French Polynesia: Freighter to paradise

By Suzanne Morphet

Take in the Marquesas Islands and explore French Polynesia from on board the Aranui III, writes Suzanne Morphet.

The Aranui III freighter carries 200 passengers and takes 17 two-week voyages to the Marquesas Islands each year. Photo / Supplied
The Aranui III freighter carries 200 passengers and takes 17 two-week voyages to the Marquesas Islands each year. Photo / Supplied

Stretched out on a lounge chair on the ship's upper deck, my reading is suddenly interrupted by excited female voices from below.

Have sharks been spotted? They're common in the waters of French Polynesia. But when I jump up to see what's going on, I find out that two French women are scrimmaging over a chair! No sharks, at least not literally.

Cruising on a freighter with a small passenger contingent means you're privy to every little drama on board. There's none of the anonymity that comes with large cruise ships simply by virtue of their size.

Yet, returning to my chair and my book about our destination (Thor Heyerdahl's Fatu Hiva - Back to Nature) I couldn't be happier.

The Aranui III is a combined freighter/passenger ship that delivers supplies to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia in a two-week circuit, 17 times a year.

I knew there would be no grand staircase on-board as a backdrop for formal-wear photos - nor would there be formal wear.

Nor a casino, the half dozen restaurants or plush towels twisted into origami creatures in the bathroom.

Which was all fine with me. The Aranui is more akin to the steamship that famously carried French painter Paul Gauguin to the Marquesas in 1901 than it is to some of today's floating cities. It carries only about 200 passengers in addition to 2500 tonnes of freight.

And any fears I had about the ship - would it be clean? Would the food be any good? - were dispelled the first morning when we boarded in Papeete, Tahiti, and were greeted with fresh, fragrant leis. The pastry chef's pain au chocolat at breakfast confirmed I was on the right ship.

My standard room was air-conditioned and comfortable, as were the common areas including a lounge, a library, and a bar where you could buy drinks and espresso coffee if you didn't like the complimentary brew, which another French passenger told me - with a look of horror - "is Americano".

Sunset drinks aboard the Aranui III. Photo / Supplied

Of course, the ship itself and the amusing quirks of the other passengers were a sideshow to the main event. Early on our third morning I hurried to the main outside deck to get my first glimpse of the storied Marquesas.

The stunning cliffs of Nuka Hiva, eroded by centuries of waves and wind, loomed large and starkly beautiful in the morning light. Further along, pristine green valleys ran down to the sea, separated by knife-sharp ridges.

Rounding a headland, we sailed into an almost perfectly symmetrical bay with the small village of Taiohae at the far end, surrounded by the walls of an ancient volcanic crater. The natural amphitheatre, cloaked in green vegetation, was a dramatic and fitting introduction to these islands that are renowned for their beauty.

But long before Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel cast the Marquesas as luxuriant gardens of Eden, and long before Heyerdahl and his wife lived off the bounty of the land for a year on Fatu Hiva, the original Polynesians built immense stone platforms for houses and ceremonial purposes, and carved stone tiki gods.

Then came European explorers, traders and missionaries. The population plummeted from about 50,000 in the early 1800s to about 2000 in 1920.

"No dancing, no singing, no tattoos" said our guide from the Aranui, Steeven Tehiva, explaining the early impact of the church when we visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Taiohaie.

"They lost their culture for 120 years."

"Everything now is a reconstruction," confirmed Jean-Michel Chazine, archaeologist and guest lecturer on the Aranui.

"There was a gap."

Is this why the women in Gauguin's paintings at the Gauguin Cultural Centre on the island of Hiva Oa appear so sad?

When Gauguin lived here, Marquesans were emerging from a century of social and cultural upheaval. Today, they're experiencing something of a cultural renaissance.

Tattooing is popular and everyone we meet possesses some musical talent, whether it's singing, dancing or playing an instrument. A couple of dozen of us attend mass one morning in a beautiful stone church in Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata and enjoy a worship energised with guitars, ukuleles and drums.

Our days are full and rewarding. We often leave the ship before 8am and return late in the afternoon.

Over eight days we visit all six of the inhabited Marquesas and are free to see and do as much or as little as we please while the crew unloads freight.

We explore the archaeological site on Hiva Oa with the largest stone tiki outside of Easter Island, we ride half-wild horses on Ua Huka, hike up lush mountainsides on Fatu Hiva, savour pork roasted in a traditional earth-oven at Yvonne's Restaurant on Nuku Hiva, and inhale the intoxicating scent of flowers everywhere we walk.

One day, the Aranui crew announce we're barging to a beach on Tahuata for a barbecue.

"It's absolutely wild," said Jorg Nitzsche, another one of our ship's guides.

"There's nothing there."

Nothing, that is, but soft white sand, a few coconut palms for shade, and water that shifts from aquamarine to turquoise to blue.

As I snorkel among colourful fish I decide the Aranui's nickname is totally apt; if there is such a thing as a freighter to paradise, this is it.

CHECKLIST

Further information: Ultimate Cruising has all-inclusive packages priced from $9099* per person twin share for a standard cabin on Aranui's May 16, 2015 departure including shore excursions, all main meals, complimentary wine with onboard lunch and dinner, return economy airfares from Auckland with Air Tahiti Nui, four nights' accommodation at Manava Suite Tahiti and all transfers in Tahiti.

- NZ Herald

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