Exploring the most beautiful islands on the face of the earth
There’s an excited buzz on the dockside as Aranui 5 edges into Hakahau harbour against a dramatic backdrop of dagger-like jade green peaks and spires that are a distinctive geographical feature on Ua Pou island.
Once the ship is secured the cargo holds open and cranes and forklift trucks burst into life as the first crates and sacks are lowered onto the waterfront and loaded into waiting vehicles. Meanwhile, I join the other half of the vessel’s ‘freight’ – comprising 254 passengers – and make my way down the gangplank to an exuberant welcome from local men blowing conch shell horns and women in grass skirts swaying to a rhythmic drum beat that drowns out the sound of the surrounding mechanised hustle and bustle.
As the crew members continue to drop off supplies – including fresh and frozen food, building materials and household goods – islanders line up with sacks of copra, dried coconut which is used for livestock feed, to take back to Tahiti, where we’d joined the ship five days before.
For even the most seasoned cruisers a voyage on Aranui 5 is an extraordinary journey, combing the trip-of-a-lifetime to French Polynesia with the unique opportunity to experience a vessel that is a year-round lifeline to the population – fewer than 9,500 – inhabiting the Marquesas, a French protectorate of a dozen isles of which six are inhabited.
One of the world’s most remote archipelagos (which even has its own time zone 30 minutes ahead of the rest of French Polynesia), and described by writer Paul Theroux as “the most beautiful islands on the face of the earth”, Aranui 5 sails on round trips from the Tahitian capital of Papeete more than 900 miles away with the dual purpose of delivering cargo alongside an unforgettable experience to its passengers.
With the working cargo deck at the front and the separate cruise ship section at the back, it’s an extraordinary looking vessel. However, passengers certainly don’t rough it and facilities include a sun deck and swimming pool, comfortable lounge used for informative lectures and film shows, bars and well-equipped cabins. The best balcony cabins are the six lovely double aspect Royal Suites, with large private balconies on the seaward side and a lounge area overlooking the cargo deck. I certainly never tired of the fascinating close-up views of the cranes and rafts used to shift freight at docksides or when moored at sea.
In addition to a spa, the most unusual on board amenity is a tattoo parlour. Body art originated in French Polynesia and the Marquesas have a long and proud history of tattooing, often involving complicated geometric designs that are always in black. The tattooed and heavily war-painted warriors, coupled with a taste for cannibalism, terrified the Spanish who first discovered and named the volcanic archipelago in 1595.
Today’s friendly islanders wear their tattoos with pride. Virtually everyone, men and women alike, have them and they all have symbolic meanings. So if you’re thinking of going home with a permanent souvenir – and many of my fellow passengers did – this is the place to pluck up courage and have one done.
Sailing is mostly done at night in order to maximise daylight hours to deliver cargo. For the same reason there are only two full sea days. Conversely, this means there is plenty of time for passengers to explore each destination – where Aranui 5 often moors for the while day – either exploring independently or joining insightful daily excursions included in the fare. It’s well worth getting up early to catch the breath-taking views as the vessel nears each port of call; the azure blue sea set against a lush green wilderness of jagged peaks dotted with waterfalls and sometimes shrouded in a veil of soft clouds.
On the smallest isles Aranui 5 cannot moor at the dockside and anchors at sea, with cargo taken to the shore on rafts – a feat in itself – and passengers transported by tender. One of the most spectacular arrivals is when the ship edges into the narrow bay at Ua Huka with steep cliff walls towering on either side. During our shore tour we spot wild horses, small wiry descendants of the horses brought to the island from Chile in 1856 and which now outnumber the island’s residents.
And this is what makes the Marquesas so fascinating, as each island is different – they even have their own dialects – and everywhere we go we learn something new. A fleet of 4WD vehicles, driven by multi-tasking locals, arrive to pick us up in each destination and take us to museums, churches, villages and archaeological sites. One day the local post mistress drives us around, welcoming us to her island with a gift of colourful necklaces made from seeds.
One of the most impressive sites is on Hiva Oa where a group of tiki statues – human-like religious sculptures and the largest outside Easter Island – stand in a verdant clearing. The tallest, Takaii, stands 9ft tall and our guide explains how islanders believe the spirits of the dead wander the site and the tikis come alive at night. Thankfully, deeply-rooted cultures have stood the test of time, despite attempts by early missionaries to quash the islanders’ ethnicity and way of life. On Nuku Hiva, the biggest island and administrative centre of the Marquesas, we are treated to a thrilling Pig Dance performed beneath a centuries-old Banyan tree next to a sacred ceremonial site. As hypnotic drumming fills the still, humid air and the dancers leap forward with deep war-like cries we feel as if are part of authentic living history and not watching a simulated show staged for tourists.
Back on board there’s time to relax or join in activities such as jewellery and floral headdress making workshops. One night we watch the evocative Nomads of the Wind documentary telling the story of the tenacious, voyaging Polynesians who sailed across the Pacific Ocean and discovered the paradise islands of the South Seas. Some of our own determined passengers even hire Aranui 5’s small fishing boat to set sail on their own shorter voyage of discovery and enjoy their catch of the day served up by the chef at dinner.
In 1901 and 1975, French artist Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer songwriter Jacques Brel respectively came to the Marquesas search of inner peace and never left. As we reluctantly boarded Aranui 5 for the last leg back to Papeete it was easy to see why.
Cox & Kings offers a 14-night Tahitian itinerary from £6,395. The fare includes one-night hotel stays in Papeete at each end of the Aranui 5 cruise, meals on board meals, wine with lunch and dinner, excursions, flights with Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui and transfers. For further details and departure dates call 020 3582 4809 or visit the website for more information.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cox & Kings.