If you're yearning to see French Polynesia (and the Marquesas Islands in particular) there's no more unique way to do it than on this freighter/cruise ship hybrid, which takes passengers to the heart of one of the world's most cinematically beautiful destinations as it delivers supplies on a 14-day "milk run" through remote South Pacific archipelagoes.
Launched in 2015, the Aranui 5 is the fourth "deluxe freighter" from Papeete, Tahiti-based Aranui Adventure Cruises, which got its start 60 years ago ferrying cargo from the French Polynesian capital. The ship calls at nine atolls and islands in four of its five archipelagoes, including the remote Marquesas Islands made famous by painter Paul Gauguin; authors Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson; and Belgian singer Jacques Brel.
The line's original mixed passenger-cargo vessel, Aranui 1, was launched in the 1970s, with basic accommodations for just 40 passengers. It was followed in 1989 by Aranui 2, which could host up to 100 passengers in small, no-frills staterooms. The 86-cabin Aranui 3 debuted in 2003 as the line's first custom-built ship, designed with passenger comfort as a priority and amenities including a pool, bars and social spaces. It was succeeded in 2015 by the 108-cabin, 254-passenger Aranui 5 (there's no Aranui 4 as the company's Chinese owners believe four to be an unlucky number), which now sails 19 annual South Pacific voyages from Papeete through the Tuamoto, Society and Marquesas Islands archipelagos to Fakarava, Rangiroa, Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, Tahuata and Ua Huka. (Note that for some islands the ship may call may at multiple ports, typically one in the morning and another in the afternoon.)
While Aranui sails French Polynesia itineraries exclusively, there is some leeway with the length of the cruise. Instead of sailing for the entire 14-day journey from Tahiti, passengers may choose to fly into Nuku Hiva (the first of the Marquesas the Aranui 5 calls at, on day three of the cruise) and join the ship there for the Marquesas Islands portion of the voyage, continuing back through the Society Islands leg (Rangiroa and Bora Bora) and disembarking in Papeete. Alternatively, they can embark in Papeete, see the Marquesas Islands and fly out of Nuku Hiva when the ship calls there on its way back to Tahiti. Either option means that you'll cruise for 10 days instead of 14. But, if bonding with other passengers is important to you, the line recommends embarking in Tahiti and disembarking when the ship makes its second stop at Nuku Hiva.
Though the combination of cargo ship and cruise ship isn't for everyone (more on that later), the Aranui 5 has no comparison when it comes to delivering an authentic French Polynesian experience. It begins from the moment you step aboard and are greeted at the gangway by the all-Polynesian crew dressed in traditional garb, playing ukuleles and passing out buds of fragrant tiare (the gardenia-like national flower) to tuck behind your ear. Even the sail-away is special, incorporating a poolside performance by dancers dressed in towering headdresses, colorful reed skirts and necklaces made from boar's teeth. The cultural immersion continues throughout the voyage with detailed daily port briefings' enrichment talks on the 118-island nation's history and included excursions that put passengers in the heart of the villages that depend on the Aranui 5 to bring them everything from vehicles to diapers, construction supplies and even livestock.
The onboard vibe is relaxed and casual, with little of the customary separation between crew and passengers. Members of staff mingle with guests in the bar and dine in the same restaurant. And the affable Polynesian captain walks around in jeans and a Polo shirt, largely unnoticed and with none of the pomp and circumstance of his big-ship peers.
Indeed, sailing on the Aranui 5 isn't a typical cruise experience at all, and if you're expecting all the bells, whistles and creature comforts of a modern ship, this isn't for you. There's only one restaurant and dining times are limited. There are no Broadway-style shows, casinos or rock climbing walls; the spa and fitness center are cramped and basic; and there's no children's or teens' programming.
Yet there's no better way to explore this remote region than with a line that's been coming here for more than 60 years, and in the company of crew who are genuinely eager to share their home with strangers. For adventurous active travelers, the allure of French Polynesia and the homey and welcoming atmosphere fostered by the staff will more than compensate for any deficiency in traditional cruise comforts.
While demographics vary slightly with each sailing, most passengers come from France and Germany, with Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans in the minority. The vast majority are older couples (baby boomers and active seniors), but with a few families, younger adults and solo travelers in the mix, Aranui 5 offers a significantly less couples-focused way to cruise French Polynesia than, say, on Paul Gauguin. Single cruisers pay a 50 percent supplement for their own cabin, but the line will try to match solo cruisers open to sharing with a same-sex roommate. In recent years the line has seen more European millenials, many of whom, the line says, sail in Aranui 5's relatively inexpensive four- and eight-person dormitories.
Regardless of age, income and nationality, Aranui passengers have one thing in common: they're not your stereotypical cruiser. Well-traveled and curious (many with a specific interest in the Marquesas, French Polynesia's 13 northernmost islands), they place a premium on port exploration and discovering Polynesian history and culture over having a luxury cruise experience. French is the ship's official language, but the multilingual crew also offers announcements, port briefings and excursions in English and German.
In keeping with the ship's informal ambience, the dress code is decidedly casual, with no formal nights. Jeans or shorts with T-shirts, sundresses and, of course, pareos, (which are native to these islands) are the norm during the day and for dinner, so leave your tux and gowns at home. Passengers can get away with bringing only a week's wardrobe for the two-week trip as the ship provides complimentary laundry three times during the 14-day cruise.
Be sure to pack water shoes for wet landings, a light raincoat for sudden downpours and walking shoes if you intend to join the complimentary hikes offered in several ports. Insect repellant is essential to protect against mosquitoes and sand flies (called "no-nos" in the Marquesas Islands), and staff recommend formulas with at least 15 percent DEET. (The onboard boutique sells an oil-based Polynesian brand, Heiva Stop Insectes, which is purported to be particularly effective.)
Your cruise fare includes three meals daily with house wine at lunch and dinner, as well as filtered water at meals, during lunches ashore and from machines on each cabin deck. Also included: one shore excursion per port (additional excursions such as horse-riding and deep-sea fishing are available in some ports for an extra charge), and complimentary laundry three times during the 14-day cruise. Tipping is not customary in French Polynesia so any gratuities or bar or spa tips are given at passengers' discretion. The French Pacific Franc (XPF) is the official currency of French Polynesia and of the ship. Euros and dollars are accepted onboard, but a commission of 500 francs is charged for every exchange transaction.