Cruising French Polynesia aboard Oceania Sirena

Trading tedious cold winter for Tahiti cruise aboard Oceania Sirena

Ah, Tahiti… The name conjures images of balmy beaches, spectacular sunsets, friendly folks and long lazy days sweeping away cares of the world.

With my Indiana home in the midst of yucky winter weather, the thought of visiting Tahiti is certainly a dream scenario. Never did think it would happen but here I am heading for that faraway island.

And I am going to visit French Polynesia in one of the best ways possible – on a 10-day cruise aboard the new Oceania Sirena.

My cruise will begin and end in Papeete, the capital city of Tahiti. Stops will include the islands of Moorea, Fakarava, Rangiora, Huahine, Raitea and Bora Bora. Temperatures are supposed to be in the 80s with lows in the 70s. Heavenly!

I have never traveled with Oceania Cruises before and am looking forward to seeing why it is such a popular cruise line. I’ve been told to expect top-notch accommodations, delicious dining, varied entertainment and interesting tours, plus excellent ship officers and crew members.

Word gets around when a cruise line is good as well as when one is not so good and the statements I’ve heard about this floating beauty are quite positive. I’ve had my eye on Oceania and am excited to be cruising on the line’s new ship.

Debuting in April 2016, Sirena can carry a maximum of 684 passengers. The small ship size is going to mean much easier embarkation and debarkation. It also is going to make it simpler to leave the ship at shore stops when there won’t be thousands of people all trying to walk off at the same time.

A wonderful 68 percent of Sirena’s cabins offer balconies. And I already know that I have one which is one of the best parts of cruising to me. Being able to sit on my own private balcony and watch the ocean roll is my favorite on any cruise ship.

Sirena has an elegant main dining room without assigned tables and two no-extra-charge-specialty restaurants where passengers can make dining reservations – Red Ginger and Tuscan Steak. Of course, there is also the buffet near the top of the ship where breakfast, lunch and dinner are offered. Snacks are situated around the ship. No one ever goes hungry, that’s for sure.

For daily lunch, the ship’s main dining room is transformed into a French Bistro created by chef Jacques Pepin. I’ve seen the menu and it looks fantastic. Another big plus is that soft drinks, bottled water and specialty coffee drinks are complimentary.

So, I have done my homework, booked my flight, packed my summer clothes and am ready to go. Hope you come along for the adventure to see what we discover. It is definitely going to be warmer and far more green and flowery than at home.

A balcony is my favorite ship spot.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: So glad to board the ship after very long flights

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – “Sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven,” Giuseppe Bagnato said.

He certainly had that right.

General manager of the Oceania Sirena, Giuseppe was welcoming me aboard the beautiful cruise ship docked in the Tahitian capital city of Papeete. I must have looked very bedraggled because I had been flying for two days.

Getting from Indiana to Tahiti is not easy. Flying is no fun anymore. Planes are overcrowded and cramped. Flights are often delayed and cancelled. Airports are noisy – why does LAX insist on playing loud Katy Perry songs over and over and over? And I don’t eat airport food.

But here I am. Arrived!

The stateroom that will be my beautiful home for the cruise.

Oceania has gone out of its way to make sure passengers get a warm welcome once we exit the Tahiti airport arrival gate. Pulling my carry-on bag through the exit, I was greeted with a big sign with my name identifying my shuttle to the ship.

Yes, that was me, I told the lady at the shuttle stand. She promptly draped a fragrant lei around my neck, handed me a bottle of cold water and motioned for an assistant to take my bag and lead me to the shuttle.

A short ride with a few other passengers and we arrived at the ship. A crewmember took my luggage and escorted me aboard the Sirena.

A mini fridge is stocked with complimentary soft drinks and water.

My plane had landed in Tahiti at 5:05 a.m. Really too early for departing passengers to be off the ship. Most of them were probably still sound asleep in their cabins, savoring the last of Oceania pampering.

For many cruise lines, that early arrival would have been my problem. I could either have cooled my heels for hours in an airport or I could have waited for hours in a yucky cruise terminal or I could have paid to have a “day” hotel room.

You know what Oceania did? They welcomed early arrivals aboard, guided us to check in to get our key cards and told us to make ourselves at home in the lovely Horizons lounge. Coffee, tea and juice awaited as well as pastries and muffins. Lunch would be served later in the Terrace Café.

Staterooms would be available starting at 11 a.m. No early arrivals were complaining. We all know that “turnaround” day is tough for crewmembers. Cabins need to be cleaned. Departing passengers need to be bade farewell and their luggage carted off. New passengers need to be greeted and their luggage carried on.

That is why I try to take only carry-on luggage and a shoulder bag for my computer and camera gear. If I can’t take it on and off the plane, on and off the ship by myself, I figure I don’t need it. Most ships do have laundry facilities and cruising attire is not near as fancy as it used to be – thank goodness.

My bathroom has Bulgari toiletries.

It is always fun to open that stateroom door for the first time and see what my new home looks like. I had seen the Oceania online brochures but they didn’t do justice to my cabin. And I doubt if my photos will either.

As a solo traveler, I have a big double bed and far more storage space than I need. My room has a sofa, coffee table, desk and desk chair. Nightstands on either side of the bed have shelves, desk has drawers, TV cabinet with a flat screen TV has shelves and a safe, one closet has drawers and the big closet has shelves and a hanging rack.

A small lighted clock on the nightstand is a nice touch. Most ships don’t have clocks in cabins but I like to know what time it is when I wake up, especially when the time zone is so different from my home one.

My room has a small fridge. Hallelujah! And it is stocked with soft drinks and water which will be replaced daily. Two large complimentary bottles of water and a filled ice bucket are on the desk. Bottled water, soft drinks and specialty coffees are all complimentary on Sirena.

The bathroom is rather small but functional with a walk-in shower. Toiletries are by Bulgari. Two white bathrobes and two pairs of house slippers are in the closet. That’s nice because I haven’t traveled with a robe for years and do like to wear them.

Most importantly, my stateroom has a balcony with a small round table and two lounge chairs. If I could take two cruises without a balcony or one with a balcony, I would always choose the balcony. My favorite place on the whole ship. A lovely bouquet of flowers from the general manager makes my balcony even more beautiful.

My stateroom cabin attendant Jelena stopped by to say hi. Along with her ship job, Jelena said she is studying to be a journalist and asked my opinion. If you love it, do it, I told her. I have been a journalist since I was in grade school and think it is the best profession in the world. It is not for everyone, however.

So, I am aboard and ready for my great adventure. So much to see and do. Will walk you around the ship tomorrow, meet the crew and passengers, investigate shore excursions, try out ship restaurants and learn more about Tahiti. We’ll see what we discover.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Ship boasts many repeat passengers

The Sirena library is large and well stocked.

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – If Goldilocks were to board the Oceania Sirena, I think she would find the ship is not too big. It is not too small. It is just right.

Even though our cruise is booked close to capacity, it does not feel crowded on the ship. Debuting in April 2016, Sirena can carry a maximum of 684 passengers. Our cruise has 613 passengers and 400 crewmembers, executive concierge Matteo Ribecco told me.

Of the passengers, 140 are repeat cruisers. That means Oceania must be doing something right to have travelers sign up to travel again with the cruise company. In fact, one couple on our cruise – Ken and Judy from Vancouver –  have sailed with Oceania for a total of 257 days.

The ship library has sofas and chairs for passengers to sit and read.

Sirena is an English-speaking ship. Most of the passengers have come from America and most of the crew is international with excellent English. Matteo said that 404 passengers are Americans, 66 are from Canada and 13 from Germany. The rest are from other international countries including Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand. Passengers are generally well traveled and in the 60-plus demographic.

Many passengers have combined this cruise with other Sirena ones which really makes sense. It is a long tiring trip to fly to Tahiti so some passengers boarded Sirena in Los Angeles for a leisurely cruise to Tahiti. Some passengers are continuing on to Sydney and Auckland. One couple is even staying on board until Sirena returns to Papeete from its journeys to Australia and New Zealand.

“Some guests have been on since Christmas and will stay on until March,” Matteo said. Lucky them!

A music room has windows for natural light and ocean views.

