Aranui 3 arrives at Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.
Story and photos by Margie Goldsmith unless otherwise noted.
Complaining is not possible in the Marquesas, sings Jacques Brel in one of his many hit songs. It was in the Marquesas Islands that the famous Belgian singer spent his final years in the 1970s. It was also here that French artist, Paul Gauguin, came to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional”, and American Herman Melville jumped ship 150 years ago to begin a writing career that included Typee about his time in the Marquesas and Moby Dick. As I begin my own islands exploration, little has changed to this day.
Since author Margie Goldsmith experienced her freighter travel in French Polynesia, the company has launched an impressive new boat, the significantly larger Aranui 5, https://aranui.com which continues to be a “freighter with a difference”, offering visitors an authentic educational experience traveling between the islands.
Velvety green peaks wrapped in gauzy mist jut into the sky, giant stone Tikis stand sentinel in lush tropical forests, horses from settler days still run wild, and there are few roads or cars. The Marquesas are the most remote and enchanted of the five main groups of French Polynesia islands, where supernatural mana, is still said to reside in people, animals and inanimate objects.
Located in the heart of the Pacific Ocean over 900 miles northeast of Tahiti, the islands attract few visitors because airports and hotels are scarce. Many more arrive for a brief glimpse by luxury cruise ship. The most adventurous way of visiting these islands is aboard the Aranui 3, a 386-foot passenger freighter that carries both tourists and up to 4,500 tons of cargo. As the islanders’ sole supply line to the outside world, this modern freighter sails from Tahiti every three weeks year-round. While many cruise ship features are included, the ship is essentially freight-driven, and the 200 passengers (mainly American, European and Australian), are simply along for the ride. If there is no cargo to deliver to an island, the ship does not anchor there.
Island residents welcome visitors with a local dance.
Michael, “the man of my life,” and I signed on for the Aranui’s 16-day Marquesas adventure. We loved the idea of viewing ancient Tikis and petroglyphs, horseback riding in lush secluded valleys, and swimming in turquoise lagoons. What we didn’t anticipate was the curious adventure of watching the Aranui’s daily offloading of petrol, food, building materials, speed boats, trucks, and even a horse lifted in a container three stories into the air and set down gently on the ship. The hold was the size of a tennis court, and the muscular tattooed crew unloaded cargo daily with twin orange mega-cranes. These were indeed descendents of the ancient Polynesians, the greatest ocean navigators.
A Freighter with a Difference!
Aranui 3 offered tasteful, spacious cabins for island explorers. All have windows, double or twin beds, bathrooms with showers, and air-conditioning. Twelve deluxe cabins and 10 suites with balconies are larger featuring additional amenities. There are 63 standard cabins, and 30 dormitory-style bunk berths.
The morning of our first “wet landing,” we anchored in a harbor. Descending the rickety staircase into two whaleboats, we quickly motored to shore. I started to climb over the gunwales to jump in the shallow water when a tattooed crewman swept me into his arms and carried me to the beach, as proved to be standard practice for each passenger, male and female alike.
The crew quickly became our family. Vie, one of two entertainment managers, gave us lessons in Polynesian dancing. Mila, the other manager, demonstrated twelve different ways to tie pareas (sarongs); bartender Yoyo taught us his favorite Marquesan expression, Aita Pea Pea (don’t worry). Stephen and Marc and Michel, stevedores who lifted Olympic-sized weights, became my gym workout buddies. At night, these same freight haulers entertained us on ukeleles and drums, while passengers, crew, even the Captain, danced.
Islands have sharp, picturesque volcanic profiles.
Watching the sunset – a light show of orange, pink and lavender streaks stretching along the horizon – was one of my favorite activities. Michael, who’s an oceanographer always looking for the illusive “green flash,” (that moment just before the sun sinks into the horizon), was thrilled to see it twice. We saw a double rainbow so huge I’m sure it was anchored with a record-sized pot of gold, and one morning we watched a crew member snag a fish on his line from eight decks above the water. Almost every time the ship entered a new harbor, we glimpsed soaring mountain spires swirling in mist, so intoxicating we couldn’t stop gaping.
Proving that no islands are too remote for discovery by the determined, famed Europeans like Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel settled in the Marquesas. Above: Gauguin’s house, below: Brel’s gravesite.
