Half-cruise, half-cargo ships provide authenticity in place of cocktails and casinos

By Rosemary McClure.

This is a LA Times Article

No one would call the Aranui 5 a thing of beauty. Half cruise ship and half freighter, it has a cockeyed profile that only its maker could love.

It may not look like much, but it manages to sail to some of the most beautiful islands in the world.

The Aranui navigates the waters of French Polynesia, delivering cargo and passengers to places such as Bora Bora, the Tuamotu Atolls and the Marquesas Islands. Its itinerary offers a daydreamer’s voyage to the dazzling shores of paradise.

It’s not the kind of cruise that would appeal to most people who hop on a ship for a week’s vacation. No midnight buffets. No casino. No stage shows.

But if you’re a Walter Mitty type who fantasizes about jumping on a freighter to see the world, this type of ship might make your dream come true.

Call it Freighter Lite. These ships are more workhorse than thoroughbred, capable of doing an honest day’s work as well as carrying passengers. Surprisingly, some also offer a high level of comfort, given their hard-working nature.

They can be found, among other places, in Alaska, where the Marine Highway System ferries cars, supplies and tourists through the dramatic scenery of the Inside Passage or along the stunning coast of Norway, where Hurtigruten ferries carry freight and passengers year-round.

In French Polynesia, the Aranui 5 visits South Pacific isles carrying a couple of hundred passengers who delight in watching the ship off-load cars, fuel, pallets of toilet paper and other supplies and onload bananas, coconuts, citrus and fish.

“These ships offer an incredibly authentic experience,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com. “You won’t find bingo or any of the other trappings.

“I’m not denigrating these activities, but there are travelers who want more than that. They want to travel with locals and get to know the people, not just see the scenery.”

Those are the big pluses on these ships. You not only travel with vacationers like yourself, but you also are getting to know the single mother who has boarded the ship or ferry for a weekend visit with family members in a nearby village. You’re rubbing shoulders on the tender with a tattooed seaman who’s going ashore to visit his wife and kids.

When you go ashore, you’ll meet villagers who turn out to greet the ship, not because they want to sell you something but because they’re friendly.

“These ports are nothing like the ones you visit on cruise ships,” said Calabasas resident Mathy Simon, who sailed the Norwegian coast on a Hurtigruten ferry. “You’re not going to get off the ship and see a row of jewelry stores that open whenever a ship is in the harbor.”

For the most part, her ship visited tiny communities where the residents’ only access to the outside world was the ship.

“They use it like a bus or a train: They get on and get off at the next village. It’s their only mode of transportation,” said Simon, who traveled with Kyle, her college-age son.

The bottom line: “The trip was amazing. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Aboard the Aranui 5

Hiva Oa, Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Fatu Hiva.

The words don’t exactly roll off the tongue. But that’s not surprising. They’re the names of some of the most remote islands in the world; all are part of the Marquesas Archipelago, 852 miles northeast of Tahiti and about 3,000 miles from the west coast of Mexico, the nearest continental land mass.

I visited them in the fall aboard the freighter-cum-cruise ship Aranui 5 (the word means “the great highway”), which carries cargo and passengers on 14-day, 2,200-mile round trips from Papeete, Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia.

The ship came online in winter 2015, when it replaced earlier versions. Although it lacks some of the perks of large cruise ships, it makes up for it in the access it provides to a beautiful place that’s off the radar for most people.

We visited six Marquesas islands, plus Bora Bora and two islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago. At each stop, I thought I had discovered Eden. But then on the next stop, I’d feel that way again.

All of the ports were tiny; at some, virtually every resident turned out to greet us, dancing, singing and playing instruments.

They were our entertainment, and we were theirs.

Excursions were limited; for the most part, we took strenuous hikes each day.

Then we dined in whatever village we were visiting, with our international group of travelers broken into language groups: Australians, New Zealanders, Brits and Americans made up one group, French speakers (the largest group) were another and Germans made up a third group.

My fellow passengers seemed a hardy lot; they loved the daily hikes that took us to the top of volcanic mountainsides for inspiring views.

One day, our tender dropped us off at an isolated beach where we played in the water. Another day, some of the passengers chose an excursion by horseback. Snorkeling was available on some islands.

Cabins ranged from tiny, four- to eight-bed dorms — most of which were used by locals traveling from one island to another — to luxe penthouse suites.

Most cabins featured balconies and 55-inch flat-screen TVs. Unless you speak French, however, you’ll have only one oldies-movies station and CNN.

But the inconveniences are minor compared with the pluses, most travelers said.

“This trip introduced us to an incredibly beautiful area of the world,” said Catherine Cheshire, of Palm Springs.

“It was money well spent.”

Info: Aranui 5, (800) 972-7268, www.aranui.com. Fourteen-day round-trip cruises from Papeete to the Marquesas Islands, including Bora Bora and Rangiroa: dorm rates, per person, from $2,920 (sharing room and bath); deluxe balcony rooms, per person, from $5,642. Rates include accommodations, meals and excursions.

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