Neal and wife Frankie from Vancouver have been cruising since January and plan to continue until March. Most of their days are spent by the pool or on the beach. Evenings are for dancing and the tall elegant couple is great at it. “When we go home in March, winter will be about over at home,” Neal said.

I know these are a lot of facts and numbers but I always find it fascinating to see where fellow passengers are from, whether they are frequent cruisers and what they like about a ship. It’s fun to get a peek into the lives of others.

One of the special benefits of Sirena, cruisers have been telling me, is that there are so many “private” places to sit and read, to talk quietly with someone or to just enjoy the peaceful beauty. That is true. Even though Sirena is not a large ship, there are many comfy cubbies for some alone time. With nine guest decks, Sirena has only two main staircases plus elevators that seem to arrive quickly.

The ship library is one of those serene places. It is one of the largest libraries I have ever seen on a ship of any size. Most ships might have a small section or a room set aside for books to borrow. One ship even had a part-time librarian who would be in the library room to check out books from the locked bookcases. Of course, you had to make sure to visit that library when the part-time librarian was there or you were out of luck.

Quiet private spots are located around the ship.

Sirena has unlocked bookcase after bookcase in a large room with books on the honor system and it is open around the clock. Check out a book, read it and return it. Books are organized for easy browsing – fiction, travel, visual arts, practical advice, reference, biography, sports and leisure, science and natural history, large print and more. There is even a section for a paperback exchange. That is a wonderful idea and I have seen it on many large and small ships.

Many travelers want to carry a book to read on an airplane or aboard a ship. But, once read, they don’t want to carry a bulky book back home. The Sirena book exchange is very well stocked.

Although our cruise has just started, Patricia of San Diego said she has already begun one book and has her eye on several others. She also tucked two paperback books into the exchange area.

“I don’t like to read from a Kindle. I’ve tried it but I prefer an actual book,” she said. “It’s part of my pleasure in traveling to be able to get caught up on my reading. I could easily get lost in here for hours.”

Sirena’s décor is elegant and subdued. Dark woods, large overhead murals, faux fireplaces with artificial flames, plush furnishings, colorful art, teak decks and designer tapestry fabrics create a classic splendor.

Sirena is a restful ship. Some ships seem geared to hoopla – bright splashy colors, constant musical pings and pongs, generous silver and gold sparkle, large outdoor movie screens, crowded pools and activities galore. Sirena sparkles but demurely, like a distinguished beauty who knows she is special so she doesn’t have to go overboard to prove it.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Tahiti deserves reputation as paradise

The Oceania Sirena will make stops in French Polynesia.

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – Now I know why there was a mutiny on the Bounty. After sailors saw Tahiti, they didn’t want to leave. Can’t say that I blame them.

Shaped like a turtle, the island of Tahiti is the largest of the 118 islands that make up the archipelago of French Polynesia. Created millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions, Tahiti really is two islands – Tahiti Nui (the larger part) and Tahiti Iti (the peninsula) – joined by an isthmus

Since it is winter at my home, my first sights of Tahiti are dazzling to my eyes. Colors are so vibrant they don’t look real. The clear tranquil water is impossibly blue and emerald and turquoise, surrounded by pristine beaches. The island is lush and vibrant, fragrant with flowers seeming to bloom wild everywhere.

Weather is balmy with cool breezes at night. Folks are friendly, often smiling and saying “hello” or “la orana” in Tahitian. I have noticed a distinct absence of beggars and hardcore hawkers on our shore stops unlike many islands in the Caribbean. Markets and stands do sell local crafts and souvenirs but I have had no one try to persuade me to buy anything or to give them money. Tahiti has a low crime rate but as a solo traveler, I know it is always wise to be aware of surroundings and belongings.

Aboard the Sirena, guest lecturer Nick Glakas has already presented an interesting program on the tantalizing history of Tahiti. He will give three more lectures. That is a plus, in my opinion, because part of the joy of traveling is to learn more about the world and different people.

“Papeete, the capital of Tahit

A Tahitian weaves a mat as her ancestors have done for generations.

i, is where most people visit,” Nick said. Meaning the “water basket,” Papeete was once a gathering place where Tahitians came to draw fresh water.  On my 10-day cruise aboard the Oceania Sirena, we are cruising round trip from Papeete and will be visiting seven islands in French Polynesia.

With a population of about 190,000, Tahiti is circled by majestic peaks and has a mountainous interior with deep valleys, clear streams and high waterfalls. Tahiti’s rugged coastline is where most people live.

The general theory, Nick said, is that Polynesians first settled in the Pacific around 4,000 years ago. Expert sailors, the early Polynesians used wooden double-hulled canoes that they lashed together with natural fibers to find their new home.

Although my cruise has just started, one name that seems synonymous with Tahiti is actor Marlon Brando. He came to Tahiti to film the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.” His jet is said to be one of the first to land on Tahiti.

“He fell in love with Tahiti and with his Tahitian leading lady in the movie,” Nick said. “He married her and had children and bought a private island.”

Palm trees and private beaches are abundant in French Polynesia.

Located about 30 miles north of Paquette, Tetiaroa is an atoll that Brando wanted to preserve as his personal paradise. For centuries, it had been a retreat for Tahitian royalty and was said to be a place where time stood still. Wanting to escape the rat race of Hollywood, Brando often headed to Tetiaroa.

However, when he died in 2004 at age 80, Brando hadn’t left any provisions in his will for Tetiaroa. In 2014, a luxury resort was opened to the public on the island. The Brando Estate and several of his children are involved in the project.

We won’t get to visit Tetiaroa on our cruise. The atoll has no reef opening, making it nearly impossible to access the island by boat. Guests arrive on a private plane in about a 20-minute flight from Tahiti. A guide told me that the ultra-luxury resort named The Brando has 35 villas with rooms starting at about $3,000 a night.

Flowers bloom wild and are used for many decorative purposes in the islands.

The island also has an eco-station where research is being conducted by scientists from visiting universities. Brando had developed a keen interest in the environment and wanted to preserve the natural treasures of his private island.

Brando once described his island as a comfort even in his thoughts when he couldn’t be there in person.

“My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night,” he said. “If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of what they are and what they were centuries ago.”

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Choosing from many great shore excursions  

Sitting on a peaceful Tahitian shore would be one of my favorite activities.

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – Today, shall I go scuba diving, swim with a stingray, watch for dolphins, take a catamaran sail, ride in a glass bottom boat, do an off-road safari or hike the Three Coconuts Trail?

Of course, I could just relax on a balmy Tahitian beach or stay aboard the beautiful Oceania Sirena.

Every day is an adventure on this cruise. When I boarded, I was given a seven-page brochure with about 50 shore excursion options. Many passengers had already booked the excursions they wanted to take before they boarded the ship. I was waiting until I got to Tahiti and could talk with destination services on the ship.

I really appreciate that the shore excursion booklet has detailed information on all the choices. It has a good description of what each tour will entail along with the difficulty (easy, moderate or extensive) the length of time the tour will last, the price and whether it includes a meal or food and wine.

Two of the Sirena’s lifeboats are used to shuttle passengers to shore.

Some tours also are designated as an Oceania Exclusive or an Oceania Choice. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the brochure information, look at this listing for the Huahine Jeep Safari:

Duration: 3 ½ hours. Price: $199. Difficulty: Moderate.

“Panoramic drive to Maroe Bay (15 min.) for photo stop (15 min.) Drive to Faie Village (5 min.) and visit (30 min.) Drive to Huahine Pearl Farm and Pottery (5 min) and visit (45 min.) Drive to Marae open-air stone temples (5 min) and visit (30 min.) Drive to small vanilla plantation (5 min) and visit (20 min) Drive to Fare Village (10 min) for photo stop (10 min). Return to pier (15 min). 

“Le Truck” tours offer open-air bumpy rides.

“Please note: This tour is not wheelchair accessible. Walking is mainly at guests’ discretion during the stops; however, a high step is required to board the jeeps. As this tour involves some bumpy off-road driving, guests with limited mobility, back and/or neck problems, pregnant women or those who suffer from motion sickness are discouraged from participating. Jeeps carry up to eight guests.” 

