By Jimmy Thomson
There’s a first time for everything, especially on the maiden voyage of a new ship. For me, a journey on the Aranui 5 was the first time I had been on a cargo cruiser, a vessel delivering freight as well as carrying tourists. It was also the first time I had ever heard anyone complain that a cruise ship was too luxurious. But suggesting that a level of discomfort is to be expected on a cargo ship, even a hybrid like the Aranui 5, ignores the expectations of modern travellers. Rather than the hammocks and bunk beds you might expect on a cargo ship, the Aranui 5 has staterooms and suites with lounges and balconies that would not be out of place on the largest of ocean liners.
With 80 per cent of its income coming from the 240 passengers, the Aranui 5 is a cruise ship that takes freight rather than a freighter that takes passengers. Most importantly, she provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the remote Marquesas Islands between Tahiti and Peru. And yes, it is luxurious. While the ship was purpose-built in China, the classy timber-lined cabins were designed and constructed in Italy.
There was no over-eating on this cruise. Meals were simple, three-course affairs, often with a sample of local produce and dishes. The poisson cru (raw fish) cured in lime juice and coconut milk is worth the journey in itself. Everyone received the same meal (except for those with special dietary requirements) and the food was unfussy, with portions adequate rather than over-generous. However, freshly baked baguettes and copious amounts of French wine filled any gaps.
There are two main bars. The more formal Skybar, just below the bridge, overlooks the holds and cranes on the foredeck. Nothing enhances a holiday quite like watching other people working. The service was efficient, friendly and pleasantly informal, which suited most of the passengers who were predominantly middle-aged but ranged from 20-somethings to one couple in their 90s.
Although the focus of the cruise is the islands, not the ship, there is plenty to do on board, including talks on the history of the Marquesan people as well as dance and ukulele classes. These culminated in a Polynesian night, with a massive banquet of local food after which the passengers joined the crew to show off their newly acquired moves.
Once in the Marquesas, we were at a different port every morning, often disembarking on to a substantial dock, other times being ferried ashore by sturdy tenders with large, muscular, tattooed men helping the unsteady on and off.
Each of the six inhabited islands held its charms and occasional challenges. On Fatu Hiva there were demonstrations of traditional crafts followed by a 17-kilometre hike up the side of a volcano. Elsewhere there was horse riding, and 4WD explorations to remote ma’ae (temples). In the pristine waters there was scuba diving, snorkelling and game fishing. There were culture shows, of course. The plaintive welcome song that greeted us will remain in our memories, I’m sure, and there’s a cheeky sexuality about Marquesan dance. On a more pragmatic front, to arrive on shore at the same time as crates of goods and produce, and see the locals descend, is to appreciate the significant role the Aranui 5 plays in the community.
On the way back to Tahiti, after 10 days of island hopping, we dropped anchor at Rangiroa, the largest coral atoll in the Pacific. Some passengers were bussed to the Tahitian black pearl farm while scuba divers went off to encounter sharks.
Our final day at Bora Bora – the coral island probably best known for the over-water bungalow hotels on the fringes of its lagoon – offered a multitude of activities, from snorkelling and feeding stingrays, to a road trip around the island.
On the last night, as the Aranui 5 loped homewards to Papeete and the crew sang and danced the miles away, I realised luxury means different things to different people.
For this traveller, being a small part of the lifeline delivery of goods and chattels held a magic all of its own, and I had no complaints.