my marquesas island adventure

aranui polynesian nightThis holiday adventure had been a long time in the planning. Having a keen interest in Polynesian culture, and specifically being great admirers of the artisans who continue the traditions of tiki carving, our dream was to visit the Marquesas Islands.

This isn’t your everyday travel destination and is certainly not on the regular tourist route. The most common question when people heard where we were going was “Where’s that?” The Marquesas Islands are part of French Polynesia and sit 1500 km (800 nautical miles) northeast of Tahiti and just 6 degrees below the Equator. Although supplies come via Papeete, and this is where children usually go for higher education or where more advanced medical services are available, in many ways the Marquesas are worlds away from Tahiti. The Marquesans have their own language, unique customs and even the climate is different (often less humid and drier on some islands).

When investigating how we were going to travel in this remote part of the world we discovered the Aranui 3. Known as the ‘freighter to paradise’, this custom-built ship is the main lifeline to the outside world. For decades this family-owned ship has carried all the necessary cargo to the islands and collected copra (dried coconut) on the return journey, which was a major source of income for the Marquesans. In recent years they have upgraded to a larger ship that can also accommodate around 200 travellers, but one of the reasons we enjoyed the trip so much is that it’s still very much a working vessel.

Having never done a cruise before, I didn’t realise how important the distinction is between a cruise ship that carries freight compared to how the Aranui operates – as a cargo ship that carries people. If you want a cruise with a casino on board, deck quoits and a full menu selection for dinner, then this isn’t for you. But if you want a travel experience that introduces you to the local people and their ancient customs and helps you explore remote and picturesque islands, then I can thoroughly recommend the Aranui 3.

The journey itself was truly amazing! The Marquesas Islands are rugged and spectacular volcanic islands – some with dramatic jagged peaks rising up out of lush green slopes and others with arid rolling hills resembling the coast of Scotland. There has been very little development on the islands, so this Pacific paradise remains wild and relatively untouched. While there are some palm-fringed black sand beaches and a few good places for swimming, it’s not really a beach holiday destination. But the Aranui stops at Tuamotu Islands on the way to and from the Marquesas, so this is where you can get your fix of white sandy beaches and great snorkeling.

On the 14-day voyage there are only two days when you are at sea, every other day includes fantastic island adventures. Wherever we docked it seemed that the whole village was there to greet us. Since the Aranui arrives twice a month with all the supplies, you can imagine the commotion, but there is also excitement due to the local preparations for our arrival. At Ua Pou we were treated to a spirited and colourful Polynesian dance display and that was followed by a most delicious Marquesan lunch at Rosalie’s restaurant. On the island of Nuku Hiva it was the locals themselves who provided our transport for the day. For some reason most Marquesans seem to have big shiny new Toyota Hilux and other impressive 4WDs, so we travelled in convoy high into the mountains to reach the most amazing sacred ritual sites. The wood and stone carved tikis and petroglyphs are incredible and to think that these sites are virtually a secret to the outside world – it is such a privilege to gain this insight into the once grand lives of the warrior tribes.

The island of Fatu Hiva is famous for its crafts, so here we saw demonstrations on making tapa cloth and spent time with the sculptors who skillfully carve modern tikis. On Ua Huka we were again driven around the island in local vehicles decorated with flowers to visit villages renowned for their wooden carvings. The standard of work being produced throughout the Marquesas is excellent and another of the great things about the destination is it hasn’t been invaded by tacky souvenirs and cheap imitations. It’s not a shopper’s paradise, unless like us you love the stone and wood carvings. There are beautiful black pearls, shell and seed jewellery made by locals, but beware if you are from Australia, as sadly the seed bracelets I bought as gifts couldn’t be brought into the country.

Many of the islands where the Aranui dock can only be reached by boat and on these smaller islands we enjoyed what they call ‘wet landings’. There is no port for the Aranui, so the ship anchors in the bay and we board the whaleboats to go to shore. This can be tricky at times and with rough waves, but the crew were great at making sure that no one lost their footing getting in and out of the boats. The staff and guides on board are absolutely fantastic – from our first introduction we were made feel very welcome and any query or request for assistance was always cheerfully received. The guides are multi-lingual and if you speak English, German or French it’s a breeze. Our guides became our great friends as they accompanied us on shore excursions and we could always enjoy a Hinano beer with them at the bar.

That’s another thing I appreciated about the Aranui, there didn’t seem to be a ‘them-and-us’ culture between the crew and passengers. I think that’s another plus of being on a cargo cruise – because the staff are part of a big family. Many have worked on the board for years, some even decades. The guy that you saw unloading the ship that morning can be the same person you see playing the ukulele in the band that night – and the girl in the restaurant is also a fantastic Polynesian dancer.

We had huge admiration for the men responsible for the cargo. It was a well-choreographed and graceful dance as they unloaded everything from cars and sacks of sugar to cows and electric generators. Watching the cranes move with precision and seeing the calm teamwork was one of the trip highlights and it felt great to be on a ship that serviced the local community rather than just invaded it with tourists.

There’s no denying Tahiti and the Marquesas are not a cheap destination. When I say not cheap, I mean you can expect to pay AU$7/US$4.50/GBP3.00 for a bottle of local beer; AU$36/US$24/GBP15 for a basic meal and AU$12/US$8/GBP5 for a roll-on deodorant! But when you consider the high costs of things it makes the Aranui even better value.

Your trip includes ALL your shore excursions. There are no extras to pay unless you want to do one of the optional activities, such as scuba diving, horse riding, or getting a tattoo – yes, they can even arrange for one of the renowned local tattoo artists to give you an indelible souvenir!

