The Marquesas Islands are at one of the ends of the Earth. A verdant archipelago of dilapidated volcanoes shooting from the blue of the South Pacific, they are as distant from a continental landmass as it’s possible to go.
I reached them by sea from Tahiti, already one of the world’s remotest islands. The Marquesas are three days further on. They are also one of the most transcendentally beautiful places I have seen.
Yet it was a peculiarly hybrid experience. I was in French Polynesia, which is neither quite French nor Polynesian, and on a cruise that is not a cruise. On the day we made a tourist pilgrimage to the grave of the painter Paul Gauguin we spent the afternoon delivering drums of diesel oil and massive sacks of gravel.
A handful of conventional cruises calls at the bigger Marquesan islands, which also have airstrips, and some intrepid yachtsmen make the journey. But my ship, the Aranui 3, is the islands’ supply ship, the only regular passenger vessel and the only one calling at all six inhabited Marquesas. And she sails only 16 times a year. It’s one of the world’s great voyages.
Aranui is two-thirds freighter, one-third cruise ship, in disposition as well as design. Forward of the bridge, beneath the giraffe-like jibs of two big cranes, are the cargo holds. In the stern are eight decks of passenger space – cabins for 200 (including a dozen suites with balconies), restaurant, lounge, video room, library, bar, swimming pool, shop and doctor’s surgery. That list may make it sound like Cunard but this is a utilitarian version of a cruise ship, stripped of trimmings such as brass, teak and art collections. Here the handrails are steel, the decks laid with blue plastic mats and in the stairwell a poster illustrating fish of the southern seas hangs next to a diagram of the ship’s firefighting systems.
Don’t join Aranui expecting Seabourn-style luxury. The priority is cargo, uncompromisingly so in some respects. There are few sunbeds, limited laundry, unless you do it yourself, and no stabilisers. Without them, a 7,400-ton supply ship in a heavy swell behaves like a slow-motion rodeo ride.
Maritime tradition here has nothing to do with gold braid and shiny buttons. None of the crew wore uniform when the officers, all Polynesians, were formally introduced at the start of the two-week voyage: all were in shorts, some wore flip-flops and the captain was in T-shirt and trainers. Don’t be deceived. Aranui’s sailors owe their existence to the great Polynesian diaspora when their ancestors settled the Pacific with canoes. These men come from as long a line of seafarers as any in the world and some of the most remarkable navigators in history. For what it’s worth, the lifeboat drill was more thorough than any I have previously experienced.
Service, which is pretty much confined to the dining room, makes up in smiles what it lacks in polish. Though the set menu meals brook no choice, they are both varied and surprisingly sophisticated, French in style and sauces. Wine is complimentary.
Such is the character of a working ship, though unlike pure cargo ships Aranui does not simply leave her passengers to get on with it. She has her “cruisey” side. There were lectures (on Gauguin), classes in the ukulele and Polynesian dance, and a Polynesian night of music, dancing and a buffet on the open deck. Guides, English-speaking as well as French, accompany all the shore excursions.
Two stops at atolls in the Tuamotu islands are made solely for passengers, to provide intervals in the long sea passages between Tahiti and the Marquesas. The first was at Fakarava, whose atolls appear as a series of divots, their windswept bush worn short as the bristles of an old broom. They enclose an immense lagoon. We stepped aboard Aranui’s two 40-seat barges – they look like aluminium landing craft – and came ashore at Rotoava, the biggest village. It was Sunday and raining, so we went to mass. For those who had come straight to the ship without spending time in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital, it was a subtle introduction to French Polynesia, an amalgam of South Pacific and south of France. The whitewashed church, with Provençal blue shutters at its lancet windows, crouched beneath a dinky spire and a spreading roof of red tin. Inside, guitars and keyboard accompanied the familiar cadences of western hymns sung in the gutsy arpeggios of the South Pacific.
The Tuamotus provide interludes for swimming and snorkelling off white coral beaches, which are non-existent in the volcanic Marquesas. Their derelict caldera, topped with dollops of cumulus, burst sheer from the sea in great blades of rock up to 850m high. It’s the classic scenery of the South Pacific; Richard Rodgers set it to music and called it “Bali Ha’i”.
These are places of such iridescent beauty they are impervious to description. But if you imagine lands as green as Ireland erupted into violent mountains set in a sea of kingfisher blue, and then multiply those greens and blues by 50 variegations; if you gouge those mountains with deep valleys and crimp their coasts with bays; if you whittle their crags into pinnacles and slant their flanks with buttresses; if you shrink wrap them in pelts of vegetation so lush it furs their shapes, and if you can conceive of being surrounded by an infinite horizon, you are half-way there. It’s like sailing through God’s rockery.
