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I stood under a huge frangipani tree in the Cimetiere Calvaire at the grave of Paul Gauguin on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa. For years, I have been fascinated with the work and the wanderlust lifestyle of the French painter. It took Gauguin months of sea travel in a wooden-hulled ship to arrive in the Marquesas but, when he did, he felt he had found paradise and decided that this is where he would spend his last days.
Hiva Oa and the other five inhabited islands of the Marquesas have changed relatively little in the 108 years since Gauguin’s passing. The islands are still so remote that the cargo/passenger ship Aranui 3 is their lifeline to the outside world, bringing in supplies and picking up copra, dried coconut and noni fruit. For some travelers, this logistical fact adds to the lure of the location.
I started my journey to the Marquesas from Los Angeles on a three-cabin Air Tahiti Nui Airbus A340-300 to Papeete. The late-evening departure arrived in Tahiti’s capital the next morning after an eight-hour flight. Then, I boarded the Aranui 3 dubbed the “Freighter to Paradise” for a 10-island/14-day cruise.
The 386-foot ship can handle up to 200 passengers and has both suites with large windows and balconies and smaller cabins with portholes. All rooms and public spaces are air-conditioned. Clothing onboard is casual. The ship is a comfortable expedition vessel with a relaxed atmosphere rather than a more formal sailing experience. For those who want to try out the local apparel, the ship’s boutique sells the pareo made of colorful fabric which can be wrapped in a variety of styles. Aranui means “The Great Highway” in Maori, an appropriate name for a ship that takes passengers on a thoroughfare through such an off-the-beaten-path part of French Polynesia 16 to 17 times a year.
Onboard dining is family-style, and the French-inspired cuisine features rich sauces used to prepare a variety of local fish and meats such as Wahoo in coconut sauce, accompanied by mushroom rice al dente. Few passengers could resist the desserts that accompany lunches and dinners. Fortunately, the daily land excursions included calorie-burning hikes.
Land HoThe Aranui 3 took a break from its 800-mile crossing from Tahiti to the Marquesas at Fakarava, among the largest atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago. A landing craft with benches brought passengers to shore. Some passengers headed to the beach for swimming and snorkeling in the tropical fish-filled lagoon, while others went to buy locally harvested black pearls.
In addition to sightseeing, back onboard the Aranui 3, we had the first of the daily lectures on Marquesan culture and history, which prepares passengers for the adventure ahead.
The first views of the Marquesas are the mountain spires of Ua Pou — “volcanic needles like the pinnacles of some ornate church,” as Robert Louis Stevenson described them in 1880. Once we docked in the town of Hakahau, I joined a small group of fellow passengers for a hike to an overlook with the distant cloud-covered mountains as a backdrop. The rest of the morning was spent exploring the town on foot before we met at Rosalie’s Restaurant for a traditional dance performance and our first Marquesan lunch of breadfruit, curried goat, barbecued rock lobster, poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and soaked in coconut milk), taro and sweet red bananas.
For the next nine days, we island-hopped through the Marquesas Islands with each stop offering unique cultural and geographical treasures. Among the many highlights were Nuku Hiva’s spectacular Taiohae’s Bay, a giant volcanic amphitheater dominated by towering cliffs, where Herman Melville jumped his whaling ship in 1842, a decade before he wrote “Moby Dick.” We traveled by Jeep and then on foot through the mysterious jungle he described in his first book, “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.” Sacred ritual sites with stone tiki gods and petroglyphs of birds, fish and turtles carved on boulders still peer out of the jungle overgrowth. We then sailed to Gauguin’s Hiva Oa and then to Fatu Hiva, the most lush and remote island of the Marquesas and a center of Marquesan crafts such as woodcarving, handpainted pareos, and monoi, a coconut-scented oil with tiare blossoms and sandalwood. On the other side of Fatu Hiva is the stunningly beautiful Bay of the Virgins.
After exploring the remote northern reaches of French Polynesia, the Aranui headed for its homeport of Papeete. We stopped again in the Tuamotu Archipelago, this time in Rangiroa, the world’s largest atoll, for a relaxing day swimming in the lagoon and picnicking along the waterfront before returning to big city life.
Getting There: Clients can fly from North America with Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete, where they can board the Aranui 3 freighter. www.airtahitinui-usa.com
Getting Around: One of the best ways to navigate the Marquesas is onboard the brand-new Aranui 3. Air Tahiti also offers daily flights to Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Ua Pou and Ua Huka. On the islands, clients can rent 4x4 vehicles to get around. www.aranui.com
Where to Stay: There are several small hotels around the islands, as well as eight homestay pensions that offer clients the opportunity to experience Marquesan culture. On Hiva Oa, clients can stay at the Hiva Oa Hanakee Pearl Lodge.
Where to Eat: The most famous restaurants in Nuku Hiva are Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, Le Pua Enana, and on Hiva Oa is the Hanakee Pearl Lodge. You can enjoy French cuisine with a taste of the Marquesas.
For Marquesan cuisine, visit Le Kovivi, Chez Martine, Moana Nui, Chez Yvonne, La Ferme-Aberge de Toovi, Nuku Hiva Village in Nuku Hiva and Atuina and Puamau in Hiva Oa.