Also there is a guest lecturer on each cruise who provides fantastic insight into the local culture. We had the pleasure of being joined by Michael Koch, who now lives in Fiji but has also spent time living in and researching the languages of the Marquesas. His background information and on-site talks brought to life the history and traditions of the Marquesas and gave us a much greater understanding of the region.

ALL your meals are included – and don’t expect to start your diet on the trip. Breakfast is a buffet of fruit, cold meats, cheese, breads, fresh pastries and you can ask for eggs if you wish. Lunch and dinner are always 3 courses when on the boat – I kept telling myself that today I would skip dessert, but there is a pastry chef on board who is way too talented! Plus when you are on board wine is included with lunch and dinner – you have your choice of red or white and when the bottle runs out you can just ask for another!

And for an Intrepid traveller one of the big treats was free laundry – that’s right, three times during the trip they would wash our laundry for us – what service! Plus there are drinking fountains so you don’t have to buy bottled water.

We stayed in a Standard cabin, which was very comfortable with twin beds and private bathroom. I had a peek at the deluxe cabins and these are a real treat, especially if you have your own balcony.

All in all I can’t fault this trip and I’m thrilled that The Travel Lab, Intrepid’s R and D department, has added the Aranui to their cargo ship cruises. The Marquesas Islands are magnificent and lived up to our expectations (which were high since we’d dreamed of going for so long) – and the experience aboard the Aranui was absolutely wonderful.

If you have any questions about this trip, please don’t hesitate to post a comment – I’d love to share more information with you about our Cargo Ship Cruise – Tahiti and the Marquesas – 14 days ex Papeete.

Happy travels,
Sue Elliot
Intrepid Express Editor

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About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Hi Joanna,

In regards to doing your own exploring rather than participating in the organised activities, that shouldn’t be a problem, particularly if you are happy walking. I only say that because when the ship docks in some ports most of the local vehicles are used for the passengers and there might not be any left for independent travellers.

I would recommend contacting Aranui 3 directly to find out if it’s possible to arrange your own local guides, as a lot of the local guides are involved with looking after the ship’s groups and I’m not sure if additional guides would be available for private tours. The crew on board are very accommodating so I’m sure they would help arrange this for you if it was available.

The shore tours are quite relaxed and much of the time is your own. The Aranui staff, as well as the islanders, will go out of their way to help you.

Wishing you a great trip,

Hi, i really enjoyed reading this. I’m considering Aranui as my next big trip, in October/November next year. I was wondering how easy is it to avoid the organized trips and go exploring on your own? I don’t really feel like travelling in a column of 10 land-rovers and standing watching hula-dances with 50 other people, I’d rather fgo hiking on my own, or with a local guide. Are such activities possible to arrange?'

Thank you Sue -My first visit to Tahiti was on the SS Southern Cross in 1958 ! since then and 100+ visits later ( mailnly on business) it seemed time to make perhaps the lastt pilgrimage to paradise and what better way we thought than on Aranui 3- your reply confirms our thoughts


Hi Neil,

Thanks for your Intrepid Express blog question – I hope you realise that you’ve made me really jealous, as I still rate the Aranui as one of my most enjoyable holidays and I’d love to do it all over again!

Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands are certainly the most expensive destination I’ve ever encountered, but one of the good things about the Aranui is you don’t feel like they are taking advantage of the fact and loading prices even more, like other cruises do. Any of the drinks at the bar seem to be the same price as you would pay on shore. They also allow you to bring your own alcohol on board but it can only be consumed in your cabin, not in any public places. Unfortunately I can’t remember the exact prices of drinks at the bar, but I think beer was probably double or triple what you’d pay at home, and we had a Scotsman on board who would have a whiskey as a special occasion – it was pricey!

Part of the reason I can’t remember exact prices is that you can charge to your cabin and pay by credit card at the end of the cruise, which is what I did. Also free wine is provided with lunch and dinner on the ship and they offer a generous selection of red and white (mainly European wines).

A word of caution – when you board the ship you are invited to captains cocktails on the deck at around 10am. I thought surely it was a fruit cocktail, but no, it was a very wicked rum brew 😉

I hope that helps a little and I wish you a wonderful time aboard the Aranui 3.
Best wishes,

Hello Sue

My wife and I are really very excited to be taking the Aranui in July this year.
We know Tahiti can be very expensive by anybody’s language, but 1 question, how did you find the “bar” prices on board. I mean like Beer, Wine Cocktails, fruit juices?
Many thanks

Thanks for all the info…what months would recommend to do this 14 day trip on the
Aranui 3



Hi Jeff,
Luckily I have a job I love to come back to, but you’re right, leaving the Marquesas was a sad day. My partner and I are already planning our next trip, because we’d love to see what the islands are like in a year’s time.
Best wishes,
Sue, Intrepid Express Editor

Wow, that sounds amazing! I bet you really must not have wanted to return from this true paradise!

Hi Gail,
The Marquesas are such an inspiring place for artists. Other than the Aranui, you can fly into some of the islands from Papeete, but there’s an option you could consider that I think I’d like to do next time (see, just back and already dreaming of my next time!)… some of the guests got on and off the ship in Nuku Hiva, an island with an airport. You could cruise with the Aranui from Papeete and enjoy 11 days on board and being introduced to the islands by the locals and then you could disembark in Nuku Hiva and spend extra time there or on another island. I’m sure Travel Lab could get a cost for you if you wanted to consider this.
Best wishes and I hope you get to live your dream in the Marquesas,

Hello Sue, I got wind of the Annui cruise some time ago and have been dreaming about it. I really liked your description. Would it be worthwhile to stay on one of those island for say a week? I am an artist and would need more than a little time to do my work. How would you get there if not on the Annui?

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