We have survived monsoons and a highjacking, but this was the most exciting yet
By Walter & Patricia Brooks
We've traveled to over 160 countries and flown 100,000 miles or more a year for the past decade. We?ve been railroading during the Malaysian monsoon season, and we?ve even been highjacked at Uzi machine gun point in Haiti, but no travel trip to date equals the two weeks we spent aboard a freighter sailing through the Marquesas in French Polynesia.
We have often wondered if there were still any of those old tramp steamers plying the trade routes of the world to out-of-the way places where therewere no airports or roads like in those stories we all read in our misspent youths by people like W. Somerset Maugham and James A. Michener.
Was there such a trip still available, or had we waited too long?
A thousand miles north to the Marquesas
After a web search we discovered the good ship Aranui, which means ?The Great Highway? in Maori, which operates under the French flag. Her crew is all Polynesian, primarily Marquesans, and it serves as the primary transportation and supply link to the Marquesas Islands located a three day sail north of Tahiti in the South Pacific.
This working freighter is the lifeline for these faraway islands.
It accommodates about 200 passengers of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities while delivering cargo to some of the most remote islands on earth. Many passengers are islanders returning home by deck passage. They even limit to nimber of Americans so as not to spoil it for their European guest.
While it is a very livable vessel, the experience is not for travelers looking for glamour or glitz.
You can go along for the ride to watch the tattooed crew sling sacks of copra (dried coconuts) and oil drums by day, or listen as they strum ukuleles on the deck by night. Or you can just laze on the deck and watch them in comfort as you sip a Gin & Tonic with a spash of Rose's Lime Juice.
Side trips a free and you visit these islands like a native
The Aranui offers an authentic taste of Polynesian life at sea and the rare opportunity to visit these islands like a native. Despite no advertising budget, the Aranui is usually booked long in advance due to the glowing write-ups it receives in the international press.
It has been featured in South Seas documentaries as well as motion pictures, including Warren Beatty?s 1994 film ?Love Affair? and in the PBS travelogue ?In Search of Paradise?. Even our family doctor and his wife took this trip after seeing our photos.
Week One; Sailing north for 1,000 miles
After two days sightseeing in Tahiti, we boarded this wonderful, colorful freighter.
For the next three days, except for a short stop at the Takapoto atoll, we sailed through the calm waters of the South Pacific to the Marquesas islands nearly a thousand sea miles north of Papeete, Tahiti.
Our first port of call was Ua Pou where our initial view was clouds wreathing the peak of Oave. This volcano rises 4,000 feet above the sea and dominates the skyline as we explore the little village of Hakahau and eat a Marquesan lunch of breadfruit, rock lobster and native delicacies like raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.
Next we hiked through the town to a lookout and visited the local grammar school on the way back down. The next port of call was Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, the administrative center of the Marquesas, where we were taken on a Land Rover jaunt through the mountains. This is the only island with any air connection from a tiny airport which is a one-hour, bone-jarring jeep ride through the mountains to the only spot flat enough for a small airstrip. The airport gets its fuel from the Aranui.
Oil drums are ferried to shore in our ship?s small whale boats which later return to ferry us ashore as well.
Approaching this island from downwind, the air is thick with fragrant scent of tiare and frangipani. It was here that a young Herman Melville, of New Bedford, MA, deserted his whaling ship, and fled to the Taipivai Valley. His stay with the cannibal Taipi tribe was the basis for his famous novel Typee, which was his misspelling of Taiohae.
The next day we arrived on Hiva Oa and explored Atuona, the second largest village in the Marquesas where Paul Gauguin lived and painted until his death in 1903. A short hike uphill leads to Gauguin?s grave which is next to that of Jacques Brel, the Belgium songwriter, who also lived on this island.
Later the same day we set sail for the tiny village of Vaitahu, on Tahuata, where Spanish explorers first landed in 1595.
Two centuries later came the missionary to whom the generous local chief gave his wife with instructions that he treats her as his own wife. The missionary fled the next day.
By our eighth day we reached the lushest and most remote island, Fatu Hiva, which is formed from two extinct volcanoes. Our next stop was Omoa where Herman Melville also spent enough time to get the idea for his novel Omoo which was his phonetic spelling of the native word for this island.
The next day the Aranui returned to the opposite side of Hiva Oa where we visited the most important archaeological site for tiki, statues representing ancestors. The only other place these tiki exist is on Easter Island.
Our next island, Ua Huka, has 2,000 wild horses.
The locals round up one only when they need it. We were provided with wooden saddles and spent the day crossing this island?s mountains, including a stop at a horticultural institution.
On our return voyage to Tahiti, we spent two full days at sea before reaching one of the world?s largest atolls, Rangiroa, where we took the whaleboats to a picnic on a golden beach and later swam and snorkeled.
It would be difficult for even as wide-eyed an enthusiast as myself to exaggerate the joys of this exotic voyage. The local guides aboard were brilliant and insightful while the crew made us feel like friends and neighbors.
This is FRENCH Polynesia, so the food has a French Provincial influence. Every meal is a delight, running the gamut from haute cuisine to local Marquesan dishes. All were superb, like French cooking in America before Haute Cusine made it too fancy.
To to get there; We flew nonstop from Boston on American Airlines, and hooked up with a new local Tahitian carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, which offers one trip daily from L.A. to Papeete, Tahiti, an eight-hour flight over the Pacific.
We flew nearly halfway around the earth with only a 1/2 hour layover in L.A.
Oh, I forgot to mention! The Aranui serves endless bottles of wine at both lunch and dinner, all included in the fare which starts at $2,079 for a dorm to $5,445 for the best deluxe suites which even includes bathtub and a balcony. We settled for a standard A cabin at $3,675. The prices are per person, double occupancy and include 3 meals with wine, guided excursions, picnic and meals on shore?. And the sunrises are spectacular.