Renaissance 4

"I feel better every day. Walking barefoot on the stones means that my feet are now used to this ground. My body is no longer afraid of the sun. Little by little, step by step, civilization is pealing away from me."

... Paul Gauguin

"Papeete. It's a Rat Race!" said our tour guide, Bernie, about the rush hour traffic circling a round-about as we began our tour of the island of Tahiti.

Everyone squealed in disbelief when I told them I was going to Tahiti, but if the truth be known, downtown Papeete is a bit of a disappointment. Although the island is stunningly beautiful, the main town is a not-quite-up-to-par tourist area, with crummy little shops and stores. I'd heard that from others who'd gone before me.

The main attraction there is the Market. I've never before seen such splashes of color and scent, what with the tropical flowers and produce, and the wide variety of straw goods and vibrant clothing. The remnants of the Christmas holidays added to the festive look. Local women do their daily errands dressed in colorful pareu and fragrant flower tiaraes on their heads. Men have intricately designed tattoos designating where in the South Pacific they're from. The first day in Tahiti, we brought back a large bouquet of tropical flowers from the Market, the kind you generally see at home only in very expensive floral arrangements. They lasted the whole trip in our cabin and were only $5. Surrounded by all of this loveliness, it's hard not to get into the South Pacific swing of things. Why, even my Hans seriously considered getting a "local" tattoo as a remembrance of his trip. It would certainly be something that would never get lost or get used up or forgotten, and it seemed the Thing To Do. Alas, he didn't because we were anticipating so many water sports in the coming ten days, and he would have had to keep the newly tatted area dry. So much for spur of the moment vacation craziness.

This was not a cruise in the regular sense of the word. Most Ren cruises, it seems, are very port intensive, and this one was no different. We sailed from island to island in the evenings, stealing away like thieves from one port and going on to the next under darkness of night. Needless to say there were no "sea days". I missed that. The ports of call in the South Pacific more than made up for that, though, and I have a feeling it's the same way on the other Ren trips around the globe. It's a very expedient way to see a lot of the world in a short time. For example, surprisingly, I didn't particularly care for Tahiti, but the very next day we were at Moorea for two days and I found that place to be so beautifully magical, I almost couldn't believe it. In other words, with Ren, if you don't like where you are today, just wait a day or two, and you will.

These ships are beyond cookie cutter class, but that seems to give many folks a sense of security and allows them to get on with their cruises when they sail again on Ren. There's no faltering to find the main dining room or to locate the excursion desk or the photo gallery. It's in the same place on all the ships. I think that will be, in the long run, a plus for repeat passengers of which there are already many. Rather than being redundant, it's reassuring and "home-y".

The interior ship is a beauty in the classic sense of the word.. Edwardian in feel with regard to decor (maybe not so appropriate on a cruise in the South Pacific, but very pleasing to the eye and certainly very comfortable). The Ren ships (and remember they ALL look exactly alike, right down to the placement of artwork on the public room walls) remind me a great deal interiorly of the Deutschland. I was not surprised to hear from a fellow cruiser in the online cruise industry that there were design connections. I've been delighted to see the use of faux wood on ships lately in places where there used to be the real thing, before present-day SOLAS requirements. It can be done, folks, and done well. This ship is a beauty.

I won't go into too much detail about the physical ship, as all Renaissance ships are virtually the same and the company's brochures and literature are detailed and exacting enough for even the most avid information junkie. Many past reviews have detailed the decor, so I won't repeat it here. Just allow me to say Ren is a classy cruise product from the standpoint of hardware.

The ship is designed with ease of use and is flying vanity mirrors in the bathrooms, a' la HAL. Everything is very comfortable, as well as beautifully designed. There was never a time on this ship when I looked at something onboard and said to myself "I wonder what they were thinking when they planned THAT?" There's no hint at all that the interior designer may have been on heavy meds when they set to work on this ship. I was also surprised at the sound-proofing in the cabins. You could hear virtually nothing from the hallways, adjacent public rooms and between cabins.

There's a few spots where traffic flow during busy times could be improved; for example, the photo gallery at night gets mobbed when folks are making their way to the Cabaret Lounge or the casino. On the opposite side of the ship, there's the same kind of traffic problem with folks trying to get past the Casino Lounge's bar. Otherwise, the ship usually appears uncrowdedly pleasant. Even the elevators are many, roomy and quick. One thing I liked was the exit to the ship's tender area. No climbing down to the bowels of the ship to get to a tender. I should mention here that Ren uses the one plastic "credit card" system to identify passengers, to allow the purchase of items and services onboard and to enter your cabin. Your card is scanned when you leave the ship and again when you board.

