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Aranui Diary:  Passage to Paradise

Making a commitment to cruise aboard a freighter for 15 days with children can be a bit intimidating.  While it certainly sounds like a great adventure, many parents wonder whether such a cruise will work for their family and if the vacation will be a memorable voyage in paradise or a long agonizing trip that everyone will regret.  A cruise aboard the Aranui 3 is all about the adventure and the experience.  If you’re seeking the information you need to make a decision for your family, this day-by-day Aranui trip diary may give you a better feel for the trip and the variety of experiences you’ll have onboard and on the wild and sparsely habited islands of the Marquesas and Tuomotus.

Day 1 – Boarding the Aranui 3

We boarded the Aranui 3 in Papeete this afternoon for our 16-day voyage to the Marquesas Islands.  The Aranui 3 is a very comfortable freighter cruiser, even in the standard cabins.  There is an abundance of storage space, easily accommodating the needs of two or three people. Third bunks fold out from the wall for easy storage. Deluxe cabins and suites are far more spacious with queen sized beds and bathtubs.  The ship features a pool, video room for watching DVDs, an exercise room, and laundry facilities.  Laundry is done for guests free of charge several times during the cruise.  Since colored t-shirts and underwear cannot be included in the group laundry service, families may choose to do their own wash at any time at no cost.  The only charge is for laundry soap, which can be purchased at the gift shop.

The Aranui’s approach to cruising is relaxed and casual – a great fit for families.  Dinners are served family style at tables seating eight people, but tables for four are also available.  Our dinner started at 7:30 p.m., shortly after the lifeboat drill, and consisted of an appetizer, beef medallions with vegetables, bread, and dessert.  Wine is served with lunch and dinner, and special dietary requests can be accommodated.  If a member of your family prefers a special diet, it is strongly suggested that you make this request in advance of sailing.

The Aranui pulled away from the dock at 11 p.m., four hours later than the usual 7 p.m. departure.  Because the Aranui is a freighter, the ship’s schedule is more variable than a normal cruise ship.  The ship may change the order of its itinerary and its length of time in port in order to accommodate its cargo needs.

Day 2 – Serenity At Sea

The second day of our cruise was spent at sea, which provided the perfect antidote to stress.  Breakfast on the Aranui is served from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and consists of a continental-style buffet breakfast with plenty of choices of fruits, juices and breads.  Eggs are made to order upon request.

After breakfast, many passengers made a stop at the boutique to browse and purchase necessities and gift items.  The boutique is well stocked with t-shirts, pareos, hiking sandals, and souvenirs.  It also has a wide selection of films, suntan lotions, insect repellants, over the counter medications, and other items that might be needed on the cruise.  Other passengers went to the back of the ship to tan and cool off in the ship’s small pool.  Deck chairs are available at the back of the ship on two of the top decks, one of which is very close to the pool.  There is no lifeguard available at the pool, so parents must watch their children carefully.

A sit-down, multi-course lunch is served on the Aranui from noon until 1:30 p.m.  Since lunch is not served buffet style, most of the passengers arrive to be seated promptly at noon.  Meals on the Aranui are primarily European fare.  Lunch consisted of a salad, lamb with cauliflower au gratin, and a fruit cup for dessert.  Since these types of meals might be difficult for younger children or picky eaters, it is strongly suggested that parents make any dietary requests well in advance of sailing. 

On each cruise, the Aranui features a guest lecturer onboard who speaks to guests about some aspect of the Polynesian culture or experience.  This week, the guest lecturer was an expert on Polynesian art. At 4 p.m., the expert in residence on the ship gave a talk on tattoos.  At 6 p.m., the English-speaking hostess, Vai, spoke to guests about what to expect on our first island stop in the Tuamotus.  Takapoto, our first stop, is an atoll about 560 Kms from Tahiti.  The lagoon in the center of the atoll has no clear pass, so the Aranui 3 will situate itself near a docking area (it cannot anchor as the water around the atoll is too deep) and passengers will go ashore by whaleboats.  We will then walk about 5 minutes to the lagoon.  Some passengers will take a boat across the lagoon to the picnic and oyster production site, while others will walk about 4-5 miles to the site.  Vai explained that several of the pearl growers would the on site to sell their pearls.  She said that one of the vendors might accept US dollars, but that most only accept French Polynesian Francs (FPF).  The reason for this is that there are very few places for people to exchange money in the Tuamotus.  We will depart the Aranui by 8:30 a.m. and return to the ship no later than 3 p.m.

Vai also explained that if passengers wanted to go swimming in the lagoon – or anywhere else on this trip – they would need to wear water slippers or plastic shoes.  Stonefish often lurk in the sand, and their spines are highly poisonous.  As a result, there was a huge run on the boutique to buy the ugly plastic shoes (jellies) for about $16.50 FPF.  If you go, make sure to bring your own water slippers with you – they will come in very handy!

Dinner was served at 7 p.m., and was veal with a sauce.  Some passengers who had requested special meals were served fish.  Dessert was ice cream.  Wine is served with lunch and dinner at no extra charge.

Day 3 -- Takapoto, Tuamotu Islands: Pearls, Palms and a Picnic

The day dawned sunny and hot.  By 8 a.m., it was very clear that it was going to be a Tahiti picture perfect day in Takapoto with brilliant blue skies and a small breeze.  The sun was already shining hot by 8:30 a.m. as we left the Aranui 3 on the whaleboats.  For this ride, all of us had to wear our life jackets. Getting in and out of the whaleboats is an interesting feat, but the muscular Marquesan sailors did a great job helping the 20 Elderhostel members aboard -- and the rest of us as well.  Three smiling residents giving out flowers met us at the Takapoto dock, accompanied by two or three small dogs.  We then walked for about 5 minutes through the tiny village to the lagoon.  There, about 16 passengers chose to take the whaleboat, while the remainder decided to walk the 4-5 miles to the oyster aquaculture/picnic site.  I chose to walk, and it was a hot – but highly enjoyable trip.  Along the way, I visited the church, saw men chopping coconuts and families drying the coconut to make copra.  Copra is a staple in the Tuamotus and the Marquesas, and is a major source of livelihood for the people who live here.  The long sandy gravel road took us by hundreds of palm trees, little houses, a small store, and several small handicraft shops.  At last, we arrived at the site of our picnic on the lagoon.

The white sand beach was absolutely beautiful and was studded with lots of palm trees.  The lagoon was a stunning mix of turquoise, azure and deep blue.  The lagoon on Takapoto is like a huge swimming pool with clear water and white sand.  It has been an experimental lagoon for aquaculture, particularly for growing and collecting the famous Tahitian pearl oysters, Pinctada Margaritifera.  Since the beginning of the 1980’s, this lagoon has produced some of the most beautiful colored pearls in the world.  They are still produced here today, and 3 growers were on hand to sell their pearls.

Tahitian pearls come in a wide variety of colors – from black or gray to peacock green, gold, blue, pink, eggplant, and cream.  When choosing a pearl, one looks for size (over 11.5 mm diameter is rarer), color, luster, shape and purity.  The most desired shape is round, but there are also baroque, button-shaped, ringed, teardrop shaped, and semi-round.

Everyone either headed straight for the water or clustered around the pearl sellers – 3 women who represented their families’ businesses.  Pearls ranged in price from $50 for pearls with significant inclusions and poor shapes to $300 for large pearls with excellent color and luster.  There were also some reject pearls called keshi for sale for $5 each.  The keshi are pearl-covered shells that had been rejected by the oyster early in the process.  Because the keshi have no nucleus, they are very lightweight.  Most of the keshi were silver or light gray, and were semi-rounded or elongated with rings or other interesting elements.  Some passengers bought several of these to string together into a pendant or to put on a necklace.

