Aranui 3: Tahitian Delivery


Tahitian Delivery

In the wake of Gauguin, Melville, and Stevenson, Aranui 3 plies the remote Marquesas in the most unique of ways.

By Clark Norton

PH 189It’s a day of celebration on the island of Ua Pou, one of six inhabited islands in the Marquesas archipelago of French Polynesia, among the most remote isles on earth. Every three weeks or so, the locals gather at the pier to welcome Aranui 3, the half-cargo, half-passenger ship that journeys back and forth to Tahiti and serves as the Marquesas’ lifeline to the world. No other commercial vessel sails the same itinerary, and some of the islands see few other visitors.

As soon as the ship docks, the muscular, heavily tattooed crewmen begin to unload the supplies that enable the Marquesans to build houses, drive cars, and otherwise go about their daily lives: Everything from gasoline, sugar, and cement to electronics, furniture, and vehicles — even the occasional horse arrives on the Aranui 3. The island residents eagerly claim their bounty and load it onto their pickup trucks, much like visiting a floating Costco. The 386-foot-long ship can carry up to 2,000 tons of cargo, dropping some off at every port and picking up copra (dried coconut, the islands’ major export) and other items to take back to Tahiti.


Nearby, artisans have set up shop along the beachfront to entice disembarking passengers to buy their carvings and other handicrafts. A short walk away in town, neatly kept houses sit snuggled among flowers and breadfruit trees, with soaring green pinnacles bathed in clouds that form a dramatic backdrop.

We are in the midst of a two-week journey through theMarquesas, including several days at sea traveling to and from Tahiti, which lies 850 miles southwest. Some 120 passengers representing a dozen nationalities are aboard, an eclectic mix of characters. The largest contingent are French citizens making “the trip of a lifetime,” as one calls it. The Aranui 3 and its string of predecessors (all named Aranui, or “Great Highway” in Maori) have plied these waters since the 1960s and achieved legendary status in France.

Balancing Cruisers and Cargo

Along with the French are a few dozen American, Australian, and German travelers, many seeking another remote destination to notch on their belts. Some, like me, are equally attracted to traveling by freighter, albeit a hybrid one. And a few stray souls seem to wonder how they got here at all, content to happily quaff the rum punches. Passengers skew toward ages 50 and up, though a lively bloc of European 20-somethings adds variety and vitality to the voyage.

While by no means luxurious, Aranui 3 is more geared to passenger comfort than a typical cargo ship, with perfectly functional cabins, suites….

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