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ARANUI FREIGHTER CRUISE

If you are planning a French Polynesia vacation, an Aranui freighter cruise is the least expensive and most authentic way to experience the cultures of the Marquesas and Tuamotus.

Story and photos by

We love places with exotic names. Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou and several uninhabited islets form the Marquesas archipelago. Located 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) northeast of Tahiti, these high volcanic islands are just south of the equator.

Between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands are Fakarava and Rangiroa, part of the 76-island Tuamotu archipelago. Together, the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Austral, Gambier and Society Island groups form French Polynesia and cover an area the size of Europe in the South Pacific.

Known for its unspoiled beauty, rich culture and balmy climate, this Overseas Country of France has a reputation for being expensive. Our research indicated that we could visit the Marquesas and Tuamotus in comfort, at a nearly all-inclusive price, for much less than arranging local hotels, transportation and tours.

Passengers ride a whaleboat to the dock at Nuku Hiva. Aranui moors in Hatiheu Bay behind in Marquesas Islands.
Passengers ride a whaleboat to the dock at Nuku Hiva. Aranui moors in Hatiheu Bay behind in Marquesas Islands.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cruise route

How? Aranui 5, a passenger/cargo ship, makes 17 sequential round trips annually, beginning and ending in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, in the Society Islands.

Aranui means "the public path" in the ancient Marquesan language. The Tahitian freighter is a marine lifeline to islands without airports or with airfields too small to handle cargo.

On each 14-day journey, the Aranui cruises 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) to six Marquesas Islands, Bora Bora and two Tuamotu Islands to collect copra (dried coconut meat, used to make soap, oil, cosmetics and food) and deliver supplies.

The prow of the Aranui is the working half, dominated by monstrous twin yellow cranes. Air-conditioned facilities for 254 passengers, including dorms, standard and deluxe cabins and suites, occupy the stern.

"I loved our suite," says Marilyn Lipsky, a Montreal travel agent, now living in Los Angeles. "It had a large bed, private facilities, sitting area and balcony with lounge chairs overlooking the cargo area and the ports."

Dorm passengers were equally happy. "The shared washroom was not a problem and the price was right!" says Monica, a German passenger.

Discounted cruises

What makes the Aranui rates so enticing? They include three meals a day, wine with lunch and dinner, on-shore restaurant meals and picnics, daily guided excursions (except for scuba diving, horseback riding and a couple museums), entertainment and consultations with the ship's doctor.

Aranui 5 is not a luxury ship, but it's far from no-frills. The freighter has a pool, a gym with treadmills, bicycles, a step-master and weight machines, a small library and a laundry room with washers, dryers and an iron.

A doctor staffed a small infirmary and accompanied us on excursions. We borrowed snorkelling equipment (free on a first-come, first-served basis) for the duration of the cruise.

Crew members play ukuleles and guitars in the Aranui bar.
Crew members play ukuleles and guitars in the Aranui bar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Two Aranui cruises each year offer a 10 per cent seniors' discount. Some cruises offer a 15 per cent repeat passenger discount.

Polynesian music

Freighter travel is different from traditional cruising. Cargo loading and unloading times determined the time in ports, which ranged from three hours to a full day. During our two days at sea, we listened to lectures on Polynesia's history and economy, relaxed by the pool, visited the open bridge and enjoyed coffee, tea and chocolate in the lounge.

"I liked the informal dress code," says Marilyn. (Even Captain Theodore Oputu wore a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops.) "I especially enjoyed the absence of bingo, shuffleboard and other games."

The only daily scheduled event on the Aranui was the destination briefing by our guides, Vai, Sylvie, Mila, Didier and Bernard. In the bar, after dinner, passengers listened to music played by the tattooed Polynesian crew on guitars, homemade ukuleles and a stringed inverted washtub bass.

Newest Aranui ship

After completing their work, deckhands mingled and danced with passengers. Getting to know them was a highlight of our trip. Burly men, they were strong enough to wield cargo, but gentle enough to wear flowers behind their ears, a local custom that passengers quickly adopted.

Passenger, Susie Murphy, and tattooed crane operator, Mahalo Pahuatini, enjoy Polynesian Night on Aranui.
Passenger, Susie Murphy, and tattooed crane operator, Mahalo Pahuatini, enjoy Polynesian Night on Aranui.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Among the 103 crew are two and three generations of families. Our waitress, Hina, for example, traveled with her young daughter and mother.

Several crew members, such as Vai Vivish, our informative, humorous and helpful guide, have worked on the Aranui for many years. Mahalo Pahuatini, a crane operator with impressive tattoos, has worked on all five Aranui ships.

The 254-passenger Aranui 5 replaced the Aranui 3 starting with 2016 cruises. The Aranui 3 replaced Aranui 2 in 2003 which, in turn, replaced Aranui in 1990. The original Aranui began delivering cargo to the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotus in 1984.

Marilyn's husband, Allan, enjoyed fishing off the railing with the crew, after the Aranui anchored for the night. We watched the fishermen pile big-eyed silvery jack fish into buckets. (They fried them for their breakfasts the next morning.) Gazing down at the water, we saw swirling fish schools and graceful manta rays attracted to the ship's lights.

International passengers

Passengers on the Tahitian-owned, French-flagged freighter are usually half French-speaking (from France, Belgium, Canada and French Overseas Territories) and half English-speaking (from Canada, U.S.A., Britain, Australia and New Zealand). Our Aranui cruise also had several German-speakers (from Germany, Austria and Switzerland).