I donned my plastic shoes and headed straight for the water.  It felt heavenly.  The salinity of the water was quite low and the temperature was perfect.  Someone had brought bubbles for the local kids, who immediately lined up to blow bubbles into the water – a cute sight.  After swimming for a while and getting something to drink, I went to look at the pearls … several times in fact.  There was one woman who was willing to accept US dollars at a straight 1:1 ratio and by the end of the picnic, she said she would make a deal on a pearl.  She did – lowering the price from $120 to $90 in US dollars.  I bought it immediately, as I had been coveting it for some time. The pearl is a beautiful black color with shades of purple in it, and I am thrilled with my purchase.

Vai and one of the oyster farmers provided a demonstration of oyster grafting.  There is much more that goes into this whole process than I thought, making the high prices a bit easier to understand.  Each oyster can produce 2-3 pearls over its lifetime, as well as one mabe pearl.   The pearls available for sale by the growers here are significantly cheaper than those I saw in Papeete or Moorea.  Pearls similar to the one I purchased here had been priced at $165 US in Moorea and about $145 to $165 FPF in the market in Papeete.  One FPF is the currently equivalent to about eighty-five cents in U.S. dollars, depending on the exchange location.  Some of the other items (pearl necklaces and multi-pearl pendants) seemed overpriced at $400 to $450 US.

At noon, the picnic started.  We dined on a huge buffet of chicken, beef, a variety of grilled fish, salads, and apples.  The fish that we sampled included parrotfish, triggerfish, jackfish and grouper. Water and juice were free, but soft drinks and beer cost extra.  Passengers seemed very happy with the fare. 

After eating, swimming and snorkeling, passengers either took the whaleboats back to the ship or hiked back to the village.  By 3 p.m., everyone was back on board.  I was on the last boat. 

The heat during the day had been terrific, and more than a few passengers were feeling its effects.  By dinner, however, everyone seemed to be better and in attendance.  We dined on mako shark, with several additional courses.  After dinner, I went to sleep, but some of the Elderhostel group were gathered by the pool listening to the music and dancing.  It had been a picture perfect Tahitian day and I hope this weather continues.  We were told that it rained almost every day on the last cruise, and Papeete had just finished with 2 weeks of monsoon-style rain.  According to the crew, rain is more common in January, February, and parts of March, while April and May tend to have beautiful weather. I hope our luck holds!

Day 4 – Isolation and Calm At Sea

Aaaaahhh … today was another relaxing day at sea after our hectic day on Takapoto.  The sun was out again, which was perfect for sitting out back on the deck and catching some rays near the pool.  After breakfast and a few telephone calls, that’s exactly what I did until lunchtime.  It’s important to bring 30+ SPF sunscreen for Tahiti, even if you rarely burn.  The sun is very bright and hot here.  I’ll need to build up a good base tan before switching to 15.

At 10:30, the guest lecturer held a program on art and religion in the Polynesian Islands.  It lasted for an hour, and was very well attended by passengers.  One session was held for English speaking passengers and another for those who spoke French.  Just before lunch, a tour of the bridge was also offered.  It’s amazing to look out from the bridge and realize that we are all alone at sea.  There is nothing out there at all … only water.  No dolphins, no other ships, no land –just the Aranui and the ocean.  It’s a rare experience in today’s crowded, modern age to be completely alone.  We have seen no boats or inhabited islands and none are expected for the rest of the day.  For me, it was a feeling of complete serenity and isolation. 

During these calm moments during summer and holiday cruises, children are entertained at sea and watch movies.  Teens and older children should come prepared with books, MP3 players and perhaps even a few DVDs.  The pool is open on days at sea, and it sloshes about with its own little waves.  For most passengers, sunbathing is the activity of the day.

At 2:30, Celine reviews our itinerary for the Marquesas.  Our schedule is jam-packed for the next 10 days, and I am looking forward to it.  Some days have two stops on the same island.  Celine also mentions the “no-no’s” – white and black no see’ums with incredible biting power.  She warns us that regular insect repellant won’t work on these little monsters.  We’ll need to use something with at least 30% DEET, or the Tahitian version of Skin-So-Soft.  Of course, all of this is for sale in the boutique at some fairly high conversion rate price.  The US dollar to CFP conversion rate is not too attractive right now.  In fact, it’s downright painful.  If you come, bring Avon Skin-So-Soft.  It will work just as well as the Tahitian variety.  Tahitian no see’ums will slide off the Avon grease just as well as their American counterparts, and it’s not as bad as using DEET.

The Aranui cruise itinerary contains a number of hikes – usually one each day in the Marquesas.  It is clear that this is an excellent cruise for families who want to explore and stay active.  I’m planning to try out the 2-hour hike tomorrow to measure whether I’m in good enough shape (and can stand the heat adequately) to attempt the 10-mile hike later in the week.

At 6 p.m., guests gather around the pool for complimentary punch, popcorn, olives, peanuts, and a guest/staff fashion show produced by Sylvie, the manager of the ship’s boutique.  More than 15 of the passengers participate in the show, and it is a hit with the audience and models alike.  Dinner tonight is wahoo and strawberry pie.  I’ll be in bed early.  We dock at Hakahau on Ua Pou in the Marquesas at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Day 5 – Ua Pou: Two Towns and a Hike

The Aranui is tied up at the dock at Hakahau, and as I call out on the satellite phone, I’m watching the sunrise over the peaks of Ua Pou.  The scenery here is spectacular.  We’re in a small bay surrounded by velvety green mountains.  Sometimes the mountain peaks are shrouded in clouds, but at other times the clouds part and the sun illuminates the mountains in the most beautiful ways.  There is a tall peak in the center that looks like some sort of phallic obelisk, surrounded by lots of green jagged peaks.  It’s exactly the mental picture people have of South Seas islands.

We’re off the boat by 8 a.m. to make the 40-minute hike up to the stone cross on the top of the mountain.  The road is a rough dirt saddle path that crisscrosses its way up the mountain.  At the top is a small sanctuary to the Virgin Mary.  There is a narrow muddy trail up the rest of the way to the cross.  Hikers are rewarded with a spectacular view of the Bay of Hakahau with the Aranui 3 anchored there.  On the other side is the Bay of Anahoa.  Our group takes lots of pictures and then heads down the mountain again.  On the way down, we make a wrong turn and end up at the beach of Anahoa Bay.  Swimming is not possible here due to the strong surf and high waves.  All in all, the hike takes us about 2 hours.

After climbing the mountains and returning to the port, hikers and other passengers walk through the little village of Hakahau with its school, college, shops and churches.  The Catholic Church is particularly beautiful with its lovely woodcarvings.  At 11:45 a.m., we head to the town square for a welcome ceremony and traditional Marquesan dances.  Then, it’s onto Tata Rosalie’s Restaurant for a traditional Marquesan lunch.  The buffet includes pork, goat, octopus, shrimp, poisson cru (very delicious), rice, and breadfruit for dessert.  We are back on board by 1:45 pm, and then the Aranui makes a quick sail to Hakahetau, also on the island of Ua Pou.

The scenery at Hakahetau is similarly spectacular, with more jagged peaks and a huge cave near the entrance to the bay.  Here at Hakahetau, we board whaleboats for the trip to the pier.  The strong, multi-tattooed Marquesan sailors are great at getting passengers in and out of the whaleboats. Once onshore, we visit a little handicraft shop near the pier.  Here, they are mostly selling cowrie shells, flower stones, pandanus hats and necklaces made from seeds.  We take a 30-minute walk each way to the viewpoint, taking pictures as we go.  The children are adorable!  At the viewpoint, a volcanic rock platform formerly used to dry copra, we take some pictures and enjoy the view.  Then, it’s a quick walk to the Catholic Church for pictures and back to the boat.  We are only at Hakahetau for an hour and a half.

