Postcard perfect French Polynesia

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 29/06/2014
Tahiti

TWIN PEAKS: The Aranui 3 in the shadow of Bora Bora’s Mt Pahia and MT Otemanu.

Tahiti
Women from the village of Omoa, Fatu Hiva create umuhei, a parcel of scented flowers, worn in their hair or around their neck as an aphrodisiac.

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There is something about jumping into crashing surf that turns the most sensible adults into big kids.

Until this point we were a sophisticated bunch, sipping French wines, soaking up Pacific culture and sharing travel adventures as we cruised around far-flung parts of French Polynesia.

But on the black sands of the beautiful bay of Puamau, reservations and clothes were discarded. In the thick humidity, the cool ocean drew us into the swell.

Soon, the air was filled with shrieks and roars as the pounding surf robbed us of inhibitions - and occasionally our beach wear.

The Aranui 3 is no ordinary cruise liner. She serves as both a supply freighter to the remote Marquesas Islands and a passenger ship for up to 200 intrepid tourists.

Puamau is on Hiva Oa, one of 10 islands where she moors on a 14-day voyage.

Overlooking the bay, in a lush jungle glade filled with a jumble of carvings and stones, stands Tiki Takaii. Clutching his belly, and missing his genitals and an arm, the stone warrior chief stands 8ft (2.4m) tall - the largest stone god in the Marquesas. Mysteriously, he resembles the giant carvings of Easter Island.

Nearby, a crouching female Tiki Maki Taua Pepe represents the anguish of a woman who perished in childbirth. They dominate the abandoned temple of Te Me'ae Teiipona, one of the most important archaeological sites in French Polynesia.

The valley is a partially collapsed crater, carpeted with overgrown vegetation and sloping down to the sea. In the air, tropical scents of frangipani, monoi and jasmine hang heavy.

It's not hard to see how Paul Gauguin was captivated by the tropical beauty of Hiva Oa. The French post-impressionist artist spent his final days on the other side of the island, in Atuona. The general store where he bought supplies still stands, as does the stone well he used to keep his liquor chilled.

Local legend has that his account at "Magasin Gauguin" is still in the red. His grave lies under a frangipani tree in Calvary Cemetery, with sweeping views of the harbour. Nearby is the final resting place of Belgian singer Jacques Brel.

Europeans - including Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Thor Heyerdahl - have been enchanted by French Polynesia since a Portuguese explorer first sighted the Tuamotu-Gambier Archipelago in the early 16th Century.

Starting out from Papaete, the Aranui sails through the Tuamoto atolls to Nuka Hiva. In Taiohae bay, imposing cliff walls, running with waterfalls, plunge down to the ocean. As the muscular local crew load and unload cargo - everything from sugar, copra [coconut meat], cement and once even a helicopter - passengers are free to explore.

Up and down cool valleys, lined with ferns and orchids, dozens of 4x4 trace the route taken by 23-year-old Melville after he jumped off a whaling ship in the 1840s. Thick jungle hides tiki, paepae (stone platforms) and ancient ritual sites. Lunch - pig baked in an underground oven - is served by Yvonne, mayor of Hatiheu. All too soon, it's back on the Aranui - whisked over darkening seas by the ship's whaleboats.

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By morning, we are tied at the quay of Ua Po. Early-birds are delighted with a sunrise over majestic sugar-loaf pinnacles, before clouds envelope the island.

It's a chance to shop for woodcarvings and treasures at a handicraft market in the village of Hakahua. Villagers greet the passengers with icy lemon juice, a buffet of fresh tropical fruit, and mesmerising dancing. As fierce as a Maori haka, two tattooed warriors and the rhythm of pahu drums transport the audience to ancient Polynesia.

For the active, there's always a hike or run. A track leads up to a simple wooden cross, affording spectacular views over the sugar-white sands and crystal blue waters. Follow the trail through overgrown dry scrub and and it eventually emerges at the deserted white sands of Anahoa bay. Its beauty masks danger - the inviting waters are home to sharks, and clouds of nonos (particularly nasty sandflies) lie dormant until disturbed.

After Huka Niva, the Aranui drifts south to the isolated island of Fatu Hiva. We are anchored more than 1000 miles from Tahiti. In the pretty village of Omoa, tiny pastel homes are dwarfed by volcanic peaks.

With a population of just 600, when the Aranui arrives it's like market day. Local women, their hair threaded with scented flowers (umuhei), spread out wares under the shade of mango, palm and hibiscus trees. They pound on mulberry bark to produce tapa cloths, and demonstrate wood-carving techniques, or the hand-painting of pareus (sarongs).

