Go in search of an authentically exotic paradise aboard the Aranui 5.
As a kid, one of my favourite stories was about how my grandfather came to New York City. Travelling from Panama at the age of 12, he stowed away on a cargo ship, tucked among ropes and crates as a hidden human package. Each time he told me the tale, I hung on every word with the same wide-eyed grip as the first time I heard it.
It’s this story that piqued my interest in Aranui 5, a ship with a beautiful identity crisis. It carries cargo, but it is also a luxury liner. The difference to my grandfather’s story, however, is I’m trading the Manhattan metropolis for the tropical Marquesas Islands, a handful of extremely remote, pristine islands within French Polynesia. And I certainly don’t have to hide behind any crates.
If the concept of Aranui 5 sounds a little unorthodox, it’s because it is. Sure, it’s a cargo ship that transports much needed supplies to these remote outposts, but it doubles as a cruise ship where I’ll be sleeping in a delightfully appointed room and spending my days sipping a cold Hinano beer next to the pool.
When I first spot the ship, my jaw drops. It’s as if some mad scientist has Frankensteined commerce and tourism into some half-baked, late-night metal explosion. From the front, Aranui 5 doesn’t offer the grandeur I expected. The bow masks its deep belly, which stores everything from cars to livestock, while two spindly cranes breach its sharp hull like a floating praying mantis. When I look to the stern, however, the scenery changes to a number of suites surrounding a beautiful open-air deck and pool, and balconies that are decorated with colourful chairs.
It’s this melee of sophistication and rustic culture that captures the intrepid spirit for any traveller willing to make the journey.
Once onboard, all sense of the ship’s identity crisis dissipates and I’m surrounded by welcoming hospitality and luscious comfort. The rooms are large, each with its own bathroom. Some suites even have a living room and balcony. There’s cable TV, internet, a gym, pool and lively bar – enough to keep even the most restless cruiser occupied.
Dining on the Aranui 5 is an experience in itself. Breakfast is a lavish buffet of fresh eggs, breads, fruits and cereals, but by the time dinner rolls around, I’m well and truly impressed. As the grand hall fills with travellers, each anticipating the unfolding beauty ahead of us, new friends meet for the first time and discussions about future possibilities unfold. A three-course meal paired with a selection of French wines follows, carefully crafted by the chef who mixes local island flavours with global flair.
What strikes me as interesting is that almost everyone here has either been on the cruise before or has discovered it through a personal recommendation. It’s a testament to the quality of this unique experience and ensures plenty of diversity in the chatter about expectations as the ships horn sounds and it starts gliding through the salty blue mass towards paradise.
Nothing can prepare us for our destination, though, and despite the Aranui 5’s obvious attraction as a cargo ship, it’s the remote Marquesas that really steals the spotlight. That’s why we’re here after all; the ship is merely our vessel to get to the otherwise difficult to reach and wholly untapped islands.
You will not find the usual gift shops or tacky t-shirts to welcome travellers, and there are certainly no Starbucks or McDonald’s, let alone mobile-phone service. The archipelago is wild, sparsely inhabited and fiercely traditional. Here life is simple and far less diluted by the common global consciousness of the internet age. The people are friendly and curious, and the islands are pure and rugged, with dramatic coastlines and devastatingly lush interiors.
Over the next two weeks we visit more than half a dozen islands, each equally as beautiful as the last, but with its own hint of individuality. Wood-carved cathedrals dot the sandy beaches of Nuku Hiva, while Fatu Hiva’s rugged landscape is decorated with waterfalls that cascade between emerald-covered peaks. Some islands are known for amazing woodwork, and others have spent centuries mastering bone carving.
As I watch a young craftsman on Nuku Hiva practise the skills that have been passed down through generations, I marvel at the kindness and warmth of the local people, willing to show their talents with those visiting the island.
There is no established tourism here, but that’s exactly what makes these islands so special and the experience even richer. Predominantly locals, the staff onboard bring the adventure to life, sharing their knowledge, experience and culture. We may be guests, but we are welcomed to the islands as if we are family.
These islands are raw and functional, with a rustic charm that only a real adventurer and authenticity seeker will enjoy. It’s unrefined and, at times, unorganised, but in a world of prepackaged, Instagram-saturated travel, this unconventional experience is a welcome breath of fresh air.
We trek into the island’s inner caverns, joining a traditional feast of wild pig and breadfruit, and explore ancient sites that are yet to be documented by archeologists.
As we wander the pristine shores of Nuku Hiva, we discover a bay near Taipivai village, where azure waters crash against pristine white sands. We’re told it’s here Herman Melville wrote his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. It’s a small reminder of the remote destination’s rich, connected history.
We find it again a couple of days later on Hiva Oa, which enticed French painter Paul Gauguin, who made the dangerous journey to the island in 1890. It was a voyage that consequently resulted in his European rise to fame through his artistic interpretation of this unseen world.
The artist is buried on the island and a colourful cannon of his work is on display in the Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre.
In the neighbouring Tuamotus, we visit Rangiroa, where a cycling tour along the sandy coast leads to a pearl farm. A long pier stretches over the sparkling sea where black stingrays dart around below the surface. A local diver disappears into the crystal depths and returns with a fresh oyster plucked from the ocean floor. Shucked open, the grey shell reveals a fleshy interior, garnished with a black pearl. The diver hands it to me, and I’m wonderstruck by this gift of nature. Even when we trade the sand between our toes for the sea breeze through our hair back onboard the Aranui 5, the excitement continues.
From craft and cooking classes to dance lessons and parties, there’s always something to do. When I discover I can get a tattoo from one of the locals, it is an obvious must – I collect ink like passport stamps, and in Polynesia, known for its rich tattoo culture, I had to add to the story on my skin. I met with one of the local staff members who offered to do the work for me below deck in the spa. We talk about my impression of the islands, my background, what ideals I hold dear and what I think is important for a good life. Then, with a modern tattoo gun, he proceeds to etch his impression onto my arm. Not quite an hour later, I have a beautiful new piece of work done in classic Marquesas style and it immediately becomes my favourite.
As I turn into my freshly made bed, we voyage away from the Marquesas and paradise becomes nothing but a memory.
We wake up to the manicured Society Islands, where the Aranui 5 staff ease us back into reality with a farewell party atop a private atoll in Bora Bora.
Along the streak of sandy white beach, everyone trades stories and perspectives, processing the unique culture we’ve learned so much about over the past 13 days. There, walking along the beach, I look back across the blue expanse and a smile creeps across my sun-kissed face knowing that the spirit of discovering untapped culture is still possible, and that sometimes, much like New York City was to my grandfather, the fairytale of a new paradise still exists.
Air Tahiti Nui flies from Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sydney to Fa’a’a– Airport in Pape’ete via New Zealand. airtahitinui.com
Aranui 5 is a passenger and freighter vessel that travels from Pape’ete to the Marquesas Islands via Tahiti and Bora Bora. There are eight cabin types available, from dormitory style to the presidential suite. The ship also offers a boutique, spa, laundry services and a range of activities. It departs from Pape’ete, Tahiti three times a week, all year. aranui.com