Since French passengers are the majority of the group onboard the Aranui, many of the on island informal guide discussions are in French.  Both Didier and Vai speak English very well, so they are the ones to ask if you have questions.  I would strongly suggest bringing along a French phrase book as well, as it comes in very handy when trying to communicate with fellow passengers who speak French.  Presentations are held every evening to go over destinations and activities for the next day.  The presentation for the English-speaking cruise passengers is generally at 6 p.m. each evening, and there is one for French-speaking passengers at another time

Dinner tonight looks great – roast beef and french fries.  The crew did a series of special Polynesian dances at dinner, and then each crewmember invited a passenger of the opposite sex to dance with them.  The Marquesan sailors are wonderful people who work tirelessly unloading cargo in addition to getting passengers safely in and out of the whaleboats.  They are an interesting group.  After dinner, one of the crew was doing a special singing performance, but I was too tired after today’s activities and went to bed in order to be well rested.  Tomorrow, it’s Nuku Hiva!

Day 6 – Nuku Hiva: Survivor Marquesas

Nuku Hiva is the capital of the northern Marquesas, and it’s also where Survivor Marquesas was filmed.  The Aranui 3 is tied up to the pier at Taiohae. The day dawned at 5:30 a.m. with monsoon rain and foreboding skies.  It had been pouring all night and the area surrounding the dock was very muddy.  I soon learned that the weather is very changeable in the Marquesas.  By 7 a.m., the sun was shining and the weather was starting to clear.  Passengers spent lots of time putting on suntan lotion and insect repellant for the “no-nos”.  We all looked like we had been swimming in grease.  The Tahitian version of no-no repellant is exactly like Skin So Soft.  Hopefully, it will work!

We took the second “le Truck” (actually a yellow Marquesan school bus) to the village of Taiohae at 8:15.  The bus stopped right next to the Post Office and the small hospital.  Nearby, there was also a small bank and some shops.  We took many pictures of the flaming orange poinciana trees and the beautiful Bay of Taiohai.  Our first stop was next to the Town Hall, where local artisans were selling handicrafts.  There was quite a wide selection of handicrafts represented.  There were many beaded necklaces made from seeds.  Some were also made from fish bones and other types of bones.  There were also pareos, a vast variety of woodcarvings, necklaces with manta rays, whale’s tails, and dolphins made of carved bone, carved tagua nut necklaces, and Tahitian pearls.  The pearls were significantly more expensive than those offered in Takapoto.  The pearl that I purchased for $90 US was priced at $16500 FPF.  With the current exchange rate, that would be about $195 in US dollars. Since I only paid $90 for a similar quality pearl, I am glad I bought my pearl in Takapoto!  I was tempted to purchase a tagua nut pendant carved into the shape of a turtle with a pearl at the top, but at $2000 FPF, I decided I would wait.  Tagua nuts do not grow in Tahiti anyway, so it would be sort of an odd souvenir.

At about 9:30, we all piled into air-conditioned 4x4 Jeeps to drive to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  This particularly lovely church took 4 years to build.  The woodcarvings are spectacular.  Next, we drove up into the mountains for a birds-eye view of the Bay of Taiohai.  The Aranui 3 looked so tiny from that vantage point!  Next, it was on to the Muake Saddle (the top of the mountain) for a spectacular view of the bay and a picnic.  While the weather was nice when we arrived, within about 15 minutes it started to pour. Everyone huddled under the covered picnic area and ate lunch.  Even though we only had about 80 people onboard, we could barely fit into the covered area.  We spent approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours at lunch, which seemed like a very long time given the rain.  The afternoon walk in Taipivai was cancelled due to the rain, because the path up to the Meae Paeke was very steep, slippery and muddy.  Even thought the rain finally stopped and the skies cleared, the ground was still extremely muddy and the hike was deemed to be unsafe. Instead, the guides decided to take us on a Jeep ride down the mountains to the village of Taipivai.  There, we saw some copra drying, viewed a local elementary school, and had the opportunity to look at some more crafts.  Then, around 4 p.m., we made a wet boarding on the whaleboats on the beach at Taipivai.  A bulldozer had to help to launch our whaleboat from the sands, but the Marquesan sailors did a valiant job of getting everyone safely in the boats and on their way.  It had been a very long day, so all of us were glad to get back to the ship and relax.

At 6 p.m. we had our English briefing for Fatu Iva, and then dinner was served at 7:30 p.m.  Felix was wonderful, as always, and the pasta bolognese was delicious.  I had a wonderful discussion with members of the Elderhostel group about the 10-mile hike tomorrow, and learned that it is extremely steep going up, and then steep in the last hour coming down.  The mountain elevation is approximately 2000 feet, and the views are supposed to be exceptional when the sky is clear. The trip takes approximately 4 ½ to 5 hours up a dirt road, however, which evidently can become very muddy when it rains.  There is no shade at all, so the sun can be brutal.  This might be a good hike for active families with pre-teens or teens that are also in good shape and can handle high levels of heat and sun exposure.  For families with younger children, it’s best to pass. Once committed and on your way up the mountain, you cannot change your mind as the ship leaves the bay to go to another town on the other side of the mountain.

Day 7 – Fatu Iva: Paradise Found

My husband once said that he fully expected me to call him from somewhere in the Marquesas to say, “I want to stay here forever … come join me!”  Fatu Iva – particularly Hanavave – is the place from which I would make this call.  I gave away a little piece of my heart in Hanavave today, but I got so much more back.  The people are so wonderful, and there is a special energy about this place.  You see it in the landscapes and feel it in the earth and stone.  It is inescapable.  This is an island where a part of me will stay forever.

Fatu Iva is the most isolated of the Marquesas Islands.  Only 750 people live on the entire island.  There is no plane service to the island, and because of its location, it is isolated from most of the boat traffic in the area.  It’s not easy to get to Fatu Iva.  You have to really want to come to this island to end up here, but there are many reasons to want to do so.  It is the most lush and beautiful island in the Marquesas. It is also famous for its tapa cloth, and is one of the only islands where tapa is still made regularly.  Thor Heyerdahl came to Fatu Iva, stayed for a year, and wrote a book about his experiences.  Now I can better understand why he selected this island.  I would too!

This morning, we left the Aranui on the first whaleboat bound for Omoa on Fatu Iva.  The day dawned a bit gray and foreboding, but there were signs that it would clear.  The mountains surrounding Omoa are huge, and the landscape is amazing.  We walked about 10 minutes to the village of Omoa, past a pretty little Catholic Church with a red roof.  In the tiny village of Omoa, we visited the handicraft centers. There were probably about 50-75 pieces of tapa art for sale, as well as beautiful wooden items, pareos, shells, jewelry, and other crafts.  I bought a colorful gauzy pareo for $850 FPF.  It was beautiful, with turtles and the Marquesas Islands on it, but the major reason I bought it was for the plastic bags.  It had started to pour, and I was doing a hand-off of my big camera so I wouldn’t have to take it on the hike.  We saw a demonstration of making tapa, a cloth made from the bark of certain trees.  It takes approximately 2-3 hours to make a reasonably sized tapa cloth, and then one has to let it dry before decorating it with a special pen.  We also saw a demonstration of making the “umu hei”, a flower and herb “bundle of love” that the women wear in their hair.

At 10:15 a.m., it was time to start the 10-mile hike over the mountain to Hanavave.  We met in front of the church, and then started up the steep dirt road.  It had turned sunny, and it was a steam bath.  It is 2 ½ hours up the hill on an unshaded muddy road.  Going up was insanely hot, muddy, stressful and tiring.  The views, however, were gorgeous.  We had about 25 people on the hike of all sizes and age groups.  It was truly a mind-bending experience, to say the least.  Everyone made it up the mountain, but definitely at varying rates of speed.  One of the guys was driven by car up the steepest part of the mountain, because there was clearly no way that he would make it otherwise. We each had to carry a large bottle of water, and one of the straps on my backpack broke from the load. 

