This holiday adventure had been a long time in the planning. Having a keen interest in Polynesian culture, and specifically being great admirers of the artisans who continue the traditions of tiki carving, our dream was to visit the Marquesas Islands.
This isn’t your everyday travel destination and is certainly not on the regular tourist route. The most common question when people heard where we were going was “Where’s that?” The Marquesas Islands are part of French Polynesia and sit 1500 km (800 nautical miles) northeast of Tahiti and just 6 degrees below the Equator. Although supplies come via Papeete, and this is where children usually go for higher education or where more advanced medical services are available, in many ways the Marquesas are worlds away from Tahiti. The Marquesans have their own language, unique customs and even the climate is different (often less humid and drier on some islands).
When investigating how we were going to travel in this remote part of the world we discovered the Aranui 3. Known as the ‘freighter to paradise’, this custom-built ship is the main lifeline to the outside world. For decades this family-owned ship has carried all the necessary cargo to the islands and collected copra (dried coconut) on the return journey, which was a major source of income for the Marquesans. In recent years they have upgraded to a larger ship that can also accommodate around 200 travellers, but one of the reasons we enjoyed the trip so much is that it’s still very much a working vessel.
Having never done a cruise before, I didn’t realise how important the distinction is between a cruise ship that carries freight compared to how the Aranui operates – as a cargo ship that carries people. If you want a cruise with a casino on board, deck quoits and a full menu selection for dinner, then this isn’t for you. But if you want a travel experience that introduces you to the local people and their ancient customs and helps you explore remote and picturesque islands, then I can thoroughly recommend the Aranui 3.
The journey itself was truly amazing! The Marquesas Islands are rugged and spectacular volcanic islands – some with dramatic jagged peaks rising up out of lush green slopes and others with arid rolling hills resembling the coast of Scotland. There has been very little development on the islands, so this Pacific paradise remains wild and relatively untouched. While there are some palm-fringed black sand beaches and a few good places for swimming, it’s not really a beach holiday destination. But the Aranui stops at Tuamotu Islands on the way to and from the Marquesas, so this is where you can get your fix of white sandy beaches and great snorkeling.
On the 14-day voyage there are only 2 days when you are at sea, every other day includes fantastic island adventures. Wherever we docked it seemed that the whole village was there to greet us. Since the Aranui arrives twice a month with all the supplies, you can imagine the commotion, but there is also excitement due to the local preparations for our arrival. At Ua Pou we were treated to a spirited and colourful Polynesian dance display and that was followed by a most delicious Marquesan lunch at Rosalie’s restaurant. On the island of Nuku Hiva it was the locals themselves who provided our transport for the day. For some reason most Marquesans seem to have big shiny new Toyota Hilux and other impressive 4WDs, so we travelled in convoy high into the mountains to reach the most amazing sacred ritual sites. The wood and stone carved tikis and petroglyphs are incredible, and to think that these sites are virtually a secret to the outside world – it is such a privilege to gain this insight into the once grand lives of the warrior tribes.
The island of Fatu Hiva is famous for its crafts, so here we saw demonstrations on making tapa cloth and spent time with the sculptors who skillfully carve modern tikis. On Ua Huka we were again driven around the island in local vehicles decorated with flowers to visit villages renowned for their wooden carvings. The standard of work being produced throughout the Marquesas is excellent and another of the great things about the destination is it hasn’t been invaded by tacky souvenirs and cheap imitations. It’s not a shopper’s paradise, unless, like us, you love the stone and wood carvings. There are beautiful black pearls, shell and seed jewellery made by locals, but beware if you are from Australia, as sadly the seed bracelets I bought as gifts couldn’t be brought into the country.
Many of the islands where the Aranui dock can only be reached by boat and on these smaller islands we enjoyed what they call ‘wet landings’. Because there is no port for the Aranui, the ship anchors in the bay and we board the whaleboats to go to shore. This can be tricky and at times there are rough waves, but the crew were great at making sure that no one lost their footing getting in and out of the boats.
The staff and guides on board are absolutely fantastic – from our first introduction we were made feel very welcome and any query or request for assistance was always cheerfully received. The guides are multi-lingual and if you speak English, German or French it’s a breeze. Our guides became our great friends as they accompanied us on shore excursions and we could always enjoy a Hinano beer with them at the bar.
That’s another thing I appreciated about the Aranui, there didn’t seem to be a ‘them-and-us’ culture between the crew and passengers. I think that’s another plus of being on a cargo cruise – because the staff are part of a big family. Many have worked on board for years, some even decades. The guy that you saw unloading the ship that morning can be the same person you see playing the ukulele in the band that night – and the girl in the restaurant is also a fantastic Polynesian dancer.
We had huge admiration for the men responsible for the cargo. It was a well-choreographed and graceful dance-like display as they unloaded everything from cars and sacks of sugar to cows and electric generators. Watching the cranes move with precision and seeing the calm teamwork was one of the trip highlights and it felt great to be on a ship that serviced the local community, rather than just invaded it with tourists.
There’s no denying Tahiti and the Marquesas are not a cheap destination. When I say not cheap, I mean you can expect to pay AU$7/US$4.50/GBP3.00 for a bottle of local beer; AU$36/US$24/GBP15 for a basic meal and AU$12/US$8/GBP5 for a roll-on deodorant! But when you consider the high costs of things it makes the Aranui even better value.
Your trip includes ALL your shore excursions. There are no extras to pay unless you want to do one of the optional activities, such as scuba diving, horse riding, or getting a tattoo – yes, they can even arrange for one of the renowned local tattoo artists to give you an indelible souvenir!
Also there is a guest lecturer on each cruise who provides fantastic insight into the local culture. We had the pleasure of being joined by Michael Koch, who now lives in Fiji but has also spent time living in and researching the languages of the Marquesas. His background information and on-site talks brought to life the history and traditions of the Marquesas and gave us a much greater understanding of the region.
ALL your meals are included – and don’t expect to start your diet on the trip. Breakfast is a buffet of fruit, cold meats, cheese, breads, fresh pastries and you can ask for eggs if you wish. Lunch and dinner are always 3 courses when on the boat – I kept telling myself that today I would skip dessert, but there is a pastry chef on board who is way too talented! Plus when you are on board wine is included with lunch and dinner – you have your choice of red or white and when the bottle runs out you can just ask for another!
And for an Intrepid traveller one of the big treats was free laundry – that’s right, three times during the trip they would wash our laundry for us – what service! Plus there are drinking fountains so you don’t have to buy bottled water.
We stayed in a Standard cabin, which was very comfortable with twin beds and private bathroom. I had a peek at the deluxe cabins and these are a real treat, especially if you have your own balcony.
All in all I can’t fault this trip. The Marquesas Islands are magnificent and lived up to our expectations (which were high since we’d dreamed of going for so long) – and the experience aboard the Aranui was absolutely wonderful.
*Please be aware the author, Sue Elliot, received an Industry discount for the Aranui 3, but that in no way affects my judgement and all the opinions express here are my own.