Magical Marquesas, Polynesia's Lost Paradise

By Hagman, Harvey | The World and I, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Magical Marquesas, Polynesia's Lost Paradise


Hagman, Harvey, The World and I


Aboard the Aranui 3: Stand on the deck after midnight, and his ghost is there. Under a star-strewn sky in the middle of an eternity called the South Pacific, the bow wave cuts the black sea and the wild spirit of the artist Paul Gauguin rages.

The copra freighter--Aranui means "The Great Highway" in Mauri--follows the artist's final voyage 108 years ago. We sail from Papeete, Tahiti's major port, as white clouds cover the violet peaks and rippling green valleys of Moorea, Tahiti's sister island across the Sea of the Moon.

Dolphins leap off the bow, lost in the wonder of sky and sea. The HMS Bounty once rode these waves before its famed mutiny recalled in "The Mutiny on the Bounty." Our destinations are the six inhabited islands of the 11 Marquesas, a wild, rugged archipelago featuring stunning bays, spiny volcanic crags, precipitous gorges and valleys full of palm, mango and papaya. These volcanic islands, without circling reefs, lie 750 miles and a world away from Tahiti.

A good time to visit is July 11, when French Polynesia will play host to a one of nature's spectaculars, a total eclipse of the sun. A total eclipse occurs when the sun, moon and earth are perfectly aligned and darkness washes over the earth during the day.

When Eugene-Henri-Paul Gauguin sailed for the Marquesas in 1901, his turbulent life and work were dominated by an attempt to recapture his youthful vision of paradise. He found it here amid tumbling waterfalls, overgrown archaeological ruins and exotic, welcoming Marquesans.

Vessels named Aranui have served the Marquesas since the end of World War II. The first was an old PT boat purchased by the Wong family of Hong Kong and used in the copra (dried coconut) trade. Today the Wongs operate out of Papeete and San Mateo, California. As operations expanded new vessels were added. Ours is a 386-foot ship that carries up to 198 passengers and up to 2,500 tons of cargo. The Aranui is by far the best buy in expensive French Polynesia (aranui.com).

The Aranui sails in the tradition of the old copra schooners. These world-weary vessels carried stores below deck which were sold to islanders, often at high prices. Stevedores muscled aboard copra that was processed into oil for cosmetics, margarine and other products. Passengers slept on the decks and brought their own food bowls.

Today, our 14-day voyage carries 62 crew members and 153 passengers--mainly French, with a smattering of British, Americans, Germans, Italians, Swiss, Australians and New Zealanders--in spacious, air-conditioned cabins to the remote Marquesas, whose dark peaks rise from the ocean floor farther from continents than any of the world's islands.

Travelers rank these islands, which early Marquesans called "the Land of Man" thinking they were the only ones on earth, among the world's most beautiful. Writer Paul Theroux called Fatu Hiva the loveliest island on the planet. We obviously agree. This is our third trip aboard Aranui vessels.

La Oranna e Maeva," Hello and Welcome to the Aranui in Tahitian.

We eat French food--omelets, brioches and croissants for breakfast--and later fresh fish and meats, tangy salads and tasty soup and cheeses in a comfortable dining room. We relax in a lively, top-deck bar, deckside plunge pool or an indoor lounge, where we are briefed on the following day's tropical merriment. On the back deck I reread "Mutiny on the Bounty."

After dinner one night, a cake is delivered, the lights go out and the Aranui band surprises my wife with their rendition of "Happy Birthday" as her candles blaze. "The Chapel Bells Are Ringing" and other songs resonate, followed by good wishes from new friends from around the world.

Thereafter, smiling bartender Yo-Yo (Liai-Fon Yoel) holds court as passengers gather for a toot and a hoot. The ever-changing Aranui band --stevedores, crane operators, mechanics, laundry workers--plays wild Tahitian songs on drums, guitars, ukuleles and spoons. …

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