Guides organized separate lectures and tours for each language group. Our concerns about communication during open-seating meals quickly dissipated. Most Europeans speak excellent English.

Sometimes, we conversed in a hodgepodge of all three languages. Everyone tolerated each other's grammatical errors. Our rusty school French was helpful.

The youngest Aranui passengers were a pair of charming twin teenage girls from Reunion Island. The oldest was a sprightly 87-year-old Frenchman. Most passengers were over 50.

Crew members transfer passengers between a whaleboat and the ship.
Crew members transfer passengers between a whaleboat and the ship.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Age isn't an issue as long as you can climb up and down the gangplank into the sometimes bouncing whaleboats that bring us ashore," says Marilyn. Muscular crewmen assisted us at the last step by gently lifting us, like rag dolls, over the gurgling water between the freighter and 30-passenger wooden whaleboat. When possible, Aranui 5 docks to avoid the boat transfers.

The Marquesas Islands are so remote that they got electricity and televisions only in the 1970s, but today, cell phones and the Internet are common. We only realized the true remoteness of these French Polynesian islands after we had traveled (at a cruising speed of 15 knots) for 19 hours to reach Fakarava, the first stop, and an additional 43 hours to reach Ua Pou, the second island.

Most cruising was at night, to maximize time on the islands. After the Aranui arrived in the Marquesas, travel time between islands ranged between 0.5 to 6.5 hours.

The Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands have small populations (580 to 2,800). Villages and towns have only 100 to 1,680 inhabitants. Our arrival always drew crowds.

Tahuata

And music. On Tahuata, ukulele, guitar and drum music wafted over the water as we landed. Women with flower head wreaths sang Kaoha nui! Mave mai! (Hello! Welcome!) They draped us with necklaces of fragrant flowers and colorful seeds, crowned our heads with palm leaf wreaths and offered us aromatic white tiare (gardenia) blossoms to place behind our ears.

Singer welcomes Aranui passengers in Tahuata, Marquesas.
Singer welcomes Aranui passengers
in Tahuata, Marquesas.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll
Marquesan woman offers passengers tiare flowers in Ua Pou.
Marquesan woman offers passengers tiare flowers in Ua Pou.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Which side?" we asked. Noting that we were a couple, the woman responded, "Wear the tiare over your left ear because your heart is on your left side."

As we strolled through idyllic Hapatoni (population 150), in Tahuata, a villager whacked open a green coconut so a passenger could try the cool liquid inside. A young girl offered us tasty wild mountain apples from a roadside tree.

Fakarava

In Fakarava, a cappella singing emanating from a church raised shivers along our spines. We listened across the street, sitting in the shade of a coconut palm, beside a couple clucking free-range hens. After the service, children ran up to us, with smiles on their faces and freshly picked hibiscus blossoms as gifts.

Children welcome a passenger to Fakarava with freshly picked flowers.
Children welcome a passenger to Fakarava with freshly picked flowers.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We expected demands for money or candy. Instead, they practised their English, telling us about their families and schools. Coming from a city where people rarely greet each other on elevators or public transit and avoid talking to children on the street, Fakarava was a refreshing change.

Rangiroa

The memorable welcome to Rangiroa wasn't even from humans. Fins approached the freighter on all sides until a half dozen man-length dolphins surfaced on each side and in front, riding the surf created by the Aranui. They spun and leaped with unfettered joy, raising simultaneous "aahhs" from passengers.

We watched for 15 minutes, enchanted, until we entered the placid lagoon. The dolphins disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

Dolphins surf beside the ship in Rangiroa's Avatoru Pass.
Dolphins surf beside the ship in Rangiroa's Avatoru Pass.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Aranui 5 also attracts islanders because it carries eagerly awaited supplies. Mesmerized, we watched the dance-like choreography of cargo handling.

Cranes unloaded crates of Tahiti's Hinano beer, laundry detergent, dried noodles, flower-print mattresses and pink tricycles. Yellow forklifts hauled containers filled with net bags of garlic and cabbages, boxes of Doritos and plastic bottles of Sprite.

Families collected packages of frozen meat from refrigerated containers that released cool mists into the humid air. A Christmas-like atmosphere pervaded the dock as residents took delivery of ATVs, pickup trucks and fuel.

Mahalo's crane gently lowered one crate with six goats and another crate with four brown calves. Just when we thought everything was unloaded, crew members opened a huge steel door in the hold, filled with more containers.

Crew members picked up bags of mangoes, grapefruit-like pomelos and avocados for the Aranui, and hung stalks of bananas along the deck to ripen.

Noni fruit and flower grow on tree in Hakahau, Ua Pou.
Noni fruit and flower grow on tree in Hakahau, Ua Pou.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Noni fruit

Aranui workers also loaded 80-kilo (176-pound) burlap sacks of sweet-smelling copra and blue barrels of noni (Morinda citrifolia). The Morinda Company, in Utah, buys these foul-smelling, green pinecone-shaped fruits. They extract and flavour the juice and sell it as an expensive health drink.

"All cargo handlers work independently and don't get in each others' way," says Tino, a long-term employee. "Aranui leaves Tahiti with 5,000 tonnes of cargo and returns with only 120 tonnes," he explained.

"Each crane can lift 22 tonnes. Crew work 22 hours, if necessary, to load and unload, starting at 4 am, when it's cool. The Aranui visits some islands twice. We unload cargo on our first stop and load new cargo when we return."


Continued on Marquesas Islands Cruise