One of a kind cruise in French Polynesia
February 6, 2022
If you are an independent adventure traveler like me, cruises may not be on the top of your list. I could never envision myself taking a cruise. That was until I signed up for a 14-day voyage on the Aranui, a custom-built passenger-freighter with just 103 cabins. This unique vessel not only brings its passengers to the most remote islands in French Polynesia, it also carries crucial cargo to the small communities throughout the Marquesan islands, some of the most remote of all the Tahitian islands. Watching the crew unload the freight was an adventure in itself, but I was also impressed with the number of activities that were offered throughout the journey, both on the islands and on board the ship.
Having been to Tahiti on several previous trips, I thought I knew what to expect. But this was my first time visiting the Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands and I was in for some true adventure. I was told the trip would be different, being on a freight carrier and traveling off the beaten path, but I never expected to see such dramatic landscapes and so many untouched islands. It brought us back to a time before tourists were able to visit, when the horses ran wild and there was no cell reception to be found. It was here I understood the true meaning of “mana,” the life force and spirit of the Tahitian islands.
On board the Aranui
Upon boarding the Aranui, I was quickly impressed by the interesting “structure” of the ship. The front is filled with cargo while the back was built for entertainment and relaxation, complete with an outdoor pool and multiple sundecks. The sundecks were the perfect places to unwind when at sea and were used for Tahitian dance lessons and large buffet dinners at night. Not only are there multiple bars, including a panoramic Sky Bar, but the ship also features a spa, library, gym and tattoo parlor. Yes, a tattoo parlor, which I took full advantage of when I brought home a very permanent souvenir for myself. The best part about the ship was the amazing crew that quickly became friends, everyone having their own important role to keep the environment fun and friendly. The Aranui crew are all local to French Polynesia, which really adds to the experience and the immersion to the culture.
The next few days were everything that I had hoped for. The first stop being Fakarava, the second largest atoll in French Polynesia. Also known as “Sharkarava”, the island is notorious for its large number of grey sharks that inhabit the area. Being a diver, I had to see it myself, and I was not disappointed. But sharks aren’t the only reason to come to this unique island. Fakarava will captivate you with its local church built of coral and its quaint town of Rotoava, where the locals hang out to welcome visitors and enjoy the sunshine. We all enjoyed a good laugh as we took pictures with the ornamented palm trees to celebrate the holidays.
As we journeyed on, every island became more interesting than the last. One of the most memorable was Nuku Hiva. Home to the archaeological site of Mea’e Kamuihei, with giant banyans and petroglyphs, the island is covered in archaic statutes, beautiful bays and flowing waterfalls. It was here we watched the performance of the Marquesan Pig Dance followed by a buffet-style lunch of traditional Tahitian cuisine, some of the best food I’ve had in French Polynesia!
Polynesian Arts & Crafts
Each island has its own unique characteristics, from the vegetation to the arts and crafts that are made from the land. Some of the most impressive pieces of craftmanship came from the local woodcarvers, known as tuhuna. Marquesan wooden artifacts are known to be some of the best in French Polynesia and wooden tikis, canoes, bowls and spears and can be seen in museums and sold in stores throughout the islands.
In Puamau, a town on the island of Hiva Oa, we visited the recovered archaeological site for “tikis”. These statues (both wooden and stone) can be seen on multiple islands. You can buy a souvenir version in the local markets to take home. Other arts and crafts included traditional cloth known as “tapa” as well as hand-painted pareos (sarongs) and monoi, coconut oil infused with “Tiare Tahiti” blossoms, vanilla or sandalwood. Tattoos are also a common sight amongst the locals, as tattooing has been a form of body art for centuries and is where the word ‘tattoo’ comes from.
After exploring the more remote islands of French Polynesia, it was great to visit some of the better-known adventure-packed islands including Rangiroa and Bora Bora. In Rangiroa, French Polynesia’s largest atoll and the second largest in the world, we had a chance to swim with the dolphins, take a glass bottom boat or dive in the Tiputa Pass (a world renowned dive site filled with sharks, manta rays and barracudas). Rangiroa is also known for its pearl farming, so while some passengers chose the water activities, others explored the island’s local beaches where they could relax and spend the day “shopping” for pearl and shell necklaces along the beach.
Ending the trip in Bora Bora, we certainly saved the most beautiful lagoons for last. Everyone was given the opportunity to spend the day as they liked, be it biking, hiking, swimming or simply relaxing and enjoying the views of Mount Otemanu, the island’s highest peak. Our small group decided to see the island by ATV, followed by an afternoon of swimming with the local sharks and rays with our private guide. It was a great way to see the lagoons from above and below.
Not all passengers on the ship were adventure enthusiasts; some were there primarily to learn more about the history of the islands. Educating passengers on Marquesan history is a big part of the trip and we learned a lot by listening to guest lecturers and specialists that were on board. After learning about a particular area or event, we could then visit some the archaic sites, such as the town of Atuona on Hiva Oa. Here you can live out a day in the eyes of Paul Gauguin, seeing his local shops and exploring the area where he once created some of his best work. After visiting the graves of both Gauguin and Belgian singer-composer Jacques Brel, you leave the island with a better understanding of how these artists shaped the future of Tahitian art and music.
A Friendly Farewell
The last night was bittersweet, saying goodbye to our new friends and spending the evening with the captain and crew, singing karaoke and enjoying a local Hinano Beer. I left Tahiti with a better understanding of its history, culture and what made French Polynesia what it is today. The cruise not only allows you to enjoy the amenities of a modern-day ship but also shows you a glimpse into the past, giving you a better understanding of how the islands have worked together to grow and prosper over the years. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in French Polynesia, and I can’t wait to return to explore even more.
Contact Lindsay to learn more about this amazing adventure. Lindsay@otadventures.com