Tahiti by Freighter: A Family Travel Adventure

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Finding the perfect destination for a family vacation can be tough, especially for parents who are looking for something new and different in their next travel experience.  If adventure travel and remote South Seas islands appeal to your family of explorers, a freighter cruise to the remote Marquesas and Tuomotu islands may be just the ticket your family is seeking. 

The Aranui 3 offers 15-day cruises from Papeete, Tahiti to the wild and sparsely inhabited islands of the Tuomotus and the Marquesas, where Survivor Marquesas was filmed.  This is a memorable travel experience for the family that enjoys hiking, exploring unique places, experiencing new cultures, traveling with passengers from around the world, and going where few families have gone before.  It’s all about the experience on this vacation, and adventurous families will relish this one.

A freighter cruise is a unique and different type of vacation.  Cruising aboard the Aranui 3 grows on you, like a pair of favorite jeans.  When you first board the Aranui, you find yourself wondering about the fit.  There are no elegant dining rooms, expansive pool decks with slides, extensive children’s programs, huge theaters, or luxurious suites.  There’s a large cargo deck in front that takes up about two-thirds of the vessel, with the cruise ship portion in the rear.  After 15 days aboard the Aranui, however, one becomes attached to this unique ship and the tropical islands she visits.  You relish the casual friendliness of the people onboard, the amazing experiences you have on the islands, and the welcoming spirit of the South Seas.  In short, it is hard to take off and leave.

Just a word of warning for those “been there – done that” travelers who want to take this trip and then check it off their list.  This isn’t that kind of experience.  This ship and these unspoiled islands find a way into your heart, and you’ll soon find yourself wanting to come back for more.  The exotic beauty of the islands and their inhabitants is as breathtaking as a Gaugin painting, and the warmth and friendliness of the people touches your soul. If you cruise the Tahitian islands on the Aranui, you will find yourself wanting to come back again soon.

Life Aboard the Ship

Cruising aboard the Aranui 3 is informal and relaxed.  Approximately 200 passengers can be accommodated on her seven air-conditioned decks.  Rooms range from comfortable twin or triple-bedded standard cabins with private showers to suites with bathtubs and private decks. There is a small exercise room, an audio-visual room that doubles as a children’s area during the holidays and summer months, an expansive lounge with a small library, a well-stocked boutique, and a freshwater swimming pool surrounded by broad sundecks.  Guests eat at family-sized tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and dress is casual.  To get a better feel for the Aranui experience, take a look at the day-by-day diary of an Aranui cruise.

Family travel aboard the Aranui 3 is sporadic.  July and December are the most popular months for family travel, with about 20-30 kids on board at that time.  The majority of the passengers on the ship are French, and the families that travel on the freighter tend to be French as well.  March sailings sometimes have up to 10 children onboard as there are school vacations at that time, but summer and the holidays are the most popular cruising times for families.

During the months when there are many kids on the ship, the Aranui brings a babysitter onboard to run complimentary children’s activities.  The babysitter watches kids from ages 3-16, and is available from 8 a.m. to noon, at lunch, from 2:30 p.m. until dinner, and after dinner until 9:30 p.m.  The babysitter sometimes has evening meals with the children as well.  Little ones must be potty trained to participate in the program, which meets in the video room. 

The children’s program consists of planned activities for the children, including Marquesan arts and crafts, learning Marquesan songs, discovering more about Marquesan culture and nature, and planning and performing a kids show for the Polynesian Night. Children 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 Aranui dorm rooms of 8 and 10 are available if the families take the entire room.  Children under age 12 cruise for half price.

Life onboard the Aranui fits the nature of the ship.  It’s casual and relaxed.  This is a freighter that also carries passengers aboard in comfort and style.  The Aranui is an experience - not just a cruise - and it’s an adventure your family will not soon forget.

