Enjoy the posh comforts of a Polynesian voyage aboard a passenger ship

September 06, 1992|By Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty | Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty,Contributing Writers

"You realize," said our neighbor in the adjacent air-conditioned cabin on Aloha Deck, "if we were VIP passengers sailing in Queen Victoria's day, our luggage tags would have been labeled POSH."

A century ago, he explained, on those long hot voyages between England and India, an eastward-facing cabin on the "port out, starboard home" side was the tops in comfort.

Today, posh is what everyone gets aboard Princess Cruises' sister ships, the Island and Pacific Princess, on the 10- and 11-day "Polynesian Cruise" between Hawaii and Tahiti. And the 3,062-mile voyage across the Equator that once took weeks in the heat and humidity is now an adventure to be relished.

With state-of-the-art temperature control and one-class cruising, even a cramped cabin on D-Deck ("Dungeon Deck," as one on-board comic dubbed his quarters) is relatively posh. With a choice of spacious lounges, a shaded sun deck topside and two cold, saltwater swimming pools, sun-worshipers (like mad dogs and Englishmen) actually court the burning equatorial rays.

Nor are 10 or 11 days aboard the two 610-passenger sister ships too long for most modern travelers, with six of those days in port -- on Maui, the Big Island and Kauai -- in Hawaii and on Tahiti, Moorea and Bora-Bora in the Society Islands. We sailed south from Hawaii, or you can fly to Tahiti and sail north to Honolulu.

As on most large cruise ships, sea days are generally a whirlwind of activity, with a schedule crammed with bridge and bingo, basketball and blackjack, dancing lessons and afternoon tea.

For us, however, those days were a rare opportunity to laze away afternoons in a deck chair, watching the flying fish skim the ocean's surface, and imagining the days when the early Polynesians, manning outrigger canoes loaded with food and supplies, sailed north in search of land.

The Pacific and Island Princess travel considerably faster than the Tahitians, of course, plowing through usually placid seas at a steady 18.5 knots. On the third day out, the ship sails within a mile of Kiritimati, formerly Christmas Island, the largest atoll in the South Pacific.

From afar, the island, a ribbon of sand and coconut palms encircling a vast blue-green lagoon, beckons to passersby. And so it seemed at one time to the ship's officers, when they first went ashore in the tender, expecting it to make a good port stop.

Instead, they found two buses (one broken down), one public bathroom, no shopping and a beach edged by razor-sharp coral. "The enchantment is all in the viewing," said First Officer Christopher Rynd, examining the atoll through binoculars.

Neptune's Court

The biggest mid-voyage event is Neptune's Court, a rowdy public initiation on the Sun Deck of passengers crossing the Equator for the first time. As the crowd cheered and cameras clicked, six initiates were led before a "jury" (the costumed cruise staff), tried and condemned by a "judge" in black robes and tennis shoes.

The punishment: an official dousing with cream pies, wet noodles, buckets of purple sauce, raw eggs and melted ice cream, topped off with buckets of sea water. Our reward: a "diploma," certifying our membership in an elite circle of travelers.

The Pacific Princess, on which we sailed, the star of the "Love Boat" television series, harks back to an earlier classic generation of cruise ships. Built in 1970 to sail as well as to entertain, her broad decks and square lounges are traditionally designed and decorated in modest colors.

Shaded hideaways

The Sun Deck, where the Lido Cafe serves buffet meals, is crowded during much of the day, but shaded hideaways on side and rear promenade decks -- another classic feature disappearing on some newer ships -- provide solitude for reading or thinking. Our favorite indoor spot for a nightcap was the Starlight Lounge, built directly over the bridge.

Though the food on our ship earned only average marks, Princess Cruises prides itself on professional entertainment headed by dazzling floor shows. When the sun sets, the daytime cruise staff slips into feathers and sequins and kicks up their heels in what many passengers agree is the finest singing and dancing afloat.

But on the Polynesian Cruise, the anticipation and thrill for most passengers is the voyage itself. Polynesians emigrating from Tahiti to Hawaii between 1100 and 1300 A.D. were probably the first to sail these waters. Much later, between 1769 and 1779, James Cook, the English captain and expert navigator, explored and charted the region, before being killed in a scuffle with natives on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1778.

In Hawaii, excellent land tours offer both new and familiar sights, including helicopter rides over the volcanoes, lava tubes, a walk through a rain forest, sugar plantations, a macadamia nut orchard and factory, several historic inns and the remote Waipio Valley. But for most travelers, French Polynesia is a new experience, both seductive and exotic, the archetypal South Pacific.

The island of Bora-Bora

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