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Exploring the Marquesas on the Aranui 3

Like many folks cursed with wanderlust, I have long dreamed of traveling the South Pacific on a tramp steamer, exploring remote, seldom visited islands while the ship loads and unloads its cargo. The notion has been part of South Seas lore since trading schooners started sailing the islands in the 19th century.

When American archaeologist Dr. Robert Suggs headed to Nuku Hiva to conduct research in 1956, the only way to the Marquesas was by a copra schooner that traded dry goods for dried coconut meat. With a schedule determined largely by which islands had copra ready to trade (closely guarded secrets in those days), it took him 2 weeks to sail from Tahiti to Taiohae Bay. He slept in a cramped cabin.

You can still share a cramped cabin on other interisland freighters from Papeete, but I much prefer the Aranui 3, a uniquely designed, 355-foot-long vessel that is half cargo ship and half modern passenger liner.

The Aranui 3 (the name means "Big Road") is indeed a hybrid. Christened in 2003, it was designed and built in Europe just for this purpose. Its front half carries up to 2,000 tons of cargo, while the rear half accommodates up to 200 passengers. Although not superluxurious, the very comfortable rear has a dining room serving fine French fare, a bar, a boutique, a large guest lounge, a video room, and a small outdoor swimming pool. Accommodations range from two dormitories with eight bunks each to spacious stateroom suites.

An expert accompanies most voyages, and on mine it was Dr. Suggs, who lectured about Marquesan history and culture on the ship and led excursions to the me'aes and other historic sites, some of which he excavated for the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Among his books are The Archaeology of Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia (1961). In 2000, he coauthored (with Burgl Lichtenstein) Manuiota'a: Journal of a Voyage to the Marquesas Islands, a highly readable account of their cruise on the previous Aranui. It's packed with information about the islands.

We left Tahiti on a Saturday morning and arrived at Fakarava the next morning for 2 hours of snorkeling in that great lagoon. After spending the rest of Sunday and all of Monday at sea (the Aranui 3 rolls a bit on the open ocean, but my scopolamine patch prevented seasickness), we arrived for sunrise behind the phenomenal spires atop Ua Pou, our first Marquesan landfall. The nimble crew unloaded everything, from Toyota pickup trucks to toilet paper, while we explored Hakahau village on foot (comfortable walking shoes are a must) and were treated to a dance show and lunch ashore. That afternoon, the Aranui 3 moved around to Hakahetau village on Ua Pou's northwest coast, then sailed to Taiohae Bay on Nuku Hiva for the night.

And so it went for 10 more days as we visited Hiva Oa (twice), Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, Ua Huka, and back to Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou prior to returning to Tahiti via a full-day's picnic at Rangiroa.

Thanks to the Aranui 3 and her marvelous Polynesian crew, I had lived my tramp steamer dream -- in anything but a cramped cabin.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.