The ship is spotless ( a new "Spotless Fleet" perhaps?) and well-maintained. Although it is only two years old, the chief engineer told us the ship gets maintenance in monthly "shifts".

The regular dining venue, the Club Restaurant, is open seating and very casual. Absolutely no formal nights at all, so there's no need for a tux or a fancy frock. Even a sports jacket is overkill on Ren's ships. We were warned that this was the case and adjusted our packing accordingly...and we were glad for it. I actually enjoyed the more casual style dining as it did not take away from the elegance of the ship, itself. Ren asks for "country club casual" and it goes with their ships just fine.

What we both didn't care for (and I understand that this is entirely personal) was unassigned, sometimes called open or "freestyle", seating in the main dining room. To have to go through the same ritual of table mate discovery each and every night is tiresome. After the third night, I got weary of telling where in New Jersey I was from, how many cruises I'd been on and what I did for a living. By the third night on most other cruises with assigned seating in the dining rooms, our table mates and we had gone on to talk about other things. By that time, regular patterns and requests are known to your waiter and his staff and they can work their way to a generous tip by providing personal service.

This also makes for a sticky wicket when tipping at the end of the cruise. Ren tries to make it easier on the traveler by applying tips in advance to your onboard account in an amount they feel is well-proscribed. You can certainly go to the reception desk and ask to have these pre-applied tips adjusted or even removed entirely so that you can tip personally, according to your desires, which is exactly what we did. The service in the dining rooms for the most part on this Ren trip was lackluster at best with a few bright stars amongst the bored, weary-looking wait staff. They didn't feel they had to work for better tips and it showed. Most of the food service staff merely phone it in. They all probably expected a certain amount in tips at the end of the cruise, so it didn't much matter to them. It made the Ren dining experience uninspired, where it's always been exciting with so many other lines in the past.

Staff also didn't seem to care in the more informal Panorama Buffet. On many ships, staff will help with a tray full of food (I'm thinking here of Celebrity) or pull out a chair to assist. Ren's staff gets in the way (I saw a staff member aimlessly wander out in the path of a woman with a cane) and there's an undercurrent feeling that the passenger is in the crew's way. The security crew at the gangway were also regularly mingling around, getting in the way of tender embarking and disembarking. Ren sometimes seems to sleepwalk through the cruise experience. Conversely, reception and excursion desk staff as well as cabin stewards could not have been more friendly and helpful, but

For either the Grill or the Italian restaurant, Ren's alternative dining rooms, one had to phone for reservations forty eight hours in advance of the date desired. There were limited hours during the day in which to do this, most times coinciding with shore excursions or other dining hours. Finally, after much aggravation with this system, we took a walk up, first to The Grill and then the Italian Restaurant to do it in person. The rules were reiterated to us at which time we voiced our displeasure at the way reservations had to be made. When the maitre d's at both locations saw we were perturbed, they relented and allowed us to make reservations more than 48 hours in advance. But here's the clincher: Apparently, others had also been permitted to book more than 48 hours in advance, as well, as there was very few time slots open for us to chose from, even four and five days down the road in our cruise.

For example:

Us: We'd like to make reservations for two people for the day after tomorrow.

Them: I'm sorry, we're completely booked for that date.

Us: Can we make it for the night after that, then?

Them: No, you must call tomorrow between the hours of 7:30 - 10 AM or 12 PM - 2 PM for that date.

Us: But we'll be out on an all-day excursion. Can't we do that now, since we're here?

Them: Oh, okay. What time would you like?

Us: 7:30 or 8 PM would be fine.

Them: I'm sorry, those times are already booked.

Us: How can they be booked when you just told us we can only make reservations two days in advance??

It was truly exasperating and it didn't have to be. It has never been on other ships with alternative dining.

To segue to food, which is always an important topic for many cruisers, I'd have to call it good. Nothing more, nothing less. I've had better on ships. I've had worse. I've heard some very good things about Ren's food service, but once again, I can only describe it as ... well, good. One almost funny incident: Our waiter in The Grill served us our salmon entre one evening and proudly announced that it was "freshly cooked"as if maybe that was not usually the case. One of Hans' biggest complaints was that he could not get a banana for breakfast any morning in Paradise, "Home of the Banana". We saw them resplendent on the sides of the roads, growing admirably and abundantly in their trees, but we couldn't find them in Ren's Panorama Buffet. My biggest gripe was the salad dressings. I've had thicker water.