I didn’t sign up for that one, not because it sounded difficult or too fast moving, but because another one – The Cultural Highlights of Huahine Nui – better suited my needs. I try to choose shore excursions that I can write about and that I think readers might find interesting. Otherwise, I would most likely be in the water with many other passengers or spend all my time on one of those quiet Tahitian beaches.

“Any water-related activities are popular,” said Nancy Schwarze, destination services team member. “People like the black pearl tours, too, because they want to how the pearls are cultivated and then buy them.”

The most expensive shore excursion during our cruise costs $349 for a six-hour “Polynesian Day” that sails to a coral garden for snorkeling, stingray encounter, reef tour and lunch.  I haven’t found anyone yet who has signed up for that one.

Air-conditioned comfy buses are offered for some shore excursions.

Least expensive is $69 to “Discover the World of Pearls” for 90 minutes. “Commentary at the pearl farm will be limited,” the tour description notes. In other words, they are going shopping.

A tour that quickly booked up was called Motu Pic Nic which lasted three hours and cost $169. It involved a half-hour sail to Motu, time for swimming and beachcombing, followed by lunch and entertainment. Sounded fun but I went with the historical overview tour. I wanted to learn more about French Polynesia.

The excursion desk crew also are helpful in suggesting what might be good or not good for some passengers with possible mobility problems. One woman had sprained her right wrist before the cruise and had it wrapped in bandages. Taking a tour where she would have to climb up or down, swim or be bounced around might not be advisable, Nancy said.

Although she had signed up for a jeep safari, the wrist-injured passenger canceled it and opted instead to visit a vanilla plantation.

Another thing I really like about Oceania Sirena shore excursions is the ease of leaving and returning to the ship. Most of our shore stops involve being shuttled to shore in small enclosed boats. To leave, we just present our room key and either walk off the ship to shore or board a tender for a brief boat ride.

The tender boats are also the ship’s enclosed lifeboats. That is good. I went on a cruise once where the ship had to rent tenders to go back and forth. Very unreliable and slow. We wasted a lot of time waiting on that cruise. These two Sirena tenders move quickly with no crowded groups waiting on the shore in the hot sun.

Sirena also has a nice shaded area on our shore stops, along with complimentary water. Coming or going from the ship there is always a long table at the ship gangway filled with big bottles of free water. Very considerate. Many ships charge a high fee for bottled water.

On shore, the excursion team holds large signs so it is easy to see which group is for which tour. All these courtesies seem as though they would be done on every ship but, believe me, they are not.

Thank you to Oceania Sirena for making this such a memorable cruise with wonderful shore excursions – and we have just gotten started.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Ship’s general manager worked his way up from deck boy

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – My cruise had just started when I returned to my stateroom and saw an evaluation form about my journey. Now, I am accustomed to getting evaluation forms at the end of a cruise but not at the beginning.

It does make sense though. If my cruise is over and there is something I could suggest that would have made it more enjoyable for me, it wouldn’t help much to make note of that when my cruise has ended.

“I would like to ensure that we are doing everything we can to make this your most enjoyable cruise experience ever,” general manager Giuseppe Bagnato noted on the form.

Truly, there was nothing I could suggest that would make my cruise better – unless my 10 days could be expanded to even longer, say 30 days.

Chatting with Giuseppe over dinner one night, I learned that the seafaring life is in his blood and that he started at the very bottom in the cruise industry. Maybe that is why he knows how to smoothly run a cruise ship – he has done many of the jobs himself.

“When someone says ‘It can’t be done,’ I know that it can because I have done that job myself,” he said. “I have done it all so I understand what each job is.”

Born in the small town of Reggio in the Calabria region of southern Italy, Guiseppe comes from a long line of fishermen. But the young man didn’t want to follow in the fishing footsteps of his father. He wanted to work on the big ships and see the world.

He started as a deck boy on a cargo ship. “It was hard work,” he admitted.

One day his cargo ship was docked next to a big cruise ship. “That cruise ship was so beautiful,” Guiseppe said. “I asked a crew member if I could look around and they showed me around the whole ship.”

Hardly daring to ask, Guiseppe inquired about working on such a fancy passenger vessel. “I filled out an application,” he said. “Then I waited.”

Three weeks later, Guiseppe was called in for an interview and hired as a deck boy. “I couldn’t speak English. I had a hard time starting out. You can’t get a better job on a cruise ship if you can’t speak English.”

So he taught himself. “I never took lessons. I just listened.”

The Oceania Sirena is cruising through French Polynesia.

Sounds hard to believe because Guiseppe converses so easily now in English. Moving up the ship ladder, Giuseppe realized that he enjoyed the service industry. He advanced to head waiter, then to maître d’, then food and beverage manager.

As general manager for Oceania Cruises, Giuseppe ensures the efficient running of shipboard operations. His management philosophy, he said, is “A happy contented crew ultimately results in pleased satisfied guests.”

Working three months on, two months off, Guiseppe likes to spend his home time with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

But on the ship, Guiseppe seems to be everywhere keeping an eye on ship services. He also seems to know every passenger by name. “Some I remember. Some I don’t,” he said with a shrug. “I try.”

Today as I was leaving the ship to go ashore at noon, Guiseppe stopped me to inquire if I had eaten lunch. Believe it or not, I was skipping lunch because I wanted to spend more time in Tahiti.

“Okay,” he said. “But if you need anything when you get back on the ship, just let me know.”

See what I mean about not having any suggestions for improved service on that evaluation form. 

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Ship offers many activities and entertainment options

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – A friend asked me what there is to do on the Sirena cruise ship. A lot. Or nothing. The choice is up to each cruiser.

The four-page Oceania Currents that is placed on our beds each night at turndown is filled with activity listings and information. The daily newsletter announces where we will be the next day, the weather forecast, when the sun will rise and se

A shuffleboard court waits for players.

, and what time the ship will depart if we are in port.

The newsletter also has a bit of background on the next port as well as locations of Sirena’s sister ships, the hours that ship services will be open, dining times, when shore excursions will meet and where, plus a reminder to take our ID card when we leave the ship.

Much of the newsletter deals with the upcoming day’s activities, such as ping pong, shuffleboard, golf putting, bean bag toss, bridge card games, bingo, trivia, guest speakers, blackjack tournament in the casino and afternoon tea.

Sirena has a large computer room with a computer expert, a card game room, big library, small casino and two high-end shops that carry limited clothing, souvenirs, expensive jewelry and toiletry items. The Canyon Ranch Spa offers traditional massages, hair styling, manicures and pedicures and a wide range of exercise classes such as yoga, mat Pilates, Zumba and circuit training.

The top deck has a lovely pool that is never crowded, plus two hot tubs and many comfortable recliners in both shady and sunny places. The pool area is spotless, as is the whole ship. If a pool towel is used and placed across a recliner, it seems to disappear immediately and a fresh rolled-up one appears. The ship’s top deck also has a walking track that seems to be a popular way to try and exercise off pounds from the delicious dining.

A putting green lets golfers practice their shots.

I’m told the 2001 movie “South Pacific” with Glenn Close and Harry Connick Jr. will be shown one afternoon in the Sirena Lounge. A lei making and pareo (wraparound cloth worn by both male and female Tahitians) demonstration also will be offered one day.

For live entertainment, the five-piece Sirena Show band plays several times an evening as well the Quadrivium String Quartet and Greg Sampson at the piano. The Sirena Production Company will present four musical programs during our cruise. The first one called “Get on the Floor and Dance” is a tribute to the music of dance.

Other performers include violinist Martin Lass, comedian Tom Drake, vocalist Domenick Allen (billed as a former member of the Foreigner rock band), pianist Carl Doy and dueling divas Fiona and Penny. I watched the first performance of the Sirena Production Company. The four young singers and two dancers are enthusiastic and energetic. I also saw part of the performances of Martin Lass and Domenick Allen.

Sirena has two high-end shops that are open when the ship is at sea.

The theater seems packed and the audience seems to enjoy the entertainers. The show band is top notch and easily brings dancers onto the floor.

The evening performances start at 9:30 p.m. It is only my preference but what I want to do at that time of night is put on my nightgown and sit on my balcony to watch the waves of the South Pacific. To each his own but I can see musical entertainment like that anytime.

