help in a quest – the more obscure the better.  But alas, it was not to be.  We never did find that handbag (which plays a central role in a book she’s currently working on).  What we did find, however, was a piece of art that has great meaning for us.

The original design for the Equus horses' heads now on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Among the permanent exhibits at the V & A is their magnificent Theatre and Performance Galleries which include an extraordinary collection of artifacts from West End theatres in London.  One of the plays that featured among the most interesting was Equus.  You might be more familiar with a more recent revival of this play in 2007 on Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe making his break-out debut post-Harry Potter.  But this exhibit was from the original play dating to the early 1970’s by playwright Peter Shaffer whose story is of a psychiatrist treating a teen-aged boy with a pathological fascination with horses – resulting in him blinding them.  A chill-inducing premise to say the least.  What we found in the display, however, we eerily reminiscent of a piece of art that hangs high on a wall in the great room of our home.

The Equus horse's head hanging in our home.

Created for Neptune Theatre’s production of Equus back in the late 1970’s by designer Linda Whitney, our piece resembles the original, stylized horse’s head costumes that were worn by actors playing the unfortunate horses.  It’s a piece of sculpture that Art had when we were married and has followed us from one abode to another since then.  To see it’s provenance during our travels was to feel connected to the wider world of art and culture that transcends international boundaries.

But there have also been other ways that art has played a part in our travels.

One of the aspects of cruise travel that we would caution anyone about is the art-at-sea spectacles.  Many of the cruise ships we’ve traveled on have carried on board large collections of artwork pieces of which are regularly auctioned through the week or ten days of the voyage.  The art auction typically consists of free champagne and lots of salesmanship – not to mention a collection of pieces that is eerily the same from one ship to another.  Every once in a while, though, a cruise ship actually has on board pieces that are more appropriate for the discerning art collector.

A few years ago, we were aboard the Regent Seven Seas Navigator on a Caribbean cruise when we happened on a piece of art that matched our aesthetic.  A limited edition, signed print, it was a piece of work by French artist and designer, Erté.  It had been created by him in the late 1970’s based on a series of works he had done much earlier in his life.  For reasons that you cannot possibly understand unless you know Patty’s alter-ego, the piece had to make it home to be with us.  Manhattan Mary was not among the pieces that were shown in the art auction – rather it was hanging in one of the stairwells and was framed in the most god-awful frame one could imagine.  After negotiating with the art rep and ensuring that the piece would be reframed in a more appropriate style, we had it shipped home. And now it hangs above our fireplace.

Although we don’t expect to find a piece of art to hang on a wall during our upcoming travels to three Hawaiian islands, one time in St. John’s, Antigua we did find a piece of art that hangs on a gold chain around Patty’s neck .  Maybe there’ll be another of those!

[A note: In Canada,  pieces of original art are not subject to duty.  If you are going to buy art work when you’re travelling, you should check in advance about customs and duty regulations in your country to save you a nasty surprise in the form of a whopping bill for duty owed.]

The art gallery on the Queen Mary 2