Cruising Tahiti and some of the other 118 islands in French Polynesia is a dream vacation for travelers. We first sailed from Tahiti in 2000, visiting the Society Islands of Bora Bora, Moorea, Raiatea, and Huahine. However, French Polynesia covers a huge section of the South Pacific, with five groups of islands spread over an area as large as Europe or the eastern United States. Each of these five archipelagos has a distinctive look and unique characteristics. Like most visitors to this tropical paradise, we left the region wanting to see and to learn much more about this part of the world. After all, there were still over 100 islands and thousands of miles of the South Pacific left to explore!
In 2016, the Aranui 5, a custom built passenger freighter, took over the supply route. This new ship carries 254 guests plus tons of freight. The images of the new Aranui 5 look much more luxurious (especially the cabins), but the marvelous itinerary and cruise freighter experience looks much the same (we hope).
Will You Like a Cruise Freighter?
If you have an adventurous spirit and are not a timid traveler, you will love the Aranui experience. However, it is important to adjust your expectations and remember that the Aranui 3 is a cruise freighter, not a mainstream cruise ship. Although the Aranui has many traditional cruise ship characteristics, this ship is different. Passengers on an Aranui French Polynesian cruise from Tahiti to the Marquesas will find aspects that make it seem like a cruise ship such as --
- clean cabins with terrific showers and plenty of storage
- good food served family style
- complimentary French table wines at lunch and dinner
- swimming pool and plenty of deck chairs
- free washer and dryer for passenger use
- interesting lectures from knowledgeable experts and guides
- exercise room with bicycles and treadmill
- wonderful sunset vistas, refreshing breezes, and the thrill of cruising
Polynesian cruise passengers on the Aranui will not find these "standard" cruise amenities --
- spacious carpeted hallways and stairs
- gourmet food with a variety of selections at every meal
- a printed daily schedule or newsletter that details the next day's events
- lounge entertainment
- informal or formal nights - every night is casual
- organized onboard activities such as bingo
- a spa or beauty salon
The Aranui 3 embarks from Papeete, Tahiti 16 times a year, sailing for 16 days each voyage to the remote, northernmost islands in French Polynesia, the Marquesas. The ship usually sails "sometime after 6:00 pm", which means that most passengers will spend the night in Tahiti before joining the ship in the afternoon of embarkation day. En route, the ship visits two islands in the Tuamotu archipelago by anchoring offshore the island of Takapoto northbound and in the lagoon at Fakarava on the southbound return to Papeete, Tahiti. The journey has three sea days, the first day, the third day, and the next-to-last day. Otherwise, the ship is making its supply stops at numerous villages on the six main islands of the Marquesas -- Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, Ua Huka, and Tahuata. The Aranui often delivers supplies to more than one village or town on each island, so passengers get an opportunity to easily see more of the Marquesas than with any other ship or on an independent tour of the archipelago.
Let's first take a look at a typical sea day on the Aranui.
Time at Sea on the Aranui 3 Passenger Freighter
Since most of the passengers on our Aranui French Polynesian voyage were from Europe or the Americas, many people were up and about early in the morning because of the time difference. (Three hours from Tahiti to Los Angeles, six to the eastern U.S., and twelve to Paris.) We usually only had three things scheduled on sea days -- a presentation by the guest lecturer, a cocktail hour meeting to discuss the next day's activities, and meals. The rest of the day was free for reading, sunning, swimming in the pool, napping, or just relaxing and enjoying the views of the South Pacific.
The day started with a buffet breakfast served from 6:30 to 8:30 each morning. Many of us lingered over breakfast, enjoying a sea day with few planned events. Sometimes while at sea it seemed that we were moving from one meal to the next, with wonderful time to just enjoy cruising in between feeding periods! Lunch was served at noon, followed by more free time. Since we always drank the complimentary wine for lunch and love the gentle rocking and rolling of the ship, we usually got an afternoon nap.
Learning About the Marquesas and the Peoples of the South Pacific Islands
On our sea days, we were lucky enough to have a guest lecturer, Dr. Charlie Love, who educated and enthused us with information about the geology, archaeology, and anthropology of the South Pacific. Although Charlie was from Wyoming and a well-known expert on Easter Island far to the east of Tahiti and the Marquesas, he was quite knowledgeable about French Polynesia.
The Aranui 3 also had four multi-lingual guides (Sylvie, Vi, Michael, and DiDi) and a cruise director (Francis) who briefed us the day before each trip ashore and led the shore excursions. The guides held a group meeting each evening (6:00 for the English-speakers and 6:30 for the French-speakers), which was used to discuss the activities for the next day. Since almost all shore excursions are included in the fare, everyone usually does the same activities ashore. The Aranui does not have a daily printed schedule, so we took paper and pen to the evening meeting and made notes.
Michael had some wonderful stories of the South Pacific, and he would spend 10-15 minutes talking about a relevant topic such as Captain Bligh, the Mutiny on the Bounty, Pitcairn Island, Paul Gauguin, or French Polynesian economy, history, religion, or education. It was very enlightening, and we came home better educated than when we left.
