SEEING FRENCH POLYNESIAN IN A SPECIAL WAY

ooBrilliant streaks of gold seemed to explode through the fluffy clouds and illuminated a line of coconut palms that assured early risers on the Aranui III that we were nearing Fakarava, the second largest Tuamotu atoll and the first stop of our journey through the exotic isles of French Polynesia. This was just the beginning of a 14 day, island-hopping trek through the fabled Tuamotu and Marquesas Archipelagoes in the South Pacific aboard the passenger/freighter, Aranui III.

For me, however, the trip had begun with a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, followed by a 7 ½ hour flight aboard an Air Tahiti Nui Airbus to Papeete, Tahiti. Unlike domestic carriers today, Air Tahiti Nui provides excellent services throughout the flight, including two meals and free drinks of any kind, and when arriving in Tahiti, we were welcomed with genuine smiles, native drink, and leis of fragrant tiara flowers. One night at the elegant InterContinental Resort Tahiti with its famous swimming pool bar allowed some much needed rest and a chance to become acclimated to the warmth of Tahiti and its people. The following morning we boarded the Aranui III for the beginning of a very unique voyage aboard a special vessel.

iiThough this 386 ft., 207-passenger-freighter was built in Romania and still carries one of the ship-building engineers aboard, it was designed specifically to serve the tiny ports it visits and the needs of the island people in French Polynesia. For those of us visiting these enchanting islands for the first time, the name “Aranui” seems apropos. In the Maori language, it means “The Great Highway.”

The true business of the Aranui III is to haul much needed freight to and from the picturesque Marquesas Islands, but thanks to a unique design, this ship provides visitors with a chance to be a part of a working vessel in a graceful style. Passenger accommodations are available in four categories. There are 10 Suites with balconies, 12 Deluxe A Cabins, and 63 Standard A Cabins. The Aranui III also offers Class C passage in 2 large, air-conditioned, dormitory style cabins with 18 bunk beds and shared facilities. However, all passengers are afforded 3 meals each day with wine, and occasional picnics and meals on shore. This does not include $285 per person in cruise tax, tourism tax, or port fees.

To my knowledge, the Aranui III is the best of any passenger-freighter of this type, but is certainly not a luxury cruise ship. Nevertheless, passenger accommodations are more than adequate and all have windowed views. An outdoor swimming pool is available, as well as a bar-lounge, gym, library and limited use of on-board facilities including fishing and snorkeling.  Though guest lecturers and onboard experts offer detailed information about the culture and history of the Marquesas ports being visited and Polynesia in general, they seem to be more geared to the French speaking passengers. Also, the daily menu is primarily composed of both French and Polynesian cuisine, which is not always appealing to the “meat and potatoes” crowd. However, breakfast is always varied and perfect for any taste.

The best part of the Aranui III is the crew. Most of them are direct descendants of the ancient Polynesians who first came to these islands and were some of the greatest navigators of all time. Also, the spectacular cruise visits more than a dozen diverse and fantastically beautiful islands over a two week period. Seeing these remote and exotic places makes one easily understand why they inspired and captivated such great men as Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Thor Heyerdahl and countless others.

nnThough the Aranui III departed Papeete, Tahiti around noon on Saturday, as I described earlier, the Sunday dawn was breaking over the Fakarava atoll as we steamed into the inner lagoon through a wide cut in the reef at our first, brief stop of a journey that would eventually crisscross an area the size of Europe. We anchored in a crystal clear, brilliantly turquoise-colored lagoon several hundred yards from a white, coral sand beach before going ashore in wooden whale boats.

Friendly native merchants had “set up shop” under the shade of coconut palms near the beach, and displayed their creations made of wood, shells, bone, and especially black pearls. Many of the passengers browsed the merchandise while others snorkeled or swam around the scattered coral formations in the warm, clear waters of the huge lagoon. At the appropriate time, a picnic lunch of local fish was served under a thatched canopy and accompanied by island music provided by a ukulele band. An hour or so of time to explore, swim, or rest in the shade followed lunch, and then it was into the whale boats and back to the ship.

