Marquesas: a look at the world's most remote islands (and the strange way to get there)
The Aranui 3 is not a looker. In fact, it's a cargo vessel that, for more than fifty years, transferred goods from Papeete, Tahiti, to the remote islands of Marquesa. It wasn't until the early 80s that, for the first time, she transformed into a freighter-cum-passenger cruise with twelve cabins, bringing adventure-bound travelers to explore the Pacific islands. Twelve cabins increased to 85 cabins (2002) and almost all 17 cruises in a calendar year are brimming to full occupancy. In 2014, Aranui unveiled Aranui 5, which doubled in size from Aranui 3. I questioned the popularity of the cruise (a cargo vessel??) until I embarked on the journey in 2013 on Aranui 3.
The allure definitely has nothing to do with the interior of the ship, which is bare-boned and under-embellished, including common areas like a lounge with miniscule library and a dining hall that has little ocean view (some of the port hole windows are blocked by cargo and barges). It has nothing to do with the cabins (the suites with balconies do get a thumbs up) that offer basic amenities—twin bed, desk, tube TV—or the reception desk that is only open a handful of hours a day. It has little to do with the three daily timed mostly starch-heavy meals that are fixed, as in no menu options (vegetarians must declare their status before boarding). It has nothing to do with the crew that has no uniform, wearing souvenir-shop T-shirts, some walking barefoot. And it isn't until a few days at sea when I have a moment of clarity, understanding why the ship is conversely one of the most fascinating, why people from all over the world (Germany and France to New York and Australia) spend thousands of dollars (approximately $4,000 for a standard room) to board a cargo vessel that has wireless internet only five days out of two weeks. Again, it really has nothing to do with the actual ship: it's all about the journey.
The Marquesa Islands are so remote that the closest cosmopolitan city is Honolulu, Hawaii, which is about 2,175 miles away. Even from Papeete, Tahiti, the distance to Marquesa sprawls as far as 935 miles and takes three cruising days to get to. Aranui 3 is the only ship to go to all the inhabited islands (6 out of 11) and it was the first to demystify a world very few people can say they've been to. Life on the Marquesa Islands would not exist if it weren't for Aranui ("big way" is the rough translation). Supplying food and goods to the islands has allowed the small societies to thrive. Ultimately, cruising on the Aranui 3 is simply living history. And from initial embarkation, passengers onboard have a common denominator: they share the same passion to travel off the radar, not seeking just a vacation but an adventure.
As I learned a few days into the journey, practical comfort was perhaps the best attribute of Aranui 3. It was relaxed (there's absolutely no dress code) and range of guests I met (a writer for CSI, business owners, a web programmer) were just as down-to-earth as me. A healthy number of passengers came from France, and the majority were of an older demographic (median age was 50) but the variety of character deemed quite interesting. There were even single travelers who thrived on exotic destinations. We all shared the three sundecks, the central, fresh-water pool on the main deck and found ourselves, every night, at the Polynesian-themed bar (wooden-wall, thatch columns, tiki designs) to share our stories from our daily excursions.
The group of islands of the Marquesa in the Pacific Ocean are approximately five million years old and discovered in 1595 by a Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, on a missionary trip. Eleven islands sprawl an area of 385 square miles, and the name of the islands have curiously changed over time as, in old Polynesia, nothing was ever handwritten. Therefore the islands can be spelled differently according to inflection of voice. They are the most remote island group in the world (Easter island is the most remote island, and there's a mysterious link between the two) so getting there requires the desire to fully trail off the beaten path.
Marquesa is all about the experiential moments as well as the allure of the islands’ exoticism, history and mystique. When we arrived on day 3 to the first island, Ua Pou, we docked at the town of Hakahua (population: 3,000), which gave us our first glimpse of the islands.
Like the other islands, Ua Pou is striking with its own uniqueness. Three basaltic peaks soar high in the sky like a statement, marking a geological identity, rising from lush forestry, the surrounding water a dark, milky green hue thanks to the volcanic sand’s impact on the clarity. A 30-minute hike up a valley brought passengers to a scenic vantage point of the bay and, below, there was even a pocket-size beach for sunbathing. I was attracted by the town itself, equipped with a post office, a bank, a school, a couple general stores and not much else. Most houses were ground level, box-shaped and minimally decorative with music coming from open windows without anyone seemingly home. Through my journey, I would come to learn this living environment was the same for all the inhabited islands. The feeling of being complete remote, in the middle of nowhere, sunk in fast. After meandering under the hot sun, often seeking shade under a palm, all passengers convened at a typical buffet lunch—poisson cru, beef, rice, banana pudding—at an open-roof restaurant. A local band performed traditional Polynesian dance and song, notable for its centuries-long running.
Perhaps the highlight of Ua Pou was actually cruising the island from one port (Hakahua) to another (Taiohae). Valleys and mountains soared majestically as dolphins flipped in and out of the water during the sail. If you're a history geek like me, you can't help but live vicariously through explorers. I imagined, as I watched the cliffs of these islands that have not changed for thousands of years, discovering Ua Pou for the first time, especially in Taiohae when we approached a completely rustic bay with an unusual rock formation in the landscape. Local, dark children wearing only undergarments splashed in and around the water as their parents manned handicraft tables. I opted for a young coconut for five dollars (as you can imagine, remote = $$$) and didn't have the privilege of fully enjoying it. As I set it down on a ledge to take a photo of the awesome scenery, young boys had cracked it open by slamming it to the ground to chomp away at the coconut meat. It was an endearing moment.
