Story and photos by Julie Backer
Reprinted from TravLtips Fall 2011 Issue
We had long read about the Aranui 3 and the cruises from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. It was time we finally got to actually go on a voyage aboard this unique ship. The trip started out very nicely when we met a couple in the Los Angeles airport who would actually be in the cabin next door when we got on board.
The flight from Los Angeles was eight hours long, but we finally arrived and were met by our transfer shuttle, as we were to have two nights in Papeete before boarding the ship. The next day we took the Circle Island Tour with our new friends and had a great tour guide who showed us many of the sights and told us much of the Tahitian history. One interesting stop was at Cook's Bay where the Bounty came looking for young breadfruit plants so many years ago. The Sofitel Hotel was very nice and located in a lovely setting, complete with a white sandy beach, palm trees, and a perfect view of the sunset-just what one would expect from a Polynesian resort. Papeete is the capital of French Polynesia and is about 850 miles southwest of the Marquesas Islands
Boarding the ship the following morning was a fun time and once we were shown to our cabin we were able to get settled in before it was time for a group meeting to explain the Plan of the Day, etc. Our Standard cabin was just that, but perfectly adequate for our needs, with twin beds, writing desk, lots of storage and small bath with shower. Cabin service was great and attendants fixed up the beds each day and checked for clean towels. Laundry service was even provided three times during the 14-day voyage.
The ship is 386 feet long and made her maiden voyage in 2003. She has capacity for 198 passengers (though we only had 165 on this trip) and travels at a maximum speed of 15 knots. Her usual journey takes her from Tahiti through the Tuamotus and on to the Marquesas archipelago and back, which she does 16 times each year.
On our first morning we arrived at Fakarava, in the Tuamotu Atolls-the largest chain of coral atolls in the world and home of the famous Tahitian black pearls. Here we were able to go ashore for the morning and do some snorkeling in a lovely lagoon inside the coral ring, formed eons ago when the island's volcanic cone sunk. That I went snorkeling in itself was something for me; I am not a "water" girl, and this was the very first time I did it and found it to be fun. This island as well as the rest of the Tuamotus are much older than the Marquesas and thus have a better landscape for diving and snorkeling, with better lagoons and coral reefs
Back on board, the rest of the afternoon and all the next day were spent at sea as we headed to the Marquesas, an archipelago of ten islands, divided by a deep marine channel into northern and southern groups. They are separated from any of the continents by as much as 2,000-6,000 miles and some of the islands remain virtually untouched since the era of European exploration. Their ancient culture nearly disappeared during the mid 1800s with the arrival of Christian missionaries. Happily, during the last 40 years they have experienced a real cultural revival, rediscovering much of their dances, tattoo drawings and Marquesan language. During this time we had meetings about the Polynesian culture and history as well as preparing for the next port stop. In the evening the captain introduced the officers and we were entertained with a fun fashion show featuring several willing passengers
Our first stop in the Marquesas was the island of Ua Pou, the most populated of the group. We were able to walk ashore and see the small village of Hakahau while on the way to Rosalie's Restaurant where a typical Polynesian lunch was served consisting of octopus, fresh shrimp, poisson cru (marinated raw fish), a pork dish, a beef dish, banana pudding, taro, breadfruit and white rice. A craft shed was filled with stalls of various handicrafts, jewelry, woodcarvings and lots of fruits. After returning to the ship we had a very short trip to Hakahetau, another village on this same island, with much the same items in their craft shed. The island has a population of about 2,000, mainly in these two villages.
This was our first port for deliveries and what joy that brings to the natives who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of necessary goods: sacks of sugar, cases of sodas and water, and myriad other items, including heavy equipment such as catamarans and large trucks. Their main export of copra (dried coconut meat) awaits the Aranui crew who load the large sacks on board for delivery back in Tahiti.
The next island we visited was Nuka Hiva, the largest of the chain's islands and location of the capital city of Taiohae with a population of about 1,700. After a short barge ride ashore we were eagerly greeted and given a chance to browse the handicraft shed before heading off in a convoy of about 45 vehicles for a daylong tour. We stopped at a cathedral and learned about its history before leaving to drive over the crest of the mountains with photo stops to see the beautiful coastline or a village below. One last stop before lunch was to view an ancient Polynesian ceremonial site with discussion of its history and how they are working to restore some of their heritage and culture. This site also has a banyan tree that is at least 400 years old and the center of the sacrificial rites. We also saw many petroglyphs and stone tikis here.
Lunch at Yvonne's restaurant was accompanied by local musicians and featured several dishes including shrimp, breadfruit, bananas, pit-roasted pig and lots of bottled water. In all we visited three villages today and the Aranui moved her location to pick us up in Taipivai, famous for Herman Melville having spent time there after jumping ship and crossing these steep mountains on foot. His famous novel Typee is an embellished account of his capture and life among the cannibals. After another short barge ride it was a tired group of passengers glad to be back aboard that evening. The caravan today was provided by local people, using their personal vehicles, all registered as taxis. We were interested to note that a good 90% were Toyota pickups. While we were on our tour the ship was busy unloading the various cargo and people were waiting for each load brought ashore. Everything this island needs is brought by the Aranui and her arrival is most welcome.
