There was a time when it was relatively easy to take an around-the-world trip using nothing but freighter ships. Accommodations were never plush, but at least they took people to off-the-path ports. In recent decades, shifting economies and security concerns have put a damper on that delightful shoestring-travel underworld.
One place where freighters are still a regular form of passenger transportation is French Polynesia, in the South Pacific. Some outsiders call the country (actually an overseas collectivity of France) "Tahiti," after the name of its capital island, but in fact it comprises 118 islands over some 2 million square miles. Its islanders need a convenient way to span the distances between their five major archipelagos—and to transfer their daily goods, many of them France-made, between their various shores.
Flying from island to island can get expensive. So French Polynesia employs what is termed a "passenger freighter"—part cargo ship and part passenger ship, each function with its own sector of the vessel. Unlike traditional freighters, French Polynesia's passenger freighters are equipped with luxury-level cabins, so if you catch a ride on one, you won't be eating slop in the galley with the crew, but having an experience that approximates a small cruise line.
Given the remoteness of the islands, its unique design and regular schedule makes the passenger freighter a smart way to get around as a tourist and to see as many of the islands as possible. More than many other islands of the region, French Polynesia's emerald crags, teeming tropical fish, and crashing reefs are often most spectacular when viewed from the bright blue water.
A brand new passenger freighter is going into service in French Polynesia and the old one is being phased out. It's called the 254-passenger Aranui 5, and it begins making its two-week circuit of the major wonders of the area. It starts in Papeete on the island of Tahiti, which is the same place where international flights land. That's in the island group known as the Society Islands, and that's the region the majority of tourists go. There, the ship calls at world-famous Bora Bora, which is near Papeete.
Beyond Bora Bora, though, the Aranui 5 sees way more cool stuff than most Tahiti visitors ever dream of seeing. It calls on more far-flung islands that few outsiders see other than on seasons of Survivor: Takapoto and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago as well as Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Hiva Oa (site of Paul Gauguin's grave—which you'll see), Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, and Ua Huka in the Marquesas Islands.
We guarantee you: There is no easy way to see these magnificent islands so easily if you try to do it on your own and by plane. Naturally, prices are not as low as they would be for a mass-market Caribbean cruise, but for the rarity of what you'll see and the fact it includes all three daily meals and wine, the expense may be worth it: Fares start at $2,781 per person not including port charges of up to $243. That's around $200 a day, which in the scope of the cruise industry isn't as brutally priced as some other ships that ply far less interesting waters.
Aurani, which goes 17 times a year, year-round, for two weeks at a time, is at 800/972-7268 and www.aranui.com.