The Aranui 3 is not a looker. It is a cargo vessel that, for more than 50 years, transferred goods from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, to the remote islands of Marquesa, 1,500km to the northeast. It was not until the early 1980s that the Aranui 3 transformed into a freighter-cum-passenger cruise ship, transporting adventure-bound travellers to South Pacific islands that few outsiders had ever laid eyes on.
In 2002, the ship expanded from 12 cabins to 85 to accommodate traveller demand, and today, almost all 17 cruises each year are sailing at full occupancy, prompting the company to unveil the Aranui 5 in 2014, a ship that will be almost twice the size.
But the allure of spending 14 days on a cargo vessel-turned-cruise ship had nothing to do with the bare-boned interior of the Aranui 3. The lounge had only a miniscule library and much of the dining hall’s ocean view was blocked by cargo. It had nothing to do with the reception desk that was only open a handful of hours each day or the cabin’s basic amenities – a twin bed, desk and old TV. It had little to do with the preset three-daily, starch-heavy meals that were served or the friendly, souvenir-shirt-wearing crew who, at the end of the trip, presented a beautiful traditional dance on the sundeck. It wasn’t until after few days at sea that I understood why people from all over the world spend thousands of dollars to board a cargo vessel that only has wireless internet for five days out of two weeks. It has nothing to do with the actual ship; it has everything to do with the chance to experience the living history of hidden Polynesia.
Discovered in 1595 by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, French Polynesia’s Marquesa Islands are so remote that the closest cosmopolitan city is Honolulu, Hawaii, about 3,500km to the north. As the only ship to go to all six of the inhabited islands (11 total sprawl across 997sqkm), the Aranui 3’s role – supplying food and goods to the islands – has allowed the small societies to thrive.
Our first glimpse of the islands after three days of sailing from Papeete was the town of Hakahua (population: 3,000), located on the island of Ua Pou. Three basaltic peaks soared high above the lush forests, the surrounding water a milky dark green hue due to the volcanic sand below. A 3km hike brought us to a scenic vantage point above the sublime bay, below which there was a pocket-size beach for sunbathing.
Like most of the inhabited islands, Ua Pou’s modest town, where we stopped for a typical buffet lunch of poisson cru (a traditional Tahitian dish of raw fish, coconut milk and lime), beef, rice and banana pudding, was equipped with a post office, a bank, a school, a few general stores and not much else. Most houses were one storey, box shaped and minimally decorated, with music playing through the open windows even though no one seemed to be home. The feeling of being completely remote, in the middle of nowhere, sunk in fast.
As we arrived the next morning to the island of Nuku Hiva, a rainstorm brewed. "It always rains when the Aranui arrives," said our driver, one of many locals who ferried cruise passengers deep into the rainforest, passing the 350m-high Vaipo Waterfall, the largest in the South Pacific, on the way. Arguably the most popular island, Nuku Hiva is where author Herman Melville jumped out of a whaling ship in 1842 and was captured by the local Taipa tribe. He spent three weeks among the tribesmen – one of the world’s few cannibal tribes – and based his first novel, Typee, on his time living here. Eventually he escaped, and the tribe disappeared.
After passing the waterfall, we trekked through the rainforest for less than a km to one of the island’s oldest banyan trees (approximately 400 years old) on the archaeological site Hatitheu, where 19th-century Taipa tribesmen left behind stone carvings and relics. Another short 1km – and muddy, thanks to the brief drizzle – hike led us through lush foliage to an ancient set of ruins of which little was known. Sketches of people were etched into large stones, proving to be more mysterious but just as marvellous as Hatitheu.