Our next stop was Hiva Oa known for where Paul Gauguin lived and did some of his best work in Atuona, the second largest village in the Marquesas. We were able to visit the colonial store where he shopped and the cemetery to see his grave. Another famous resident was Jacques Brel, a Belgian singer-composer, now also buried in this cemetery. We had another Marquesan lunch ashore and it seems each one gets bigger than the last. This one was buffet style and the tables were laden with so many plates of food one could hardly sample everything.
The island of Fatu Hiva was our next stop, where we again used the barges to get ashore due to their very small pier. This is the wettest and most lush of the islands, as well as being the most isolated. We really enjoyed the demonstration of how they make the tapa cloth by pounding bark from sandalwood or breadfruit trees. They sell various articles in the handicraft sheds and we even bought one as our favorite souvenir, showing a map of the Marquesas with the islands named, for a great wall hanging in our travel room at home. The various designs are unique and reflect much of the ancient culture. This island has only two small villages, each having about 200 residents. We had a lovely performance of authentic Polynesian dancing also. True to its nature, this was one spot we did get rained on. This island gained some notoriety when Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist, and his wife honeymooned here and wrote of their adventures.
A return visit to Hiva Oa brings us to the opposite side of the island from our earlier stop. This time we saw some of the Pacific's tallest tikis, up to eight feet tall. Also here is the grave of the last chief of the Puamau tribe who died in 1895. The village of Puamau is situated on a lovely cove and has about 400 inhabitants. The site is being restored to reflect their ancient culture. After a short cruise we arrived at another small village of about 100 people, nestled in a small quiet cove
Tahuata, the smallest inhabited island of the chain, and the first to be visited by Europeans, was our next stop. There is lots of history on this small island. It saw the arrival of Spanish explorers back in 1595, the first missionaries came in 1797, and it had the first French settlement of the Marquesas in 1842. It was Sunday and passengers were invited to attend the Catholic Church services along with many of the two hundred local inhabitants. What a beautiful place for worship, open and airy, with a beautiful stained glass window over the sanctuary. Afterwards we saw many of their handicrafts; they specialize in bone carving here. A very short cruise brought us to the next cove and village of Hapatoni where we were greeted with leafy headbands and treated to a huge picnic provided by our energetic crew while we enjoyed some dances performed by young local girls.
Ua Huka is our next stop, the smallest of the inhabited islands in the Northern group, with only 584 residents mainly in the three villages. The ship has to maneuver inside a long slit in the sheer cliffs and execute a tricky turn around in the narrow passage. We are off on another long caravan ride across the southern part of the island, stopping along the mountain roads for breathtaking views of the coastline below. These hills are home to lots of horses and goats. More handicrafts to see; these residents specialize in wood carving and there is a nice museum with lots of local artifacts. We also stop at a botanical garden with several test plots as well as many native crops and both ornamental and timber trees. We are well fed again at another local restaurant with the usual Polynesian fare: fish, goat, pork, rice, bananas, and breadfruit. We then return to the ship, which has moved to the opposite end of the island. On board tonight we celebrate with Polynesian Night: everyone dressing up and being entertained by expert dancers from the crew as well as a few passenger groups performing some songs. A grand buffet is set up poolside for a last festive meal outdoors on the decks.
Before leaving the Marquesas we return to two ports previously visited, and while the crew is busy with final loading and unloading of cargo, passengers have a short time to make last-minute shopping or sightseeing trips ashore.
A day at sea as we begin the return voyage gives us the opportunity to begin the packing process, exchange e-mail and home addresses with new friends, and review the great time we've had
Our last stop is Rangiroa, one of the largest coral atolls in the world, in the Tuamotu archipelago. The captain chose to anchor outside the reef and use the barges to take passengers ashore. We were taken by bus to tour one of the many pearl farms and given an interesting explanation of the growing and harvesting of the black pearls. We also saw the workers removing mature pearls and preparing the oysters to grow another one. As I am also not a "jewelry" girl I had not expected to be interested in pearls, but wouldn't you know one of the handicraft tables had the perfect necklace that just had my name on it! Unfortunately, not expecting such a thing we had not brought any money along from the ship and so that beauty will always remain a dream. Another beach picnic was set up by the hardworking Aranui crew and we all enjoyed eating in the beautiful surroundings with lovely clear, blue water, palm trees and nice sunshine. Doesn't get much better than that. We had this one last chance to again do some snorkeling and saw some great fish and coral beds. I now look forward to another opportunity to try my new water activity again.
The following morning found us back in Papeete, the cruise complete. This was really a marvelous trip and one we heartily recommend to anyone looking for pristine, remote Polynesian islands, great accommodations and friendly, helpful crew and native people. The Aranui is small enough to get to places big cruise ships can't go to and all the tours and meals are included in the price. We had no complaints at all other than sometimes they fed us too much food. A sandwich or salad bar at noon would be great for those not wanting a full course hot meal.
As usual, once home reality sets in and life gets back to normal. We will begin to search for our next cruise adventure and hope it comes along soon.
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