Imagine a small cruise ship, the front loaded with containers. This is Aranui 5, which services the northern archipelago of French Polynesia once or twice a month. Watching the very animated unloading of supplies that Marquesans have been impatiently anticipating before they accompany you to discover archeological sites and other wonders of their islands certainly does not lack charm or intrigue.
A visitor on a quest to discover the Marquesas on board the passenger freighter that services the most northern archipelago of French Polynesia may feel like somewhat of a dock worker. The small Aranui sea vessel served the Marquesas for the first time in 1960 (see box), and the current version now enjoys the features of a true small cruise liner, yet every stopover yields the exciting ambience of a merchant ship.
Rest assured, Aranui passenger! You will not be asked to unload goods, but it will be hard for you to resist giving a helping hand to the friendly sailors. The Aranui’s tradition of transporting cargo brings additional ambience to being on board this comfortable ship that offers many other amenities, much to the delight of the passengers. On the largest of the three aft decks, a hostess and master Tahitian dance teacher hold workshops over Marquesan dance, weaving, and necklace-making around the pool during each crossing. Meanwhile, in the largest of four lounges, a variety of presenters, journalists, researchers, professors and navigators share their passion for the richness of Polynesian culture.
Entertainment and comfort
On top of these new discoveries is the actual comfort of the cruise ship. The vast dining room can hold 250 guests who are served quality meals worthy of a starred restaurant. Local fare is prepared by a team of professionals under a top level chef. Young people who embody Polynesian kindness provide service while assuring joyous entertainment during gala dinners. With all of this, one can never get bored during the journey.
It is important to mention that the crossing is long: 1600 kilometers/995 miles between the home port of Tahiti and the Fenua Enata (“The Land of Humans” in Marquesan). This is why the first stopover for Aranui 5 is at the halfway point to the Marquesas in the Tuamotu Islands, the largest archipelago of French Polynesia. You’ll get lots of sun on a white sand beach and bathe in the turquoise waters of Fakarava atoll, whose lagoon abounds with fish … which will be on the menu of the first meal ashore prepared under the watchful eyes of the Aranui passengers. This is an opportunity for them to learn how the famous Tahitian Poisson Cru (raw fish) is prepared, especially with its essential ingredient, coconut milk.
We go from amateur archeologists to quickly dreaming of becoming cooks so that we could taste the delicious pig taken out of the Marquesan underground oven…before we turn back into archeologists in Taipivai. Through its multiple platforms, formations, petroglyphs of birds, turtles and other mysterious symbols and of course, stone tikis, this other famous site on Nuku Hiva reveals an ancient civilization that was obviously complex.
To help us understand what we are exploring, several guides, researchers, teachers, journalists and lecturers accompany us throughout the expedition with explanations that will be complemented by conferences onboard the Aranui 5, which give this beautiful cruise the essence of an initiatory journey.
Equally fascinating is the discovery of the island of Ua Pou, where the arrival will be enhanced by the unloading of the freight-filled barges and passenger rowboats onto a small quay sheltered by a large rock. The swells render the sailors’ work even more physically demanding since these experienced guys also jump onto the quay firmly holding or carrying passengers. The landlubbers, warned that the manoeuver would be a delicate one, are torn between fear and confidence. However, everything turns out well.
Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel: an exciting segment
A more recent phase in the history of the Marquesas is found on the island of Hiva Oa, characterized by the stays of two great artists, Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel. In the village of Atuona, there is a museum with excellent reproductions of the Breton artist’s most stunning paintings that neighbor the space devoted to the Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. His famous twin-engine Jojo dominates the center of a vast hangar surrounded by an exhibition of photos, drawings and press clippings that evoke his life and work. This is an emotional visit that continues on to the cemetery located higher up, where Gauguin and Brel are neighbors for eternity.
It is also on Hiva Oa that we will discover the most important archaeological site due to the number of carefully restored tikis in various postures: me’ae Ipona. Not even archaeologists can explain all the meanings, just as we do not yet know everything about the mysterious ruins of Puamau.
Visiting Fatu Hiva will be more current with the discovery of contemporary local art such as seed jewelry, tapa, (a vegetal fabric made from breadfruit tree bark often decorated with famous Marquesan tattoo motifs), elaborately sculpted stone tikis and an array of monoï (beauty oil derived from coconut pulp and perfumed with tiare flowers). Islanders offer demonstrations over the fabrication of these local products as well as Marquesan dance performances, including the famous pig chant executed by men and the gracious bird dance performed by young women.
The island with four museums
In Hua Huka, we have a rendezvous with ancient culture and current agriculture. To answer the numerous questions raised by ancient objects, Léon Litchtlé, the mayor of the island, had the idea to open several small museums at the end of the last century. One of them brings together ancient archaeological and artisanal objects. Another features castings of rock carvings, the third displays sections of wood to reflect the richness of Marquesan forests and the fourth is dedicated to shells. Although now retired but still passionate, Litchtlé guides us through the arboretum that he also created where many species of tropical fruit trees are cultivated. He takes great pleasure in having us taste the fruit while making us guess their names. This is such a delicious moment, as much through the flavors as by the liveliness of the anecdotes served by this exciting guide who is the former Minister of Agriculture of French Polynesia.
For our return to Nuku Hiva on the tenth day of navigating between this archipelago’s six islands—which are definitely full of surprises—we go back to being dock workers, at least visually, as we admire the dexterity of crane operators loading products destined for Tahiti.
But before returning to Tahiti on the fourteenth day, we again play tourist for two new sunny stops: one in Rangiroa—the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands and second largest in the world—to discover from close up the production of the famous Tahitian black pearls. The other stop is on Bora Bora, the “Pearl of the Pacific,” for an afternoon of diving and a picnic in paradise on a motu with white sand. It is enough to make you want to jump back onto the first plane to Bora Bora once you get back to Tahiti, but this is another story that you will have to write.