At the top of the mountain, we had a picnic and regained our strength.  The views were absolutely incredible, making the trip well worth it. Then it was time to head down the mountain to Hanavave.  The road down was very steep and slippery, but we all made it.  For a while there, I thought I was going to have to sit down and slide!

Hanavave looks like it should have been the setting for a movie entitled “The Lost World”.  The tiny town of Hanavave sits at the end of “Virgins Bay”.  Huge stone monoliths guard the entrance to the Bay, and two huge stone pillar shaped mountains guard the narrow entrance to the valley.  The scenery is absolutely breathtaking – there is no other word to describe it.  Parents and children asked if I would like to take their pictures, and then gave me their addresses so I could send them a copy.  One young woman selling tapa stole my heart.  After talking for a short while, Marie Pricile gave me a medium-sized tapa depicting a love tiki to take home with me.  It shows a tiki offering her heart, and said she wanted me to have it. I took her picture, and she asked me to send her a copy.  I will send her pictures, and I will remember her always.  She is, to me, the spirit of Hanavave.

We watched some Polynesian dances and a demonstration of how the Marquesans make coconut oil, and then at a little after 4 p.m., it was time to get back on the ship.  I literally had to tear myself away … I didn’t want to leave.  I do not cry often as I leave a place, but I cried as I left Hanavave. A piece of my heart will stay forever on the beautiful island of Fatu Iva and the tiny town of Hanavave.  The natural stone monolith of the Virgin and Child stand high above the town of Hanavave.  The village is truly blessed, and I feel very lucky to have come here … even if only for a day.

Day 8 –Tahuata and Hiva Oa: Paul Gaugin, Jacques Brel, and the Bonecarvers

I woke up early this morning to make my calls on the Iridium phone.  That telephone has been a lifesaver!  I called my mother to wish her a happy 86th birthday and I called Jim as well.  I wish they could all be here with me – they would love these islands.  The sun dawned at about 5:45 a.m. over partly cloudy skies.  It looks like it’s going to be another hot day in the Marquesas.

We are anchored here off the island of Tahuata near the little village of Vaitahu.  This morning, Didier announced that due to the tides, we will only have an hour and a half in Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata.  As a result, I was down in the lobby early to get on the first whaleboat at 8 a.m.  The dock at Vaitahu is a dicey one – slippery and steep like one we encountered yesterday.  The strong Marquesan sailors did a great job of lining the whaleboat up with the dock and getting everyone safely ashore on dry land.  That is no small feat on islands like this one. 

Trust is important on the Aranui, as each day one must be able to trust the Marquesan sailors to transport/carry/haul you in and out of the whaleboat safely.  They do this as gently and carefully as they can, and have safely transported 86-year old passengers as well as spry younger ones.  For me, trusting others with my safety is not an issue.  For parents and others who may have problems with this degree of trust, however, the Aranui may not be a good fit.  For adventurous types, however, this kind of experience is what it is all about. 

It was about a five-minute walk into the village along a narrow concrete road that paralleled the bay.  Along the way, I saw several pigs, a small church, brightly painted outrigger canoes, and chickens and roosters.  Everyone headed straight for the craft center, where the bone carvers had come to display their wares.  Tahuata is known for its bone carving, and the work is very intricate.  Most of the carvers use cow bone, but other artisans carved in shell, which gave their necklaces a beautiful coral luster.  Teiki Barsinas, a local artist and sculpturer known as the best bone carver in the Marquesas, was there with a small number of samples of his work.  Carved bone necklaces and items are expensive.  The least expensive necklaces started at $5000 FPF, and went up from there.  The most intricate curved tooth shaped necklaces were generally $8000 FPF and up.  Teiki sold most of his items, and the carver next to him who worked in shell sold a number as well.  Across the street, several women had brought their items to sell, and had a much wider variety of carved bone necklaces to offer.  Even though the carving was not as fine as Teiki’s, the prices were still about the same.  Many of the cruise passengers bought necklaces, and I lent $2500 FPF to one woman who fell in love with the necklaces but had not brought along enough money from the boat.  It always pays to bring plenty of FPF with you from the ship, because prices are quite high in the islands.  Knowing what I know now, I would have brought more traveler’s checks along on this trip.

The school and a small archeological museum were located right next to the craft center, as was a small post office and city hall.  After viewing all of the crafts, I walked up the street to try to visit the tattoo specialist, but he was not there.  I had a lovely walk along the little streets of Vaitahu, visited the church, and talked with some of the local townspeople.  Thank goodness my French is getting better!  It’s interesting to walk around the little villages here.  Tiny houses often have a satellite dish out back, and large 4-wheel drive vehicles are numerous.  Everyone is very friendly, especially the children.  They often start speaking in French, and then switch to practicing their English.  Children cruising on the Aranui would have the opportunity to practice their French and could find many pen pals here.

By 9:30 a.m., it was back on the whaleboats to board the Aranui.  We must head out with the tide and get to Atuona quickly in order to catch the high tide into the bay.  That is the only way we can stop there.  We will stay there for twelve hours until the next high tide.

Atuona is located on the island of Hiva Oa, one of the largest islands in the southern Marquesas.  Atuona is quite a famous town because it is the Polynesian home of Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brel.  Both lived here for the last two years of their lives, and both are buried here in a small cemetery on the hillside over looking the town and the mountains.

We arrived at Atuona in a pouring rain shower at about 11:15 a.m.  It took about 30 minutes to get the Aranui tied up at the dock, and then the gangplank came down for all of us to depart.  It had stopped raining when we boarded the first truck (read that “school bus”) to the Hoa Nui restaurant in the center of Atuona.  There, the staff of the Hoa Nui had prepared an extensive buffet featuring a variety of Marquesan and Chinese items.  Entrees included lobster, sweet and sour pork, fresh water shrimp and vegetables, poisson cru, sashimi, goat, rice, and macaroni fritters.  For dessert, diners could choose from sweet rice, poke, and fruit.  It was absolutely scrumptious!

After lunch, the rain started once more and the heat and humidity were intense.  We took the truck to the cemetery to visit Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brel’s graves.  The rain stopped just in time for us to get out of the trucks and walk up the hillside to the cemetery.  Both graves are beautifully cared for with flowers and leis.  The trucks then took us into the town of Atuona to visit the Gaugin cultural center, including the reproduction of his “house of pleasure”.  It was a nice museum, but I liked the reproductions in Moorea better.  Passengers then had free time to walk in the village and visit the post office, bank and shops.  I used much of my free time to make phone calls at the telephone booths in town.  Basically, one $1550 FPF phone card delivers 40 units of time for phone calls.  If one is calling the United States, each phone card is approximately 15 minutes of time … and that time flies fast.  I used up all of my phone cards in Atuona calling Jim and Jenny.

By 3:15, we were on our way back to the Aranui 3.  It is about a 2 ½ mile walk from the center of town to the Aranui, and I thought it would be a good idea to get my exercise after that huge lunch.  One of the buses took a passenger to the hospital in Atuona.  He seemed to be suffering from heat stroke, but I am sure he will be okay.  Onboard the ship, it was laundry time, as some of my clothes were getting very smelly.  I had given some of my clothes to housekeeping to be done today, but they will not do underwear or delicates.  I am looking forward to having lots of clean clothes soon.

Some of the group elected to go on a hike to the belvedere for a nice view.  Unfortunately, since it is raining and overcast, I don’t think the view will be too nice and the trail will be very muddy.  It was a two hour hike, getting back after 5 p.m.  Personally, the walk back to the ship was just right for me!