Speaking of food, I've eaten things on this trip I never even heard of back home, but not in Ren's dining venues, mind you. Breadfruit, taro root, tapioca (or at least the plant it comes from), guava, mango, three different kinds of bananas (two that are eaten cooked!), enough pineapple and coconut right from the tree to last a lifetime and enough raw fish ("poisson cru") to suit me. Hans sampled a kind of "pumpkin poi" that he reported tasted like school paste, so I passed on that.

Ren could do some small things better, as far as it's service, to spruce up it's onboard legacy. For example, at the Captain's Welcome Cocktail Party the second night, champagne and juice only were offered. No special requests, no other kinds of drinks, such as wine or soda. No hot or cold appetizers offered, no tidbits to munch on, not even a salted peanut in sight. In the bars and lounges, it was the same thing. No munchies with your pre-dinner drink in any of the lounges. Friends sent us a bottle of wine and it was waiting for us in our cabin, complete with a set up of stem ware, but no corkscrew. After several days of asking, our cabin steward, Gaga, located a corkscrew for us. It's too bad it's the little things that sometimes get more notice than they deserve.

Likewise, I found myself bereft of nothing on my pillow in the evenings. No "nighty-night" mints or chocolates, no flower buds, even in a place that is overflowing with tropical flowers. I can certainly understand a need to keep costs down, but knowing how little a bouquet of flowers cost me earlier at the Market in Papeete, I don't think a single flower on my pillow every night, the way other lines do, would break Ren. I know it may sound petty, but I found myself noticing these kinds of things all trip long. Not things that would make or break a cruise, but noticeable things that made the line look cheap to me. Another example would be the price of a postage stamp for a post card at the Reception Desk. It's a fifty percent markup, much more than other ships charge. The laundry room for passengers is also nice, but the price to do one load of wash is $6, which is higher than other lines. To change U.S. money to the Polynesian franc at the Reception Desk is lower than the banks in Papeete, but then you are then charged a 5% fee. But when you're in places like Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea, who cares very much? That's Ren's saving grace. Their prices and their itineraries are to die for, but they do nickel and dime their customers to death.

Also, Ren has some other things other ships I've been on recently do not have. Now, granted, I'm a great fan of the Old Ladies of the Sea, but I DID appreciate the 24 hour-a-day Internet. I used one of the two computers in the *library (sans internet service) to compose e-mail on a floppy disk I brought with me from home with my friends' e-mail addresses. Then, I went to the Internet room and logged on to send my pre-composed e-mail to save time and money. Everyone onboard is given an e-mail address for their trip, and this is used to logon during your cruise. You can use Ren's server or log on to AOL, which for some reason, is less expensive. The cost is not prohibitive.

A funny story: I went in to use one of the computers in the library once when I didn't need to be connected to the Internet, and I found both in use. Both folks were playing Solitaire. One woman looked up at me, saw the floppy disk in my hand and excused herself, saying she comes into the Library to use the computer to play computer games to "decompress". I smiled as I wondered how much one needs to "decompress" in the South Pacific on vacation?

Some other small, but disconcerting things: Ren's Sports Bar is large and spacious, in the forward area usually designed for such places on modern cruise ships. Ren's is grand with wide panoramas and comfortable seating of all kinds, from open and gregarious to cozy and intimate. There was a wonderful British woman by the name of Terry Quaye playing standards and singing at the piano there, but the jingling of slot machines in the background broke the mood she and the room were trying to create. Why can't they keep those damned things down in the casino, where they belong?

That leads me to the shore excursions and exploring the islands we visited. Our itinerary began with a full day in Tahiti, after arriving at a bit after 9 pm Papeete time (1 am East Coast US time for us). Embarking was a dream, as I'd heard it was, after an almost eight hour flight from Los Angeles. On the advice of someone on the Renaissance eGroups message board, we upgraded to business class on the day of our departure at the Hawaiian Air check-in desk. This turned out to be the best travel tip I've received in a long, long time, and I'd strongly suggest it for anyone else doing this trip. The price was right, and it made for a much more comfortable flight back and forth to Tahiti. We'd flown into LA the day before from North Jersey and stayed at the Queen Mary in Long Beach (another thrilling part of this trip for us). That helped break up the long hours in the air to get to our cruise destination.

