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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin ESCAPE TO THE SOUTH PACIFIC

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

March 1, 1988 -- French Polynesia, Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora.

Names of places that conjure up long-held fantasies about that singular escape to the South Pacific, the symbolic escape we all hold in reserve. You can visualize those translucent blue or turquoise waters, feel the fresh winds ruffle the palm fronds. The artistry of Paul Gauguin comes to mind, and images of bare-breasted maidens with inviting smiles and that distinctive Polynesian look.

Wasn’t this where Brando filmed Hurricane and fell in love with a woman, a people, these islands? (They have hurricanes even in paradise.)

Take these perceptions, this hazy pastel canvas, provide an overlay of reality–which isn’t far off the mark–and import a marvelous, modern four-mastered cruise ship to ply these magic waters, and you’ve got a pretty heady mix.

Propelled last August, at least party by desire to recuperate from a stubborn malady, I boarded a Continental jet in Los Angeles for the eight-hour journey to the midwinter word below the equator. (Some winter.) The flight got high marks for service, food, and a pleasant ambiance. Continental runs a good airline in the Pacific; not quite up to the enviable standards of the transpac leaders, but certainly respectable.

At first glance, during the short bleary cab ride to the Tahiti Beachcomber, I felt somehow let down, a not unsurprising response at six in the morning. The hotel didn’t do much to revive my spirits (functional, almost antiseptic, and the help was not particularly gracious or responsive), nor did a visit later in the day to the capital city of Papeete, which is easily worth missing. Papeete is probably the chief reason why a number of friends and industry colleagues are "down" on Tahiti. But this cursory reaction to Tahiti would, on the whole, change a week later. First impressions, like generalizations, are treacherous.

There was also a realization the first day that the Tahitian franc was browbeating our tepid currency. The five-minute airport-to-hotel taxi was US$8; the reverse trip would be $13 at night. A mediocre lunch for two in town topped $45. On the plus size, the local bus into town was only 90 cents; and as I studied my fellow commuters I began to appreciate how Gauguin was inspired; I’d seen these people before.

The day finally took on the expected high with a glimpse of the Wind Song, a riveting profile in the busy harbor, she appeared sleek and seaworthy, even with the sails furled. Embarkation that Friday began in late afternoon. Once abroad, I felt at home, immediately. The – Wind Song is some piece of work. She and her sisterships Wind Star (sailing the Caribbean) and Wind Spirit (starts cruising the Mediterranean in April) were in Le Havre, France for Windstar Sail Cruises of Miami. Said to be the largest sailing vessels ever built, they measure 440 feet in length, with 75 identical outside cabins for 150 passengers and four computer-run masts, 204 feet high to accommodate six banks of white sails. When the Wind Song runs under sail, without any power, there is an exhilarating sense of motion and rhythm. Unfortunately, with powerful winds sometimes gusting 40 knots, it seemed to me we were under pure sail very little of the time. (Quite a few of the 91 passengers were under the weather the first day or two, but then they adjusted.)

The cabins are designed for maximum utilization of space; they are comfortable but not large. There is a color TV, VCR, radio, direct dial telephone ($15 per minute to the U.S. via satellite), a minibar, bathroom with shower, and twin beds that can be combined into a queen-sized unit. Nice. The VCR is particularly important, since the ships carry splendid cross-indexed video libraries. (I caught up on everything from Kubrick’s 2001, which left me befuddled, to Blood Simple, a gory tongue-in-cheek thriller.) Besides the option to have continental breakfast in your cabin, snacks and beverages may be ordered 24 hours a day.

The public rooms are spacious and handsome, with picture windows to give passengers maximum views of sea and sky, masts and rigging, and those memorable islands. There is a deckside piano bar; a disco/nightclub; and open-air dining area (glassed in when the winds act up) for a buffet-style dining; a library and card room; gift shop and small jewelry store featuring the popular local black pearls; gymnasium; and swimming pool for getting wet. From the ship’s sports platform you can water ski, windsurf, sign out a sunfish, or swim in the crystal-clear Pacific.

Evening dinner is served from 8:00 PM to 10:00, open seating; join a group or dine with a friend. The service is friendly and competent, as it is throughout the ship—the cruise staff is young and chiefly mixed European. Everybody speaks English; virtually all passengers are American. The kitchen is outstanding; every dinner offers three choices of appetizer, soup, entrée, and dessert, plus cheese and fruit, a reasonable wine list, and chocolates. The quality of the cuisine, the selection, the ambiance (dress for dinner is casual elegance) matches any cruise ship I’ve sailed. After dinner, if you’re so inclined, you can wager a few bucks in the cozy.

At the midnight on that Friday we weighed anchor for Huahine, Tahaa, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Moorea.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.