Intrigue was the theme when we arrived the next morning to Nuku Hiva. As all 120 passengers loaded onto 30 trucks (personal vehicles of the locals) a rainstorm brewed. Our driver said: "It always rains when the Aranui arrives." This turned out to be an otherwise good omen, as one of the fattest rainbows I've ever seen arched over the bay. Here, we drove deep into the rainforest, passing the largest waterfall in the South Pacific, then trekked into the heart of the jungle to the island’s largest banyan tree (approximately 400 years old) on an archaeological site, Hatitheu, where local tribesmen resided several hundred years ago. The proof is in the various stone carvings and relics left behind.
Arguably the most popular island, Nuku Hiva is where Herman Melville jumped a whaling ship in 1842, captured by the Taipa tribe. He spent an indefinite amount of time living amongst the tribesmen, one of the few cannibal tribes to exist. (When the Europeans came in the mid-19th century, they brought disease, which wiped out a healthy portion of the population leading to scarce resources and food. Hence, human appetite). Melville's first novel, Typee, is based on his time living here.
A short—and muddy, thanks to the brief drizzle—hike lead us through lush foliage to ancient ruins, a former village where the chief of a tribe once resided and made sacrifices. The ancient tiki stones are a reminder of their values. The hike had left Mark and me so knackered, we almost skipped dinner. Fortunately, we made it down and Joel, witnessing the good times we were having with a group of Aussies we befriended at our shared table—continued to top us off with red wine late into the night.
Painter Paul Gaugin and Belgium singer Jacques Brel were so impressed with their initial visit to Hiva Oa, the largest island in the archipelago and our next port stop, they actually stayed and died there. In 1902, Gaugin wrote a friend in a letter: "I congratulate myself every day for the decision of coming here."
We visited Gaugin’s grave at the top of a hill, paying tribute to the artist who lived wonderfully and gave the art world some iconic paintings, many of which can be found at the Gaugin museum just a short walk from the cemetery. While the museum is no Tate, it offers a comprehensive history of the painter and well worth a visit, even if all the paintings are replicas.
Fatu Hiva is perhaps the most retro island and least developed with swaying palms, a nominal population of 400 and little to no infrastructure (comparative to the other islands we romped). A handful of passengers trekked for ten miles through the rain forest while others remained in Hanavave, one of the most awe-inspiring bays where locals shared pastimes and cultural identities like paintings on tapa cloth made from bark, monoi oil and pareus (sarongs). Here, rock outcrops branched from various summits, looking like tikis themselves. Thanks to the notoriously sublime sunset in Fatu Hiva, docking two nights was not surprising, and the anchored sailboats and yachts that surrounded us were testament to the bay's beauty.
On the island excursions, most sites and activities happened to be near the ports, easily accessible by foot or 4x4 truck. This was the case when we returned to Hiva Oa at a different port, Puamau. It's considered one of the most interesting as the majority of archaeological sites and artifacts in all the islands are found here. A steep climb led us to an ancient temple, fueling our sense of adventure, Indiana Jones style. Through a clearing in the rain forest, we stumbled upon an ancient site known for ceremonies and sacrifices, hence the 300- to 500-year-old stone, 8-foot tikis. After a fascinating lecture by Jorgi, the head guide, we headed back to shore, splashing about a terrific beach with wild surf.
Passengers were often pleased that the Aranui shore excursions returned before dusk when the sun dropped beyond the point where sky meets sea. The sunset was different every night yet all the same commanding. It was a challenge to find a free lounge chair on deck at these times.
Most of the previous island visits were rife with natural attractions, commanding landscape and historical notes but Tahuata—the site of the first French settlement in the Marquesas in 1842—was all about the people. In fact, as soon as we anchored, we were greeted with garlands by the local children, who were eager to see us. They sang songs and followed us to an outdoor BBQ lunch by the sea, where they introduced us to traditional Polynesian dances accompanied by song and Marquesan drum and ukulele. While all Marquesans are naturally friendly, the Tahuatans were the most memorable.
Speaking of memories, Tahuatan is also home to Felip, a local Marquesan tattooist who, at the age of 47, has been inking for thirty years. Four eager passengers were able to get tattoos and became legendary (albeit, for a short time) on our boat. After all, they’re now part of a very small number of Westerners who can say they got a tattoo in the place tattooing began hundreds of years (tattooing allegedly first originated in the Marquesas and spread wildly throughout the world).
Our final destination in the islands was back at Nuku Hiva, where we docked for two hours to swim, hike or amass a number of hand-carved handicraft trinkets to bring back home. It wasn't until we were pulling away from the immensity of the land that I realized how much I would miss not only the Marquesan islands but the cruise that brought me here. The cultural immersion went beyond hikes, food, culinary tours and ancient attractions. I learned about Polynesian history through the incredibly shy crew who, at the end of the cruise, presented a traditional dance performance on the sundeck. Furthermore, the crew shared their stories and history, whether through storytelling or their very own tattoos. They also learned Western culture through us passengers. It was an exceptionally moving moment when I recognized the integration of crew and passengers at journey's end, sitting together at the bar, at either sundeck or off shore. But what stood out most was that every passenger would have fond memories, stories to tell about tracing Herman Melville's past, living vicariously through Paul Gaugin, experiencing a culture practically hidden, identifying a passion for off-the-radar travel with likeminded, new friends, learning the importance of Polynesia and never forgetting the freighter that made the seemingly unthinkable trip a reality.