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Cruise Views

Finding a Patch of Paradise in French Polynesia

November 02, 1986|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

OPUNOHU BAY, French Polynesia — A replica of the HMS Bounty is anchored at Moorea by a golden beach against a backdrop of craggy, green-velvet mountains.

It is being used by a French film company shooting a sequel to the Bounty trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall and by an Australian crew filming the story of British Capt. James Cook, whose sailing master during his third voyage was the William Bligh of Bounty fame.

One look at the attractions that mutineer Fletcher Christian and his men found in Tahiti made us wonder why they didn't mutiny even earlier, and we congratulated ourselves all over again on having chosen to sail through the islands of French Polynesia aboard the Liberte.

First of all this ship, American Hawaii Cruises' third and newest vessel, is absolutely beautiful, probably the most sophisticated and appealing redecoration yet on a cruise ship renovation.

Extensive Refurbishing

The 715-passenger Liberte, refurbished last year, was formerly Holland America's Volendam. It underwent a series of inaugural season snarls from late delivery to a damaged propeller blade to balky air conditioning during its first nine months, but our recent October sailing during its 10th month was smooth as silk.

What had been regarded as an inherent problem--the lack of large-scale tourism support facilities such as tour buses for the usual shore excursions--has turned out to be one of the most delightful aspects of the cruise, as passengers can choose any one of more than 50 shore excursions, many of which are limited to groups of 15 or 20.

Entrepreneurs on each island created these ideas for tours, some whimsical as the Red Chevy Tour of Raiatea, for example, which rattles up a mountain dirt road for a spectacular view all the way to Bora Bora, then drops you at the pretty river-side cottage of a homesick American who serves banana-coconut pie warm from the oven and talks about Colorado. That's followed by an outrigger canoe river journey, then a snorkeling excursion to a sandy, uninhabited little island called a motu.

Here on Moorea we are part of a party of two dozen tourists who spent the morning cruising on a 70-foot sailing yacht through the bays and beyond the reef, followed by snorkeling and a beach barbecue lunch of superb fresh grilled tuna, and finally a drive in small vans through the island's interior.

The year-round itinerary is a tropical dream week, sailing from Papeete's downtown waterfront on a Saturday night, spending Sunday at sea, Monday in lush and lovely Bora Bora, Tuesday in quietly rural Huahine, Wednesday in Raiatea and nearby Tahaa, Thursday at sea and Friday in Moorea.

Most of the energetic and enthusiastic passengers on the Liberte are younger than 50, and many come from the West Coast. The excellent dining room and hotel staff is primarily Filipino. This ship, unlike its U.S.-flag sister ships Constitution and Independence, is registered in Panama.

Decorated Cabins

The cabins aboard the Liberte are generally fairly spacious, and the decor appealing--pebbly, sand-colored carpeting; plenty of storage, mirrors and good reading and makeup lights; a choice 1868963956the day and evening; pastel bedspreads and curtains and a pretty framed Tahitian print. The large bathrooms have been tiled in pale yellow, and many offer tubs as well as showers.

One of the best ideas we've seen in alternative cruise ship food service in some time is The Reef, a 24-hour, self-service buffet and deli that supplements the bright and airy Tiare dining room. A full hot breakfast and lunch are served there, as well as soups, sandwiches and salads throughout the evening. At a grill on deck, hamburgers and hot dogs are cooked until 5 every afternoon for passengers who get back from shore excursions too late for dining room lunch.

Classy-clever plaster '30s bathing beauties against a background of Art Deco flamingo and aqua decorates Le Club, a delightful disco and lounge, while the quiet and romantic little Bali Hai Lounge, high atop the ship and forward, is as beguiling as its namesake, especially when musician Willie Dann is on hand to sing gentle love songs.

Overall, the music, food, service and entertainment on the Liberte struck us as a cut above her sister ships.

A couple of small quibbles: There are no ship's clocks on board as far as we could tell, and the main shuffleboard court is smack in the middle of the pool deck traffic so that oblivious swimmers and sunbathers may wander through in the middle of a game. Also, it should be noted that the Liberte cannot be recommended for mobility-impaired travelers, as it is necessary to go ashore by tender at every port of call.

For the rest of 1986, cruise-only fares on a per person, double occupancy basis range from $1,195 for one of only three budget inside cabins to $2,995 for one of four deluxe outside suites. The average ab runs around $1,795. Prices will increase slightly next year in most categories, ranging from $1,495 to $2,995.

Lodging Option

American Hawaii offers three-night pre-cruise and four-night post-cruise Tahiti lodging and transfer packages at the Tahara'a, Maeva Beach and Beachcomber hotels for $99 per person, double occupancy through the end of the year ($199 in 1987), along with a round-trip air add-on of $299 from the West Coast.

Now there is an alternative land-and-cruise package for the Liberte, offered by Jet Vacations in conjunction with Air France's new West Coast-Papeete service introduced in late September. An eight-night vacation includes the full cruise and a land portion with transfers, overnight lodging, breakfast and dinner at the Maeva Beach Hotel, all for the cabin price of the cruise plus Air France round-trip air fare ($807, including tax).

According to American Hawaii, you need not worry about the recently added visa requirement for France and its territories, as French customs officials in Papeete will issue the stamps on arrival at the airport with no charge for U.S. citizens.

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