What It’s Like To See French Polynesia By Cruise On The Aranui 5

By Jo Elwin
The Aranui 5 at French Polynesia’s stunning southernmost island, Rapa.

The Aranui 5 cruises between five islands in French Polynesia. Jo Elwin takes to the seas and discovers a surprising delight at the ocean trip.

I am not an intrepid traveller. Air New Zealand competitions tell me so — the ones where you select what you want out of

Boarding the Aranui 5 in Papeete, I was seeking rationale. The destination got me. I was keen to get back to Tahiti and had my sights set on Bora Bora after not getting there in 2015, when the island of Moorea provided an exceptional holiday. Bora Bora was the last stop on this Aranui cruise in the Austral Islands.

The where? It’s okay, most people say that. We’re still in French Polynesia, 600km south of Papeete, which means The Australs are remote and the Aranui is the best way to visit all five inhabited islands in the archipelago.

With a 23-hour sail to Rurutu ahead of us, it was time to settle into the Aranui. Our comfortably decorated premium suite with a king bed and balcony had a wall of drawers and cupboards that we completely unpacked into. Not needing suitcases for 12 days was a joy and we instantly felt at home.

A Premium Suite on the Aranui 5.
A Premium Suite on the Aranui 5.

In pleasing contrast to the pachyderms that sail our waters, the Aranui 5 is a petite 126m long and 20m wide. We talked of mullets because she’s business in the front with flat decks for freight; party in the back with eight guest decks. Delivering vital supplies to the remote northern Tahiti archipelagos since 1954, Aranui was originally cargo only, although did provide passage to the occasional Tahitian. That ship has been superseded by increasingly bigger Aranui 1, 2 and 3 as the demand for soft adventure cruises and trade grew.

Now here we are on Aranui 5 (there was no Aranui 4 because the number is considered bad luck by owners, the third-generation Tahitian-Chinese Wong family). The Wongs have done an excellent job of offering a more luxurious cruising experience without losing any of the attributes that attracted the first passengers in 1984.

The maximum passenger count is a sociable 254. You get to know your fellow adventurers and the dining room, which serves three-course meals with French wine for dinner, and lunch when at sea, is designed to help you do so through shared tables, always beautifully set. Our first meal had us discussing Burning Man with Americans Bob, Karen and Mike who had recently returned from a fun time and invited us to join their camp in 2024.

We’re also plotting France to see Isabelle and Didier, with whom we bonded over dinner even though they spoke little English, and we spoke even less French. It all happened through gestures, facial expressions, a lot of laughs and “pamplemousse”, which was always part of the breakfast buffet and a word we English speakers found amusing.

The high number of “repeaters” (those who have cruised with Aranui before) and solo travellers are testament to this convivial camaraderie.

Aranui is about the people, starting with the crew, who are mostly Polynesian, have serious tenure, and enjoy mixing with the guests — one-third of whom on this voyage were Tahitian. They were here to discover their country’s faraway lands, explore their heritage and see friends and family. Together with the ship’s decor and cuisine, these heartening people make a hyper-local experience. We were constantly aware that we were in French Polynesia and part of something incredibly special.

Hats for sale in Rurutu. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Hats for sale in Rurutu. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Rurutu is the place to swim with whales. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Rurutu is the place to swim with whales. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur


Our presence on Rurutu brought what seemed like the entire island of 2400 out to play. They welcomed us with song, dance and leis of island flora. The cherry tomatoes and wild basil in mine had me thinking salad for lunch but the mayor had other ideas. The umu’ai (hāngī) was being uncovered, we were having lunch at his house.

Trucks, pimped to hold passengers in a painted wooden compartment, took us around the island to swim at deserted beaches, walk the tropical jungle and take in the Te Ana A’eo cave with its majestic stalactites and stalagmites; all to the sound of drums, ukeleles and song.