Dinner was at 7:00 and often stretched for a couple of hours. The passengers were a diverse, educated, well-traveled group. This made mealtimes especially interesting, with lively conversations.
Sometimes at night a small band entertained by the pool and the pool bar. Another night we had a very interesting discussion on "Aspects of Marquesan Culture" led by Charlie Love and three professors who were on board for a few days in the Marquesas. Most of the discussion centered around the disappearance of traditional languages around the world such as Marquesan. They also debated the pros and cons of the French influence on the Polynesian schools. Several of the passengers got into the discussion, making for a stimulating, intellectual evening.
One other element contributed to the interesting evening. Since most of the passengers and two of the three professors were more comfortable speaking in French, everything had to be translated. Although the guides were all multi-lingual, none of them were comfortable translating French into English. So one of the passengers from Belgium, who just happened to work as an interpreter for the European Union in Brussels, was happily "drafted" to do the French into English translation. She did an admirable job but told us later that it was her first time translating into something other than French. That's what you call a working vacation!
Learning, leisure, and food. Time at sea seemed to either fly by or drift along magnificently. Life at sea was delightful.
We were pleasantly surprised by the cabins on the passenger freighter the Aranui 3. In addition to the many tons of cargo, the 386-foot ship can accommodate 200 passengers in four cabin levels. All of the cabins are air conditioned.
Dormitory Style Cabins
The lowest level cabins are the Class C, which are 3 cabins configured dormitory-style, with 20 upper and lower berths and shared baths. Normally, we would think a Class C cabin would be attractive to single travelers or small groups of budget-minded, same-sex friends. However, on our cruise, a French couple with five children used one of the dormitory cabins. It was perfect for them!
Sixty-three of the cabins fall into this category, and they are all outside cabins with two lower berths and a private bath. These cabins look much like the basic lowest class on many cruise ships, with a porthole between the two beds, a night table, small desk and closet, and shower bath. The electricity is 220 volts, with a French-style plug, so you will need a voltage converter and a plug adapter to run 110-volt items. Women should check the voltage on their hair dryer and curling iron before leaving home. Many newer hair appliances can run on either voltage, and you might just need an adapter, but not a voltage converter.
The water pressure in the shower was very good, but we were told not to drink the water from the bathroom sink. We kept bottled water in the bathroom and just poured it into the plastic glasses that were supplied. Each deck had a drinking fountain and we just kept refilling our water bottles there. Passengers may want to take a large bar of their favorite soap since the Aranui 3 provides only those tiny hotel-sized bars.
Thirteen of the standard cabins are on the main reception deck, which is also the deck where you board the tenders. Passengers on the main deck could return to their cabins for forgotten items easily and were closer to the dining room and lounge on the decks above. The rest of the standard cabins are on A Deck and B Deck. Ronnie and we were on the lowest B deck, and after just a short time at sea, we began referring to our cabin as the "washing machine" cabin. The porthole was only a couple of feet above the water, so when sailing we constantly got a splashing action, much like a front-loading washer. If you are prone to seasickness, a cabin on B Deck is definitely the smoothest ride. We actually got where we enjoyed the sound of the waves beating against the porthole. Since the ship had exterior lights on at night, we often could see fish swimming around just a few inches outside the porthole when we were anchored. The passenger laundry was also on B deck, as was the fitness room.
Deluxe Cabins and Suites
The Aranui has 12 deluxe cabins and 10 suites, which are the nicest accommodations on the ship. These two categories are quite a bit larger and have a queen-sized bed, refrigerator, TV, bathroom with tub and shower combination, and large windows rather than just a porthole. The suites also have a balcony. These cabins are significantly better than the standard stateroom, and if you love a balconied cabin as we do, you will miss it on this voyage if you don't book a suite. The deluxe cabins and suites are located above the main deck on the Star and Sun Deck. You will get more wave action in these cabins, so it is really a toss-up as to whether you want calmer seas to sleep in versus nicer views and a balcony! Some of the suites have a balcony overlooking the pool and the aft area of the ship, others are located on either the port or starboard side.
The Aranui 3 Polynesian cruise freighter has some common areas of the ship that resemble a cruise ship and others that resemble a freighter. All of the passengers really enjoyed the almost free rein we had to roam the ship, with access to the bridge and other areas not always allowed on a traditional cruise ship.
The Aranui 3 has one dining room, with tables set up for groups of four to eight. The ship has a nice lounge on the deck above the dining room, which was used for reading, lectures, and passenger meetings. The lounge has a bar with coffee and tea available most of the time and a small library adjacent to the lounge.
The library has a mixture of a wide variety of paperback books, most of which have been left by past passengers. We saw books in English, French, and German, so anyone wishing to do some foreign language reading has some fiction from which to choose. The reception desk also keeps an excellent selection of books related to French Polynesia, or by authors such as Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson who have ties to the South Pacific.