Day 9 – Hiva Oa: Tikis and the Garden of Eden

Today was a very exciting day, as we went to a spot that, to me, had the same strong positive energy and feel as the Place of Refuge on Hawaii’s Big Island.  This spot is in Puamau, on the island of Hiva Oa.  There, we saw a megalithic tiki called Takaii and probably the tiki of his wife right behind him.  It is the largest tiki in the Marquesas, and very reminiscent of the tiki on Easter Island. The meia site was deep in jungle underbrush, with tons of mosquitoes.  It was fantastic, though, and I literally didn’t want to leave.  You could feel the powerful mana here.

We boarded our whaleboats at 8:30 a.m. for the Puamau archeological site.  Some people walked about 40 minutes up to the archeological site, while others took jeeps.  The site is spectacular and very well maintained.  There were several tikis as well as petroglyphs on the rocks.  After spending about an hour at the site, we then walked about 5 minutes to visit the tomb of the last chief of Puamau.  Then, several of us walked downhill on a beautiful concrete road where we swam at the beach.  By 11:30 a.m., I was on the last whaleboat back to the Aranui 3.  Generally, I am always on the last whaleboat.  I find it very hard to leave these islands.

While we were having lunch onboard, the Aranui stopped at Hanapaoa for a cargo stop.  We spent about 2 hours there while the Aranui unloaded cargo, loaded blue barrels of noni, and purchased copra from the townspeople.  Watching the sailors load and unload cargo is absolutely fascinating and something that kids would love. 

From Hanapaoa, the Aranui went on to Hanaiapa, where we took whaleboats to go ashore at 3:30 p.m.  Hanaiapa is called the “Garden of Eden” because of its lush greenery, flowers, and ti plants.  The village is located along a concrete road about 5 minutes from the beach.  There was a beautiful church there and lots of adorable children.

Tonight, we had a great dinner of moonfish and then it was time for Felix’s pareo show.  Felix does an incredible job of tying the pareos, and he selected models for his designs from the audience.  They looked beautiful!  After the show, Felix showed me several ways to tie my own pareo, but I always get hung up on the knots.  Tomorrow night is “Polynesian Night” onboard the Aranui, so I’ll have to learn by then.

Day 10 – Ua Huka: Shopping and Dining in Paradise

We spent the day in Ua Huka, the most distant island in the Marquesas.  It is the most northern island, about a 7-hour sail away from Hiva Oa.  It is not visited as often as many of the other islands in the Marquesas. Ua Huka is not as mountainous as the other islands we have seen in the Marquesas island chain.  It is more like a high plateau, with no jagged peaks.  People say that it looks a lot like Easter Island.  Ua Huka has a drier climate than the other islands, but that was not the case for us today.  It started out very sunny, but then alternated between periods of sun and heavy rain.

Ua Huka is known for its many horses and well as its woodworking.  The horses were brought in from Chile, and were very much in evidence on the island.  Most of the horses were roaming free, but were branded with their owner’s name.  There were also many goats on the island.  The island also has three craft centers that avidly compete with each other for business.  There is a small one in Vaipaee, and then larger ones in Hokatu and Hane.  Based on today’s experience, it looks like the Hokatu craft center offers at least twice as much of a selection as the centers in Vaipaee and Hane, and the prices for wood items are much better here than in the other islands.

I started out the day at 5:30 a.m., when I got up to watch the sunrise and make my phone calls on the Iridium phone.  That phone is fantastic, and is really the only way to go if one needs to be in regular contact with one’s family or the office.  Since it is extremely hot and humid here, batteries run out quickly.  It is important to bring a charger for the phone, and for cameras, computers, and any other appliance.

At 6:00 a.m., the Aranui 3 entered Ua Huka’s Vaipaee Bay (also called Invisible Bay) and performed and interesting maneuver.  It turned around in the bay – narrowly missing the sides of the channel, and then tied up to both sides of the bay with 2 ropes on each side.  The sailors did an excellent job, and I have new respect for the captain for being able to perform this maneuver accurately.  The bay’s channel is quite narrow, and it is rocky on both sides. 

Once that was finished, everyone ran to breakfast and to pack up for the day.  Today’s itinerary promised to be a very busy one.  A three-hour horseback riding trip was offered, although only 3 people chose that option.  I was on the first whaleboat at 8:15 a.m., quickly landing on the pier at Vaipaee.  We were met there by about 15 jeeps and trucks decorated with flowers.  Most of them were the types of trucks where 2-4 people could sit inside and the remainder sat on seats out in the flatbed portion of the truck.  We were told to wear heavy mosquito repellant for the botanical gardens and the hike, and many of us brought along swimming gear so that we could swim at the beach in the afternoon.

The first stop was at the Ua Huka museum and Vaipee handicraft center.  Women with leis and necklaces met us, and some of the women performed a series of beautiful Polyesian dances. Unfortunately, it started to pour right after the dance started, so the pictures were not particularly good.

Then it was on to the Botanical Garden and the wood museum.  There were tons of mosquitoes here, and the trail was extremely muddy.  We spent an hour walking through the Botanical Garden and looking at a wide variety of fruit trees.  There were palmelos, mangos, limes, Tahitian cherry trees, soursop, and cocoa trees – just to name a few.  The weather alternated between sun and rain, making the walk (and the mosquitoes) rather difficult.

From there, we drove to the handicraft center in Hokatu.  Because passengers tend to buy a lot in Ua Huka, the Aranui changes the order of town visits with each trip so that the towns will not feel that the Aranui is favoring one over the other.  The handicraft center in Hokatu was quite large, and was filled with a wide variety of items.  The prices were generally about 1000 FPF cheaper than they had been on other islands.  I bought a little carved wooden turtle (honu), and he was a great buy at 1000 FPF.  I haven’t seen any wood carving so cheap anywhere in French Polynesia, so I was very happy.  Since it was Saturday, school was not in session so there were children everywhere.  There were a number of children playing in the water by the palm trees, and I took a lot of pictures of them.  I love taking pictures of children!

From the handicraft center in Hokatu, we went to lunch at the Chez Celine Fournier restaurant.  Madame Fournier prepared and excellent buffet of sashimi, chicken, pork, shrimp with vegetables, goat, poisson cru (raw fish in lime juice) rice, bananas, and cake for dessert.  It was great.  It absolutely poured while we were eating lunch, so the 20- minute walk to visit the meae was cancelled.  The trail was a narrow steep trail with lots of brush, mud and rocks, and the guides felt that it would be unsafe.  By the time we had finished eating and watching the Polynesian dancers, however, the rain had stopped.  We walked down the hill to visit Hane’s handicraft center, and then went for a swim at the beach.  The whaleboats had to do another very wet landing here, but with my bathing suit on I was fine.  We were back on board by 4 p.m., and cruised by the Bird Islands at about 4:20.  There were literally hundreds of terns flying around the area.

Tonight, it’s the Polynesian Night out by the pool.  The crew has already beautifully decorated the area with palm tree leaves, and other decorations, and it looks great.  As I walked by the boutique this afternoon, many passengers were buying pareos for tonight’s festivities.  Felix has promised to help me tie my pareo correctly, so I’ll be looking for him soon.

Polynesian Night was a great celebration.  Everyone was decked out in their pareos and other Polynesian attire.  As always, the French group was a standout.  Alain was attired in his tattoos (half of his entire body is completely tattooed) and a Marquesan breechcloth just barely covering what needed to be covered.  Another woman was in a ti leaf skirt and a bra top.  Masumo was dressed as the head of the Nike tribe with fake tatoos and a spear.  The Aranui provided a huge buffet dinner and the entire crew was introduced.  It felt like a huge family picnic. Afterward dinner, there were skits and dancing.  It made for a great night. 