What I can’t see in Indiana is the Sirena cruising through a lovely star-filled night while the moon rides high in the sky. I want to savor every moment of my outstanding cruise through Tahiti and French Polynesia. It’s wonderful that Sirena offers so many choices to make me and other guests happy.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Dining options and excellent wait staff 

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – For my first lunch aboard Sirena, I was escorted to a window seat overlooking the panoramic Pacific. When I told maître d’ Susan Lingao that I thought I had the best seat in the Grand Dining Room, something surprising happened.

The Terrace Café is a popular place to enjoy a casual meal.

Every time I entered the dining room after that, I was lead to that same special table. Even when the dining room was full and window seats were at a premium, I had that delightful view.

That doesn’t always happen to a solo diner. Just shows you the care and attention that Sirena staff gives to passengers. The dining room is open seating and open dining times so it is not as though that table is reserved for me. It is that Susan has a great memory and aims to make passengers happy.

After only one dinner, my server Yasa remembers that I don’t drink coffee or wine and that I like Sirena’s crunchy skinny bread sticks. Yasa will bring me a basket of breadsticks instead of the rolls that I don’t eat.

The Grand Dining Room is elegant with windows on three sides.

The Grand Dining Room also offers an extra that is unusual and helpful. When George from Los Angeles at the table next to mine realized he had forgotten his reading glasses and started to get up to return to his stateroom to get them, Yasa stopped him. In a jiffy, Yasa returned with a large wooden box filled with different strength reading glasses. George chose the pair he needed to read the menu and then handed them back to Yasa. Great idea.

But even excellent service wouldn’t be enough to make up for substandard food. Luckily, Sirena has delicious cuisine to match its outstanding service.

This time, I’ll share what the Grand Dining Room and Terrace Cafe buffet are like. Another time I’ll write about the two specialty restaurants – Red Ginger and Tuscan Steak.

A beautiful place setting for one in the Grand Dining Room.

Some passengers have told me that they plan to eat almost all their meals in the upper deck Terrace Café. It is informal and quick. Diners can choose where they want to eat and go through the large buffet line where servers place food on their plates.

Diners don’t help themselves at the buffet. I like that. They tell the server what they want and the server puts it on plates. My grocery store at home has a wonderful buffet where shoppers can scoop salads, pastas and other goodies into plastic containers to buy and take home. After seeing shoppers reach into a tray of olives or pickles or cherry tomatoes to pick up one and eat it and seeing disheveled shoppers drag their dirty coat sleeves through the food, I quickly lost my appetite for that buffet. A shame people are so unsanitary and rude.

Diners at Serena’s Terrace Café can eat inside or outside at shaded teak tables on the terrace. The Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It offers a huge variety of freshly prepared dishes. For breakfast one morning, I ordered eggs benedict which was cooked as I ate my fruit. Egg dishes are not made ahead of time and left to warm and dry out under a heat lamp. They are cooked when ordered.

Terrace Café lunches offer roasted and rotisserie meats, soups, pastas, salads, desserts and much more. A pizzeria oven is kept busy. The wait staff brings drinks when diners are seated. Remember, Sirena offers complimentary soft drinks, specialty coffees and bottled water around the clock so you don’t have to keep signing a $3 tab for a glass of Coke.

For dinner, the Terrace Café wait staff dresses more formally and the cuisine takes on a more sophisticated flair. Lobster tails, chops and fresh fish are prepared to order. Freshly made hand-cut sushi and sashimi are a fav

Waiter Yasa shows a case of reading glasses that passengers can use in the dining room when they forget to bring their own.

orite.

Just steps from the swimming pool is Waves Grill with casual dining featuring all-American favorites like gourmet burgers, tangy barbecue and truffle fries. A nearby ice cream stand offers no-charge gelato, creamy cones, hot fudge sundaes and thick hand-dipped milkshakes.Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner (from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.), the Grand Dining Room is large and open with window views on three sides. Each evening in our Cruise Currents newsletter placed on our bed at turndown, we receive a copy of the next day’s menu for the Grand Dining Room and for Jacques Bistro. That’s a nice touch to give us a head start on what we might want to order.

The lengthy menus include Canyon Ranch Healthy Living Choices like roasted veal rack loin with marsala sauce and jasmine rice. Listed alongside those dishes are the calories, fat grams and fiber grams for each serving.

A gourmet tasting menu created by the chef recommends an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert along with wine pairings. The main menu that I usually order from offers appetizers soups, garden salads, main courses, Jacques Pepin signature dishes and side dishes that are always available.

A caviar appetizer looks like a meal in the Grand Dining Room.

On the “always” list are steamed vegetables, baked potatoes, Franck’s mashed potatoes (made with a family recipe from Oceania corporate chef Franck Garanger) and pasta.

For dinner, tonight, I had French style encrusted pate with smoked ham and pheasant for appetizer; Marseillaise fish soup with emmental cheese, rouille sauce and garlic croutons; baby green salad with red delicious apples, toasted almonds and pancetta; grilled Norwegian salmon on beluga lentils with Loire Valley Beurre Blanc for entrée; and crème Brule for dessert.

As you can tell, Oceania’s culinary director Jacques Pepin is an excellent French chef. For lunch, the Grand Dining Room transforms into a French bistro named Jacques Bistro. Even the dinnerware is different, imprinted with the name of Jacques Bistro. French torch songs play in the background.

For lunch today at Jacques Bistro, I had escargots, salad nicoise, cream of mushroom soup and shrimp, scallops, monkfish mussels and calamari in puff pastry with lobster bisque. That was lunch, for goodness sakes, and it was delicious. Oh, plus ginger cake and ice cream for dessert.

Along with my wonderful lunch experience, I got to enjoy that same perfect dining room table. I made a short video to share the South Pacific scene as well as the lovely Jacques Bistro table setting. Most memorable.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Specialty ship restaurant Red Ginger is superb

ABOARD THE OC

Red Ginger has a red and ebony décor.

EANIA SIRENA – I don’t want to spoil the surprise but I’ve never seen this happen. Maybe I just haven’t eaten in the right restaurants.

Oceania Sirena has two specialty restaurants where reservations must be made. There is no extra charge – in fact, there are few extra charges at all on this cruise ship. Most passengers can expect to dine at least once in Red Ginger and once in Tuscan Steak. If the restaurants are not booked up, passengers may be able to reserve another dining adventure.

Dinner is served from 6:30 to 9 p.m. in both specialty restaurants so I booked my Red Ginger reservation for the early one. I like to eat early. I’ll write more about Tuscan Steak later. This is about Red Ginger.

My finger towel is starting to expand when hot water is poured on it.

As one of the first few in line when Red Ginger opened, I was treated to a song by the waiters. I don’t know what they were singing as they stood in line but it was entertaining. Then they bowed and welcomed us.

The décor of Red Ginger is red and ebony, very sleek and Asian with plenty of window views and a glistening red crystal chandelier overhead. The atmosphere is tranquil. Waiters are dressed in black with mandarin-collar jackets. Diners are expected to enjoy leisurely meals.

My favorite maître d’ Susan Lingao was working in Red Ginger and led me to a wonderful table for one by a window where I could watch the ocean roll. I’ve said it before but I appreciate Sirena’s courtesy to solo travelers. That does not happen on all cruise lines or in all restaurants.

Edamame in sea salt is a starter.

My favorite waiter Yasa also was working in Red Ginger and brought me a menu. Then waitress Myat placed an “amuse bouche” in front of me – a miniature tureen of edamame beans with sea salt.

Next was that little surprise I mentioned. Myat plopped what looked like a small mint in a shallow white porcelain bowl. When she poured hot water on the tablet, it rolled over and expanded in all directions and smelled like lemons. That was my finger towel to use before and after eating the edamame with my fingers, Myat said.

Myat also brought a tea menu. I’m not much of a tea drinker but this was special. I appreciated that the menu had a short description of the teas, how long each tea should be infused and whether it had caffeine. Selections included green tea, white tea, black tea and herbal tea. I chose caffeine-free ginger lemongrass.

The “leaf” of my tea bag peeks out of a heavy cast iron teapot.