Just like a real cruise ship, each evening before dinner Vie briefed us on the next day. On a few days, we swam and snorkeled; on other islands an option might be Scuba diving or a visit to a pearl farm. Each time we arrived on an island, wooden buses or 4×4 jeeps festooned with flowers would transport us to the village center where locals greeted us warmly, often performing dances and songs to the beat of long wooden drums. Mostly, Michael and I walked, hoping to burn off last night’s dinner or work up an appetite for a local lunch of curried goat, raw fish marinated in lime juice, and sweet red bananas.
On other islands, we watched a tapa (barkcloth) demonstration or rode horseback to a Botanical Garden or visited the graves of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel. One Sunday, we attended a rollicking Catholic church service with islanders dressed in their finest and a 6-person choir singing Marquesan hymns with a live band.
Creating and decorating tapa bark cloth is a signature specialty of the islands.
Church music gets lively at a Sunday service.
In spite of a “freight first” attitude, the Aranui prides itself on its educational content. Our archaeological expert was Dr. Robert Suggs, who discovered the first ancient pottery in eastern Polynesia. As we walked through the jungle to the Tikis, Suggs enthralled us with stories of this 2,000-year-old civilization. What I hadn’t expected was other onboard lectures.
The ship’s physician Doctor George, spoke to us on “The Case for Pleasure,” in which he argued that chocolate beats Prozac, wine beats Valium, and guilt makes you sick. One of my favorite lectures was by Tino, the head of freight, who’s been with the cargo company for 25 years. I asked what were the strangest cargos they’d ever carried. His answer was 12 trucks, Jacques Brel’s plane, and a container of cows. He smiled and said, “We respect everything around us – the birds, the dolphins, the wind, and good mana.”
Mana, Bob Suggs explained, is spiritual power, present in all things, but in some more than in others. All people have mana, but the ancient priests, chiefs and warriors had the most. You can lose your mana, and once it’s lost, it’s very hard to regain. I have my own mana story.
For days, I shopped ashore for a stone Tiki, and finally found one that resonated with me because it felt so smooth in my hands, had perfect carved features, and seemed to be meditating. Michael and I were about to do a long hike and I didn’t want the extra weight, so I asked a local to send it back to the ship. We weighed anchor later that afternoon, but my Tiki was nowhere to be found. Announcements were made in three languages for anyone finding it to please return it to the front desk.
French Polynesian mother and child.
A tattoo artist on Nuka Hiva.
Three days went by. I made jokes about how my Tiki must have so much mana that the locals wouldn’t allow it to leave the island. Vie admitted it must be lost and advised me to buy another, but no other would do. Five days later when I’d given up all hope of recovering it, Tino came up to me grinning, and said, “Good mana,” and dropped the Tiki into my palms. He’d found my statue behind the whaleboat motor.
Now the little stone Tiki sits on the desk in my New York apartment, mana intact. And whenever life feels stressful and tense, I cradle it in my hands, close my eyes, imagine water lapping against the ship, balmy breezes on my face, jagged mist-shrouded peaks, and I say to myself, Aita Pea Pea, don’t worry.
Follow Up FactsAranui 5, https://aranui.com, offers 103 cabins with a capacity for 254 passengers. See the “Vessel Particulars” page to learn all about it and the “Cabins” page to see the eight different sleeping options.
The Marquesas Islands have a population of 8,800 people who earn their living mainly growing copra (dried coconut) and noni fruit. For full information on visiting all the islands of Tahiti: www.Tahiti-Tourisme.com.
How to Get There: Air Tahiti Nui flies direct to Tahiti (where the Aranui 3 boards) from New York and Los Angeles, www.airtahitinui-usa.com.
Interested in other richly-illustrated South Pacific feature articles in this web magazine’s collection? You’ll love Polynesia Black Pearls, Rarotonga, and Rarotonga Birds, as well as our comprehensive ten article Alternative Hawaii collection.
Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based travel writer who has visited 111 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing editor of Elite Traveler and writes for National Geographic Traveler, MORE, Art & Antiques, Islands, Executive Traveler, Outside Traveler, Robb Report and DISTINCTION, among others. Berkley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, The Walker Within, and In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.