The ship has a small gift shop that sells everything from snacks and ice cream to laundry detergent and mosquito spray to pareos and t-shirts. The Aranui has a bar located near the pool. It was often busy in the late afternoon before dinner when everyone gathered to watch the daily attraction of a magnificent sunset. The swimming pool is small but popular with the passengers. The deck area around the pool has plenty of lounge chairs for those who love to soak up the Tahitian sun. The children on the ship had a small playroom indoors.
Where's the Freight?
The freight is carried forward on the deck of the ship and in cargo holds under the decks. Most of the time, passengers are free to explore up to the bow or to the rear decks where the winches that are used to pull the ship into dock are anchored. One of the engineers gave us a fascinating tour of the engine room one day while we were in port, and many passengers visited the bridge to check our location or see how the controls worked. Watching the Marquesan sailors unload the freight was one of our favorite activities. Since the Aranui is the primary supply link to the Marquesas, the ship carries a wide variety of cargo, including at least half a dozen automobiles per voyage. We asked one of the cargo chiefs what had been the most unusual and expensive cargo, and he immediately said it was a helicopter! The ship also had refrigerated containers full of food, and we were constantly amazed by the items that seemed to come out of the bottomless cargo hold.
We thoroughly enjoyed the food and the companionship at meals on the Aranui 3. Breakfast was our favorite meal, with a wonderful buffet filled with fresh fruits, French bread, luncheon meat, and cheese. Passengers could also get bacon and eggs to order. We especially enjoyed the mangoes and pomelos, a grapefruit-like fruit.
The Aranui had an excellent pastry chef, and he made some wonderful raisin or chocolate chip pastries or buttery croissants each morning. Lunch and dinner in the dining room were family-style, with the wait staff bringing out a large serving plate with each course or serving passengers individually. Both meals started with a salad, soup, or appetizer, followed by the main course and then dessert. Both red and white French table wines were served at lunch and dinner.
The food was varied, with chicken, pork, beef, fish, and lamb served at different meals. Vegetarians could request a special meal. Unlike a mainstream cruise ship, we did not have food or snacks available all the time. European cuisine dominated the menus on board with interesting sauces and delicious desserts such as pear pie, apricot tarts, and congealed nougat made with heavy cream and dried fruit.
The Aranui ashore routine in French Polynesia was varied and delightful. Each evening we had a short meeting in the lounge to discuss the next day's activities. The ports and times were all subject to change, depending on the cargo and the tides. Sometimes we made very short stops in tiny villages where only freight was unloaded.
We usually went ashore in the whaleboats soon after breakfast. The ship had two whaleboats that held about 20 passengers each, so it took several trips to ferry all of us ashore. Because of the waves and the small or non-existent docks on the islands, taking the whaleboat ashore and back to the Aranui can be quite an "experience". The gangway has steep stairs and the whaleboat has high sides, so we all appreciated the Marquesan sailors' help in getting into and out of the boats.
Once ashore, we were greeted by smiling island residents with plumeria blooms or fresh floral leis. The arrival of the Aranui once each month is a major event for the Islanders. The dock area was always bustling with trucks, forklifts, and people waiting to unload supplies. Others were waiting to load their sacks of copra or barrels of noni juice, the two primary items picked up in the islands by the Aranui. Most island residents set up a small area for selling handicrafts. We had to make sure we had plenty of local currency cash--Central Pacific Francs--to use to buy souvenirs. The ship could change dollars or euros, and most of the islands had a bank that would also change money. We never saw a vendor who took credit cards, but some of the vendors would take dollars or euros if you did not have the local currency.
On four of the islands, we had a special Marquesan lunch ashore in a local restaurant. The food was served buffet or family style, and we also had Polynesian dancing and music to accompany our meal. We all enjoyed trying some of the native foods. Breadfruit is a key staple of the Marquesan diet, and we were amazed at the many different ways it could be prepared. Other traditional dishes included lobster, Poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice or vinegar and then served in coconut milk, oil, and topped with onions), freshwater shrimp, goat, pork, and popoi (Marquesan-style poi).
Four other days we had a barbecue or picnic ashore prepared by the ship's crew, either high up in the mountains or on a beach.
Not all the activities ashore involved eating. Sometimes we toured the local Catholic church, many of which had fascinating artwork or wooden sculptures. We often hiked or rode 4-wheel-drive trucks to ancient Polynesian maraes or other archaeological sites. A few ports included the opportunity to swim or snorkel. Our adventuresome group also visited museums and graveyards, and some passengers went horseback riding or diving.
We felt like the shore activities were varied enough for anyone. When you package the shore excursions with the unspoiled, magnificent scenery of the Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands, it makes for a wonderful cruise vacation for the adventurous, flexible traveler, who doesn't require a lot of pampering or amenities. We left home with a sense of adventure and a curiosity about cruising on a passenger freighter to far-flung islands. We came home with a new appreciation for the people and islands of French Polynesia and some great stories of life on a cruise freighter. What more could you ask for?