Day 11 – Nuku Hiva, Anaho Bay:  Beach Day on Treasure Island

Today was a spectacular beach day – one of my favorites days on the trip.  We were anchored in Anaho Bay, also called Stevenson Bay because Robert Louis Stevenson came here and fell in love with this spot.  I can definitely see why.  It would be the perfect setting for Treasure Island.  The bay is completely unspoiled, with a large horseshoe-shaped golden sand beach, palm trees, and breathtaking views of the mountains.  There is a reef right offshore, which keeps the beach protected. Only 5 people live here, and there are no roads in and out of Anaho Bay.  The only way to get here is by foot (over a narrow trail), by boat, or by horseback.  When the weather has been clear for a while and there is no mountain runoff, the waters of Anaho Bay have that beautiful turquoise color surrounded by green mountains and palm trees.  It is absolutely beautiful! 

The day started out overcast but quickly turned sunny.  I left the ship on the first whaleboat at 9 a.m. so that I could take the hike up to the Anaho saddle to enjoy the view.  It was a 45-minutes up, 45-minutes back hike up the mountain on a narrow dirt path.  Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains, the dirt path had become a thick mud path punctuated by moss or water-soaked stones.  After slipping and mud surfing my way halfway up the trail, I decided that this hike was not for me.  My feet and sandals were completely saturated with mud, and as I result, I had completely lost any traction on my sandals.  Furthermore, my legs were covered in mud almost up to my knees.  The risk of an accident looked too great and I headed back, mud surfing all the way.  It was so bad that I was looking for anything with traction to put my feet on … including horse poop!  Needless to say, it was quite an experience!  Some people did make it all the way to the top, and they said the view was great.  Didier said it was the most difficult hike of the trip. 

After making it back to the beach covered in mud, it was time for a swim.  The water was crystal clear and warm, although only about waist deep. I spent the day walking along the beach looking for shells, swimming, and talking with a few of the local people.  One of the local guys played the guitar and sang me the song he had written about Anaho Bay.  The residents of this area are very passionate about protecting the Bay, and want to make sure that no roads are ever built to allow people to easily access this part of the island.  That way, it will remain the same as it has for hundreds of years.

The Aranui had a barbeque at lunch, consisting of beef, pork, chicken and fish.  There was something for everyone on this menu.  I grabbed all sorts of good things to eat and then went to sit on a log under the shade of some palm trees.  The ground all around me was studded with huge holes, as if an army of large gophers had moved in and taken up residence.  After sitting there for some time, I saw some gargantuan claws begin to emerge out of some of the holes.  They were land crabs – the biggest I’ve ever seen!  Adventure-oriented kids would love seeing these.

The majority of the passengers went back to the ship on the 2 p.m. whaleboat, but Joy, Andy and I stayed until the last whaleboat at 4 p.m.  There were only about 8 of us left by this time.  It was a “wet” arrival and landing, as the whaleboats simply got close to shore and loaded people in.  The Marquesan sailors do an amazing job of moving the heavy wooden boats full of people off the beach.  The wet landing seemed to work fine for everyone.

Personally, I could have stayed at Anaho Bay forever.  For me, it was easily one of the best days of the cruise. One has to watch out for both the black and white “no-nos” at this spot, and the sun is intense.  Thanks to the excellent Tahitian “no-no juice” the gift shop sells, I haven’t gotten one bite so far on this cruise.  I got pretty scorched today, but I know it will turn into a great tan!

Day 12 – Nuku Hiva, Hatiheu:  Pig Dances and Petroglyphs

Even though the weather in the Marquesas is generally the same year round, I’m wondering whether the typhoon that just missed Rangiroa Island yesterday is affecting the weather pattern up here today.  It was absolutely pouring monsoon rain this morning, which was a bit unusual.  There have been two typhoons in French Polynesia since I arrived on February 8, and I’m sure the weather in Tahiti has not been great while we have been gone.  According to Heidi, the leader of the Elderhostel group onboard, Tahiti has a definite rainy season (November through March/early April) while the Marquesas do not.  The weather up here is very changeable.  It can be sunny one minute, and then raining one hour later.  I have learned never to predict the weather for the entire day.  Today was no different.

We were to depart on the whaleboats for Hatiheu this morning at 8:30 a.m., and no one wanted to get off the ship.  The rain was coming down in buckets.  Unfortunately, if we wanted to get onto the island, we didn’t have a choice about going out in the storm.  After watching the whaleboats bucking in the waves, a number of the passengers elected to stay on board, even though there would be no lunch provided.  In my case, I decided to go without question.  I put on the little thin rain poncho that Air Tahiti Nui had given me upon arriving in Papeete, bagged the digital camera in a plastic bag, and headed out into the rain.  It was an adventure!  I wore a bathing suit underneath my running shorts and sleeveless t-shirt – just in case we got to swim, lathered myself in mosquito spray and coconut oil to ward off the nonos, and put on my tennis shoes for hiking.  At the last minute, however, I changed into my hiking sandals.  That proved to be a very fortuitous choice.

As I started down the ladder to the whaleboats, I noticed that the seas had become rougher over time and the whaleboats and the Aranui were both rocking in the waves.  When it was my turn to stand on the platform to get onboard, it looked like it would be a simple maneuver.  Then the Aranui rolled and the whaleboat went down, and the platform rose about 6 feet.  It was like a roller coaster.  Just as soon as I looked down and thought, “Wow!”, the Aranui pitched down into a wave and the platform went with it.  I was plunged into the ocean up to the bottom of my shorts.  I was so surprised … and I’m told that my face was truly a picture to see!  In any case, the two boats evened out and I was able to successfully board the whaleboat …WHOO-HOO!  The guys were a huge help, both getting on and getting off, as the pier was very steep and slippery.

Completely soaked from the ocean and the rain (but with my camera safely bagged in plastic and under my rain poncho), I hiked with the group into the village.  There was a small handicraft center there, and some of the passengers bought seed necklaces and other small items.  Then we hiked up the hill in the rain to the Tohua Hikokua, (another muddy hike!) an archeological site with several tikis, a central ceremonial tohua platform, and lots of seating made out of stones.  It was a beautiful site … even in the rain.  The site overlooked several jagged outcroppings, and looked like it would have been spectacular on a sunny day.  The mosquitoes were ferocious up here, and people were reapplying their insect repellant constantly.  Didier says that this area has the most mosquitoes in the Marquesas, but I’m not sure that any scientific study has been done to support that fact.  Based upon what our group could see, however, he probably is right.

After a short lecture on the significance of the Tohua Hikokua, we then hiked 20 minutes further up the hill in the rain and mud to the Me’ae Kamuihei, a sacred architectural site that has been beautifully preserved.  There were a number of ceremonial platforms, a large me’ae site, several petroglyphs, and a huge banyan tree.  The mud was deep here, and some passengers found the going to be rough going uphill on the narrow muddy paths.  The site was lovely, however, and very peaceful.

By the time we had finished the tour of the Me’ae Kamuihei, the rain had completely stopped.  We had a wonderful 40-minute hike down the mountain to Yvonne’s restaurant.  I stopped a number of times along the way to take pictures of the jagged outcroppings, the road lined with hibiscus, and a mother and daughter standing outside their house.  Just as I got inside of Yvonne’s restaurant, it started to pour again.  Several of the passengers who were walking behind me were completely soaked, as the rain came without warning.  As a result of all this rain and wind, the afternoon hike and swimming options were cancelled.

At Yvonne’s restaurant, we were treated to the most magnificent lunch of the entire trip.  First, a local group of male dancers did some traditional Marquesan dances for us – including the very memorable “pig dance”.  They usually do this up at the Me’ae, but that wasn’t possible today with the rain.  Then we went outside to watch the opening of the Marquesan oven, very similar to the opening of the luau pit in Hawaii.  That is not surprising, however, because evidently the Hawaiians came from the Marquesas and brought many of their traditions with them.

