ABOARD THE ARANUI - Stand on the deck after midnight, and his ghost is there. Under a star-strewn sky in the middle of the eternity called the South Pacific, the bow wave cuts the black sea and the spirit of Paul Gauguin rages.
The copra freighter - Aranui means the "Great Highway" in Mauri - follows the artist's final voyage 96 years ago. We sail from Papeete, Tahiti's major port, as a magenta sunset turns the mountains of Moorea a magical violet.
Dolphins leap off the bow, perhaps reincarnated souls of old Tahitians, full of joy and lost in the wonder of sky and sea. Thoughts of the HMS Bounty, which once rode these waves before its famed mutiny, flicker in memory. Our destination: the haunting Marquesas Islands, the Pacific's lost paradise, 750 miles and a world away.
When Gauguin sailed for the Marquesas in 1901, he left a turbulent history in his wake. He was born in Paris during the 1848 revolution, and his life and work were dominated by an attempt to recapture his youthful vision of paradise.
In 1891, he left Europe, a wife and five children to sail for Tahiti. On the island "Koke," he took part in village life and wed Teha'amana, 13. He painted feverishly and two years later returned to France with 66 paintings.
His exhibit failed, his Danish wife refused to see him, he was beaten mercilessly by sailors, contracted syphilis from a dance-hall prostitute and, suffering greatly, returned to Tahiti. There, his Tahitian wife rebuffed him, and he swallowed arsenic.
But miraculously, he vomited away the poison and slowly recovered, and a Paris dealer agreed to buy his paintings. The sick painter paid off his debts, fathered a child and set sail for the remote Marquesas.
Today, the 343-foot Aranui sails in the tradition of the old copra schooners. These world-weary vessels carried stores below deck to be sold to islanders at high prices. The islanders muscled aboard copra (dried coconut), which was processed into oil for cosmetics, margarine and other products. Passengers slept on the decks and brought their own food bowls.
Today, our 16-day voyage carries about 80 French, American, German, Italian and English passengers in spacious, air-conditioned cabins. It's the only practical way to see the Marquesas, the volcanic peaks that rise from the ocean floor farther from continents than any other islands. Travelers rank the spectacularly high, green Marquesas among the world's most beautiful islands. The early islanders called the Marquesas "the land of man," thinking they were the only ones on earth.
We eat French food - brioches and croissants for breakfast, fresh fish and meats, tangy salads and tasty soup and cheeses - in two seatings in a comfortable dining room; we relax in a lively top-deck bar, deck-side plunge pool or an indoor library, where we are briefed on the following day's tropical merriment. In our entire time at sea, we will see no other ships.
In harbors, the crew labors, swinging cranes and lowering 2,000 tons of cargo into 25-foot whaleboats. These boats, big enough to squeeze in 40 passengers or tipsy loads of cargo, ride the waves shoreward manned by the Aranui's muscular stevedores, who often lift passengers onto a pier, timing their hoists with the crest of a wave. The maneuver is not for the fainthearted when we ride 12-foot waves.
But our hearts are light, the sun bakes, and the air is so clean our lungs sing as we follow in the wakes of Capt. James Cook, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Thor Heyerdahl and Gauguin.
When Gauguin landed at the remote village of Atuona on Hiva Oa, he set about building himself the finest home in the Marquesas. He dubbed it the House of Pleasure and lived there with a 14-year-old vahine. His wild parties quickly enraged the island's clergy and police.
But his pain intensified, forcing him to use morphine. …