In Tahiti, a Magical Mystery Cruise on Star Breeze

We all expected that Star Breeze’s cruise in February, as it began sailing year-round in French Polynesia, would be something special. The ship, replacing Wind Spirit as the line’s 12-month designate in the region, would begin its homeporting there with an 11-night trip around the Society and Tuamotu Islands, featuring some of Earth’s most beautiful places, such as Huahine, Rangiroa, Bora Bora and Moorea.

Because French Polynesia was saying goodbye, on the same day, to Wind Spirit (which was heading east to Costa Rica and ultimately to the Mediterranean in summer) and hello to Star Breeze, this departure proved to be even more spirited than usual. In conjunction with locals — including French Polynesia’s president, Moetai Brotherson — a festive celebration, dockside, featured a Polynesian-themed send-off that included Tahitian food, cocktails and music. We mixed our own signature oils made of Polynesian essences and crafted baskets out of palm leaves. There was dancing and singing and the most incredible fashion show that highlighted pearl jewelry. The evening concluded with a fireworks extravaganza, meant for Tahitian locals and Windstar guests, alike.

For those of us headed out on Star Breeze, little did we know that tonight’s special festivities would be just about the last planned event we would experience on our voyage. That’s because a trio of cyclones, one after the other, were approaching the Society Islands. Our itinerary gained a hint of uncertainty before we even left the dock.

Captain Simon Terry, master of Star Breeze

“In 32 years at sea, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Capt. Simon Terry tells me now, just as our Star Breeze sailing has ended back in Papeete. “I’ve had occasions where we’ve changed a port or two because of weather and safety. You try to pick an alternative that best suits the guests and gives them a great experience. But to change an entire itinerary on short notice, with a whole group of islands being under cyclone warnings, it means you’ve got to come up with something rather adventurous.”

Eleven days later, after one tropical cyclone (Category 1), and two cyclonic depressions that indeed, did not just impact our route but literally tossed out the itinerary playbook almost entirely, we arrived back in Tahiti. What we experienced instead became, literally, a trip even better than any of us anticipated.

Our ‘inaugural voyage’ to the Marquesas Islands

Confronted with an unprecedented series of storms, Star Breeze’s Capt. Terry tells us “we started getting inklings” on the voyage’s day of departure, “and it soon became apparent, that with about 48 hours notice, we weren’t going to be able to maintain the planned schedule.”

That was the bad news. The good news? Having cruised in the region for 36 years, Windstar’s deep relationships in the islands, knowledge of its bays and moorings, and sheer experience in traveling here, made the captain’s job just a bit easier: We would avoid the storms by heading some 740 miles northeast of Tahiti to a little-known set of archipelagos known as the Marquesas Islands. It’s a place so remote that most of its visitors arrive by yachts or sailboats. The Marquesas are the closest set of islands in French Polynesia to the equator.  It’s a destination that few cruise lines include in itineraries, and in fact, our trek to the Marquesas was, for Windstar, the first visit since 1997 (interestingly, Windstar’s first “planned” cruise to the Marquesas, on Star Breeze, departs in July 2024).

And it’s also a region whose weather typically is the opposite of that in the Society Islands. That was a very good thing.  Instead of rain and swells impacting every aspect of our voyage, we sailed smoothly under sunny blue skies.

This is the planned Marquesas itinerary that Windstar sails in July and March (2025) and it basically shows the “unplanned” itinerary we experienced

Before our cruise, the islands of Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa didn’t quite trip off the tongue like Bora Bora and Tahiti do. Most of us probably associate artist Paul Gauguin with the Society Islands and you wouldn’t be wrong — but he actually lived and painted just as memorably (and died and is buried) on Hiva Oa. The islands’ dramatic peaks are jagged and rugged, formed as volcanoes, and lack the coral reefs and atolls that smooth the waters around Society Islands. Its wildlife and sea life are as rustic as its terrain. Population today, on its six inhabited islands, is about 9,000. Life here is so remote from the rest of French Polynesia that its locals speak Marquesan (and French), rather than Tahitian (though flights do operate from Tahiti). “Survivor, “the long-running reality television show, actually filmed here in 2001.

So it’s definitely off the grid, which created a new challenge for Windstar: It can take years  for cruise lines to plan a new itinerary — what if you have just 48 hours?

“We had an advantage,” says Windstar President Chris Prelog, “because we’ve been such a long time in French Polynesia.” Prelog, who was onboard for the sailing, and other executives, all played a part in rolling out an entirely new cruise experience, but the heavy lifting was up to Star Breeze’s officers, staff and Windstar’s French Polynesian attachee. “Our officers and staff were calling their local contacts. There was a lot of creativity applied because of our knowledge and experience. And the effort was never about just getting the ship into a port and showing guests something beautiful. It’s about: How do we create experiences that will engage and connect them to these new places?”

How do you create a ready-made cruise in the Marquesas?

Bicycling through the Marquesas

A sense of family permeated Star Breeze as we changed course and sailed for the Marquesas. So many of us were excited to experience an adventure we hadn’t imagined, and this created a buzz of anticipation that bonded us. So too did the transparency of the officers, who, in between scrambling navigational charts, planning new shore excursions in a remote environment, and organizing local entertainment, managed to make us feel like we were part of this expedition.

