For travelers who’ve already enjoyed Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea, or for those seeking a deeper dive into the marvels of some of French Polynesia’s most isolated islands, traveling to the Marquesas archipelago – nearly 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti and the Society Islands – will be an unforgettable experience.
1. A Unique Cruising Adventure
Given the isolation of the Marquesas, the best way to experience the islands is on Aranui 5 , a combination passenger/freighter ship on its 11-night cruise sailing out of Papeete which I joined in early February.
The Aranui is neither a cargo nor a cruise ship, but a vessel lending itself to an authentic adventure while providing indispensable services to faraway communities. In early days it was a schooner bringing goods to the remote Marquesas. Today intrepid cruisers voyage in comfort with good food and wines as they head towards these mythical islands.
2. An Intimate Experience
The Aranui holds a maximum of 295 passengers in 108 cabins with 106 crew and carries nearly 3,200 tons of cargo, 740 tons of diesel, and essential commodities such as food, medicine, and building supplies to the Marquesas.
Then it returns with local goods, mainly fruits, vegetables, and handicrafts, to be sold in Tahiti. On my voyage in early February, I was joined by 112 passengers, 31 of whom were English speaking 25 Germans, and the balance French nationals.
All daily briefings were held in each language and on excursions, small groups, usually four, were given a guide fluent in that language.
3. Suites with Polynesian Flair
After a quick check-in, I was shown to my spacious stateroom containing about 250-square feet. Warmly appointed with Polynesian patterned pillows and a fantastically comfortable king-sized bed, I was taken aback by the beautiful floor-to-ceiling wood carved panel resembling a Marquesan tattoo pattern separating the sleeping area from sitting area that led to the balcony.
There was a surprising abundance of drawers, storage, and counter space, a desk, and a vanity area with stool seating. Also, a safe, refrigerator, and 60-inch flat screen television. The good-sized bathroom had polished panel walls, ceramic tile floors, excellent water pressure, plenty of storage, and built-in hair dryer.
4. All Modern Conveniences
Aranui has a well-curated gift shop, swimming pool and small library. There’s a main restaurant, a specialty grill, comfortable lounges, two conference rooms, and coffee/tea station. The Veranda Bar kept guests pleased as punch during happy hours, while Deck 7 had another bar and swimming pool. Decks 8 and 9 have additional outdoor decks and Skybar lounge.
Aranui’s has a small fitness center, spa, and a tattoo studio with an expert Marquesan tattoo artist, Moana Kohumoetini should the mood strike you. Several guests tested Moana’s incredible artistic skills, with stellar, painless results.
The relaxation/deck areas, gym, and bars were available to both passengers and crew. With the exception of four crew members, all crew were either Marquesan or Tahitian.
Enjoying a beer after hours with crew members permitted additional cultural exchanges and insights to this delightful experience.
5. Comfort First
Given the long distance between Tahiti and the Marquesas, on the first and last days, day stops were made en route in the Tuamotu Archipelago followed by a relaxing sea day.
On the outbound we stopped at the rectangular shaped Fakarava, the second largest atoll after Rangiroa, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
With this sleepy slice of paradise, with literally a thousand shades of blue that inspired Henri Matisse, we snorkeled in bathtub warm waters amid healthy corals and marine life, and strolled the atoll where the shortest part is only 100-feet across! On the last day we snorkeled the pristine blue azure waters of Rangiroa.
6. The Northern Islands
On Nuku Hiva, the Marquesas’ administrative capital and largest island, mountains appear with razor-cut jagged edges in dramatic fashion.
In Taioha’e, its largest town, population 1,687, we disembarked for our first excursion, but stopped to watch the carnival-like atmosphere of cargo being unloaded by cranes and crew as recipients either waited for large items or claimed smaller goods from open containers and clipboard wielding crew.
It was an Aranui-style Amazon of the Pacific! This happy scene would replay at every port.
Here there are Catholic churches to explore, ancient Polynesian temples with ceremonial plazas, Tikis and beautiful beaches. No small wonder it was here in the mid-1800s that Herman Melville fell in love and wrote Typee: A romance in the South Seas.
On 10-mile long and 6-mile wide Ua Pou, population 2,300, we took one of several hikes during the cruise in preparation for an arduous10-mile hike at the trip’s end. As the sun began to set, a riot of color splashed the horizon just as Aranui’s crew prepared a delicious Polynesian feast onboard outdoors. Then a star-filled canopy lit up the night sky.
At Ua Huka’s Vaipae’e Bay, population 705, passengers can bear witness to some of the most talented seamen of the high seas. Hardhat donning seamen exited onto flat barges to tie the ship on lonely pilasters on either side of the narrow bay. In rough waters, these seamen used only their legs for balance and security. Passenger landing from ship to barge was also spirited, requiring balance and patience.
At the harbor, we were greeted by a charming bio-security dog employed to ensure rats remain absent. Trained in New Zealand, these pooches arrive here then become tri-lingual in their rodential pursuits. Known as the ‘island of horses,’ equestrian lovers will rejoice as horses are completely free range, even feeding on the grounds of Vaipae’e Church. There’s also a botanical garden, outrigger museum, master wood carvers, joyful ukulele music, and plenty of birds to keep ornithologists happy.
7. The Southern Islands
The oblong shaped Hiva Oa with 2,438 inhabitants, was the perfect spot for a 3-mile hike which ended conveniently at the final resting place of Paul Gauguin and Belgian musician Jacques Brel. Nearby museums honored both men on well-manicured grounds with large Tikis. Even though the Gauguin canvasses were reproductions, it was enlightening as the collection contained several detailed letters from Gauguin to his wife Mette, Van Gogh, and others.
On Hiva Oa’s northeast side in Puamao is the most important archeological site in the Marquesas, Te I’i Pona. Here rests chief and great warrior Taka’i’i, the largest Tiki in French Polynesia standing nearly eight feet. Also, here lying supine is the complete Butterfly Princess Tiki carved by her famous Na’iki sculptor husband, Manuiota’a in her memory.
Three miles across the Bordelaise Channel is Tahuata, at 23 square miles, the smallest Marquesas Island, with 600 inhabitants, known for intricate bone carvings and secluded beaches.
Arriving at Fatu Hiva, the southernmost and most isolated of the Marquesas with 633 residents, we rose early to start the beautiful 10-mile hike from Omoa. At mile five the Aranui crew set up a sandwich station with fresh baguettes, brownies, and mango juice; a South Seas-style Subway franchise with forever views.
Heading down the mountain a hundred shades of verdant jade complemented the massive baroque basalt mountains. These bore deep depressions giving the appearance of elongated Tiki faces carved within, while the highest points thrust pointedly towards the heavens.
8. A Polynesian Experience Like no Other
Without a doubt, sailing on Aranui 5 is a wonderful cruise experience like no other providing a wealth of unusual experiences in a heavenly setting. Chances are after visiting you will become afflicted with the Marquesan Virus: a fascination with all things Marquesan and a burning desire to return as often as possible.
If you go: International flights to Papeete generally arrive late at night, so travelers will need to arrive a day or two before sailing and to explore Tahiti's offerings, including the Notre Dame, Central Market, and beaches.
On a secluded black sand beach, yet only 20-minutes from downtown Papeete is Le Tahiti by Pearl Resorts on Matavai Bay. Polynesian hospitality prevails in a picture perfect setting, with an enormous seafront pool, restaurant, fitness center and spa. Happy travels!
Written by Julie L. Kessler
Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler