A big thank you to Windstar Cruises for hosting my cruise so I could review my experience. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Tahiti. Bora Bora. Moorea. The names conjure exotic islands floating in iridescent waters, trimmed with swaying palms and talcum-sand beaches. Part of French Polynesia, they beckon to travelers like Bali Ha’i fantasies in the far reaches of the South Pacific.

Windstar cruise ship in French Polynesia.They were top of mind as I boarded the inaugural 11-night sailing in French Polynesia of Windstar Cruises’ 312-passenger Star Breeze, which departed from Papeete, Tahiti. It was my first trip to this legendary vacation haven, and I was eager to see it up close and personal.

But Mother Nature had other plans. As oversized Tropical Cyclone Nat headed straight for Tahiti from the east, Star Breeze’s Capt. Simon Terry decided to divert the ship some 900 miles northeast to the little-known Marquesas Islands — about 3,000 miles from anywhere else on the planet. This off-the-grid archipelago, still part of French Polynesia, is so remote, in fact, that it sees precious few cruises — or visitors. Most people arrive by yacht or sailboat. In his 32 years at sea, Capt. Terry had never had to change an entire itinerary on such short notice.

But in a twist of fate, our impromptu stop in the Marquesas became a sneak peek because Star Breeze is actually planning to include these islands in its July 2024 itinerary. And the fact that the ship was able to pivot so successfully is just one of five reasons why a Windstar cruise is the perfect way to see French Polynesia.

Braiding palm fronds in French Polynesia.
Local expertise
Windstar has been sailing in French Polynesia for 36 years, longer than any other cruise line. And it capitalizes on its destination expertise. “The relationships, the friendships that we have here in Tahiti are so strong, so profound,” said Windstar Cruises’ President, Christopher Prelog, who was on board this sailing. “You get to see Tahiti behind the scenes beyond the (famous) beaches and landscape. The best part is its people.”

Indeed, shore excursions at most ports of call included a culture-focused option in addition to typical outdoor adventures such as diving, snorkeling, biking, hiking and exploring by ATV — all enriched by knowledgeable guides. You could take heritage tours to sacred archaeological sites, visit vanilla plantations and pearl farms (and harvest your own Tahitian black pearls), watch the famed fire dancers, and — unique to Windstar — check out the Coral Gardeners reef restoration lab, which is replanting coral in the islands.

“Our goal is to show the real Polynesia to guests, not just snorkeling and jet skis,” the destinations manager Kuba Rudolff told me.

Prelog agrees. “On our ATV tour in Huahine, you get to see the holy (blue-eyed) eels (which are revered here),” he said. “We’re offering something guests haven’t seen before and trying to offer surprises.”

Consider my immersive cultural tour of Fakarava, before we sped away from the cyclone. I tried my hand at Polynesian javelin throwing (harder than it looks), watched how to harvest coconut meat, learned how to braid palm fronds into fish, and sipped fresh coconut water from its shell while a four-piece band and two dancers welcomed us, Polynesian-style.

Windstar Cruises
Size of ships
Windstar’s six small ships, none with more than 312 passengers, are perfect for Polynesia’s smaller islands and atolls. They’re able to nose into intimate ports that are off limits to larger vessels. While some larger cruise lines visit the top tourist islands, few call at the less-frequented ones, like Windstar does. Consider the vacation hotspot of Bora Bora, which even limits daily cruise passengers to 1,200 — effectively preventing large ships from docking.

Unlike larger ships, there were no lines for the restaurants or buffet or for tendering ashore, and excursions were all in small groups. “The size allows you to personalize the experience,” said Prelog. “300 passengers is the sweet spot. Guests want a smaller, less-crowded experience.”

Plus, island hopping through these pristine waters, just like the first Polynesians did about 2,000 years ago, is a far different experience than a week in a land-based hotel.

Windstar in French Polynesia.
Staff and crew
Passengers uniformly raved about the staff and crew. “The cruise communicates a family feeling throughout — from the start when the ship’s company greets everyone with ‘welcome home,’” said passenger John Perkowski, from Kansas City, MO, who was on his seventh Windstar cruise. “The staff and passengers really intermix. Windstar selects such wonderfully friendly people.”

Another passenger, Terri Campbell from Charlotte, NC, also cited the size and staff as the reasons she chose to cruise with Windstar for the fourth time. “It’s smaller and more intimate. The staff is more attentive; they make everyone feel good. From my first trip, they called me by name.”

The line’s whopping 90% employee return rate speaks volumes about the good vibes on board.

Local culture aboard Windstar in French Polynesia.
Local culture on board
Windstar is admirably destination focused. To enhance that, it recently added two new roles: a guest lecturer and a cultural ambassador, who join a local chef in bringing Polynesian traditions onto the ship.

