A unique hybrid ship, Aranui 5, takes passengers – and cargo – to one of the world’s most remote archipelagos
As we stroll through the main street on Tahuata a man walks past with a splendid black pig on a leash as if it is the most natural thing in the world. He breaks into a warm gap-toothed smile and poses with his porker when we ask if we can take photos. Another afternoon we see a man cycle past on a rusty bicycle with a freshly baked baguette tucked under his arm. Just two wonderful snapshots of daily life on the Marquesas Islands.
The 12 French Polynesian islands – only six of them inhabited and with a population of fewer than 9,500 – are scattered in the South Pacific 900 miles from Tahiti, making the archipelago one of the most isolated on the globe. Throughout the year just two ships sail back and forth from the Tahitian capital of Papeete to provide the inhabitants with a vital lifeline. One is a dedicated cargo vessel and I am aboard the other; Aranui 5.
It is an extraordinary looking hybrid cruise and freight ship that looks as if it could have been created from two totally different vessels cut in half and welded together in the middle. I am comfortably ensconced in the section that carries 254 passengers, while the other portion is made up of two cranes, assorted industrial equipment and a cavernous cargo hold.
I speak to the French captain Christophe Dupuy, who has previously worked on both passenger and cargo ships, which makes him ideal for juggling the varying needs of his human consignment and up to 1,700 tonnes of inanimate freight.
“Think of everything you would find in a grocery store and more and we deliver it,” he explains. “We carry the post, cars, bicycles, small boats, fresh, canned and frozen items, including lots of ice cream as the islanders love it. On this sailing we’ve also got concrete, wood and other materials to build 12 village houses. We also take goods back to Tahiti from the islands such as copra, which is a dried coconut product and valued for the oil that is extracted from it for livestock feed.
“Livestock, such as horses, pig and goats are transported within the islands and the most unusual thing I’ve ever carried is bees. They had to be kept in hives on the open deck and some of them buzzed around a bit, but they didn’t cause any bother and to the best of my knowledge none of them flew away before we delivered them!”
For even the most seasoned cruise passengers, a voyage on Aranui 5 is like nothing else. Each day the ship calls at different islands and as we descend the gangplank to a spirited welcome from local men blowing conch shells and swivel-hipped women in grass skirts swaying to the beat of drums while crew members get to work loading and unloading cargo.
Each stop in the Marquesas is a beguiling destination and the islands are filled with mystery and legend. One of the most incredible sights is on Hiva Oa where a drive into the emerald green hills brings us to Me’ae Iipona. A clearing reveals the largest tikis – human-like religious sculptures – in French Polynesia and the biggest outside Easter Island’s similar moai statues. We walk through ferns to gaze at the prehistoric stone figures, their huge heads and big eyes symbolising knowledge and power. The 9ft tall Takaii, representing a powerful chieftain, overshadows the rest and our guide explains that islanders believe that the spirits of the dead wander the site and the tikis come alive. He points to lines in Takaii’s eyes, which resemble all-seeing pupils when sun hits a certain spot. Despite the humidity I feel goose bumps on my arms.
We learn more at lectures, documentary screenings and traditional floral headdress making workshops on the ship. First settled by seafaring Polynesians as early as 300AD, when Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana discovered and named the archipelago in 1595 he didn’t hang around for long when confronted by tattooed and war-painted tribes who had a taste for cannibalising their enemies.
European Christian missionaries returned to instil ‘civilisation’, bringing with them devastating diseases and in 1884 banning the symbolic ‘tatus’ in the place where body art originated. Fortunately, certain customs did not die out, and today bold black tattoos, variously in striking geometric patterns or intricate designs often depicting the turtle, one of the most important creatures in Polynesian culture, adorn virtually every islander and crew member. Aranui 5 even has an on board tattoo studio.
Our voyage continues to smaller islands, where the ship has to moor at sea, and we are transported ashore by tender and cargo is laden onto rafts. One of the most impressive arrivals is at Ua Huka with a narrow bay flanked by steep cliff walls.
Wherever we land we see something new as the islands are all very different. A fleet of 4WD vehicles, driven by multi-tasking locals, take us to museums, churches, archaeological sites and the graves of French artist Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel. They respectively arrived in the Marquesas in 1901 and 1975 and were so entranced by the natural beauty that they never left.
At the end of this remarkable cruise I can certainly understand why. This far-flung sailing adventure on Aranui 5 leaves an unforgettable and lasting impression – whether or not you decide to have a tattoo.
Cox & Kings
Tel: +44 (0)203 642 0861
Email: via contact form on website
Number of Facilities On Board: Restaurant, three bars, lounge/lecture theatre, spa, gym, pool and Wi-Fi (additional fee).
Number of Cabins: 108
Price Band: High
Insider Tip: For the best views on board the six sumptuous Royal Suites have large balconies and a fascinating double aspect overlooking both the sea and cargo deck.
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10
Factfile: Cox & Kings offers the 14-night Marquesas Islands cruise aboard Aranui 5, including two nights in the Hotel Tahiti Ia Ora Beach Resort, Papeete, from £6,395. Fares include all on board meals, wine with lunch and dinner, excursions, entertainment, flights and transfers.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Arunui 5 and Jeannine Williamson