Agriculture and fishing keep the island self-sufficient, but whales are driving a rise in tourism. Humpback whales come to the warmer waters of French Polynesia from July to October to calve and Rurutu is the place to see them because there is no lagoon and they come closer to shore.

Having signed up for the whale “watching” excursion, I was once again questioning the boarding of a boat as I was being zipped into a wetsuit. There was a choice to swim or watch, but I missed that part, or got swept up in my Aussie companions’ exuberance for the whole thing, and I am glad I did because swimming with whales was an exhilarating experience. The water was cold and swelly, and I am not a strong swimmer, yet I floated around in the deep for hours, squealing excitedly into my snorkel as the gentle giants swam and surfaced around us; calm, peaceful respect overriding anxiety.

Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Lorikeets on Rimatara. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Lorikeets on Rimatara. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Photo / Tom Fowlks
Photo / Tom Fowlks


Opening the curtains at 7.30am, I sighted Rimatara. We had sailed through the night and the ship had been rolling with the swell, so breakfast chat was around who had sea legs. I and a few others who didn’t, were keen for that stable land.

We landed to another “flowery welcome” (as Aranui guide Spencer, who spoke English as a third language, called it), this time through a passage of purifying smoke — a tradition that continues from the days when it was thought to offer protection from epidemics.

The 8.6km island is easily circumnavigated by bike, taking in how the 872 islanders live. Houses are tucked into well-kept properties untouched by gentrification, artfully painted recycling stations a sign of their awareness of today’s issues. The tombstones in the cemetery reveal the burial place of Rimatara’s last queen, who thanks to the tabu she issued in 1900 saved the ura, an intensely coloured lorikeet, from extinction. Bird spotters, Rimatara is your island.

Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Photo / Lionel Gouverneur


On the overnight crossing to Tubuai, the rocky seas continued to destabilise this landlubber. Captain Pichard found it amusing, laughing that it is part of the charm of Aranui 5. “You can feel what’s happening out there,” he says, pointing to the horizon from the bridge. He laughed again when asked his preference for the cargo or passenger side of the ship: “Well, you can’t go and talk to the cargo at the end of the day, but we did have fewer problems from the cargo during Covid.”

Barging into Bloody Bay (Baie Sanglante) is bloody beautiful, but the name comes from the killing that happened when the mutineers of the Bounty arrived in 1789. We flagged exploring the Australs’ administrative and economic capital for an afternoon swimming in the turquoise lagoon twice the size of the 45km island.

With fertile volcanic soils and lots of rain and sunshine, Tubuai is French Polynesia’s fruit and vege bowl. Farming keeps many of the 2285 islanders employed, in their free time the huts along the beach indicated that they too enjoy a day at the lagoon.

Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Photo / Lionel Gouverneur


The 36-hour sail to French Polynesia’s southernmost island was filled with anticipation. It would be the first visit for most, including the Polynesians, who spoke of its isolation - 1240km from Tahiti - and cooler temperatures. By boat is the only way to get to Rapa and those high seas keep many away which is how the 500 islanders like it. The Aranui visits only twice a year and is warmly welcomed.

“Ia Orana”, the Tahitian greeting, becomes “Aronga” in Reo Rapa and is stamped on the cliff above the pier Hollywood-style. The words and gestures of the women , adorned simply in auti (tī) leaves, who greeted us felt familiar and, when she broke the seriousness with a call to “pakipaki” (clap in Māori), I realised why. The entire landscape was more Aotearoa than Tahiti, which is understandable when maps show the top of the North Island sitting in a similar location to Rapa, south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Both have a sub-tropical climate so bush walks to old pā sites are thick with fern and rātā. Coconuts and tropical fruits don’t grow well here; apples, peaches, mulberries, white cherries and guavas do. There are no coral reefs and the bay in which we dock feels more like a lake wrapped by mountains.

We knew we were going to eat well when we came across a calf being spit-roasted for our lunch. Happily slicing us sneaky pieces, the cooks explained that they had hunted it in the hills where roaming cows and goats are culled to protect vegetation.