The tea was served in a heavy carved cast iron teapot. I took a photo of it so you could see the little “leaf” poking out of the pot. That is the tea bag. The tea was refreshing and delicious. Red Ginger also offers wine and sake. Myat then appeared with a wooden box filled with an assortment of colorful chopsticks made of everything from silver to porcelain.

Next was choosing soup, salad, appetizer, entrée and dessert from a huge and mouthwatering menu. Oceania master chef Jacque Pepin described Red Ginger cuisine this way:

This is an appetizer – for one.

 “Although the food is pan-Asian, this is not a ‘fusion’ restaurant. Rather, the culinary team did hands-on research throughout Asia and worked with chefs all over the world to find recipes and techniques that represent the best of Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cooking – and spent months mastering their preparation. The presentation is refined in a way that is exciting and modern, but the dishes themselves, like all of our food, is firmly grounded in authentic recipes, traditions, and ingredients.”

It would take too much room to share the whole menu but I can tell you what I chose to give you an idea. Yasa told me that I could make my dishes as Asian spicy as I wanted, just to let him know. And if something was too mild or too spicy, Yasa would take it back and the chef would adapt a new dish to my taste.

Soup is spiced just right.

I started with Tom Kha Gai soup with chicken, lemongrass and coconut milk. Salad was avocado lobster with crispy lotus, lobster, avocado, tuna, hamachi, den miso and shiso vinegar. Both were great.

Couldn’t pass up the sushi chef’s selection for appetizer – eight pieces of assorted sashimi and sushi rolls, plus ginger slices and wasabi. Some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Took a photo of it to give you a hint of the lovely presentation. Fresh, wonderful and big. It could have been my meal.

Entrees were divided into seafood, meat and vegetarian categories. Meat courses included ribeye steak, rack of lamb, pork luc lac, all prepared in an Asian way. Seafood choices were miso glazed sea bass (said to be the most popular), sole tempura, lobster pad thai, bay scallops or red snapper. I chose the sea bass and could easily see why it is the most popular.

Steamed ginger cake with apple cardamom ice cream is dessert.

Dessert choices were crème brulee, Japanese fruit salad, steamed ginger cake with apple cardamom ice cream, Bounty Cake with coconut, chocolate chips and vanilla beans or caramel tapioca with ginger cookies.

I chose the ginger cake and am glad I did. After such a big and flavorful dinner, you might think I wouldn’t be able to eat dessert. I ate all the ginger cake and ice cream.

On the way out of Red Ginger, I received another surprise. Some good news from maître d’ Susan. Since I like to dine early, Susan said it looked like Red Ginger would have another reservation open in two nights. Would I like it, she asked? You bet I would!

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Goal of new ship concierge is to visit every country in the world

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – When Matteo Ribecco was a little boy – “maybe three or four years old,” he says, the youngster told his parents he was going to be a world traveler when he grew up.

“I have wanted to do that for as long as I can remember,” Matteo said.

However, his parents were not sure how their son could fulfill such big goals. Born and raised in Reggio Emilia, a small city in Northern Italy, Matteo did leave his hometown to study contemporary history at the University of Bologna.

He also started satisfying his wanderlust and discovered a way to travel and earn money to fund it. Matteo started his career at sea seven years ago as a guest relations manager and immediately fell in love with the ocean.

Now Matteo is one of the newest team members of Oceania Cruises. He joined the Sirena staff three months ago as the ship’s executive concierge.

“It is the best company to work for,” Matteo said. “I get to meet thousands of people and everyone has an interesting story to tell.”

Working four months on and two months off, Matteo makes his home in Bali. When he isn’t working, Matteo visits with his family in Italy and then he hits the road, often backpacking.

“There is so much of the world still to see,” he said, adding that he also wants to learn as many languages as he can so he can converse with people he meets. I know that he is already quite fluent in English.

The three favorite places Matteo said he has visited are Namibia, Bolivia and Easter Island. The top three on his list to see are Antarctica, Timbuktu and the Northern Lights.

“My best friend and I have a saying that we try to live by – ‘Always live without regret.’ Why regret that you haven’t traveled or done something or learned something? You don’t want to have those regrets when you die,” he said.

“My goal is to visit every country in the world,” the 33-year-old said. “That is a promise I made to myself and I’m going to do it.”

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Seeing a revival of traditional Tahitian tattoos

Moorea tour guide Teiva explains his tattoos.
Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – Tour guide Teiva moved over, thinking he was blocking my picture. But he was my picture.

The tattoos on his arm and neck were fascinating. When I told Teiva I would like to photograph them and learn more about the art. Teiva was happy to oblige.

“These are in honor of my family and my heritage,” he said, gesturing to the designs on his left arm, hand and fingers. A shark tattooed on his arm and an eel on his neck are “the protectors for my family.”

Polynesians pretty much invented the form of body art, Teiva said. “The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word ‘tatau,’ which means ‘to strike.’ That is how tattoos used to be done and are still done by some artists today.”

Traditional Tahitian tattoos were made by using a comb with teeth of sharpened bone, shell, shark’s teeth or wood. Using anywhere from three to 20 teeth, the teeth would be dipped into natural black ink and tapped into the skin with a wooden stick. The black ink was made from the soot of burnt candlenut mixed with water or oil.

Traditional Polynesian tattoos fascinated early European explorers.
Courtesy photo

It often would take two people to do a tattoo – one to hold the skin taut and one to do the tattoo. Tatau or tattooing with traditional tools was banned in 1986 by the Ministry of Health because of the difficulty in sterilizing the wood and bone equipment which increased the risk of spreading disease. It was allowed again in 2001 with one-time-use tools. Those tools often are given as a souvenir to the person getting the tattoo.

To continue their art, some tattoo artists began using disposable steel needles. Although many tattoo parlors now use tattoo guns, some tattoo artists still use the traditional method.

Considered a sign of beauty in the Polynesian culture, teenagers used to be ceremoniously tattooed once they reached adolescence, Teiva said. “The tattoos told a story. They were very important so you were careful in choosing what your tattoos would be.”

The art of tattoos goes back as far as 1500 BC. Nearly everyone was tattooed in ancient Polynesia and each tattoo was considered far more than a body ornament. It symbolized a person’s genealogy and rank in society as well as exploits successfully undertaken by the person. That’s why chiefs and warriors usually had the most elaborate tattoos.

Polynesian women also are tattooed but usually not as extensively.
Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch

When Europeans came to Polynesia, they were astounded by the body art. The first navigator trying to explore the whole Polynesian Triangle, Captain James Cook wrote in his diary “they print signs on people’s body and call this tattow.”

The naturalist aboard Cook’s ship HMS Endeavor, Joseph Banks wrote in his journal: “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves, indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humor or dispositions.”

Native Tahitian Omain became a sensation when he appeared in Europe because of his tattoos. Sailors stopping in Tahiti were soon baring their arms for a souvenir tattoo which may account for the traditional sailor tattoos.

In mythology, the two sons of the god Ta’aroa – Mata Arhu and Tu Ra’I po’ – liked the art and decided to teach it to humans. The two sons are now the patron divinities of tattoo. Not only were tattoos used for social purposes but they were also considered protection against evil spirits.

The new Disney movie “Moana” features a main character with traditional tattoos.
Photo courtesy of Disney

When missionaries arrived in Tahiti in the 18th century, they considered tattoos a sinful glorification of the flesh and banned the art. But, starting in the 1980s, Tahitian tattoos have enjoyed a renaissance.

Most of the tattoos I have seen on the islands during my cruise feature intricate curvy little designs. “Those are hard to do,” Teiva said, pointing to the circular patterns on his arm.

Even Hollywood is taking note of revived Polynesian tattoos. In the 2016 Disney movie “Moana,” the Polynesian demigod who accompanies the heroine girl on her journey is a physically imposing character named Maui with a wild mane of hair and a body of intricate tattoos.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has his family history inked on his chest, shoulder and arm.
Courtesy photo

Maui’s tattoos are like a scrapbook of his great exploits. Reportedly, a crew of folks visited Polynesian islands to get the culture and the tattoos correct. Voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Maui is a big departure from how such Polynesian movie characters may have been portrayed in the past. Tattoos would have been taboo and here is Disney showing them as a proud fact of life. There is even a scene in the movie showing the traditional art of tattooing.