Adventures on Land

Exploring the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas is the irresistible lure of this trip.  While all of the islands offer breathtaking scenery and the same warm spirit, each has its own unique appeal.  For details on each of the ports, read the Aranui diary for an in-depth account of the islands and the activities on shore.

The sandy palm-studded Tuamotus are a mecca for lovers of beaches and Tahitian black pearls.  Kids will enjoy swimming here, and the hike on Takapoto is not to be missed for the beauty and cultural experience.  Parents should remember to bring plenty of SPF 30+ sunscreen on this trip, as well as a sturdy backpack and lots of water.  It’s easy to get sunburned and dehydrated on these islands if one is not careful.  For families with young children or for those who don’t wish to walk, transportation to the Takapoto picnic site is provided by trusty whaleboat.

Interestingly enough, the whaleboats can be one of the biggest adventures of the trip.  Getting safely hauled in and out of these boats isn’t always easy, but the strong Marquesan sailors make it look effortless.  They manage to safely transport the frail 86-year old woman as gently and effectively as the most massive passenger.  Children will love this part of the journey, as it’s a bit like a Disney attraction.  Parents will have fun with it too, as long as they can relax and trust these experienced seamen.  These Marquesan men truly know what they are doing and they enjoy interacting with passengers.  Kids will enjoy watching these same tattooed stevedores unload a wide variety of cargo from cars to fruit, and the seamen will undoubtedly acknowledge them with a wave.  The crew and the guests intermingle easily as kind of extended family, and one enjoys being a guest in their home.

The ruggedly beautiful Marquesas are the true highlights of this trip – each island so different than the next.  Few ships make it to these sparsely inhabited Tahitian outposts, so the islanders look forward to each Aranui visit.  Each island stop has unique highlights. Often it’s a hike or a lunch, sometimes it’s a particular cultural site, and generally there’s a place to shop for crafts or jewelry. 

One feels very safe roaming about these islands.  Children wave and try out their English, parents smile, and everyone feels at home.  This aspect of the vacation is particularly appealing for families, and there are many opportunities to communicate and bond with the members of the community.  Those interactions are one of my most treasured memories of this trip. 

Some of the island stops are true standouts, either for their breathtaking beauty, their cultural sites, or the experiences passengers have there.  Ua Poa is the first and last stop in the Marquesas, and the hike to the cross high on the hill was particularly memorable.  Nuku Hiva, the site of Survivor Marquesas, features the unforgettable beauty of Anaho Bay, a number of significant archeological sites, and the two nasty varieties of no-see’ums.  Guides speculated that these bugs were one of the reasons why this island was selected for filming, but I never got a bite on this trip thanks to the Tahitian jungle juice sold onboard.  Fatu Iva stole my heart with its “Lost World” scenery, the intense 10-mile hike, and the warmth and generosity of its people.  Shoppers loved the Ua Huka and the island of Tahuata, famous for its bone carvers.

The list of high points and memorable experiences goes on and on.  Each passenger has his or her own personal favorites, and they are often are too numerous to count.  A cruise aboard the Aranui 3 is something that adventurous family explorers should plan to do at least once in their lifetime.   Just remember – once you’ve become intertwined with Tahiti and her islands, it’s likely you’ll be back to do it again.

To learn more about vacations aboard the Aranui 3, visit their website at www.aranui.com or contact your favorite travel agent. The Aranui cruise diary can also help provide additional information about the experience.

If You Go:

In addition to the packing list that the Aranui provides, here are some items families and other passengers should consider bringing on an Aranui cruise to Tahiti and the Marquesas:

