Voyaging To The Marquesas Islands – What A Stunning Experience!

Super yachts, noisy traffic and the busy streets of Papeete quickly become a distant memory replaced by “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem”: the motto posted in the bar of the Aranui 3 that defines the casual atmosphere aboard this hard-working freighter.

Every three weeks the Aranui takes up to 200 passengers from Papeete, Tahiti to the remote Marquesas Islands but its main task is delivering freight.

The ship provides a lifeline of essential items including food, medical supplies and building material. The Tahitian and Marquesan crew wrap passengers fortunate enough to be on board in the gentle embrace of Polynesian hospitality and culture throughout the two-week voyage.

While skilled seaman unload and reload cargo, passengers are taken in 4WD vehicles with experienced guides who lead groups on short and long trips to hike and explore archaeological sites and museums.

Along the way stops are made at villages to enjoy local food and view dances and craftsmen at work. An expert lecturer is on board to give talks and guides speak English, German and French.

On Board The Aranui

Accommodation ranges from backpacker dorms and standard cabins to deluxe suites and the ship has a small swimming pool, gym and gift shop. The Aranui is a working freighter which makes the journey far more interesting for those seeking an alternative to standard cruise ships.

Waking up to islands with soaring peaks and lush vegetation surrounded by deep blue water is the start of most mornings, followed by a hearty buffet breakfast that covers the spectrum from freshly baked croissants, eggs, sausages, yogurt, fruit, cereal and much more.

Lunch and dinner are served in three courses of delicious French/Polynesian food often sourced from the sea and nearby islands. Bottles of red and white wine accompany afternoon and evening meals. The comfortable dining area hosts a causal mix of passengers who often linger for hours in conversation.

During the two-week voyage two stops are made in the Tuamotu Archipelago and while voyaging through the Marquesas six islands are visited.

The Marquesas lie just over 1000 kilometres north-east of Papeete. Tourists flock to Tahiti’s attractions but few take the time to venture to these remote islands so visitors are warmly welcomed with a smile and a tiare, a small fragrant white gardenia flower, to place behind their ear.

Notable Visitors to the Marquesas Islands

These are the fabled islands of Robert Louis Stevenson who in 1880 wrote about Ua Pou’s exotic landscape. In 1842 Herman Melville jumped his whaling ship on Nuku Hiva resulting in his first novel Typee and later his classic Moby Dick.

Melville wrote:

“The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the name spirit up! I felt an irresistible curiosity to see those islands which the olden voyages had so glowingly described.”

French artist Paul Gauguin left Tahiti after finding it too civilised, to spend his final years (1900-1903) in the small township of Atuona on the island of Hiva Ova. His writing, paintings, prints and carvings often portray a romantic view of a lost, primitive paradise full of lush vegetation and graceful Polynesians but his work achieved international recognition only after his death.

Hiva Oa was also the refuge of Belgian born artist, singer and composer Jacques Brel who was popular throughout France and much of Europe. Brel became much loved for delivering the mail and flying villagers to hospital in his trusty Beechcraft airplane named Jojo. A small museum houses the aircraft and tells the story of these two iconoclastic artists. Their peaceful graves are visited in the beautiful setting of Calvaire Cemetery on a nearby hillside.

A Familiar Culture for Kiwis

New Zealanders will find the rich cultural heritage of these remarkable islands of particular interest. The art of the Marquesas reaches back in time to the arrival of the Lapita peoples from the homeland of Southeast Asia. These early settlers of the Pacific brought with them knowledge of long distance voyaging and artistic traditions of intricate pottery designs, tattooing and carved sculpture.

Incised pottery is no longer made but early petroglyphs carved on large stones and traditional tattoos are reminders of this ancient craft. This artistic legacy continues to the present day and is readily available in the work of local craftsmen and women who carve tikis and wooden bowls, produce tapa cloth, pearl and shell jewellery.

Marquesan tattoo, worn by both men and women, is an art form in its own right but these traditions were almost lost. Fortunately the re-emergence of Marquesan culture during the 1970s resulted in educational programmes that encourage culture and the arts. Now graceful dancers supported by drums, ukuleles and guitars are part daily life.

While the Marquesas Islands are exotic they are also familiar. French is the language of Polynesia but Kiwis will recognise many of the Marquesan customs and words because they are similar to Maori. Me’ae is the Marquesan word for marae and many of these historic sites dot the landscape.

Preserving For The Future

An initial proposal was put to UNESCO in 2012 to include the Marquesas Islands in the list of world heritage sites in order to better protect its environment, historic sites and cultural values. UNESCO will consider the matter in 2017 but more importantly, because of the research and effort required to make the proposal, Marquesan’s have placed great value on maintaining the natural environment, their heritage and cultural traditions.

All too soon I find myself winging my way back to Aotearoa. Home again, my thoughts turn to those distant islands, friendly faces and remarkable landscapes.