“The Rock” himself is familiar with tattoos. Half Samoan, he had his family history inked on his chest, shoulder and arm in 2003. For the 60-hour process), he chose a famous Moorea island tattoo artist, Po’oino Yrondi.

Ah, the surprising things you can learn on a cruise.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Visiting Moorea island, said to be inspiration for Bali Hai

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – To discover the Polynesian paradise of Moorea, I rode around the whole island. Of course, that isn’t very difficult. Moorea has only one major road and it takes about one and a half hours to drive the whole thing.

The Oceania Sirena is anchored off the coast of Moorea.

But, oh, what beauty that drive revealed.

The heart-shaped island is said to have inspired the mythical Bali Hai in James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” Located only 10 nautical miles from Tahiti, Moorea is spectacular in real life, earning the nickname “The Magical Island.”

Like all Polynesian islands, Moorea is rich in mythology. Legend says that a golden skinned lizard abandoned by its human parents became stranded on a reef as it swam after them. Merciful gods turned the baby lizard into the island of Moorea – which means “golden lizard.”

Eight jagged mountain peaks rise from its gorgeous lagoon. Lush greenery is fringed by an azure blue sea and ivory beaches. Waterfalls tumble down fern-covered cliffs. Pastel painted houses are framed by multi-colored arrays of orchids, gardenias, hibiscus and birds of paradise.

The marae was an important open-air temple for ancient Polynesians.

I saw fresh-caught fish displayed on a roadside pole for sale. Fruit stands offered just-picked coconuts and pineapples, the main fruit grown on the island. Feral chickens and roosters freely roam everywhere.

“You can’t really eat the chickens. They are too tough,” tour guide Teiva said. “The roosters aren’t fun if you live here. They don’t just crow in the morning. They crow all day long.”

Many front yards feature what looks like a small house or a roof held up by four posts to protect what is under it. The structures resemble a picnic spot decorated with potted plants and bouquets of artificial flowers.

A Polynesian woman in traditional dress rests on a rock on Moorea.

“Those are graves,” Teiva said. “You can bury a body in your yard as long as you get a permit.

The government does that so that the family won’t sell the land. If a family member you love is buried in your front yard, most families would want the land to remain in the family for generations to come.”

Moorea is an expensive place to live or to visit., Teiva said. Almost everything on the island must be delivered by boat. “A regular small house here would cost $250,000,” Teiva said. “We bring our food from Tahiti which makes it cost more. Some things cost twice as much.”

A ferry boat runs daily from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to take students to school and workers to the island of Tahiti. “About 2,000 people take the boat every day to work in Tahiti,” Teiva said, adding that tourism is the island’s main economy.

Coconut and breadfruit samples are shared by a Polynesian woman.

Moorea has a population of about 18,000, most of whom live near the coast in the island’s eight small villages. “When we stop at the marae, you will see why most of them don’t live inland,” Teiva said.

In fact, Teiva gave his talk about the historic marae from inside the bus, then he opened the bus door and told us we were on our own. The bus driver also stayed in his seat.

Mosquitoes galore. This part of paradise is mosquito heaven. The inland marae is well shaded and covered with old trees, moss and ferns. Even when we climbed back on board the bus, mosquitoes followed us and were swatted vigorously by Teiva and the driver.

I took photos of the marae but there is little to see. In ancient Polynesia, the open-air sanctuaries were large sacred temples where important events took place. Maraes were for worshipping gods, signing peace treaties, celebrating good harvests and performing rituals asking for victory in wars.

A front yard grave is decorated with potted plants and artificial flowers.

“They would make offerings to their gods at the marae,” Teiva said. “Human sacrifices were sometimes made here, mostly male prisoners of war.”

This Moorea marae looked like a big yard encircled by a low wall of small piled rocks, now mostly crumbling.  Before the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, the marae were the centers for social, political and religious activity. The ancient Polynesians were polytheists, which means they believed in more than one god.

When missionaries arrived on Moorea in the 19th century, the maraes were considered pagan and destroyed or abandoned as Polynesians converted to Christianity. If I hadn’t seen the sign and heard the talk by Teiva, I might not have known the importance of the site we were visiting.

Moorea is filled with beautiful vistas.

Life on Moorea moves at a very slow pace, Teiva said. “There is nothing to do here,” he said. “We used to have a movie theater but it was closed. Once the sun goes down, there is nothing to do on Moorea, not much nightlife.”

Don’t know if I would agree with that. Sitting by the ocean, feeling the breeze, watching the sun set and listening to the nighttime serenade seems like glorious nightlife to me.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Having lobster at ship specialty restaurant Tuscan Steak

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – I dined at Sirena’s specialty restaurant Tuscan Steak and ordered lobster. Why not? I know that Tuscan specializes in steak but I was Just in the mood for a great lobster dinner. I was not disappointed.

My caprese starter looked and tasted great.

Nearby diners said their steaks were great but I also noticed that some looked at my lobster with envy. Plus, I got another wonderful window seat in Tuscan Steak to watch the ocean as I dined.

Oceania Sirena has two specialty restaurants where reservations must be made. There are no additional charges to dine in these two lovely places. I enjoy the ship’s Grand Dining Room but it is fun to have a chance to experience these two smaller restaurants.

I’ve already told you about my dinner in the other specialty restaurant – Red Ginger. It was superb. So was Tuscan.

Tuscan Steak décor is sleek Italian. Main colors of black, grey, tan, silver and platinum blend with dark wood paneling and plenty of recessed lights for a setting that is both elegant and warm. Waiters wear white shirts, black pants, tan vests and black neckties.

Tuscan Steak has wonderful window views as do all the Sirena dining rooms.

A white apron tied around their waists must come in handy when waiters prepare Caesar’s salad at tableside. That fresh preparation is a nice touch and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who asks that anchovies be left out.

The menu is huge. For anyone who thought Tuscan features only steak, one look at the menu will dispel that notion. Starters include Chesapeake Bay crab cake, pork belly, shrimp, beef tenderloin carpaccio, red beets with goat cheese, prosciutto, sliced veal, tuna or octopus.

A waiter prepares Caesar salad at tableside.

I chose caprese for a starter and it was almost large enough to be an entrée. I took a photo of it so you could see but I did crop off some of the smaller tomatoes on both ends of the oblong picture. It was wonderful.

After starters comes soup: minestrone, lobster bisque or zuppa faggioli, a mix of white beans, sweet sausage and pasta. My choice was lobster bisque. Not all restaurants can do a good job with lobster bisque – some make it too thick, some too thin, some put a funny spice in it – but Tuscan does it just right.

Then salad. Caesar salad, grilled asparagus, baby spinach or baby greens. I enjoyed the baby spinach with candied pecans, roasted pumpkin, dried cranberries and flax seed vinaigrette. I saw many people choosing the Caesar and having it prepared at tableside but I was mighty pleased with my baby spinach.

My lobster came already cracked and ready to eat. A waiter removes the shell.

Entrée choices were difficult because they all looked good. But, as I said, I was craving lobster. What would you have picked? Veal chop, lamb chop, pork chop, chicken, osso bucco, steamed Maine lobster, Maine Lobster Fra Diavilo, jumbo shrimp, Dover sole or a whole listing of pasta like hand-rolled potato gnocchi and lobster risotto?

The signature Tuscan porterhouse steak comes in two sizes – 20 ounces for one person or 40 ounces for two – and it is served on a hot lava stone. That is a whole lot of meat. Other steak choices include filet mignon, ribeye and New York strip. Prime rib comes in a King’s Cut of 32 ounces or a Queen’s Cut which is 16 ounces. Whew!

Dessert was tiramisu, crème brule, caramelized New York cheesecake, key lime pie, bourbon panna cotta, chocolate cake or fruit. Or you could order the Decadent Quintet which was a sampling of five of the desserts.

Sweets in unusual metal ice cream cones are served without ordering.

I ordered the cheesecake but the waiter also brought a lovely display of three sweets in an unusual silver server. The bite-sized desserts were served in metal ice cream cones. If I had known that was coming, I would have foregone my cheesecake.