Fatu Hiva's serrated coastline means interior travel is only possible through steep mountain valleys. The Aranui crew organise a 19km hike - with a picnic lunch at the top of a plateau. It's a hot and punishing uphill climb, but for three hours my new companion Guiseppe Mancini and I chatter as we pass through pandanus groves and tall grasses. Descending from peaks of dark basalt, the western coastline opens up to the breathtaking Baie des Vierges.

Louis Stevenson called it the most beautiful bay in the world, turquoise waters are surrounded by rocky peaks, which change colour as the sun sets. A black-sand beach fringes the tiny village of Hananave. As Guiseppe and I come down the mountain path, we are greeted by the powerful sound of the pahu and a traditional Marquesan welcome dance.

Leaf-shaped Tahuata is just 50sqm and can be reached only by sea. Unlike the other Marquesas, the coast is lined with coral reefs and sandy beaches. The Aranui anchors for the morning off the village of Vaitahu, which is tiny but rich with history. Spanish explorers landed here in 1595, murdering about 200 inquisitive locals. The French followed in 1842, making it their first settlement in the Marquesas. The Vatican built an enormous church, and decorated it with exquisite carvings and stained glass windows.

Across a treacherous 3km stretch of water known as the Bordelais Channel is Hiva Oa, where we return for the afternoon.

On Ua Huka, the day is action-packed. The village of Vaipaee has its own museum, cataloguing the history of the Marquesan civilisation. On the other side of the island is Hane, which has a petroglyph museum. On the road there is the Pupuakeiha Arboretum, planted with more than 300 species of trees.

I choose the 4.5 hour horse-back ride over the fleet of flower-decorated 4x4. Wiry local ponies trot us up and down the flanks of the extinct volcano, occasionally startling the wild goats and horses that have stripped the landscape back to dry scrub.

On the way back to mainland Tahiti, the Aranui calls into the picture-postcard island of Rangiroa. Its name translates as "vast sky" but passengers are more interested in the enormous emerald lagoon, snorkeling and scuba diving among cloud of brightly coloured fish.

Islanders are supported by black pearl farming, with oyster shells abundant in its 1000 acres (404ha) of lagoon. Shoppers are driven to a nearby farm for a demonstration and a chance to pick up some treasures.

Bora Bora - possibly the most famous tropical island in the world - was recently added to to Aranaui's itinerary, as a full-day stop. Almost every passenger crowds on deck to watch the crew navigate the barrier reef and lagoon. As we approach, rain clouds part to reveal the twin peaks of Mt Pahia and Mt Otemanu.

The final day of the cruise is packed with sea adventures - shark diving, scuba diving, pirogue trips, kayaking - plus a beach barbecue. A helicopter soars some passengers above the pal-fringed motus (islands), thatched over-water bungalows and dramatic seascapes.

Dragging ourselves away from the island paradise was difficult, but it was rarely a chore to return to the Aranui.

The 386-foot ship has A, B and C class cabins, all air-conditioned, plus a dorm with a shared bathroom. As well as a library, the ship has a fresh-water pool and gym.

From delicious French-style breakfasts, to evening maitais on the sundeck, time at sea was easily passed. Lunch and dinner were served family-style, in a communal dining room, over conversations in English, French, German and Italian. Islanders say the quickest way to experience Tahitian culture is through the stomach.

Tender poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in lime juce and coconut milk) was rarely off the menu. Tables groaned with fresh mango, pomelo, pineapple, breadfruit and taro - and crusty fresh baguettes. A sweet way to finish is with poe, a taro-root pudding flavoured with banana, papaya and vanilla.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Aranui, Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.

GETTING THERE Air Tahiti Nui is a full-service airline offering five flights weekly between Auckland and Tahiti. Journey time is five hours. See airtahitinui.co.nz.

Aranui Cruises Indicative prices for 2014-2015, including airfares, are between $7999 and $9299 (conditions apply).

There are still eight cruises available this year running from July through to November. Contact your local bonded travel agent for details or check out aranui.com.

STAYING THERE The Manava Suite Resort provides luxury pre- and post-cruise accommodation in Punaauia, Tahiti.

See manava-suite-resort-tahiti.com.

Weather Tahiti is a year-round destination, but the climate is less humid and average temperatures are in their mid-to-upper 20s between March and November. 

- Sunday Star Times

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