FATU HIVA, Marquesas Islands — Picture yourself in the South Pacific on an island whose name you probably cannot even pronounce correctly, watching a baker turning out evenly browned loaves of French bread from a primitive stone oven.
Imagine buying beautifully designed tapa cloth, the hand-printed fabric made from bark that was used not so long ago as clothing for cannibals.
Follow in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville to find the allure that caused them and others to escape the beaten path in favor of a richer experience.
Your own discoveries can be made on a voyage aboard the Aranui, a passenger/cargo ship that makes monthly round trips from Tahiti through the Tuamotu atolls to the Marquesas Islands.
You will explore some of the least-discovered islands in the world, thousands of miles from any continent.
The baker and his rustic oven are on the island of Ua Pou. The tapa cloth is made on Fatu Hiva and you may visit Gauguin's grave in Calvary Cemetery overlooking the village of Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa.
These are three of the several ports of call made by the Aranui during 16- or 17-day cruises to the Marquesas, the most remote islands of French Polynesia, more than 900 miles from Tahiti, the principal island.
This handsome 264-foot German-built vessel is operated by the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime in Tahiti. The expanded passenger service offered by the Aranui allows you to enjoy the reality of exploring the Marquesas aboard a tramp steamer.
But cruising on board the Aranui is recommended for the traveler who is in good physical condition and can enjoy tropical climates. Age is not necessarily a limit but understand that a working cargo/copra ship is not for the coddled passenger.
The captain and crew are qualified, well-trained and polite Polynesians and the ship carries all the safety equipment required by French maritime law, which does not include a doctor.
The Aranui can sleep a maximum of 40 passengers in 17 moderate to compact cabins and another 40 on the sheltered wheelhouse bridge, where mattresses are available.
The cabins, all air-conditioned and carpeted, include classifications A, B and C. The A-class rooms include bathrooms; there are lavaboes in the B-class rooms, and full facilities, including abundant hot water, are down the hall for the B- and C-class cabins. The cabins are all attractively decorated, and kept clean with daily maid service and twice weekly laundry service.
The D-class passenger sleeps on the wheelhouse bridge where there are three toilets and three showers.
The air-conditioned dining salon is adjacent to the small bar and lounge, in which there is a modest library and games of chess, cards and backgammon.
Rates for the voyage, including three daily meals, vary according to sleeping choice from $1,980 for the best cabin to $720 for deck passengers.
Departure day is always an exciting event. As passengers arrive at the Papeete dockside they are greeted with fragrant flower leis and escorted to their cabins.
While the deck passengers are getting settled on the bridge and saying goodby to their families and friends, the cabin guests are treated to welcome cocktails and canapes in the ship's lounge, where they meet their host and hostess.
These are outgoing, multilingual people who manage accommodations, tend bar, help serve meals and act as guides for the many shore excursions in the Tuamotus and Marquesas.
The French chef and his kitchen staff, meanwhile, are preparing the lunch that will be served soon after the ship gets under way. The meals are planned to please the palates of guests from different countries.
Three blasts of the ship's horn signal the Aranui's imminent farewell from Papeete, while the strong Polynesian crew makes last-minute preparations for departure.
Toward Open Sea
At noon Capt. Theodore Oputu maneuvers the vessel into the mainstream of the harbor and heads the Aranui toward the Papeete pass in the fringing reef and the open sea. Capt. Oputu points the bow northeast toward Rangiroa, the first landfall en route to the Marquesas.
At Rangiroa and Takapoto, two atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago, passengers go ashore to explore the turquoise waters of the interior lagoons. The first-class Hotel Kia Ora Village in Rangiroa is their home for the day and in Takapoto they visit a black-pearl farm. Lunch is served ashore on both atolls, featuring seafoods from the lagoon.
As the Aranui holds course for the Marquesas the passengers learn to relax, enjoying the motion of the ship and forgetting about the world beyond the horizon.
On the fourth morning out we sighted the island of Ua Pou. Everyone was at the ship's rails to watch the first Marquesan landfall. The white rocks seem to be a calvary of sentinels guarding the bay.