After the opening of the oven and the removal of the two pigs, the feast started.  We had french bread, then fish, shrimp fritters (delicious) and breadfruit.  Next came the poisson cru, which was the best I have had on this trip.  That course was followed by fresh grilled lobster, which tasted a lot like Caribbean lobster.  Next came the main course – the pig – accompanied by breadfruit fritter balls and cooked red banana.  Dessert was a dish of cooked red banana in coconut milk.  All of us were completely stuffed!

Amazingly, at the end of lunch, the rain stopped and the skies cleared.  It turned sunny, hot and gorgeous.  While the majority of the stuffed passengers headed back to the ship, I decided to hike back up the mountain to take pictures of the sites when it was sunny.  What a great choice!  The jagged peaks were beautiful in the sun, and the Tohua Hikokoua site with its tikis looked even more gorgeous in the light.  I hiked back up to the Me’ae Kamuihei site, but since that one is so heavily shaded the sun didn’t make too much difference.  I got some fabulous pictures coming down the mountain, however, and I was glad I went.  It also helped me to work off that huge lunch!  In town, I took a number of pictures of the beautiful little church and ran into my guitar player friend from Anaho Bay.  He had walked over the mountain from Anaho with his surfboard to enjoy the huge waves, but had lost his leash in the powerful surf.  Luckily, his board didn’t sustain too much damage.

I caught the last whaleboat back to the ship at 4 p.m., and it was just as much of an adventure getting onto the whaleboat as the first time around.  There were only four of us on that whaleboat, so it wasn’t so bad.  At least we didn’t have the rain to contend with!   The ship then made a run over to the airport in Desert Land to drop off jet fuel.  It was amazing to watch the captain pull the front of the boat directly up to the little dock so that the crane could unload the barrels of jet fuel directly onto the land.  What an amazing maneuver!  All of the passengers were in awe watching this one.  The captain said that is the most difficult maneuver he has to make on this trip.

After dinner, it was lights out by 9 p.m. in my cabin.  I was exhausted.  I think tomorrow will be a much more relaxing day.

Day 13 – Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou:  Last Cargo Stops in the Marquesas

This day was our last day in the Marquesas Islands.  It was a repeat day, and shows that much of the itinerary is determined by the freight onboard the ship.  Today, we returned to Taiohae in Nuku Hiva so that the Aranui could drop off some freight and pick up the refrigeration units that it had left behind on our first stop.  The same was true for our afternoon stop in Ua Pou.

In the morning, the first “truck” (school bus) to the village of Taiohae left at 7:45 a.m.  We would only be in port for two hours, so it was a quick stop.  Since we were tied up to the pier in Taiohae, however, it was quite easy.  I boarded the first truck, and used this time to walk around and further explore the village of Taiohae.  I stopped at the craft market and helped one of the older women passengers buy a tagua nut and mother of pearl shell necklace.  It was pretty, but at $57 US dollars, it seemed rather expensive.  I then walked through town, looked at the archeological site of Temehea (the last queen of Nuku Hiva), and went to the bank.  Although the exchange rate was better at the bank (.88 for the dollar rather than .85), the commission charge of 500 French Polynesian Francs made the bank less attractive than changing money on the ship.  One also needs to bring along a passport to exchange money at the bank.  As a result, I opted to continue exchanging money on the ship.

I was back on board by 9:30 a.m., and at 10 a.m. the Aranui left Taiohae to head to Ua Pou.  We had a wonderful lunch onboard (salad, lamb, vegetables and profiteroles for dessert), and watched the Aranui dock at the pier at Hakahau on the island of Ua Pou.  It was hot and sunny, but the mountains were much more obscured since the last time that we were here. We had spent a full day in Hakahau when we first came to this port, so I didn’t feel a big need to spend lots of time off the ship.  After debarking and walking around the bay to take several pictures and talking with some of the local children, I got back onboard and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the pool and sunning on deck.  It was the perfect way to enjoy the sun and heat.  Some people walked around the village, stopped at the handicraft center near the pier, or hiked up to the cross on the top of the mountain. At 4 p.m., we left Ua Pou and said goodbye to the Marquesas Islands.  That was our last stop in this chain of islands, and we are now heading back in the direction of Papeete.  Tomorrow, we will have a full day at sea, and then our next stop will be Fakarava in the Tuamotu Islands.  By now, I think everyone is looking forward to a relaxing day at sea.

Day 14 – At Sea: No Sun, But Lots of Companionship

Well, this wasn’t exactly the type of “day at sea” that I had been looking forward to yesterday.  Today dawned cloudy and heavily overcast, with about eight foot seas.  The Aranui was rocking from side to side as I called Jim from the back deck at 7 a.m.  By 9 a.m., the rains came and the swells increased significantly.  I did some work on the computer, read a book, and went to pay my boutique and bar bill.  My boutique bill could be paid by credit car, but the bar bill needed to be at least $2000 FPF to pay with credit cards.  Just remember, it pays to drink at least that much on the ship in order to avoid using cash.  Water, juice and coffee are complementary at breakfast, but juices and sodas are not free after that.  Neither, of course, are any mixed drinks.  It is nice that the wine is free at lunch and dinner.  There are a certain number of bottles available per table, but we have never gone over our set amount.

I then met with Vai for about 30 minutes to talk about family travel on the Aranui.  It turns out that July and December are their most popular months for family travel, with about 20-30 kids on board at that time.  The vast majority of them are French.  She said that it is very rare to see American or English-speaking kids onboard the Aranui at any time.  March sailings sometimes have up to 10 kids onboard, as there are school vacations that come at that time.  She believes that not as many Americans know about this trip, and that’s why there are very few American kids on the cruises.  I would agree.  This trip would be great for adventurous families who want to see new places and go where few others have gone before.

During the months when many kids cruise on the Aranui, there is a babysitter onboard the ship.  She is there to watch kids from ages 3-16, and is available from 8 a.m. to noon, at lunch, from 2:30 p.m. until dinner, and then until 9:30 p.m.  The babysitter sometimes has dinner with the children as well.  Little ones must be potty trained to participate in the program, which meets in the video room.  There are planned activities for the children, including Marquesan arts and crafts, such as learning how to weave palms, learning Marquesan songs, learning about Marquesan culture and nature, and planning and performing a kids show for the Polynesian Night. Kids can come along onshore on the planned activities, but parents are responsible for their children when they are onshore. Most families stay in triples or in two separate rooms, and there is a maximum of three persons in any room.  The two dorm rooms of 8 and 10 are available if the families take the entire room.  Children under age 12 cruise for half price.

Vai also said that there are no longer any helicopter trips offered due to accidents and delays, and the swimming platform will no longer be offered due to an accident in 2003.   She also mentioned that June, July and December are very busy months for the Aranui 3, and must be booked early.  March can be rather busy as well, but April, May, and early June are not so busy.  Vai confirmed that there is no “rainy season” per se in the Marquesas, but that July can tend to be rainier and windier than other months.  It is interesting, because even though she said that there is no real rainy season, she also said that the current tropical depression in the Cook Islands is affecting our weather.  I do think that some of Tahiti’s rainy season spills over into the Marquesas, even though only a few onboard will actually confirm it.

By the time dinner came around, however, I was looking forward to talking with people.  You meet some of the most interesting people aboard the Aranui 3, and in fact, they are one of the highlights of the trip.  There is Evelyn, a sprightly lady in her 80’s who just completed a 4-week trip to Antarctica and then came straight aboard the Aranui 3.  She is a pistol, and I really enjoy talking with her.  We’ve gotten to be great friends.  Then there’s Peter from Germany, an 80-year old gentleman who was successfully operated on for brain surgery and is now taking the trip he’s dreamed about since he was a child.  He flew from Germany to Easter Island, then to Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, and then boarded the Aranui 3.  After this cruise, he is going to New Zealand, Tonga, and several of the Fiji islands, and is then heading back to Germany. 