As soon as everyone was back aboard, the anchor was lifted, and we began the longest stretch of the journey at sea. We would see nothing but wide-open seas and miles of blue water for the rest of that day, the night, the next day, and another night. Then, at daybreak, we witnessed the sun coming up over Ua Pou, which was the first of the ancient, volcanic Marquises Islands that we would encounter. Because of its towering, pillar-like summits, this majestic island is often called the “Cathedral Island.”

jjThis would also be our first taste of the Marquesan culture, which included native dance, ancient and modern religion, food, and totally different arts and crafts. For photography buffs, the contrasts of the blue ocean, the brilliant greens of the island and the 12 towering peaks that encircle Hakahua Bay are spellbinding!

To write about all that we saw during the following ten days while cruising the gorgeous Marquises Islands would surely require the length of a book. Therefore, from this point on, I will only touch on the highlights and allow those who visit these marvelous islands to form their own memories.

From Ua Pou, we went to Nuku Hiva which is the administrative capital and the largest island in the Marquises. There near the deep bay of Taipivai, Herman Melville was inspired to write his famous “Typee” in 1842. For the passengers on the Aranui III, it was a chance to do some banking, use a very slow, French Internet system, or sit back and watch the precision of the ship’s crew loading and unloading much-needed freight for the island people.

The next stop of our expedition brought us to Hiva Oa, which is the final resting place and favorite island of famous artist, Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. Though nearly a century apart, both of these men spent the last few years of their lives on Hiva Oa and are buried very close together in an old cemetery at Atuona, which is high above the pounding waves of the ocean.

ffFrom Hiva Oa, we made a short southeastern passage to the small, mostly undeveloped island of Fatu Hiva. This is one of the last places in the Marquises that women still make tapa, which is a paper like product that was once used for clothing, but is now more popular for tattoo designs or artwork. After skinning the bark from trees, the women pound it for hours with flat sticks of ironwood to produce the tapa, which is a strong vegetal cloth that varies in color depending on the bark that was used. The women of Fatu Hiva are also well-known for wearing umuhei in their hair. These sachets are made from aromatic plants, and are said to have extremely strong powers for attracting men.

After leaving the beauty and tranquility of Fatu Hiva, we returned to the port of Puamau on the opposite side of Hiva Oa, which for history buffs was one of the most interesting stops on the trip. On an archaeological site in the hills above the open ocean, we walked among the largest tikis (Polynesian godlike statues) in the Pacific. Some of these are up to eight feet tall, and are located in a sacred area of the Naiki tribes that dates back to the 16th and 17th century. Historically, these tribes were always led by women.

Luck would have it that an important Marquesan festival was being held at an ancient sacred site in the hills above Vaitahu on the island of Tahuatu during our visit. Though we had encountered native dances as part of the tourist show on several islands, it was wonderful to see the different islanders from all over the Marquises Islands competing among themselves in such a natural setting. We saw the native costumes and customs as they have been handed down through the generations. When we returned from our trek to the festival grounds, the village of Vaitahu was alive with offerings of native cuisine, merchants from every island selling their handicrafts, and island music drifting through the warm, tropical air. It was truly a treasured memory for locals and visitors alike!

After an all night voyage, we reached the mouth of a narrow fiord known as the “Invisible Bay of Vaipaee”, and the Captain sailed right into it. For those who came on deck to watch, they were rewarded with an unbelievable show of maneuvering expertise. With less than ten feet on either end of an almost 400 foot long ship, the Captain and crew turned the vessel 180 degrees until it faced outwards towards the open sea and then tied it with huge cables between the two shores.

eeWhen the Aranui III was secure, we were taken to the dock in the whale boats and loaded into numerous vehicles to be driven across the island of Ua Huka. It was immediately obvious that this island was far more arid than the other islands in the Marquises chain. The road followed the tops of the ridges with breathtaking vistas of the sea below, and wild horses and goats could be seen grazing on the steep hillsides.