Each island is different but they have characteristics in common. Villages are fitted into valleys or, rather, the most habitable crevices in the mountains, and canopied with trees, palm, mango, grapefruit and guava. Grounds are found for a school and games field; a generator sited out of earshot. Church spires and satellite dishes point to the heavens, jetties to the horizon.
They are unmistakably French – an overseas territory, or pays d’outre-mer – with gendarmes, yellow mailboxes, French election posters and boulangeries from which women emerge bearing armfuls of baguettes. They have even retained their own franc, with banknotes the size of postcards. But something else the islands have in common is their growing sense of being Polynesian. Disease and the South American slave trade eradicated the original Marquesans; missionaries and colonialism suppressed any expression of ethnicity for years. The Marquesan language, which is different to Tahitian, was not taught in schools; singing, dancing and tattoos were banned at the end of the 19th century.
On this voyage, resurgent Polynesian pride took different forms. On Fatu Hiva, the remotest of the islands, and arguably the most mesmerisingly lovely, it was the making of tapa, the fibrous “cloth” beaten from tree bark. The demonstration was by a woman in a lilac pareo (wraparound skirt) and wide-brimmed hat decorated with chicken feathers. She sat in the shade of a lychee tree, her legs tucked to one side like a figure in a Gauguin painting, bashing a strip of mulberry bark with an ironwood mallet. On Ua Pou, it was a dance troupe performing under noni trees.
The juice of the noni, a lumpy, sallow, unpleasant tasting fruit, is sold in the US as a health drink rich in antioxidants. Aranui collected it in tall blue barrels. Along with sacks of copra, dried coconut meat, noni is the islands’ main export.
On Hiva Oa, it was archaeology. Puamau is where the largest tiki statue in French Polynesia, 2.4m tall, stands on the restored terraces of a marae, a sacred site, that has its origins in a 16th-century tribal war. The mana, or spiritual energy, is still powerful. It had been raining and the forest was dark. The tiki, shoulders hunched, seemed to be advancing warily out of the woods.
Gauguin is buried on Hiva Oa, on a hillside above Atuona, once the islands’ capital. We were taken to his grave in les Trucks, lorries with wooden sheds on the back that, until they were banned on safety grounds, were the staples of Tahiti’s public transport. On Hiva Oa, they are used as school buses.
The tomb is simple, a heavy wedge of dark lava shaded by a frangipani tree. Beside the head is a bronze replica of his sculpture of the pagan figure of Oviri. Also buried in the same cemetery is Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer, who died here in 1978. They, like romantic travellers today, were looking for that mystical balm of simplicity that only Polynesia seems to endow. You find a little of it on Aranui.
This is a voyage that runs its fingers along the grain of island life. The ship’s doctor, Xavier Fine, who spent seven years working in the Marquesas, told me how Marquesan women living away from the islands come home for their children to be born. At the end of their lives they return too. At Ua Pou, as well as discharging the usual packs of beer and cola, toilet paper and mineral water, the ship also unloaded the body of a woman who was being brought home to be buried.
The funeral was in progress when I visited the church. Solemn yet sociable, it was more like a sickbed scene than a burial service. The mourners sat in a semi-circle round a plain wood casket with family photographs arranged along the lid. There was no ostentatious expression of grief, no tears that one could see, or sobbing, just the quiet intoning of prayers interspersed with lamentations sung, unaccompanied, in wistful harmonies. The man who led the service wore a bottle green polo shirt, pink shorts and flip-flops. Spiritually and sartorially, death is treated philosophically as part of island life.
Aranui 3 is as much a part of the Marquesas as the ubiquitous garlands of gardenias, the strumming guitars and homemade ukeleles, the wood and bone carving and the crowing cockerels. The first ships helped make the modern Marquesas, bringing the materials that built the churches, roads, schools and hospital. Just about every thing inorganic arrived on an Aranui.
There are plans now for a new ship – Aranui 5, named in deference to its Polynesian Chinese owners, for whom the number four is unlucky. It will be bigger. That may be necessary in cargo terms but extra passengers will present a risk. If almost 300 people go ashore, can the islands remain immune to the influence of their visitors? In five years, will they still be quite so welcoming, quite so enchanting or quite so rare, with no hassle, no pestering, no resentment? This may be one of those tourist trips to take sooner rather than later.
Peter Hughes travelled as a guest of Aranui Cruises (www.aranui.com), Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com) and Steppes Travel (www.steppestravel.co.uk). Steppes offers the 14-day voyage from £3,350 per person, including shared accommodation in a twin cabin, full board on the ship, guided shore excursions and a hotel for one night pre- and post-voyage in Papeete. Return flights with Virgin from London to Los Angeles and Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete cost from £1,350 in economy, £4,400 in business