Aboard the Aranui 3 — Aboard the Aranui 3
As dusk fell on Papeete, Tahiti, we stood on the aft deck, sipping Yoyo the bartender's infamous rum punch. Soon the new Aranui 3 would set sail on a 15-night voyage to the remote Marquesas Islands. With America plunging into war, here we were, 4,000 miles from Los Angeles, captive travelers on a passenger freighter headed for dots on the map in the South Pacific with no CNN, no newspapers. Was I on the freighter to paradise or a ship of fools?
I had another rum punch.
We eased away from the dock in darkness, past the Paul Gauguin, a luxury cruise ship that would soon depart on a South Seas cruise. No casino or room service for us, though. We were adventurers, a backpack-and-Teva-
By our return to Papeete, we had hiked through intense heat and humidity to meae (ancient tiki sites), sampled popoi (breadfruit poi, a little less like library paste than the Hawaiian variety), bounced along a mountain road in the back of a pickup and survived treacherous whaleboat landings safe in the arms of the Aranui's tattooed sailors.
Our route took us from Papeete to the Tuamotu Archipelago, through the Marquesas, back to the Tuamotus and to Papeete. Prewar, when I'd booked, the lure of the South Seas without cruise ship glitz was irresistible. Once war was reality, I told myself no place could be safer than French Polynesia.
Sun streaming through the porthole our first morning at sea awakened me at 6:30. The ship's gentle rolling had been a sleeping pill. On came the shower with a nice strong burst. Cold. A bad omen. (An engineer had pushed the wrong button, a one-time misstep.)
Glitches were inevitable on this, the second voyage of the Aranui 3, a Romanian-built ship of French registry that's bigger (386 feet long) and fancier than its two predecessors. The elevator refused to stop on our deck. The water sports platform wasn't working because the cable had snapped on the inaugural voyage when the platform was lowered.
But the Aranui is no mere ship, to be judged by its amenities. It is a great experience, the most endearing part of which is the multilingual crew of 52, most of them Tahitian. There were those burly tattooed sailors and the charming Vaihere, who greeted us daily, guided us on tours and toted around a case stuffed with French Pacific francs to lend. (Credit cards haven't caught on in the Marquesas, and the few ATMs may be out of money.) The day we left, crew members kissed passengers -- and not for tips, which were optional and anonymous.
We were 70 voyagers leaving Papeete and would pick up a few more cabin passengers in the Marquesas as well as some "deck passengers" traveling between islands. The air-conditioned ship accommodates 200 in cabins and a dormitory, twice as many as the Aranui 2, but a number of war-wary travelers had canceled, leaving 20 Americans, 51 French and a sprinkling of Germans, Swiss and Dutch. It was a surprisingly mature crowd for such a rigorous trip. The Americans included six delightful Elderhostelers.
At sea the first day, cruising at 17 mph, we had time to explore the ship and learn the rules: Smoking allowed only on deck. Laundry service was provided in upper class; the rest of us had to fight over two washing machines and one dryer. Cabin keys were to be left at reception whenever disembarking so no one would be left ashore.
My standard cabin (7 by 16 feet) was basic but comfortable, with two bunks and good storage. Deluxe cabins and suites are spacious and attractive, with queen-size beds, tubs and sitting areas. Suites have balconies. Some passengers who had traveled on an earlier Aranui weren't completely thrilled with the new, improved model. "The Aranui 2 was a cargo ship that took passengers," one said. "This is a passenger ship that takes cargo."
The decor was odd for a South Seas ship, especially in the spacious, seldom-used lounge. It was a sea of rose-colored tub chairs on a violently violet carpet, reminiscent of a public room in an airport hotel.
The French soon were soaking up the sun by the freshwater pool, women who should have known better baring bosoms and most of their bottoms. The Americans were likely to be under cover and under their Tilley hats.
The dining room, which accommodates 200 at a single seating, family style, is airy and pleasant. The food was heavy, with lots of meat and sauces. In a nod to the French, lunch is a full meal, no salad or sandwich options. Fish, green vegetables and salads were scarce, and menus could be bizarre. On what I dubbed "white night," we had cream of cauliflower soup, blanquette de veau, rice and floating island, a meringue-topped custard. Bar drinks were pricey ($9.50 for the exotic, $2.50 for a cola), but lunch and dinner included veritable waterfalls of wine, gratis.