After visiting a couple of local handicraft markets, an elaborate Marquesan lunch was prepared by the villagers of Hokatu. We were then transported to a gorgeous, rocky beach where we swam and body surfed until the whale boats picked us up for our next leg of the trip.

Before departing the Marquises Islands for the last time, we made a quick return trip to the capital at Nuka Hiva to load more freight, and on to Ua Pou again to leave our local guides, Pascal and Didier on their home island. Both had been with us since the beginning of the voyage, and it was sad to say “aurevoir.”

Another full day and night of sailing brought us to our last stop at Rangiroa, which is the largest Polynesian atoll and the fourth largest in the world. The jade-green and turquoise colors of the lagoon are spectacular, and its tranquil waters are famous for producing perfect black pearls.

With the Aranui III anchored just off a shallow, coral beach, we went ashore to visit a pearl factory, to do some shelling, and to snorkel in the crystal clear waters of the lagoon. Our last native lunch was served under sheltering coconut palms before taking our final whale boat ride back to the ship. We watched dolphins cavorting alongside the Aranui III as we slipped quietly out of the lagoon through a tiny opening between the two villages of Rangiroa and headed out to sea and to the island of Tahiti.

In retrospect, being aboard the Aranui III for two weeks left us all with wonderful memories of an ancient culture that is probably beginning to succumb to modern civilization. Though the French influence was a little much for some Americans, the fantastic crew of the Aranui III and the friendly people of the Marquesan Islands more than made up for any discomfort, and I would highly recommend this unique voyage! It would be hard to see more of the unbelievable beauty of these South Pacific islands in such a short time with so much efficiency and style than that afforded by this cruise aboard the Aranui III! Visit their website at: www.aranui.com.

IF YOU GO

US citizens must have a valid passport and a round-trip ticket, visas are not required, and visitors are granted a 30-day stay. Tahiti is in the same time zone as Hawaii. The ship is on Pacific Standard Time, and the Marquesas are one hour ahead of Honolulu. The published average temperature year round is 79F degrees and the average water temp is 80F. French and Tahitian are the official languages, but English is spoken in virtually all tourist locations. US currency, traveler’s checks, and credit cards are widely accepted. The local currency is the French Pacific Franc or CFP.  There are approximately 125 CFPs to one US dollar, although actual rates may vary. Hotels will also exchange money, but you are better off to exchange money in your local bank before leaving home. Make sure to pack any medications you might need. Bring lots of film, since film and everything else is more expensive in Tahiti. Each person is allowed to bring ten rolls through customs, and make sure to pack an extra battery for your camera or video. Don’t forget sunscreen and insect repellent. There are safe boxes in cabins on Aranui III, and they have 110 volt outlets. Pack lightweight, loose-fitting cotton washables. Men normally wear shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes,  and women wear shorts, skirts, or casual slacks during the day and cool dresses at night. Most importantly, be sure to bring a swimsuit, a hat, and a backpack for carrying any necessities. Water shoes, sandals, reef walkers, or old sneakers are recommended for “wet” landings and so you don’t cut your feet on coral. A self-service laundry is available, as are irons and ironing boards for passenger use. Bottled water is always available onboard free of charge. There is a “no tipping required” policy onboard (tipping is also not customary nor expected ashore).

WONDERFUL START TO THE TRIP

To get a real taste of the atmosphere of the Society Islands, however, one should take the 30-minute catamaran ride to the beautiful island of Moorea and stay at the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea. This gorgeous property offers the only dolphin experience in the Tahitian Islands, a home and care facility for injured sea turtles, and best of all, the Helene Spa. The beautiful and extremely talented Helene Sillinger followed her childhood dreams, left her beloved Paris, and came to Tahiti with her two lovely daughters nearly a decade ago. Because of her special energies and natural openness with all people, she was taken into the confidence of many native healers, learned their ancient secrets, and now applies them in the natural ways that they were intended at the finest spa in the South Pacific! Therefore, no trip to French Polynesia would be complete without a visit to the famous Helene Spa for her special massage therapy.

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