Joy and Andy are from England, and they are some of my favorite people aboard the ship.  They have such a great outlook on life and Andy has a wonderful sense of humor.  In Joy, I feel that I have found a compatriot.  Joy is 52 and Andy is 60.  Andy built a very successful financial planning firm in England, and he and his partners sold it two years ago in an earn-out.   They are a fun couple.  Then, of course, there’s Jeanne.  At 86, she is the oldest person onboard, but you’d never know it.  She’s always coming along on hikes, dancing until midnight while the rest of us have gone to bed, and smiling her adorable little smile.  She is amazing!  She was a nurse in World War II, and went with the Elderhostel group to Easter Island and on the Aranui.  Everyone loves her, and the crew and the passengers make a special point of watching over her.  She is “la Maman”.

One cannot talk about the people onboard without mentioning the French passengers sailing on the Aranui.  I have had so much fun with them on this trip.  So many of them have such spirit, creativity, and zest for life.  We have gotten along fabulously.   They put up with my miserable French, but I think they like the fact that I try.  In the last day, several of them have started to speak English to me and it’s great. Actually, I think they are just getting tired of my pitiful French!  

Tonight at dinner, a group of them made Jeanne an honorary citizen of France, complete with all of the documentation.  Then, halfway through dinner, the entire group got up and sang “La Marseilles”, the French national anthem, and Jeanne (and all of the French passengers) sang along while the rest of us stood and cheered.  Then they started in on “The Star Spangled Banner”, which all of the Americans sang while the French stood and cheered.  It was a fabulous moment, a great night, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.  The papaya pie was wonderful as well!

Day 15 – Fakarava, Tuamotu Islands: More Pearls and a Lei Overboard

Last night, the storm was amazing.  We had run into bad weather all day yesterday, but by 6 p.m. the storm really intensified.  During the night, it was unreal.  The rain was pouring down in sheets, and the ocean swells were huge.  I got up at about 3 p.m. because of the bucking and rocking of the ship, and I began to wonder how bad it was and whether I should put on clothes just in case.  About 4 p.m., the ship slowed dramatically and the rocking got better.  Within a few minutes, I was able to fall asleep.

This morning dawned gray and cloudy, but by 8 a.m. it looked like things were starting to clear.  Last night’s storm cost us dearly, however.  Because we had to slow our pace so much and the waves are still high, we will not get to Fakarava before noon.  Originally, we were to arrive at Fakarava by 8:30 a.m. and spend the day there until 2 p.m.  Then last night, the schedule was changed and we were to arrive at Fakarava by 10 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m.  We were to have a picnic on the beach, as well as plenty of time for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving for those who wanted to sign up.  Now, because of the heavy seas, we are arriving at Fakarava at noon and leaving at 1:30 p.m.  I wish we could spend more time there!

Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands (Rangiroa is the largest), and the third largest atoll in the world.  Because the lagoon is so big and there is such a large pass, the Aranui is able to sail right into the lagoon and very close to the pier.  I didn’t understand fully how large the lagoon was until we went through the pass.  You could probably easily put an entire naval fleet into this lagoon without any problem.  It took us about 25-30 minutes to sail across the lagoon to the pier.  Fakarava is an incredibly beautiful atoll, and I’m glad the weather was sunny for our visit.  I just wish that we had more time.

I was on the first whaleboat to the pier at noon because I had heard that there would be black pearls and handicrafts for sale, and I really wanted to find a good dragonfly green pearl at a reasonable price.  Everywhere I looked in the Marquesas and Papeete, they had been way out of my price range.  They didn’t have any of the dragonfly green pearls at our first stop in the Tuamotus, but I love the pearl I bought there.

When I got to the pier, I found that there were only two pearl farmers there, and the rest of the people were selling shell necklaces, informal necklaces made from pearls that were very expensive, and other items.  I spent about 45 minutes looking for my pearl, and found a beautiful large dragonfly green drop pearl pendant mounted in18 karat gold.  Probably because I spent so much time with him and he was making few other sales since everyone was running for the beach, the pearl farmer was willing to come down from $125 to $95 and I bought it.  I am very happy, because it’s a gorgeous pearl and is a good compliment to the round one that I bought earlier.  I love them both!

After I bought the pearl, I walked around the little village of Fakarava taking pictures and then went for a swim in the ocean.  It was heavenly.  The water is clear and a beautiful turquoise blue, the sun was shining, and the palm trees were swaying in the breeze.  Many of the passengers were enjoying the ocean on our last stop on the Aranui.   I’m glad I did that sun dance last night in my room, because we got the picture perfect weather I was hoping for – even for just an hour and a half.  I spoke with several of the French passengers and all of us agreed that although we were ready to end our voyage, it would be hard to go home and leave this place.

By 1:30 p.m., I was on the last whaleboat to the ship.  It was our final whaleboat ride, and I’m going to miss it.  As the Aranui slowly pulled out of the Fakarava harbor, I ran downstairs to get the lei hanging in my room and raced back up to the deck.  Saying a little prayer, I threw the lei out over the water and watched it settle on top of the calm seas.  I stood there for a while and watched my flower lei drift back toward the shore.  Once of the senior crewmembers came over to me and asked whether I knew what I had done.  “When you throw your lei into the water like that, you leave a little piece of your heart here,” he said.  I told him that pieces of my heart had been left on several islands throughout this voyage, and that I was already planning my return.  He smiled knowingly, and said, “Yes, you will return.”   He is right.  This is not a place that you can just check off on your “been there – done that” list.  It grabs you and holds on, and you become attached.  It’s tough to let go.

Tonight is our last dinner together on the Aranui.  I’m going to miss this ship!  I have grown to love it, and the people on board have become my extended family and friends.  Next time, I will return in April or May.

Day 16 – Papeete: Disembarkation and Heading Home

Early this morning, we cruised into the port of Papeete and prepared to leave the Aranui.  This has been no ordinary cruise, and I am happier for it.  The crew and the passengers have become close and I am sorry to see us go our separate ways.  Tips are handled differently aboard this ship.  There is no automatic tip added to the bill for the crew, and nothing is expected.  There’s just a little box down next to the desk, and all tipping is completely anonymous.  The staff has been so wonderful that the box is very full when I stuff my little envelope in, and I am glad that their service is being rewarded.

Getting off the ship was just as much of a breeze as getting on, and I head over to the InterContinental Resort by cab to relax before boarding my evening flight.  The InterContinental is perfect for families with children of any age.  The pools are magnificent and the rooms are spacious, particularly the Panoramic Rooms with views over the lagoon and ocean to nearby Moorea.  Families with small children and those with mobility issues should be aware that the Panoramic Rooms are at the far end of the resort.  Although this area is quieter, it is also a long walk from the main dining areas.  Shuttle bus service is available, however, and the small bus generally comes quite quickly.  If it is important for your family to be close to the main areas of the resort, make sure to request this at time of booking.

When I come back again, I will plan to go to nearby Moorea for several days and stay at the InterContinental Resort or the Sofitel.  Moorea is just a short ferry ride from Papeete and quick flights are also available.  Away from the bustle and crowds of Papeete, on Moorea you’ll find calm bays, turquoise blue water, lush mountain peaks, and postcard perfect resorts.  If a beautiful beach is important, choose the Sofitel.  It has one of the nicest beaches on the island.  The InterContinental Resort is a great choice for families with its dolphin program and beautiful pool.  Other possibilities would include quick flights to Bora Bora or one of the other out islands after the cruise.  Take it from me … it’s hard to leave.

 































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