All the food I have had on the Sirena has had excellent presentation and taste. I made a short video of some of the dishes I have enjoyed so you can see what I mean. Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it tastes good. But on the Sirena, the looks and taste are both top notch.

Tuscan Steak is open from 6:30 to 9 p.m. After all that food, I headed up to Sirena top deck to the walking path – as if I could melt off all those delicious calories in 15 minutes of walking. But it was a beautiful moonlit night, the deck was mostly empty and I could hear the roar of the ocean and feel the sway of the ship.

Delicious cuisine is a major part of any cruise and the Oceania Sirena may well serve the best food to be found anywhere on the Seven Seas.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Vanilla plantation,  sacred blue-eyed eels among Huahine highlights

The Maeva Archaeological Site offers a museum

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – When we pulled into the tiny village of Fare, a shorts-clad youngster was wading in the beautiful turquoise lagoon under the watchful eyes of nearby parents.

By the time we got off our excursion bus, that child had removed every stitch of clothing and was happily playing au naturale in the water. Ah, childhood! Ah, French Polynesia!

For my day in Huahine, I chose to take the “Cultural Highlights” tour of the island. It was an interesting way to get a quick overview of this Polynesian paradise. So much to see. The main sites on our itinerary were the Maeva Archaeology Site, a vanilla plantation, historic fish traps and the watery home of the famous blue-eyed eels.

3. The Maeva Archaeological Site museum contains Polynesian artifacts.

Guide Georgette was fluent in English and in information. While we rode on our flower-draped bus, Georgette told us that Huahine has only one main road around the island, about 6,500 residents, eight little villages, three small hotels and the island’s economy relies mainly on agriculture, fishing and tourism.

Known as “The Garden Island,” Huahine grows abundant vanilla, melons, breadfruit and bananas. One of the least touristy Polynesian islands, Huahine has an interior that is largely undeveloped and uninhabited, leading to its reputation as being the island least changed by the modern world.

Ancient fish traps are still used today in Huahine.

Georgette also pointed out that Huahine is actually two islands – Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) – basking in one lagoon with a bridge joining them. At one time, it is believed that Huahine was one island. Since these volcanic islands are slowly sinking into the sea, the two highest portions of the original Huahine are what show above the surface of the ocean today.  Mythology claims that the two islands were created when the god Hiro cut a big island in half with his canoe.

“Before they built the bridge, we would have to go back and forth between the two islands in a canoe,” Georgette said. “We are very happy to have the bridge.”

Tour guide Georgette explains how vanilla is grown and harvested.

Originally, Georgette said, Huahine was named Hermosa – Spanish for “beautiful” – by Captain James Cook in 1769. But folks called it Huahine instead because the rolling hills seem shaped like a pregnant woman lying down on her back. That sight can most clearly be seen from the  island’s main town of Fare. Georgette pointed it out and I took a photo but, to me, it mostly looked like the peaks and valleys of beautiful hills.

The island is home to the largest concentration of pre-European ancient temples known as marae.

Our stop at Maeva Archaeology Site showcased the best marae I have seen since arriving in French Polynesia. In ancient Polynesia, the open-air sanctuaries were large sacred temples where important events took place and human sacrifices sometimes made. Maraes were for worshipping gods, signing peace treaties, celebrating good harvests and performing rituals asking for victory in wars.

The blue-eyed eels of Huahine are considered sacred. (Courtesy photo)

Before the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, the marae were the centers for social, political and religious activity. The ancient Polynesians were polytheists, which means they believed in more than one god.

When missionaries arrived on Moorea in the 19th century, the maraes were considered pagan and destroyed or abandoned as Polynesians converted to Christianity. The Maeva marae is one of the best preserved and reconstructed, plus it has a small museum in a rebuilt chief’s meeting house constructed over the water.

To enter the museum, a polite sign asked us to remove our shoes since we would be walking on a straw mat floor. Made of wood and bamboo, the circular museum was lovely with sunshine seeping through the walls to provide natural light. The museum has some interesting displays about early Huahine life and replicas of artifacts found in the area.

Our ship is docked in the Huahine harbor.

Important historic finds have shown that Huahine has the oldest recorded date of human occupation among the Society Islands. Discoveries at recently uncovered sites date from A.D. 850 to 1200 and include ancient shops for the construction of canoes and assembly of fish hooks.

Next up on our tour were the fish traps. Made from rocks and coral, some of the V-shaped traps have been here for centuries and are still in use. A thatched hut offers protection from the sun. Fish are pulled into the traps by the tides and then trapped by the rocks or coral so they are easily caught, usually by net or harpoon. We passed several roadside stops where fresh-caught fish from the traps was being sold.

Two cruise ship passengers said the vanilla plantation on our itinerary was the main reason they picked this shore excursion. The women headed straight for the small shop to buy vanilla extract for themselves and as souvenirs for friends at home. The fresh-grown vanilla is a bargain, they said, and far better quality than what we buy in supermarkets.

Walking through the vanilla garden with Georgette, she explained the labor-intensive job of farming vanilla. “They have to pollinate each flower by hand,” she said. “We have very lazy bees here which pollinate only about five percent of the plants.”

It takes nine months until the vanilla beans can be harvested. “Just like a baby,” Georgette said. The beans are then dried and sold as is or made into vanilla extract. “It’s a lot of work. That’s why most vanilla plantations are a family business. Everyone in the family works on it.”

The highlight for many on my shore excursion was the sacred eels. Stopping by a stream running through the village of Faie, Georgette told us that the 30 or so eels range in size from three to six feet. The eels have adapted to fresh water and are fed by locals and visitors. Fishermen often clean their catches here and throw fish remnants to the hungry eels.

Although their translucent blue eyes are blind, the eels smell food and know when it is at hand. Opening a can of mackerel, Georgette stood on the embankment and scattered bits of mackerel in the water for an eating frenzy by the eels.

“Some people hand feed the eels. The eels don’t bite as long as you don’t stick your fingers in their mouths,” she said. Some folks believe the eels are the souls of departed loved ones who don’t want to leave their beautiful homeland.

I can certainly understand not wanting to leave this island paradise. My time on Huahine passed far too fast.

This rare five-petal flower grows only on Raiatea. (Courtesy photo)

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Learning about a flower that grows nowhere except Raiatea island 

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – The island where Sirena is docked today is home to a five-petal flower so rare that it grows nowhere else on earth except here on Raiatea. Named Tiare Apetahi, the blossom rising out of a bed of dagger-shaped leaves has an equally lovely legend.

The story goes that a beautiful Tahitian woman named Apetahi fell in love with the son of a king. Devastated that as a commoner she could not marry him, Apetahi fled to Mount Temehani on Raiatea where she died of a broken heart.

Soon after, a flower sprouted from the ground where the lovelorn Tahitian had died. The unusual flower has only five petals, said to be the fingers of Apetahi reaching for her forbidden lover. The soft cracking sound that can be heard as the flower opens each dawn is the sound of her heart breaking. The sacred flower is the island’s emblem.

Vairua Perles cultivates and sells the famous Polynesian black pearls.

On today’s shore excursion, we will be visiting a black pearl farm to learn how the pearls are cultivated and we’ll also see the Tainuu Marae open air temple. Although our group is small, we have a huge air-conditioned bus and a tour guide named Claire.

“Raiatea was considered the birthplace of the gods. It was the heart of Polynesia and the first island colonized by the Polynesians,” Claire said. Raiatea was the starting point for the Polynesians to board their famous double canoes to colonize Hawaii, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Known as “the homeland,” Raiatea also is believed to be the final resting place for the spirits of ancestors.  “The name means ‘faraway heaven,’” Claire said, adding that the island population today is about 12,000.

A technician shows how oysters are cultivated to create black pearls.

For our first stop at the Vairua Perles black pearl shop, we walked down a long dock to watch live oysters being cultivated to create black pearls. Polynesian mythology says that black pearls were the first flickers of light given to humans by the god Ora.

In its natural state, a pearl forms and develops when an irritant gets inside the shell of an oyster. To deal with the intruder, an oyster will cover the irritant with successive layers of nacre, a smooth hard crystalline substance. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a lustrous pearl is formed.