  • Water slippers for swimming.  These are needed due to rocks and coral in the water, as well as to protect your feet from stonefish and sea urchins.  Water slippers should be brought along in addition to Tevas or other waterproof hiking sandals.
  • Rain poncho with a hood and an umbrella for excursions in heavy rains.  The rainy season in Tahiti stretches from November through late March or early April.  It is best to come prepared.  While weather in the Marquesas is supposed to be about the same year-round, some crewmembers suggested that January through March and July can be rainy in that island chain.
  • Water bottle to bring along on hikes
  • Avon Skin So Soft to protect against “nonos” (no see ‘ems), and insect repellant with at least 30% DEET to protect against mosquitoes.  Parents should not use heavy DEET repellants for children, and should seek out another alternative at a camping or sporting goods store.
  • Battery charger for digital cameras, DVD players, and other battery powered equipment.  Because of the high heat and humidity, batteries tend to run down quickly.
  • Plenty of 30 SPF+ sunscreen, lip balm with high SPF protection, and a comfortable hat to protect against the sun’s strong rays
  • A French phrase book
  • Pepto Bismol, Immodium, and Benydryl cream for insect bites or sun rashes
  • Bonine or a seasickness patch, just in case of rough weather
  • Plenty of shorts, tops and hiking clothes made of cotton or another fabric that wicks moisture
  • Several small packages of laundry soap
  • Plenty of film.  Film is extremely expensive in French Polynesia and up to ten rolls of film can be brought into the country.  The Aranui has an excellent boutique onboard, and film can be purchased there if necessary.
  • A large, very sturdy backpack for hikes, with enough space to carry cameras and a waterproof bag, a water bottle, a rain poncho, a beach towel, suntan lotion, film, and water slippers if needed.  Children should bring their own small backpacks with a water bottle, a disposable camera, and a small notebook with pen for names and addresses of penpals.
  • An adequate amount of cash or traveler’s checks.  Credit cards are not accepted in the Marquesas and rarely in the Tuamotos.  In addition, most sellers require the use of French Polynesian Francs.  Make sure to ask whether dollars are accepted at the next port before cashing large amounts of traveler’s checks or changing money.  The Aranui will cash traveler’s checks, change money at a preset rate, and advance cash on a credit card throughout the cruise.  There is a charge for the latter service, however, which was seven percent as of March, 2005. 
  • Sturdy Tevas or other waterproof hiking sandals for hiking as well as for getting on and off the whaleboats.  If you plan to hike, tennis shoes may not be advisable due to the possibility of heavy mud.
  • Travel insurance.  The Marquesas are a long way from anywhere, and flights are expensive in the case of a medical emergency.  Although there is a doctor onboard all sailings of the Aranui and his services are included in the cost of the cruise (excluding the cost of medicines and supplies), there may be some instances in which passengers cannot continue on the cruise and must be taken for immediate medical treatment.  This is one trip for which comprehensive travel insurance is a must.
  • A French 220 volt adapter for electronic items
  • A pareo or other South Pacific motif clothing for Polynesian Night
  • Snacks for children in between meals as necessary
  • If you are bringing an infant or toddler on the cruise, you will need to bring all of your baby items with you on the ship.  The Aranui does not stock diapers, formula, or any other children’s items in its boutique.  There are stores in Papeete that offer all of these items, and several small stores in the Marquesas also stock these items.  There can be a period of several days between stops at towns with easy access to stores, however, so plan accordingly.
  • A notepad or diary book and pen to take notes at the evening planning sessions.  In addition, bring a small pad of paper and pen onshore in case you would like to get children’s names and addresses for mailing photos.  Parents and children on some of the island often ask if passengers could send them a copy of their photos when they return home.  This is a great way for kids sailing on the Aranui to connect with other children, meet penpals, and start new long distance friendships.
  • If you will need to call back to the United States often, plan to purchase telephone cards in Papeete before sailing.  The phone cards are sold at the Post Office as well as several other stores near the market, and they are quite expensive.   There are generally one or more telephone booths conveniently located at every port, although other passengers and locals may be lined up to use them.  Ask the Aranui staff, and they will be happy to point out the phone booth locations and show you how to use the cards. Another option is to rent an Iridium satellite phone to make calls from the ship.  These phones work very well in Tahiti, both on days at sea and in port.  If you need to make calls early or late in the day, this may be your best option.

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