Says Prelog, “We shared a lot of information as we developed the plan. Capt. Terry presented passengers with the weather charts, explaining that the direction was uncharted territory.”

And we knew, Capt. Terry adds, “when we considered going to the Marquesas, we acknowledged the fact that it’s a different proposition from the Society and Tuamotu islands. The water’s rougher, the currents are stronger, and the islands are surrounded by more extreme wildlife, such as tiger sharks and hammerheads. It’s not a great place to open the marina.”

You also had to feel for the ship’s shore excursion team, which was constantly adapting to unfolding circumstances, ripping up existing shore ex tickets every day (some times several times in a single day), and constantly pivoting. On our second day in the Marquesas, windy conditions made tender transfers too dangerous, so once again, the plan changed. This time we headed early to our third island, Hiva Oa, and by the time we set foot on land, the shore ex team had already arranged for buses to take us to Atuona, its main village, where we could poke around its handful of shops, visit the Paul Gauguin cultural center, and enjoy a beach party, complete with refreshments and activities like the tying of pareos (French Polynesia’s beautiful square fabric pieces that can be adapted to scarves and beach garb by the way you adjust them).

In the end, it wasn’t just our fellow travelers and Windstar’s staff and crew that bonded so strongly. Traveling to one of the most remote corners on Earth meant that locals were as excited to meet us as we were them.

“When we arrived on Hiva Oa, I met Mayor Joëlle Frebault at a tribal dance that locals hosted for us there,” Prelog shares. “I asked her, how many tourists are on the island today — without Windstar.  She said, 22, and told me that she always knows how many visitors. ‘We make them happy,’ she told me.”

Indeed. In one of the most splendid deck barbecues I’ve ever experienced on Windstar, the mayor brought her family and friends. There was a music and dance group whose performers ranged from kids to adults. In the process, Hiva Oa’s culture, art and people were transplanted onto Star Breeze itself. The connections felt real; at one point I asked a local guest to tell me the story of the fable being performed and he was delighted to share it.

“At Windstar, we’ve always felt so strongly about bringing people together to make new connections, new friends,” Stijn Creupelandt, Windstar’s vice president of hotel operations and product development,tells me as we’re reliving memories from the trip after debarking. “To see that happening on the ship, heading toward a brand-new destination, was wonderful to see. And it’s what we stand for.”

Magical mystery cruise

Making sure that local cultures are part of the experience of Star Breeze in Tahiti — both onboard and onshore

A few days into our crazy, unexpected itinerary, a few of us, all loving the adventurous spin the trip has taken, started dubbing the trip Windstar’s “magical mystery cruise” (with a nod to the Beatles’ album). President Prelog decided to take the concept a bit further. “Guests inspired me to create just this sort of adventure on a future Windstar cruise,” he says. “What we saw from our guests on this cruise is the trust we have with them, the trust that Windstar will do the right thing. And they felt it so strongly, they urged us to create an experience like this — with just as much mystery (and from our side, perhaps a bit more time to plan). And so, in our traditional sense of agility, we have created our first ever President’s Mystery Cruise.”

Prelog is along for the trip and even he won’t know the port schedule before the guests on board.

That eight-night cruise is already in the works. It will take place on April 19, 2025, an Athens to Athens voyage on Star Legend, in which every day’s port of call will be a mystery until the night before. Feeling adventurous? Join us.

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in a visit to the remote Marquesas, Windstar’s first planned cruise to the region in 27 years is offered on July 4, 2024. The 14-day voyage, round trip from Papeete, will visit the Marquesas’ Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva, in addition to classic French Polynesian destinations like Bora Bora, Moorea and Rangiroa. A 21-day option, departing on March 26, 2025, is also available.

In other news, Windstar has announced its first-ever 2025 President’s Mystery Cruise. Created in the spirit of adventure, the eight -night cruise, from Athens to Athens, departs on April 19, 2025. Aside from its turnaround port in Greece, each place visited will be a surprise for guests, who will only learn where they’re going the night before.

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Karen Krugliak, Brit Olom Tours, Inc.
4 months ago

Carolyn you captured our experience onboard for Star Breeze’s unexpected journey through French Polynesia to a tee!
Expertly written. It was truly a cruise of a lifetime and we are still talking about it almost daily with friends and family.

Thanks so much, Karen. Such a pleasure to spend time with you both! –Carolyn

Phyllis Boedeker
4 months ago

I was on this cruise and I was so thoroughly let-down by the weather changed itinerary. A life time bucket list trip to ports I had researched for over a year was lost. I appreciate Windstar for keeping us safe, but I will never again get the chance to make that bucket list trip financially.

Reply to  Phyllis Boedeker
4 months ago

Hi, Phyllis, thanks for sharing your feedback. I think we were all a little bit bummed about missing some of the beautiful Society Islands and yet, as you mentioned, understand how important it was for Windstar to keep us safe. –Carolyn

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