For cultured black pearls, a skilled technician carefully implants an irritant in the oyster rather than leaving it to chance. A guide at the pearl farm demonstrated how live oysters are opened, an incision is made in the oyster’s body, a tiny piece of mantle tissue from another oyster is placed, then a small round shell or nucleus is placed beside the mantle tissue.

The process of cultivating an oyster requires skilled technicians.

“We get the nucleus that we place in the live oyster from freshwater mussel shells that come from the Mississippi River in America,” the guide said. “When we are done with the grafting, we put the oyster back in the sea and wait 18 months for a pearl to develop.”

The grafting operation is a very delicate procedure. Some oysters reject their nucleus or die. Only 25 to 30 oysters out of every 100 will produce commercial pearls. After watching the demonstration, we had time to visit the pearl shop where the prices were said to be reasonable and the quality high.

Tour guide Claire explains the importance of the Tainuu Marae temple and its large stone walls.

Next, we headed to the Tainuu Marae open air temple. If it seems like I am writing about a marae in every French Polynesian island we visit, it is because each island does have its own special marae and usually more than one.

This one is known for its size – 162 feet long by 20 feet wide – and stone petroglyphs at the entrance. The stones are so well stacked that they have lasted for centuries without the use of any form of adhesive.

Guide Claire pointed out the turtle motif carved into the stones. “The turtle was considered sacred,” she said. “The only ones who could eat turtle meat were the chiefs and priests.”

Today, the historic marae is also the site of the island’s oldest Protestant church, built with stone blocks taken from the marae. Missionaries considered the marae to be heathen worship places that needed to be destroyed or abandoned as Polynesians converted to Christianity.

Raiatea is known for its peaceful lagoons.

“The church was built on the sacred grounds as an attempt by missionaries to bury Polynesian religious sites,” Claire said.

Now the two religious sites exist side by side.

Oceania Sirena Cruise: Learning how to wear a pareo, drinking at Bloody Mary’s and more on last cruise stop at Bora Bora

ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – She made it look so easy. A few knots here, some stylish tucks there, a loop around the neck. And viola. A beautiful pareo, the sarong-like clothing worn by Polynesian men and women.

Asking for volunteers from our group of Sirena passengers, the Mama Ruta designer created four different sarong styles. That was quite impressive but what I found even more interesting was how the artists at Mama Ruta’s hand craft the colorful fabrics used to make the pareos.

Le Truck provided transportation for our Bora Bora tour.

For our last cruise day, we visited Bora Bora, said to be French Polynesia’s most popular international tourist destination. Sirena offered a long list of shore excursions, the most of any island on our cruise. It was a difficult choice but I chose the Le Truck Island Tour because it seemed like it would give the best island overview.

On our tour, guide Sandra would take us to see Mama Ruta’s, a marae, a beach, some sand crabs, a World War II military installation, a Protestant church and Bloody Mary’s.

Mama Ruta’s showcases popular designs.

Le Truck itself is an experience. The body of the vehicle in which we would ride is attached to a cab where the driver and our guide rode. Windows opened from the top down almost halfway down. The truck was not air conditioned so those half-open windows came in handy.

I don’t think Le Truck had any road-cushioning shocks. The shore excursion description warned that “you should be prepared for a bumpy ride.” It was.

The bus was decorated inside with fragrant just-picked flowers and ferns. Those later would be used for snacks at one of our stops, Sandra said.

We watched this beautiful fabric being created.

Known as “Romantic Island,” Bora Bora was originally named Pora Pora which means “First Born.” Legend says this was the first island to rise when the supreme god Taaroa fished it out of the waters.

“When Captain Cook came here, he thought the Polynesians were calling it Bora Bora,” Sandra said. “The letter ‘B’ does not exist in the Tahitian language so he mistook the softened sound of the Tahitian ‘P’ for a ‘B.’ They were really saying Pora Pora.”

Bora Bora consists of three main villages with a population of about 9,500, most of whom live on the coast. The main road skirts around the island shore line and is about 19 miles long. In the center of Bora Bora are the remnants of an extinct volcano, which has two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu.

Mama Ruta’s fabrics are dried in the sun.

Today, the Island of Bora Bora relies largely on tourism and boasts several luxurious resorts with very expensive prices. “Bora Bora was the first to build bungalows that stand over the water using stilts,” Sandra said. “These are so popular with tourists that other places started building them.”

As we bumped along the road, Sandra pointed out some of the water bungalows, saying this one was where Leonardo DiCaprio stayed and that one was Marlon Brando’s until he bought his own private island.

The main languages on Bora Bora are French and Tahitian but English is also spoken in hotels, markets and other tourist locations. The pace is laid back and relaxing with the philosophy being “aita pea pea” which means “not to worry.”

Fellow travelers model pareos created at Mama Ruta’s

We didn’t stop but drove by a ramshackle old World War II military base where the bunkers are slowly fading into the jungle. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the U.S. military used Bora Bora as a supply base and built defenses along the coast to protect the island against a possible surprise attack by Japan.

Seven huge cannons are scattered across the landscape, quietly rusting in the island sun. Each of the guns is over 20 feet long and mounted on a swivel base.

“The military also built the coastal road on the island and Bora Bora’s first airport in 1943,” Sandra said, adding that the Motu Mute airport is still used today.

A Protestant church was one of our stops.

Luckily, no combat took place on Bora Bora. The U.S. military base officially closed on June 2, 1946, although it is said that some American soldiers decided to stay on the island rather than return to their homeland.

Stopping at Mama Ruta’s outdoor studio and shop, we walked down an artistic fabric-lined lane on a sandy path and were greeted with cold fruit drinks and fresh fruit. Then we watched as a designer explained how she takes quality white cotton and, with Mother Nature’s help, turns it into colorful designs.

The cotton is wet in water, then folded and twisted and dabbed with natural hues from plants and berries. The cloth is then placed on corrugated metal tables where ferns and other stencils are placed the colored cotton for designs. The sun does the rest for a unique finished product.

Bloody Mary’s is a popular restaurant/bar on Bora Bora.

One woman on my trip bought one for a casual tablecloth. Another woman plans to hang hers on the wall. Several women said they hope to wear theirs if they can figure out the styling technique Mama Ruta showed us.

Le Truck slowed down when we approached a section of dirt dotted with holes. Sandra then told us to toss the lovely hibiscus flowers and other greenery out the window and wait to see what happened. Almost as soon as our gifts hit the ground, sand crabs crawled out of the holes to grab the fast food, dragging their snacks back into their burrows.

That empty seat is mine at Bloody Mary’s bar.

Arriving at legendary Bloody Mary’s, we were greeted by huge billboards printed with the names of celebrities, athletes, politicians and others who have visited the Bora Bora landmark. The boards were on both sides of the entrance and must have contained hundreds of names.

I’ll drop a few of them –  Billy Idol, Charlie Sheen, Steven Tyler, Rod Stewart, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Janet Jackson, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, James Michener, Sen. John McCain, Harrison Ford, Ringo Starr, Sean Penn, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Diana Ross and many many more.

Established in 1979 as a small five-table restaurant, Bloody Mary’s is named for a character in James Michener’s 1946 book “Tale of the South Pacific.” The book was the basis for the musical “South Pacific” which was later made into a film in 1958 and in 2001.

The daily catch of local fisherman is a specialty on Bloody Mary’s dinner menu. Most requested drink, not surprisingly, is the spicy Bloody Mary cocktail of vodka and tomato juice served at the bar which looks like a thatched hut. Instead of a coat check, Bloody Mary’s has a shoe and sandal check. The floors are covered in sand making you feel as though you are walking on the beach.

A sand crab scurries from his hole to feast on flowers we tossed to him.

Handcrafted tables and chairs are made of wood. One long wall of the open-air restaurant is covered with autographed and dated dollar bills plus other paper currencies from around the world. Since public transportation does not exist on Bora Bora, the restaurant offers a complimentary shuttle.

As we climbed back aboard Le Truck, the Rogers and Hammerstein song from “South Pacific” – “Some Enchanted Evening” – kept running through my mind.

This whole cruise on the Oceania Sirena has been enchanted. And it has passed so quickly. To me, it was the best possible way to visit French Polynesia.

 

Leave a Comment