From Tahitian lecturer Aroha Teiva, I learned fascinating facts about Polynesian history. Starting about 1,500 years ago, the first Polynesians originally came from — wait for it — Taiwan from where they spread out in outrigger canoes across the vast Pacific from New Zealand in the south to Hawaii in the north and all the way to Easter Island in the east. In all, they explored an area about 10 million square miles and located more than 1,000 islands! (Polynesia means “many islands.”)

What’s more, when Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, they found sweet potato and squash, two foods native to the New World — evidence that these skilled, intrepid seafarers discovered the Americas long before Europeans did.

Meanwhile, Polynesian cultural ambassador Pearl Manate, clad in a beautiful Tahitian outfit and flowers in her hair, gave hands-on classes in language, fashion, dance and music — all delivered with a warm smile. I learned essential words in the Tahitian language (la orana for “hello,” maururu for “thank you,” and nana for “goodbye”); how to tie and wear a pareo, the colorful native skirt; how to use my arms to dance Tahitian-style and how to strum a ukulele (I mastered “You Are My Sunshine” and a simple Polynesian tune).

Local food and entertainment showed up on the ship, too: poissan cru, Tahiti’s national dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk; chicken fafa, skillet-cooked chicken, rice and coconut milk; and market-fresh fruits for breakfast, including starfruit, papaya, mango and others. And Windstar’s signature deck-top BBQ dinner featured a group of traditional Marquesan dancers and drummers who wowed us with their rhythmic moves.

Even the nightly turndown service spotlighted Tahitian culture. Guests returned to their suites at night to find small local gifts: a scented soap from Bora Bora, a bottle of frangipani-scented perfume, a small bottle of Tahiti’s famous Monoi oil, and coconut sweets, as well as notecards with Tahitian vocabulary words and explanations of local legends.

Nuka Hiva in French Polynesia.
Marquesas Islands
 “This is my paradise. Life is simple here,” said our driver Judith Tehuitua, as she shuttled us around Nuku Hiva, the Marquesas’ principal island (population: 3,000), in her pickup truck. We had just arrived in this rugged archipelago, whose islands are wrapped in primeval vegetation and sculpted by jagged volcanic peaks. American writer Herman Melville set his first novel, Typee, on Nuku Hiva when he visited in the 1840s.

Despite having only 9,000 inhabitants in all, these islands are so isolated that they developed their own language (Marquesan, distinct from Tahitian spoken in the rest of French Polynesia), dances (on tiptoe for women, instead of flat-footed elsewhere) and even tattoo symbols. Under sunny skies, Judith drove us high into the mountains, through lush vegetation dripping with bananas, mangoes, bougainvillea and breadfruit, to an ancient archaeological site. On a groaning board laid out for us, we sampled manioc cake, breadfruit chips, jellylike baby coconut and exotic tropical fruits.

Later, back in the main port of Taiohae, a local troupe performed the traditional Bird Dance for cruise passengers in a ceremonial amphitheater dotted with sacred totems. The site hosts a regional festival every few years, “when we invite our ‘cousins’ from Tahiti, Easter Island, Tonga, New Zealand, Samoa and Honolulu,” Judith told us. Sporting feathered headdresses, loin cloths and some, tattooed from head to toe, the performers entranced us, as the sun set behind craggy cliffs. Dance is integral to Marquesan culture as a way to preserve a tradition nearly eliminated by early colonialists.

Paul Gaugin's final resting place in French Polynesia.
Our next stop was Hiva Oa, where the French fauvist painter, Paul Gauguin, worked and eventually died in 1903. I visited the small Paul Gauguin Cultural Center that displays reproductions of his paintings, his simple thatched-roof house next door, and his plain grave in the hilltop Calvary Cemetery.

Hiva Oa’s savage, otherworldly beauty, so fetching in Gauguin’s work, surrounded us on our tour to a marae, or sacred worship site, tucked into dense, pungent thickets. Our university-educated guide, Bryan O’Connor (his great-grandfather was Irish), explained that maraes were used for ceremonial rituals, including human sacrifices and cannibalism, when the people here were organized in tribes. Other ancestral traditions remain strong. “Hunting and fishing are still part of our education, which starts young,” he added. “I killed my first pig when I was six years old — with a knife.”

But the highlight of our visit was an extraordinary dance and drum performance hosted by the mayor of Hiva Oa in honor of a young wedding couple onboard our ship whose planned nuptials in Bora Bora had to be canceled. Dressed in traditional costumes, the bride and groom joined the dancers on the field and received a blessing from a local shaman. Many of the island’s 2,500 people turned out for the celebration, bringing a potluck of local dishes for cruise guests to try afterward. With only 22 tourists on the island that day (without Windstar passengers), it seems we made a splash of our own.

Secluded and lacking the dazzling coral reefs of other Polynesian islands, the Marquesas may never join the tourism mainstream. But that made our unexpected visit on this magical mystery cruise all the more memorable.

Veronica Stoddart is a multiple-award-winning freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Frommers.com, CruiseCritic.com and many others. She considers travel a force for good in the world.

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