Adventuring Through the Marquesas

by Chris McBeath

Before I was able to catch my breath, Tino’s strong tattooed arms scooped me up and, lifting me high above the crashing waves in which he stood, he delivered me over the side of the boat to shore like an irreverent feather. After nine-days of traveling together, we had all come to appreciate Tino’s dexterity and seamanship. Besides handling human cargo with a gentleness that belied his size, his other duties were as a member of the 53-person crew aboard the Aranui III, the only purpose-built passenger freighter of its kind in French Polynesia.

The Marquesas Islands

Because of their relative isolation this volcanic-inspired archipelago still echoes ‘old Polynesia’. With a population of about 8,000, the Marquesas have not yet succumbed to resort developments that have reconfigured Moorea and Bora Bora into paradise holiday camps. In fact, many of the smaller islands are virtually untouched since early European discovery and what tourism industry there is, centers largely around the Aranui’s arrival. Other cruise ships may call at some of the islands, but the Aranui is the only passenger-oriented ship making regular trips – 16 a year, to all the populated islands. And since many of the crew are descendants of those Polynesians who first settled here, the ship’s arrival feels like a home-coming in which passengers are welcome participants.

About the Aranui

Aranui is a Polynesian word for “Great Highway” and true to its calling, the sturdy, Romanian built vessel is the lifeline to these remote communities, carrying to them everything from ever popular SUVs, Hinanos (Polynesian beer) and livestock, to kerosene containers, building materials, and chocolate. When the Aranui arrives, the ship’s purser sets up a grocerteria out of crated containers, and islanders line up with their list of staples. This is no-frills shopping that makes Costco seem like Harrods.

Trading is what the Aranui has always done. The first Aranui was an old PT-boat that promoted copra (dried coconut meat) just after World War II. The replacement vessel added a passenger contingent, and in 2003, the larger, more passenger-friendly Aranui III took its place. Although today’s ship still carries copra and barrels of noni, a cheesy-smelling fruit that is the islands’ chief export, the Aranui III caters to Polynesia’s growing tourism market with almost as much space for its 200 passengers as for its freight.

The Cruising Experience

The Aranui cruising experience should be judged not by its amenities but for its experience. Accommodations aren’t plush but perfectly adequate – a mix of suites and cabins as well dormitory style rooms with bunk beds. There’s an outdoor swimming pool, a lounge-library as well as a small bar, and an even tinier gym. Meals are taken family style in a bright and airy dining room; it is where you really come to appreciate the gracious hospitality of the crew – the waiters are excellent, as well as the international scope of passengers. Expect an over abundance of French (this is still a French outpost) alongside a fair number of Americans plus a sprinkling of Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Australians, among others.

photo: Bill Vanderford

The Aranui Band offer impromptu music-under-the-stars whenever two or three crew members have downtime, and whenever passengers can be cajoled into a talent show. There are also guest lecturers and other evening activities such as ‘different ways to tie a pareu (sarong)’. Not exactly scintillating but after a full day of exploring the islands, early nights quickly become part of the itinerary.

photo: Bill Vanderford

Ship to Shore

Aranui passengers have become a tourism essential and certainly, the ship’s all-inclusive itineraries let you take in as much (or as little) of the local culture as you like. Nearly every island has its specialty; some are better for hikes and historical sites while others are offer black pearls, Tiki carvings and shell jewellery. At almost every port local artisans will set up shop under the shade of a palm frond while the community stages a cultural presentation whether basket weaving, or dancing troupes of slender young women with swaying grass skirts and warrior men in leaf skirts, ferociously thumping their feet on the ground.

photo: Bill Vanderford

photo: Bill Vanderford

If you’ve a jaded eye, you might feel that some of their efforts to present ‘authentic Polynesia’ are overly staged. But the Aranui experience is certainly not. It offers one of the few remaining ways to really touch ‘old Polynesia’ – its customs, its grace, and its languishing humidity. And The Marquesas are still an exotic reality about as far removed from the rest of the world as you can get.