As an LGBT traveler, this is one of the best regions on the planet to visit. I felt completely at ease . . . in a small, rural village or on the beach of one of the best hotels on Bora Bora.
It’s one thing to dream about visiting a once in a lifetime destination, but actually being there is something different altogether. Walking up to the Wind Spirit at the cruise port in Papeete, I could barely believe that I was actually there.
Since I first saw the movie “South Pacific” as a far too young kid, I dreamed of visiting this part of the world. Over the intervening decades, I built it up into something that I thought nothing on earth could ever live up to. That’s dangerous when we travel, to place something on a pedestal so lofty that surely we will be disappointed. Except I wasn’t; no, instead if anything the islands of French Polynesia surpassed even my wildest daydreams.
Over the course of a week that went by far too quickly, I sailed the Society Islands with Windstar Cruises, a boutique cruise line that prides itself on immersive travel experiences. My journey was about so much more though than just spending time on a nice beach, I learned a lot about myself, about travel and even the world during that trip I had anticipated taking for so very long.
What is Windstar?
The travel industry is full of words and terms that are probably overused, including boutique. But in the small ship experience provided by Windstar it’s at the heart of the experience. When we say boutique, we mean that the travel experience is intimate and features specialized services for the guests. It can be luxury, but not always, and it can be adventurous, but not only.
In my opinion, boutique travel is when a company offers something unique in a way that is comfortable, stylish and forward thinking. Windstar Cruises lauds itself as a boutique cruise line and from my own experience, that’s definitely true. I sailed on the Wind Spirit, a 4-masted yacht that, at maximum occupancy, can accommodate around 150 people or so. On my sailing there were 125, which, by cruising standards, is a very small group.
The experience actually reminded me more of expedition-style cruising I’ve done in the Galapagos and Antarctica rather than other small-ship cruises I’ve enjoyed. It’s not just in the number of guests, but in the overall feel of the trip.
The guests were there to be spoiled, sure, but also to experience a new destination. They were excited and eager to get out there and get their hands dirty all in the name of adventure. Onboard, the crew went to great lengths not only to enable this adventurous spirit, but to also provide an incredibly comfortable home for passengers to return to. It was intimate, personalized and fun and that, more than anything else, is what boutique travel should be. Windstar as a company is also very diverse and progressive, which made sailing them as an LGBT traveler as pleasant an experience as I could hope for.
Due to the smaller size of the ship, over the course of a week all the guests got to know each other fairly well. I’ve sailed with higher-end cruise lines in the past and while they are outliers, for the most part the passengers were retired and enjoying their much deserved time off.
While there was certainly some of that onboard the Wind Spirit, I found the passenger complement to be amongst the most diverse I’ve ever seen. People from all walks of life were on board, from wealthy retirees to honeymooners and everything in between. They came from all corners of the globe but all had one thing in common, a fierce love of travel and of course to see the beautiful islands of the South Pacific for themselves.
It was also an incredibly welcoming group and not once did I as a gay traveler feel out-of-place or awkward. In fact, by the end of the cruise I had become good friends with several couples and I still keep in touch with more than a few. More than just enjoying each other’s company, I found that seeing the islands through the eyes of others greatly improved my own travel experience.
The Nitty Gritty
While the ports of call in Tahiti are the star of the proverbial show, the fact is that I also spent a lot of time onboard the Wind Spirit and the ship itself was an important aspect of my trip. Sometimes, small ships don’t deliver when it comes to those amenities and services that we expect on larger ships. This is where Windstar excels though, and not once did I find anything lacking. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at nearly every turn.
Some of the details were small, like the L’Occitane bath products or the daily sail-away gathering on the top deck. Other amenities were more robust and added a lot to my own personal enjoyment of the trip. When possible, while the ship is anchored the back opens up and a watersports platform comes to life. From there you can just swim or use a variety of equipment including snorkel equipment, floating sunbathing pads, kayaks and even small dinghies and water skiing. I used it more than once and had a great time doing my own thing on my own time.
Windstar adds a lot to the experience in more touching ways though, including renting a private island not once but twice during the trip for passengers to enjoy. The first island was an all-day hangout spot available only to passengers, complete with lunch and every amenity you could imagine. The second island was home to a very special excursion made complimentary to all guests, an afternoon and evening on a small motu (island) with an enormous island-inspired feast, a killer sunset, and an evening of Polynesian dancing and singing. It was unexpected but incredibly fun and for most passengers was the highlight of the week. When I cruise, I expect certain perks throughout the journey, but it’s those unexpected experiences that I ultimately remember long after I have left the ship.
Tahiti is one of those places most of us want to visit because it looks like paradise incarnate. Every travel calendar features it and for millions it fuels our travel dreams. Many times when this happens though, the destination fails to live up to the hype. Tahiti is not one of those places. Not only does it live up to the hype, it exceeds every expectation.
I wanted a tropical paradise and I found it, from those dreamy overwater bungalows on Bora Bora to swimming with sharks through perfectly clear waters. But French Polynesia is about so much more than those postcard images. It’s full of people who are amongst the nicest and most welcoming that I’ve ever met. It’s full of jungles and rivers and other beautiful scenes most people don’t know exist. It has a complicated history, a fascinating culture and endless stories to share, if people are curious enough to ask. Tahiti is a special place and even though I had just one short week there, I know it’s not my last experience on those islands.
Polynesian culture in general is very hospitable, welcoming newcomers regardless of their background. It’s also true that, thanks to those missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries, that the islands are religious and conservative. It’s a strange mix, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. As an LGBT traveler, this is one of the best regions on the planet to visit. I felt completely at ease whether it was in a small, rural village or on the beach of one of the best hotels on Bora Bora. Many LGBT travelers already visit this paradise on earth, and with good reason. It’s not only the ideal place for a vacation, but it’s also friendly and just kind.
My own experience onboard the Wind Spirit on a Tahiti cruise could not have been better. I was already a big fan of small ship cruising, and this was one of the smallest ships I’ve ever sailed on. It was a curious mix of leisure and expedition style cruising, all the while maintaining high standards and incredible comforts.
Every night when the ship sails out of port, there’s a special ritual that’s played out on the top deck. The massive sails are unfurled, majestic music plays across the speakers and everyone toasts the moment as the sun joins in with a spectacular sunset. It’s a special moment, a bonding experience and one that I think perfectly encapsulates the Windstar Cruises experience. It’s dignified but fun, adventurous but comforting and it’s that combination of attributes that transforms an ordinary travel experience into something that one remembers for the rest of their life.
An experiential luxury traveler at heart, Matt Long shares his adventures with thousands of readers every day through his award-winning site LandLopers.com. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Based in Washington, DC, Matt has been to more than 70 countries and all 7 continents.
Note: The author traveled as a guest of Windstar. All ideas and opinions expressed are those of the author.