- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

ABOARD THE ARANUI III — Above, the diamond-bright stars glisten; around us, the black South Pacific rolls; below, the new diesels hum; and in the Lido Bar on the Star deck, Yo Yo’s Aranui band — stevedores, crane operators, engine room mechanics and,tonight, the captain — plays guitars, ukuleles and drums.

The quiet Tahitian from the boutique is tossing her ravishing hair, pounding out the beat and belting out a Marquesan song.

The bar is jammed, the dance floor is full, and someone is — what? Crawling beneath my knees. Excuse me. Oh, it’s just the German film crew’s cameraman. This voyage of the copra freighter Aranui III, with its 95 passengers and 62 crew members, will be shown on German and French television Channel 2, a follow-up to the popular film on the Aranui I.

The Polynesian rhythms float, crew member Katerina “the Great” attempts to point out the starry Southern Cross, and a huge tattooed Tahitian is dancing with a tiny Parisian. Cameras flash. Laughter rings. Sweat pours.

No dinner jackets here; it’s tank tops, T-shirts, swimsuits or shorts. Huge, smiling Mahalo (Jean-Claude Pahuatini), a crane operator tattooed from his shaved head to his toes, buys me a Hinano beer and wiggles his extended thumb and little finger, meaning “all is well.” He has worked on six Aranui vessels during 36 years.

Later, the German cameraman says, “You would never find a party like this on a big cruise ship.” The Aranui is expensive French Polynesia’s best buy.

“La Oranna e Maeva,” hello and welcome to the Aranui in Tahitian.

We sail north from Papeete, Tahiti; stop in the flat Tuamotu islands; and journey through the sublime green-violet peaks of the Marquesas, the farthest island group from any continent, the most remote archipelago on Earth. The Marquesans called their islands “Te Henua Enatas,” the Land of Man.

The Marquesas abound in luxurious beauty — stunning bays, rippling green ridges, rawboned valleys, spiny volcanic crags and precipitous gorges. I reread “Mutiny on the Bounty” for a flavor of French Polynesia’s earlier days.

A vessel named Aranui, a Polynesian word meaning great highway, has served the Marquesas since the end of World War II. The first was an old PT boat purchased by the Wong family of Hong Kong and used in the copra trade. Today the Wongs operate out of Papeete and San Mateo, Calif.

As operations expanded, new vessels were added. The latest is a 386-foot ship that carries up to 198 passengers and up to 2,500 tons of cargo on a 16-day, 1,600-mile round-trip cruise to the Marquesas. Our unofficial hostess is charming, pert Sophie Wong, and our guides are wonderful Vi-Tai (water-love), Silve and Pascal.

The Aranui sails in the tradition of the old copra schooners, which carried cargo below deck that was sold to islanders at high prices. The islanders muscled aboard copra (dried coconut), which was processed into oil for cosmetics, margarine and other products. Passengers slept on the decks and brought their own bowls.

Our voyage carries mainly French with a smattering of Germans, Americans, Australians, Canadians and Swiss in spacious, air-conditioned cabins. It’s the best way to see the Marquesas, islands that travelers rank among the world’s most beautiful.

We eat French food — brioches and croissants for breakfast, fresh fish and meats, tangy salads and tasty soup and cheeses in a comfortable dining room. Our chef, Didier Martinez, daily works his culinary wonders. Dining room chief “Joell” (Vert Joell) is a mahu — a young Polynesian man who adopts female roles and is widely accepted.

We passengers relax in a lively top-deck bar, swim in a deck-side plunge pool and read in an indoor library and lounge, where we are briefed on the following day’s merriment. In our time at sea, we notice just a handful of ships. In harbors, we watch the crew swing cranes, drive forklifts and lower 2,000 tons of cargo into 25-foot whaleboats and offload them by hand.

These boats, big enough to squeeze in 40 passengers, ride the waves shoreward manned by the Aranui’s muscular stevedores, who often lift passengers onto piers as waves crest — or we wade out to the boats on wet landings.

Our hearts are light, the sun bakes us, and the air is so clean our lungs sing as we follow in the wakes of Capt. James Cook; writers Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London; explorer, archaeologist and writer Thor Heyerdahl; artists Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse; and Belgian cabaret singer Jacques Brel.

Our first day at sea, we engage in lifeboat drill, reading, visiting the bridge — where we check out the course, charts, radar and radio — swimming and listening to archaeologist Jennifer Kahn lecture on Oceania and the Polynesian triangle as marked by Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Then the sunset explodes in a kaleidoscope of purples, golds, magentas and crimsons as we sip cocktails.

Our first landfall is Takapoto in the Tuamotus, the world’s largest group of coral atolls. These low-lying islands are known collectively as the Dangerous Archipelago because of poor charts, sudden storms, precarious reefs and variable currents.

We make a wet landing, then hike through a village to a sheltered lagoon to learn how oysters are seeded to produce valuable black pearls. We swim, snorkel and enjoy a sumptuous beach picnic. Earlier, we stop to admire a welcome party for a French officer and are invited to join in the celebration.

The Aranui stops at six of the 12 Marquesas: Nuku Hiva, where “Survivor” was filmed last year; Ua Pou; Ua Huka; Hiva Oa; Tahuata; and Fatu Hiva. In 1595, the island group was discovered by Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana; the next explorer, Cook, would not stop for nearly two centuries.

When Cook arrived in 1774, about 50,000 Marquesans lived in clans in isolated valleys and often battled. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were practiced. Early explorers, traders, whalers, sandal wooders and deserters brought the islanders disease, alcoholism and slavery. Fifty years after Cook, the population had fallen to 5,000.

Missionaries stamped out many traditions, but today, the 6,500 Marquesans retain their language, a dialect of Polynesian; their young are tattooing their bodies with ancient geometric designs; tapa cloth is again pounded from the inner bark of mulberry trees; and woodcarving flourishes. The islands, far from shipping lanes, have not been tainted by tourism, and there are no major hotels.

Clouds and mist disappoint us at Ua Pou, an island whose name means “pillars.” Here, three 4,000-foot basalt peaks shoot up like spectacular green icicles. Traditionally dressed dancers and musicians welcome us and drape pungent tiare flowers around our necks.

We bargain for masterful woodcarvings, visit a small museum displaying the history of tattooing, then walk to a paepae, or rock foundation upon which ancient Marquesans built their thatched houses. Here, the famed bird dance is performed. Lunch is celebrated at Rosalie Tata’s, featuring octopus, curried goat, breadfruit, red bananas, papaya, fish marinated in lime juice, coconut, and beef and pork specialities. More music enhances the memorable meal.

Thereafter, the group boards pickup trucks to explore this remote island; learn its history and legends; view crashing surf by the tiny airport, with its windsocks blowing in three directions; and look out on Motu Oa, where millions of seabirds nest.

At Takahetau Bay, the three glorious peaks at last appear against a blue sky. A Marquesan cries. Her long-awaited washing machine is not with the cargo.

Dawn finds us sailing into Taiohae Bay, a volcanic amphitheater dominated by violet-green cliffs striped with waterfalls. We enjoy Marquesan dancing and a display of the Nuka Hiva’s crafts, tour the soaring Cathedral of Notre Dame and marvel at its magnificently carved rosewood statues of Sts. Peter and Paul that flank the entry.

Then our pickups thread steep, winding mountain roads unfolding majestic views. We picnic above Taipivai Valley, where in 1842 a 23-year-old American sailor jumped ship. The hospitable cannibals treated him well, but after a month, he escaped. Later, Herman Melville’s novel “Typee” described his adventure, became wildly popular and encouraged writer Jack London to visit the island.

We push on, passing coconut palm and breadfruit plantations. In the distance, 1,500-foot Vaipo Falls drops in sparkling cascades. A 20-minute hike takes us to the mysterious, centuries-old ruins of Meae Paeke, a sacred or “tabu” site. In the evening, we watch stevedores manhandle cargo, then walk in the waves to our whaleboats.

Dawn finds us tied up at Atuona’s pier. A few sailboats rest in its small harbor as a ring of white surf laps the black-sand beach. We set off early, hiking 11/2 miles up to the islands’ second-largest town, population 1,500. Spectacular peaks soar above us as we pass multicolored flowers, trees and tethered black horses. Stevenson called Hiva Oa “the loveliest … island on earth.”

When Gauguin, suffering from syphilis and drug addiction, landed at remote Atuona, he set about building himself a fine home, which he dubbed the House of Pleasure. There he lived with a 14-year-old vahine, although his wild parties quickly enraged the island’s clergy and police.

He completed some of his finest works here, but his health declined, and one morning, a Marquesan neighbor found him dead. The neighbor nibbled at the 51-year-old artist’s scalp, an island way of calling the dead back to life. When this failed, he chanted ancient dirges. Villagers wept, and the priest and gendarme sighed in relief.

Drenched in sweat, we climb to Calvary Cemetery. On Gauguin’s grave sits a replica of his ceramic statue, Ovri, which means the savage and symbolizes the goddess of death and destruction. Bright shell necklaces circle his headstone, a flowering fragipani tree shelters his grave, and sky and sea are a heavenly blue. Beyond, a mote, or islet, with towering black cliffs rides the bay. A serene peace hangs on the tiare-perfumed air. Nearby is the tomb of Mr. Brel, who spent his last years on Hiva Oa and died in 1978.

We hike down to the new Paul Gauguin Cultural Center, which offers movies, artifacts, 75 vivid copies of his works and 10 copies of his self-portraits.

As thoughts of Gauguin linger, we hike to the restaurant Hoa Nui to gorge on seafood and Marquesan delicacies. Wine flows as a Marquesan band plays Marquesan rhythms. When we hoist anchor, the moon rises high as the island slips astern.

Mr. Heyerdahl and his bride, Liv, began their marriage on Fatu Hiva in 1937. Their adventures are detailed in his book “Fatu Hiva.” It’s a traditional island of 600 people, green, with rivers and highlands, gullies and craters. Soon we’re climbing through tropical greenery, traversing narrow ravines, deep gorges and luxuriant valleys as clouds slip in and out.

After the arduous 10-mile hike, we reach the Bay of Virgins, where rock curtains, appearing as veiled virgins, plunge mightily into the sea. We wearily reach the whaleboats at awesome Hanavave Bay, captivated by nature’s wonders and dreaming of a cool beer.

On remote, dramatic Tahuata, we visit bone carvers, a church with fine stained glass, and a small historical museum while once again rubbernecking at 3,500-foot spires that tower over the isle’s 400 inhabitants. Rain pours, so we retreat to lunch aboard ship, then make the 40-minute hike to Puamau on Hiva Oa.

There, cliff-rimmed Puamau Valley harbors the mysterious Meae Llipona, an ancient temple harboring the islands’ largest stone tikis.

Stone terraces surrounded by jungle hold the 10-foot, saucer-eyed red stone tikis. After Mr. Heyerdahl encountered them in the 1930s, he wrote: “My introduction to the Puamua stone giants … resulted in switching me onto a new track.

“It set me asail on rafts, led me to continental jungles, and made me excavate Easter Island monuments as high as buildings … . All in an effort to solve a mystery that puzzled me from the day I began to suspect that an enterprising people with the habit of creating stone colossi had reached Hiva Oa before the Polynesian fishermen arrived.”

We get up early to watch the Aranui turn on its axis to anchor in Vaipee Bay on Ua Huka, the driest of the Marquesas, where 3,000 wild black horses outnumber the 570 residents. Our wild Jeep ride reveals the island’s 2,800-foot peak with its green flanks and awe-inspiring crescent-shaped ridges.

We visit ruins and enjoy Marquesan dancing at the Restaurant Chez Celine Fournier after gorging on tasty curried goat and other specialties. We linger at fine archaeological and maritime museums, the handicraft center and the botanical gardens. Our horseback riders follow us, moseying past homes planted with hibiscus, fragipani, bougainvillea and breadfruit.

Sunset explodes into golden magenta. As we sail past Motu Manu, or Bird Island, the captain toots his horn, and tens of thousands of chirping sooty terns fly up and ride the air currents. Off the starboard, a brigade of dolphin frolic.

Free rum punch heralds Polynesian night as passengers dress in appropriate garb and the kitchen outdoes itself. The deck is hung with festive palm fronds and bougainvillea. We feast, drink and dance, but the unforgettable moments arrive with the crew’s wondrous dancing. Later, we adjourn to the Lido Bar to dance to Yo Yo’s Aranui band.

We recover on the crescent, white-sand beaches of Anaho Bay on Nuku Hiva. Some snorkel or swim; others sleep. When Stevenson anchored here in 1888, he wrote that he was overcome with emotion by the bay’s sublime dawn, the most perfect he ever had witnessed.

Soon the aromas from our beach barbecue entice us. Later, a passenger relaxes in the water, his head on a coconut. I dub Anaho “paradise bay” as a light breeze waves the palms above me and the lagoon turns a hundred shades of blue.

Come morning, whaleboats with thick rope bumpers streaming like a mermaid’s hair take us down Nuku Hiva to Hatiheu, where we walk through a village of flower-bedecked homes dominated by three saw-edged pillars that dwarf the town and black-sand beach. Precariously standing atop one is the white Hatiheu Madonna, built here in 1872 by a missionary.

The village men perform the celebrated pig dance, complete with grunts, gestures and body slaps suggestive of wild boars crashing through a forest.

The dancers wear palm anklets, skirts and crowns as drumbeats echo. They dance on a rectangular lawn surrounded by stone terraces and platforms where dignitaries once sat as early as 1250.

Mayor Yvonne Katupa’s thatched-roofed bay-side restaurant, Chez Yvonne, is air-conditioned by ocean breezes. A halved pig and vegetables are covered by ti leaves, then burlap, and placed in an earthen pit lined with glowing coals. The food is mouthwatering, the band enthusiastic.

At Meae Kamuihei, a Norwegian archaeologist describes the vast site: reconstructed tikis, tohuas where sacrifices were made to the gods, dance platforms and burial sites and the difficult work that has gone forward since 1987. She says 3,000 of the 6,000 Marquesan sculptured rocks were unearthed here, along with skulls and four tikis.

Giant banyan trees rise from the sacred megalithic site. We hike up to the Anaho Saddle for panoramic views, then down through magical towering peaks.

Our trip winds down at beautiful Taiohae as we phone and run errands before sailing back to Ua Pou, where we hike over a ridge to a secluded beach in an unspoiled bay for a welcome dip. If this beach were in the Caribbean, it would be world-famous.

The next day finds us at Fakarava in the Tuamotus, tying up in a beautiful lagoon, then taking a Le Truck, with its three long-board seats, to a remote beach to picnic, swim, snorkel and view a sensuous tan coral found nowhere else. UNESCO has declared the lagoon a World Heritage Site.

The airport terminal is a tiny thatched hut.

Our nights have ranged from fun-filled toots and hoots at the bar to relaxing in deck chairs, front-row seats at the night’s wonders as storms of stars sweep the skies. Our last day at sea, I reflect in a deck chair. The majesty of the Marquesas seems a magical dream.

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