This article is originated from the New York Post by Hana R Alberts.
Standing on a boat, with impenetrably blue ocean in every direction as far as I can see, I’m 6,283 miles away from New York, 4,940 miles away from Santiago, 2,545 miles away from Auckland and 5,897 miles away from Tokyo.
It’s the middle of nowhere.
All aboard the Aranui 5, a half-passenger, half-cargo ship that takes some 250 guests and 100 crew members at a time from capital Papeete — on Tahiti, the biggest island in French Polynesia — to faraway corners of the archipelago.
The boat is the only vessel that goes to the Marquesas, a group of 12 tiny islands about 900 miles (or a day and a half of sailing) northeast of Tahiti. They’ve been called the most remote place in the world. Six are inhabited by a total of 9,000 people — down from a population of more than 50,000 at their peak, depleted by westerner-wrought diseases as well as attrition to Tahiti or other places with more educational and professional opportunities.
The Aranui is business in the front, party in the back. In the bow, containers are stacked high, holding groceries, road- and house-building supplies and even cars; in the stern are nine decks with state rooms, lounges, food and beverage options, a pool, a gym and a boutique.
Part of a shipping company founded in 1954 by a Tahitian of Chinese descent who saw an opportunity for trade between the capital and these far-flung atolls, an earlier version of the Aranui started carrying passengers in 1984. Each boat built since has accommodated more leisure travelers.
A two-week trip on the freighter with almost daily shore excursions delivers delights like natural wonders (cliffs, tropical flowers, beaches, crystalline waters), cultural experiences (rambunctious dances, headdresses, wood-carved items, ink sketches on hammered tree bark, jewelry made of bone, nuts and seeds) and peace and quiet (there’s no cell service or reliable internet). The Aranui also serves essential functions for the ports visited. On each of the six inhabited islands — Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Ua Huka, Fatu Hiva and Tahuata — cars queue up to fetch cases of soda and concrete. They drop off their main export: copra, or dried coconut, used for oil extraction and feeding livestock.
Related to Hawaiians, Fijians and Tongans, Polynesians are of East Asian descent. Canvassed by European and South American explorers and later popularized by Disney’s “Moana,” these blips in the Pacific hosted artist Paul Gauguin (who built a “house of pleasure” in Hiva Oa, then died and was buried there) and author Herman Melville (who hunkered down in a Nuku Hiva valley after jumping a whaling ship at age 23).
Some of the Marquesas have tiny airstrips, but traveling by boat leaves the least impact on these lightly trafficked locales. If all of us stayed on shore, the plumbing would clog in seconds.
Also idyllic were stops in other island chains. In the Tuamotus, atolls Rangiroa and Fakarava provided soft sand, scuba diving and snorkeling. On famed Bora Bora, one of the Society Islands, we swam with sharks and rays.
During the gently lilting hours between ports, passengers drape themselves on deck chairs outside and cozy banquettes inside, reading, playing cards or sipping cans of the local brew, Hinano. For this New Yorker, not having anything particular to do was a novel — and enjoyable — concept. Even with a few hundred people on board, there were quiet nooks.
English speakers were in the minority. Folks from France and Tahiti itself dominated the demographics, leading to especially fun meals (foie gras on special nights) and evening activities like karaoke (French pop songs of the 1980s are underrated).
Given the cruise’s intellectual bent — with historical and logistical briefings ahead of each disembarkation to provide context as well as on-board guest lecturers with intimate knowledge of the Marquesas — the clientele skews toward retirees. That made the journey especially relaxing for me. No makeup? No problem.
Everyone, though, is curious and adventurous. A typical question posed over dinner was, “Oh, and how did you get to Antarctica?” Aranui devotees take repeat trips; crew members return to work for decades.
There are about 20 sailings per year, and the starting rate for a voyage is currently $2,920 per person. It’s worth the trek from the US; Air Tahiti Nui operates flights that are about eight hours long from Los Angeles to Papeete.
December 2019 brings the much-anticipated Marquesas Art Festival, held once every four years to reignite interest in ancestral traditions from geometrically patterned tattoos to carved stone tikis representing deities uncovered by archaeologists.
The ship’s departure and arrival times make days in the capital a pleasant necessity. Hotel Tahiti Nui is a solid option in the middle of town, close to the central market and the French-Chinese-Thai food trucks that line the harbor; the more resort-y Manava Suites is about 20 minutes from town and boasts an infinity pool and paddleboard and kayak rentals. Bonus: it’s close to the local Carrefour (a k a French Target) where souvenirs can be bought for a small discount.
At the check-in desk for the flight home, the friendly agent asked where I’d been. “The Marquesas!” I exclaimed. “And the Tuamotus, and the Society Islands.” Turns out his grandfather was the mayor of Rangiroa, and another ancestor was Marquesan. Despite the spread-out geography, everyone is connected. We embraced before I left, which seemed right. Visiting Polynesia felt like a warm, comfortable hug.