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Cruise Views

Small Ship Is Big on the Casual Life

April 19, 1998|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month

Finally, there's a perfect ship for people who say they won't take a cruise because they don't want to dress up; they like days filled with sun, sand and water sports; and prefer a choice of restaurants, mealtimes and dinner companions rather than assigned seating. If this sounds appealing, check out the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin.

The newest cruise vessel from the small-ship luxury line Radisson Seven Seas sails year-round in French Polynesia with lots of days and evenings in port for water sports, shopping and restaurant forays.

The 18,800-ton Paul Gauguin made its debut in Tahiti in February after an extensive introductory cruise that set out from a shipyard in France and called on Florida and California on its way to its home port of Papeete. Even aboard the early sailings, the food and hotel operation was running smoothly because key personnel were transferred over from the line's highly rated Radisson Diamond and Song of Flower.

Built at Chantier d'Atlantique in St.-Nazaire, France, the ship carries a crew of 206, giving a very high crew-to-passenger ratio. French Polynesian culture is emphasized by an on-board lecturer and two dance companies that come aboard from shore, an award-winning adult troupe from Moorea.

Shore excursions are energetic, with everything from para-sailing and scuba diving to overland Jeep safaris and sea tours by wave runner.

And fans of casual dress can cruise all week without ever donning a jacket or tie. The only dress code requested for evening is "country club casual," but passengers are asked not to wear shorts, jeans or T-shirts to dinner.

The cuisine created by executive chef Mario Valera is excellent, with breakfast served indoors, out on deck or in your cabin; lunch is by the pool or inside an air-conditioned restaurant. For dinner there is a choice of two restaurants: a classic dining room serving a large a la carte menu or a chic, contemporary restaurant alternating French and Italian dinners. Dinners from the menu can also be served in the cabin.

The Italian dinner has been transported virtually intact from the Radisson Diamond's popular "Evening at Don Vito's," while the elegant five-course French meal was created for the Paul Gauguin by Paris chef Jean-Pierre Vigato, whose Apicius restaurant has held a two-star Michelin Guide rating since 1984 and is a member of the prestigious Relais et Cha^teaux group.

Besides all the dining venues, the Paul Gauguin has a Connoisseur Club for cigar smokers and a water sports marina that opens from the stern when the vessel is at anchor, which happens on each port of call except in the home port of Papeete.

Because so much time is spent in port, special rules have been made to allow the French flagship to keep its shop and casino open when the vessel is at anchor. Passengers must pay a $10 one-time-only fee to use the casino's blackjack and roulette tables, and for duty-free shop purchases they must make a first-time buy of $50 or more. Also, at the time of our sailing, the local government had not yet granted permission to use the slot machines aboard.

We have a few other quibbles. The ship's spa and beauty salon is operated by Carita of Paris, where a shampoo and set or blow-dry costs $60, roughly twice the going rate on other ships.

Except for the visiting dance companies and a team of eight young Tahitian women called Les Gauguines, who double as social hostesses and singers/dancers, onboard entertainment is sparse, limited to a magician and a singing cruise director.

And while the food in the restaurants is delicious, lunches at the poolside grill, tea sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres served in the lounges are unimaginative. The passenger makeup on a typical cruise includes a mix of independent travelers and badge-wearing members of groups, with the latter participating in special lecture programs and cocktail parties closed to individuals.

Overall, however, the Paul Gauguin is clean-lined and contemporary with all outside cabins, 80 of them with private verandas. The remainder have large picture windows, except for 14 with portholes on the lowest passenger deck.

All the cabins are spacious, with 200 square feet or more of enclosed space plus private balconies that add another 37 to 197 square feet of outdoor space. The biggest balconies belong to a pair of grand suites forward on Deck 8, which are wrapped with L-shaped verandas that face forward and to the side. Brochure prices for these cabins are $6,395 per person, double occupancy, including tips, soft drinks, wine with lunch and dinner and some air fare.

The largest number of cabins, 57, are C-category balcony staterooms with 202 square feet of space inside and a 37-square-foot balcony. These are priced in the brochure at $4,295 per person, double occupancy. The lowest-priced are the 200-square-foot category F cabins at $3,195 per person, double occupancy.

The published fares include a $550 air credit for passengers who wish to arrange their own plane tickets.

Air/sea packages are also available for pre- or post-cruise stays in Tahiti or Bora-Bora. The Paul Gauguin sails every Saturday afternoon from Papeete, with overnight calls in Rangiora and Raiatea, two full days in Bora-Bora and an all-day visit to Moorea with an overnight on the ship in Papeete before disembarking.

A special 14-night "Homage to Gauguin," celebrating the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth, is sailing to the Marquesas Islands May 30 from Papeete, with fares from $6,390 to $14,970 per person, double occupancy.

To get a free color brochure, see a travel agent or call Radisson Seven Seas at (800) 333-3333.

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