The islands of French Polynesia are beyond just wonderful. Even the least of them make the Caribbean look like Secaucus on a rainy day. Once you see the crystal clear water and the sparkling beaches of the South Pacific, you'll never think of the Caribbean as a tropical "paradise" again. The people are wonderful, unrushed and so kind. The area is so interesting, too, what with coral reefs surrounding the islands, so much so that any ship must look for the break in the reef to get from ocean to shore, or at least close enough to tender in to shore. The inner lagoons are lush with both large and small "motu" or islands, the kind Gilligan, the Captain, Ginger and the rest must have gotten shipwrecked on so many years ago on TV. These turned out to be the perfect places for beach picnics and snorkeling throughout our trip. In fact, most ship-planned and private excursions included a stop at a motu (and there are plenty to go ‘round, so none are crowded by us tourists) for a tropical lunch after swimming or snorkeling and touring the area. On Moorea (my favorite island of them all .. rent "The Bounty" with Mel Gibson and see for was filmed there), we saw dolphins in the wild as well as sting rays we could jump in to swim with (no pens or fenced in areas, this was the wide open ocean). We scampered out of our little boat and into the water to witness a shark feed. We tourists stayed on one side of the temporary rope in the water and the sharks (most of them, anyway) stayed on the other side, and we all got along (forgive the pun) swimmingly. In fact, swimming in French Polynesia any place but in a swimming pool (of which there are few since the sea is so beautiful) exposes you to all kinds of critters, but everybody goes about their business in peace and harmony. We were snorkeling along with the current on a motu off Raiatea one day, and when we stepped out for our barbecue lunch, we saw two reef sharks swimming idly just about 15 feet from shore. They surely must have been out there when we were, but our tour guide told us they "just don't care" unless they're disturbed. Good thing, or this review might have ended differently.

Later, at a fish farm on Raiatea, we swam and fed turtles, petted more sting rays, saw more sharks and other wildly beautiful tropical fish. We also boated down the Faaroa River to a beautiful tropical botanical garden, where we picked flowers and fruit right off the plants. Imagine juicy star fruit right from the vine! Hans was asked if he would like some coconut milk and he said "sure", thinking someone had it packed in a hermetically sealed carton for our little trip, just like at home. Instead, one of our tour guides quickly climbed up a forty foot coconut tree, fetched some coconuts, brought them back down and split them open for all of us to sample. Marvelous!

Over at Tahaa, sister island to Raiatea, we visited a vanilla plantation and a pearl "farm", where the family who owns it described how they plant and culture the black pearls the area is so famous for. This is a small operation, where the daughter farms, the father sets the pearls and the two family dogs keep the tourists amused while you wait for your sale to be completed. This is all done dockside, right by the water. No snooty air conditioned store here. I couldn't resist the allure of getting a pearl right from the manufacturer, so to speak, and since the price was very right, I purchased a dark black pearl with pink-purple tones set in a pendant and also a light violet-gray pearl I intend to have made into a ring. What a neat souvenir of this wonderful place.

On Bora Bora, we were once again on the water the first day and then rented a little itsy-bitsy white "cabriolet" with no doors the other day to tour the island ourselves. Most of the beauty of this island is witnessed from the numerous motu surrounding the tall rocky mainland. Most of the luxury resorts are located on these motu, too. There were helicopter rides over the islands of Bora Bora offered by the ship and privately, and I would have loved to do that; alas, time did not permit. It was back to the ship, and back to Tahiti for our departure the next day. Disembarkation turned out to be just as flawless as embarkation the very first day.

We took a combo of ship-sponsored tours and private excursions (a Ren "circle island" tour on Tahiti and on Huahine), and I must say that Ren's shore excursions in the South Pacific are overpriced and not of the same quality/quantity as the private tour operators. I had the good fortune to find a Ren message board a few weeks before I left for our trip and was given some very good information about private tour operators from folks who had used them and recommended them. The quality of the private tours and the lower prices would dictate not using Ren's excursion desk in the South Pacific. We consistently did more and got more for our money every time at every port call when we used private tour operators.

I enjoyed my trip to the South Pacific and I'm glad Renaissance is giving the North American cruising world a chance to see something new and different for a price that cannot be beat. Ren is a bargain in this part of the world, and they offer trips to other exotic locations for those of us who are sick of the Caribbean.

Now for the ultimate question I ask myself at the end of every review I've written: Would I sail Renaissance again? Yes, I would and I plan to. I have Ren Venice to Istanbul in mind, although Hans might win out with his choice of the Baltic. I'll let you know who wins :-)

PS - I loved the idea that there are no kids on Renaissance and no smoking. Ren, please don't change ... please, please, please?

(February 8, 2001)