Papeete isn't the loveliest town in which to embark on the loveliest of cruises, but it has a certain raffish charm. It makes me think of Somerset Maugham's short stories set in the South Pacific, where foreign misfits slowly unravel amid seamy ports, oppressive humidity and lurid island temptations.
Along the waterfront the French are pale and sweaty in their jogging shorts, the bronze Tahitians plump and crowned with flowers. The town is an unhappiness of dishevelled shops and banks and crumbling concrete. Only a tropical exuberance of bougainvillea and coconut palms softens its edges.
My accommodation for the next 16 days is all ship-shape though. Crystal Symphony is a graceful white apparition trimmed in pale blue, hovering on the edge of the working harbour as if trying to distance itself from rusting machinery and battered trawlers.
Its interior is cool and tranquil. A butler wafts me to my cabin. A quick change and I'm perched in Silk Bar for the sail away. The bar's rattan furnishings and splashes of tropical green and pink seem appropriate in this setting. Can the barman make me a gin pahit? Yes, he can. The dewy glass of my homage to Maugham is cold against my fingers as the ship pulls away from port. In that late-afternoon moment I can forgive Papeete its ugliness. It's beautiful now, bathed in honeyed sunshine. As we sail out of the harbour verdant mountains swell behind the town and a cobalt lagoon unfolds at its feet.
I'm on a cruise from Papeete to Auckland. Why? Because Crystal Symphony will anchor in some of the world's most stunning locations along the way, not just in French Polynesia but the Cook Islands and New Zealand, too.
To admire these scenic islands from the ocean is to see them at their best. They arrive on the horizon as a smudge, a boom of surf, a looming of rainforest crags that appear as if by magic from a vast ocean. We'll sail right between coral reefs into lagoons so perfectly blue they should star in ads for a paint company, and into harbours whose magnificence, from the deck of a ship, is showcased in 360 degrees.
Next morning I'm eating breakfast at Marketplace, perched out on the deck with my scrambled eggs and wholemeal toast and gazing to the splendour of Moorea's Opunohu Bay. A single yellow house on the shoreline stands out against its white, red-roofed neighbours. They're just human scratches on a powerful landscape of rearing rock and ancient volcanic peaks. Movie makers come here to capture all the South Pacific cliches, the impossibly blue lagoon, the "Bali Hai" mountains, the leaning coconut trees.
Moorea is a moody island. After spending the day snorkelling in the lagoon, I return to Crystal Symphony just as rain clouds scud in. Opunohu Bay changes like a slide show, shadows and light, electric-blue lagoon and deep-indigo lagoon. The sail away at 6pm, as a re-emergent sun illuminates the landscape and trails its final fingertips in the water, is a great cruise moment.
Next day, Bora Bora. It isn't hard to get there. I dine at Crystal's speciality restaurant Umi Uma on yellowtail sashimi, soft-shell crab spring roll and lobster tempura. I take in a show in the theatre, and fall asleep in my luxury cabin and, voila, as they say in French Polynesia. I'm not sure why some people think cruising is such an ignoble way to travel, but I shall leave them to their uncertain restaurants, airport waits and transfer discomforts.
Crystal Symphony, when I wake up, is anchored in Bora Bora's lagoon. Trees froth on the shoreline and peaks are caressed by a luminous morning. I can hear islander music floating from the quay. A tumble of port buildings is anchored by a red-steeple church on one side and a chapel with a red cross on the other. No wonder the locals all seem so happy. They strum ukuleles and crack jokes as they take us on our shore excursions, out onto a lagoon of abundant tropical fish and flapping stingrays.
The afternoon wilts and mountaintops gather evening clouds like flower garlands on the heads of market ladies. As we sail away I can appreciate Crystal Symphony's low-key luxury, its absence of bling and boasting. This is a ship confident in its excellent food, on-board entertainment and outstanding service, but with enough grace to know it needn't try competing with the decor of the landscape. Clouds are dolloped across the lagoon, pink and fluffy as the ship's baroque pastries. Bora Bora is a symphony of sky, rock and sea, red and then purple, and then dark in the night.
There's more of the same in Aitutaki and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, but I could never tire of this vivid blue lagoon magic. Later, as we sail into the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, anchoring off Waitangi, the blueness is still there, though pushed to the edges of islands and rocky coastline.
I'm on Crystal Symphony's deck once more as it sails towards Tauranga, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be. A marching band should be playing, so exhilarating is the afternoon. Ahead are blue hills smudged at their edges with wild, empty beaches. A lumpen volcanic plug hides the harbour entrance. Dolphins leap from the water with the exuberance of cheerleaders. The sun is a cymbal clash of brightness. A yellow tugboat surges out of the glitter, and I lean over the railings to see a pilot climbing aboard.
Another port, another lovely day, another fine moment that people who wrinkle their noses at cruising will never experience. But I'm content. I can hear the happy splash of water from the pool deck, and the clink of cocktail glasses.
The ship slides into a narrow channel, passing a paddle boarder and two locals fishing from a boat. Behind the volcano is a wide bay slashed with sandbars. Tugboats hover nervously as the ship swings around into its dock, providing me with changing angles on Tauranga's magnificent bay.
Then comes the announcement that the ship has been cleared by the port authorities and we're free to disembark. This is what is special about cruising. Another destination, another beautiful place and, with barely a jot of effort, all I have to do is hustle down the gangplank, and there I am.
Air New Zealand operates direct flights between Australia and Auckland with connections to Papeete. See airnewzealand.com.au
Crystal Cruises sails various Pacific itineraries. A 14-night Papeete to Auckland cruise departs February 2020 and visits the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Waitangi; from $US7119pp all inclusive. See crystalcruises.com
See Bora Bora, Aitutaki and other Pacific ports you've only dreamt about