Everything is shared here: Fruit and vegetables from people’s gardens, bread baked in communal ovens, kaimoana laid out on the jetty for everyone to take what they need. No money changes hands.

The To’ohitu (wise council) are actively preserving the isolated island and their life on it. There is no accommodation and land is not for sale; it passes through family. If you fall in love with someone from Rapa, you must marry before you are permitted to sleep on the island.

The Aranui remains docked for the night and it’s the islanders’ turn to come to us for a party on the pool deck. After a buffet heaving with all the Polynesian dishes we have come to love and classic French desserts (a delectable demonstration of the classically trained locals that make up the talented kitchen team), they dance for us, then we all dance to Sissa Sue O’Kota’i.

Sissa Sue are rock stars in Polynesia, and we were privileged to have them on our cruise. Serenaded most evenings by their powerful voices, guitars and ukeleles, their infectious rhythms and songs, all in Polynesian, remain with us.

When we depart, the tears from the people on the dock are for Sissa Sue and crew who have family here, the tears on the veranda deck are from me. Rapa had deeply moved me. I felt a connection. It felt like home and made me realise that although I now live in Central Otago, a piece of my heart is still further north. The simplicities of life on Rapa a reminder of what constitutes a good life.

Photo / Tom Fowlks
Photo / Tom Fowlks


On our way northwest back to Papeete, Raivavae’s “Bora Bora of yesteryear with a lagoon more beautiful than any in the Islands of Tahiti,” lived up to its reputation. The intense layers of blue in the vast lagoon were undiluted by heavy downpours, neither was the spirit of the Islanders who had set up a huge craft market, entertained us with song and dance and hydrated us with chilled coconuts and fresh fruit.

Weather prevented us from heading to Motu Vaiamanu, known as the swimming pool island, because areas of pristine white sand create pools of clear turquoise water, but we found plenty of idyllic swimming spots as we cycled the main island.

Bora Bora

Another full day at sea gave us the opportunity to stop and process the past nine days which had whizzed by in an azure-blue wave of adventure. Pre-empting our stop-and-drop disposition, the restaurant served an all-day buffet to dip in and out of as we relaxed.

Upon arrival, Bora Bora, which is part of the Society archipelago, resembled the Australs — volcanic peaks and lush green foliage surrounded by blue lagoon.Overwater bungalows snaking out into the lagoon differentiate and we’re back to warmer temperatures and, with a 10,000 population on a 24km island, a lot more people. Avoiding the main drag we barge straight to picture-perfect Motu Tapu to enjoy a barbecue picnic and a day on the beach.

I stepped foot back in Papeete somewhat changed. I had now been to Bora Bora, but I had also been to Rurutu, Rimatara, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa, which are equally as beautiful and give so much more. I had discovered new things about myself and the world. The Australs had humbled me, and I will be forever grateful to Aranui Cruises for introducing me to the real French Polynesia and changing the way I travel.

No, that doesn’t mean another cruise … unless it delivers like Aranui.

Jo Elwin travelled to French Polynesia courtesy of Aranui Cruises.

More inspiring travel

Where to eat, drink and play across the world.

Dianne Ludwig’s guide to Greece without the crowds. For this vintage seller, it was a case of the simpler the better when heading to Greece for a dream escape.

Inside the idyllic Bali retreat that takes play time seriously. This hip resort in Ubud owned by American muso Michael Franti, makes its case: Let go, have fun, join a painting class at sunset.

Jesse Mulligan: Here’s why you need to put Tokyo on your travel itinerary immediately. Viva’s dining-out editor describes Tokyo’s food scene as close to perfect. Here are some highlights.

Fiji’s luxury resort Six Senses wants you to slow down. A trip to Fiji’s Six Senses, a resort located on the postcard-perfect Malolo Island, offers the chance for rest and reflection.

In the Faeroe Islands, art, food and fashion take a cue from nature. The archipelago is surrounded by otherworldly scenery that fuels the creative spirit.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: