The Aranui 5 cruise ship in the Bay of Virgins off the island of Fatu Hiva

The Best Way to Visit the Remote Marquesas Islands Is on This Hybrid Cargo Cruise Ship

A single cargo-cruise ship provides a lifeline to the Marquesas Islands, one of the remote archipelagoes that make up French Polynesia.

"This trip is cursed," I said to the woman from the Aranui 5, a Polynesian hybrid cargo-cruise ship, when she called to confirm that, yes, I had COVID, and no, I would not be sailing for the Marquesas Islands the next day. I would be staying where I was: quarantined in a hotel room in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia.

She laughed. "When I feel that way, I send out good energy, and I say, 'Hey! Curse! Go away!' "

The next evening, I watched from my balcony as the Aranui 5 glided out of the harbor and into the sunset.

The Aranui 5 — its name translates to "the Great Path" — has an unusual silhouette. Its bow deck is low and flat, stacked with shipping containers and surmounted by two yellow cranes. Its stern half holds the white superstructure of a cruise ship, honeycombed with balconies. Business in the front, party in the back. As the name suggests, there have been four previous versions of the Aranui; this iteration is the fifth family-owned freighter to bear the name since 1960. Sometimes it sails to the Austral or Gambier Islands or to the Cook Islands or to far-flung Pitcairn, but the ship's most frequent and important route is to the rugged, remote, culturally proud Marquesas Islands — a French Polynesian archipelago nearly a thousand miles northeast of Tahiti that famously enchanted Herman Melville, Paul Gauguin, and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel.

Two photos from the Marquesas islands, including a dancer seen from behind, and a boat on the water
From left: A dancer performs on Kauehi; Aranui 5 passengers return from a fishing trip near Tahuata. Tom Fowlks

Twice monthly the Aranui 5 is an ark that bears the stuff of daily existence to the Marquesas: pallets of food, drums of gasoline, building materials, Toyota trucks, cases of Tahitian Hinano beer, and whatever else is needed. The crew members are Polynesians, including some from the Marquesas, and locals traveling to or from school or work often sleep in dedicated dormitory cabins. The ship has a sense of homecoming.

My first attempt to visit the Marquesas on the Aranui's 11-night voyage had been thwarted in March 2020 by the COVID shutdown. My second try fizzled in November 2021 for scheduling reasons. Surely the third time, in February 2022, would be the charm. My friend Bailey, exhausted by a pandemic spent running a microbrewery in Nashville and tending to her toddler daughter, was coming along. "WE'RE GOING TO TAHITIIIII!" I had texted after our predeparture PCR tests both came back negative.

So imagine my dismay when, 30 hours later, while waiting at the baggage claim, I learned my arrival test was positive. "You will need to quarantine for seven days," an official said as he photographed my passport and slid a serious-looking French-language document across the table for me to sign. "Go to your hotel, and do not leave."

Twice monthly the Aranui 5 is an ark that bears the stuff of daily existence to the Marquesas: pallets of food, drums of gasoline, building materials, Toyota trucks, cases of Tahitian Hinano beer. The ship has a sense of homecoming.

Fortunately, one of the many perks of being a travel journalist is that you get help with curses and logistics, and within a day, the endlessly patient professionals who'd been working on this trip since 2019 had cobbled together a plan. I would send Bailey off to the neighboring island of Moorea while I quarantined (my case was mild — thanks, booster shot), and then we would travel together for a week, flying to the islands of Taha'a and Bora-Bora. After that, Bailey would go home, and I would catch the Aranui's next sailing. My two-week trip had ballooned into a month.

The first night after my quarantine ended, Bailey and I found ourselves on a sublimely peaceful islet near the island of Taha'a, sitting on the deck of an overwater bungalow at Pearl Resorts' Le Taha'a, drinking Hinanos and watching a pastel sunset turn the ocean to mother-of-pearl. Hey! Curse! Go away! We swam with rays and reef sharks. We toured a pearl farm, a rum distillery, and a vanilla farm.

At the freshly renovated Le Bora Bora, another property from the Polynesian-owned Pearl Resorts, we snorkeled and kayaked and lounged and watched sheets of rain sweep across the lagoon, the clouds clearing to reveal a full moon over the jutting, toothlike summit of Mount Otemanu, Bora-Bora's iconic peak.

Then Bailey went home, and, finally, almost unbelievably, I boarded the Aranui.

Two photos from the Aranui cruise ship, including a view of chefs cooking out of a ship window, and the ship's pool deck
From left: Chefs prepare a meal on a grill at the stern of the ship; passengers sunbathe on the pool deck. Tom Fowlks

We sailed in the late afternoon and made our first landing the next day on Kauehi, in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The Tuamotus form the largest chain of atolls in the world. From airplanes and satellites, they resemble turquoise amoebas;from the ship, they were low, bright lines of sand that barely breached the water, all crowded with coconut palms.

As the Aranui entered Kauehi's 123-square-mile lagoon, the roll of the ocean ceased. Once the ship was at anchor, the 68 passengers and many of the 83 crew members motored to the atoll's only village, Tearavero. The gathering felt like a relaxed beach party. Local guys hacked open young coconuts and handed them out with paper straws. Women sat in plastic chairs in the shade, watching children play. The crew set up an awning, and a casual ukulele band formed.

I snorkeled over rippled white sand in warm, shallow water, and then I sat in the shade, listening to the crew and the villagers sing. Before this trip, I had not fully appreciated how lovely ordinary voices can be, offered unselfconsciously, just for the pleasure of singing.

"All French Polynesian people know how to sing," said Lehi Tehiva, one of our guides. "It doesn't matter what island they are from. They are all singers."

I've always felt odd about recommending destinations based on "the people," when people are by definition a mixed bag, no matter where they live. Pretending otherwise, even in praise, can seem reductive. But it's true that French Polynesia's warm, relaxed vibe comes as much from its residents as from its natural tropical splendor. People are welcoming and proud of their islands. And everyone can sing.

Unlike on most cruise ships, the Aranui's crew and passengers hang out together on the stern decks and in the lounges. The arrangement, like the ship itself, is comfortable, inclusive, and lively.

When the ship was at sea, I divided my time between my simple, pleasant suite and a shaded chaise overlooking the pool, where I read Paul Theroux's 1992 book, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, which has a chapter about his voyage on an earlier Aranui. ("The Marquesas were a world apart," he wrote, and so it seemed, as we rolled onward and onward into the empty blue sea.) Unlike on most cruise ships, the Aranui's crew and passengers hang out together on the stern decks and in the lounges. The arrangement, like the ship itself, is comfortable, inclusive, and lively. "We are a family here," more than one guide told me.

The next morning, as I stood on the top deck in the early light, I could see Nuku Hiva's striated coastal cliffs, which were reddish and stippled with dry vegetation. The island rose up to a mountainous ridgeline, its peaks topped with basalt spires and its flanks cut through with deep, jungled valleys. The administrative center of the Marquesas, Nuku Hiva is the archipelago's largest and most populous island, with almost 3,000 residents. When the Aranui docked and the bustle of unloading Nuku Hiva's share of the cargo began, islanders in Toyota pickups queued for their deliveries. Drivers with 4 x 4s were waiting to take the passengers on a tour of the island.

Our convoy went first to Notre-Dame, a Catholic cathedral built of volcanic stone in the main village, Taiohae. At the front, near the baptismal font, a wooden statue of a lei-wearing Virgin Mary held baby Jesus, who, in one arm, cradled a breadfruit. Historically, breadfruit was the essential food source of the Marquesas, especially valued because it could be fermented and preserved in specially dug pits for years as insurance against drought.

Behind the church was the grave of Bishop Hervé Marie Le Cléac'h, a French clergyman who'd been sent to the Marquesas in 1977 after stirring up trouble in Quebec. Le Cléac'h was the first to translate Mass into Marquesan, which had become a taboo language, forcibly supplanted by French and Tahitian. The year after Le Cléac'h arrived, an association called Motu Haka was formed to resurrect traditions that missionaries and colonizers had nearly eradicated: song, dance, tattooing, sculpture, tapa (a textile made from tree fibers that was once used for garments and now for decoration), farming, fishing, and traditional medicine. Le Cléac'h lent crucial support to the organization, which still exists today. "The missionaries stopped the culture, but a bishop rebirthed it," said Benjamin Teikitutoua, a retired Marquesan teacher and vice president of Motu Haka, who was a guest lecturer on the Aranui. "Some Marquesans thought the old ways were bad and pagan, so it was helpful that a priest said, 'No, this is okay. It's good.' "

Two photos from the Marquesas islands, including a fruit stand, and a church exterior
From left: An “honor system” fruit stand on Hiva Oa; Mareko Peata, a Catholic church on Kauehi. Tom Fowlks

Motu Haka's task was monumental. Not only had traditional practices been purposefully discouraged, and even banned, but the generations that could have passed down cultural knowledge had been decimated by disease. The population of the Marquesas is estimated to have been between 70,000 and 100,000 when Captain James Cook visited in 1774. In the 1920s, it was as low as 1,200. Today a little more than 9,000 people live across the archipelago's six inhabited islands. In rebuilding their culture, Marquesans salvaged what oral history they could and utilized decades-old ethnographies written by outsiders.

Related: French Polynesia Is Known for Its Stunning Beaches and Resorts — but a Younger Generation Is Working to Highlight Its Rich Traditions

Take, for instance, tattooing. In 1922, an American woman named (delightfully) Willowdean Chatterson Handy compiled and published a painstaking record of all the Marquesan tattoos she could find, designs that had been evolving over probably 2,000 years. (The Marquesas were the likely jumping-off point for the habitation of Hawaii and Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.) At the time, Handy knew she was documenting a dying art but could not possibly have guessed that, a century later, not only would tattoos in the Marquesas have come roaring back but artists on the islands would still be referring to her diagrams. There was even a tattoo parlor on the Aranui. A small, tantalizing sidebar on our daily schedules said, "Make a tattoo appointment with Moana at the restaurant."

Moana turned out to be a stocky, friendly Marquesan waiter who wore a necklace of huge, curving boar's teeth. I was curious how many takers he would have. The passengers didn't necessarily seem like the inking type, unlike the crew, who almost universally had gorgeous Polynesian tattoos: geometric patterns, Marquesan crosses, thick black bands of stylized manta rays.

Two photos from the Marquesas islands, including a necklace made from seeds, and a local guitarist
From left: Jewelry made with native seeds on Nuku Hiva; a guitarist on Ua Huka. Tom Fowlks

Our next stop on Nuku Hiva was an archaeological site. Thirty thousand people had once inhabited Tohua Kamuihei, an extensive settlement of terraced stone platforms now mostly swallowed by the jungle. Here and there were ancient petroglyphs; wide-mouthed, lichen-fuzzed stone tikis; and pristine reconstructions of thatched shelters. There were pits for storing breadfruit and sacred sites where cannibalistic rituals had once taken place. Under a towering banyan tree said to be up to 600 years old, drummers and dancers performed, chanting and calling, their mostly bare bodies adorned with swishing fronds; the men wore necklaces of animal teeth. The sensation that we were watching something timeless was only dispelled when the applause ended and the dancers pulled their surgical masks back on. (The mask requirement has since been dropped.)

Lunch was at Chez Mamie Yvonne, a restaurant in the village of Hatiheu, where we filled our plates with breadfruit, pork, and smoky little red bananas that had been slow-roasted for hours in an umu, an underground oven. There was raw fish in coconut milk, too, and chicken stir-fried in a sweet soy sauce. Po'e, a chewy banana-and-coconut pudding, was dessert. A band played near the bar — guitars and ukuleles and pahus (drums carved from single pieces of wood) — and it took me a while to realize the musicians were the same performers who had danced under Tohua Kamuihei's banyan tree, only they were now in baseball caps and board shorts, singing so easily.

The performances I saw were joyful, triumphant, even defiant. This was something outsiders had tried and failed to suppress. This was something that belonged to the islands.

The next day, at the island of Ua Pou, where there was a school right on the beach, children swam out to the ship to play on the ropes. In the afternoon, they stayed for hours, splashing and shouting.

And so we continued on. "Pay attention to which island talks to you," Tehiva told us. Ua Huka was red and dry, populated by wild horses. Hiva Oa, lush and green, greeted us with a rainbow. This was the island made famous by Paul Gauguin, who spent his final two years there suffering from morphine addiction, spreading syphilis to young girls, and creating indelible artworks. I asked Tehiva what French Polynesians made of Gauguin. "Of his art, they are proud," he said, and seamlessly changed the subject to Jacques Brel, who is buried near Gauguin. Brel used his own small plane, Jojo, to help out locals, and so, Tehiva said a little pointedly, he is remembered fondly. Hiking from the ship to the cemetery, I fell into conversation with a German woman whose lifelong dream had been to come to the Marquesas. After surviving breast cancer, she'd taken the plunge, and she pulled up her pant leg to show me a fresh tattoo on her calf. "Everything about it felt right," she said. "For me it was a profound experience."

The Aranui 5 cruise ships unloading goods in the harbor at Hiva Oa.
Goods are unloaded from the Aranui 5 in the harbor at Hiva Oa. Tom Fowlks

By the end of the trip, by my count, Moana had given tattoos to at least 10 passengers. I asked him if there were any tattoos that were reserved for Marquesans, deemed too special for outsiders. He furrowed his brow and shook his head. No. Later, when I mentioned this to Tehiva, he said, "It is because they are a giving people. They give."

Fortunately, they also sell. No landing was complete without a trip to a handicraft market. Tahuata, which resembles Kauai with its fluted green cliffs, is known for bone carvings. I bought a silky white pendant in the shape of a whale for my mother. On Fatu Hiva, where the specialty is tapa, I found a small version depicting an octopus. It now hangs in my office. On Ua Huka, which is known for its woodwork, I got my boyfriend a ukulele.

Related: 8 Cruises to Celebrate Your Retirement

Just as I hadn't expected to fall in love with the music in French Polynesia, I didn't know that I would also be moved by the dancing. Male dancers grimaced ferociously as they chanted and pounded their feet. The women took small, graceful steps, swiveling their hips and singing. The movements referenced pigs, birds, the ocean. Dancers regaled us as we left Papeete; they performed on the ship in Nuku Hiva and at the handicraft market in Ua Pou; crew members hosted regular classes for passengers. Unlike, say, ballet, Marquesan dance doesn't require superhuman flexibility or a fatless body. It asks for stamina, spirit, commitment. The performances I saw were joyful, triumphant, even defiant. This was something outsiders had tried and failed to suppress. This was something that belonged to the islands.

A hiking trail leads to the water on the island of Fatu Hiva
A hiking trail on Fatu Hiva descends to the Bay of Virgins. Tom Fowlks

On the seventh night, I woke at 3 a.m. in an ominous sweat. What followed felt a lot like food poisoning but, since the other 67 passengers seemed fine, I am left with no choice but to blame the curse. So it was the fault of the curse that I didn't get to see the archaeological site at Te I'ipona, on Hiva Oa, with its nearly eight-foot-tall tiki, the largest in Polynesia. It was thanks to the curse that, still dehydrated and ill, I didn't get to do the nine-mile hike on Fatu Hiva that I'd been looking forward to. Instead, I sat on my balcony and watched the sun and clouds play over the island's green cliffs, and that had to be good enough.

The gods of travel are capricious. Sometimes they let you slide onto your flight with seconds to spare or nudge you down an unpromising alley where you find the best meal of your life. Sometimes they give you both COVID and a stomach bug in the space of one trip. The travel gods giveth, and the travel gods taketh away.

When you strike out for a vision of an imaginary paradise — Gauguin's paintings, brochure photos of palms on an atoll — it's easy to forget that you must take your body with you, that you will remain yourself no matter where you are, that you will always be vulnerable. In the Marquesas they know that, even if our voices aren't perfect, we are all singers. We're singers because we sing. And in that same way, perfect trips don't make us travelers. Traveling does.

Aranui offers 12-day itineraries from $3,572, all-inclusive.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Special Delivery.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles