Aranui 5: the world’s most unusual cruise ship sailing the world’s most exotic itineraries

I stood on the deck of Aranui 5 just after sunrise with a small group of fellow travelers who had risen early to watch our French captain, Christophe Dupuy, perform something he called “la grande manoeuvre.” He was sailing the ship into an extremely narrow channel and then doing a 180-degree turn before mooring. The seas were rough and the walls of the channel were steep and rocky. One false move and there would be trouble.

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Aranui 5 Captains are Well Trained

A few years ago, an Italian captain tried a grand manoeuvre off the island of Giglio and sank his ship. He was showing off and his little stunt made headlines. Our captain was doing the maneuver because he had to. Aranui 5 captains perform the grand turn every two weeks. It’s the only way for ships to access Ua Huka, one of the most remote islands in the South Pacific.

An image of the world's largest breadfruit pounder on the island of Ua Huka in French Polynesia as seen on an Aranui 5 cruise.
Ua Huka is home to the world’s largest breadfruit pounder. Photo by Greg Olsen.

More Adventures Well Off the Beaten Path: Read our article Ilulissat, Greenland – Birthplace of Icebergs

A Day Trip to Ua Huka

After the captain and crew had safely moored the vessel, I stayed on deck a little while longer watching the crew unload freight onto barges. At about 83 square kilometres, Ua Huka is the smallest of the northern Marquesas Islands and its approximately 600 inhabitants rely on barges to deliver goods to the island.

Polynesian legend has it that the gods created the Marquesas Islands to be the roof of French Polynesia and Ua Huka is known for its rocky cliffs, windswept hills, wild horses and goats, fruit trees and rare birds. It’s also known as the land of master wood carvers.

Once we got on shore, 4X4 vehicles with local drivers were waiting to transport us around the island. Our first stop was a visit to an arboretum and botanical garden. While the other passengers closely followed the guide, my husband and I slipped away to the orchard hoping to snap a photo of some of the rare and endangered birds that Ua Huka is famous for.

An image of the stone tikis on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia - ass seen on an Aranui 5 cruise.
The stone tikis on the island of Hiva Oa have been compared to those on Easter Island. The most famous tiki are the image of an eight-foot-tall Polynesian chief and of a woman who is believed to be giving birth. Photo by Greg Olsen,

Next, we headed to Te Tumu Cultural Centre to view exquisite wood carvings and replicas of Marquesan art. Situated on a hilltop with an amazing view, the site also has what locals say is the world’s largest breadfruit pounder. The idea of large items attracting tourists clearly spans cultures –like Sudbury’s giant nickel or Drumheller’s giant dinosaur.

After visits to several artisan shops and lunch at a local restaurant, we went on a short hike through the rainforest to a small archeological site with some ancient stone tikis on a ceremonial plateau. The view from the plateau was stunning and part of me wanted to linger longer. The other part of me was hungry for the gourmet dinner that would be ready soon back on board the ship. Common sense and the promise of good food won out and I headed back to the ship on schedule.

An image two people walking on a beach on Ua Pou Island, the third largest of the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
Ua Pou is the third largest of the Marquesas Islands and is easily recognized by its tall basalt pillars. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Exploring the Marquesas Islands

Each stop on the 4,000-km journey was exciting and revealed the special culture of the Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia. The 14-day voyage included visits to Fakarava and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Bora Bora in the Society Islands, as well as Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, Tahuata and Ua Huka in the Marquesas Islands.

Along the way, we saw dramatic landscapes with waterfalls as tall as sky scrapers, hiked through extinct volcanoes and lush rain forests, explored ancient archeological sites, visited a pearl farm, watched artisans at work, relaxed on beaches, snorkelled and enjoyed unique cultural experiences and performances.

The last two days of our voyage featured the roughest seas Aranui 5 had ever seen. “I hope you’re feeling well after the special night we had,” Captain Dupuy coyly announced as we arrived a little later than planned into Bora Bora. Even though we had four-metre swells from Tahiti’s mara’amu wind and six-metre swells from another system, I felt safe the entire time. It was comforting to know our captain had a few grand manoeuvres to fall back on.

An image of a person standing on the deck of Aranui 5 looking at Ua Pou Island in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
The views on board Aranui 5 were incredible. This was the view as we sailed away from Ua Pou. Photo by Greg Olsen.

A Unique Vessel with an Exotic Itinerary

Aranui 5 could easily be one of the most unique vessels in the world sailing one of the planet’s most exotic itineraries. The ship was custom-built to be both a freighter and a passenger ship and, at first glance, it’s a little ugly on the outside. It’s literally half cruise ship, half freighter and it operates as such – delivering freight and passengers to some of the most untouched islands in French Polynesia. At each stop, islanders come out to greet the ship and watch the freight being unloaded. Locals can use the ship as a kind of public transportation to travel between these remote islands. Cruise passengers board the ship in Tahiti and sign on for 14 days exploring some of the most remote islands on the planet.

An image of an elderly Polynesian woman with a flower crown on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
Small one-day tourist markets were set up on each of the islands we stopped at. It was a chance to buy local handicrafts and to meet locals. We met this beautiful lady on the island of Fatu Hiva. Photo by Greg Olsen.

What’s included on Aranui 5?

Aranui 5 is more of an expedition cruise than a luxury cruise, but it is definitely comfortable. There are double cabins, inside cabins and even balcony cabins. There are also cabins that accommodate single travelers in dorm-style rooms at lower rates. Land tours are included – though you can pay extra in some ports to explore a little further. Meals are included and very well done. Wine is included with lunch and dinner – something you’d expect from a ship that sails under the French flag. There is a spa, a swimming pool, a sauna, a library, a small gym and a presentation room where guests can listen to presentations from experts about the culture, geology and history of French Polynesia. There’s a lounge and bar to enjoy in the evening and some evenings there were karaoke nights or live music from crew members.

An image of the Catholic church on Tahuata Island in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia - as seen on an Aranui 5 cruise.
Tahuata means “sunrise” in Marquesan. Tiny Tahuata Island has a beautiful Catholic church built of stone and adorned with stained-glass windows and wooden carvings. There is also a wooden Protestant church on the 19-square-mile island. Photo by Greg Olsen

Useful Aids for Sea Sickness

If you have issues with sea sickness, you should talk to your doctor before you leave home. There is a doctor on Aranui 5, but it will cost extra to pay him a visit. You cannot purchase over-the-counter medications on board without paying the doctor a visit. Make sure to bring some Gravol, cold medications and headache remedies with you. There are also some good herbal remedies for sea sickness that you can purchase in advance.

An image of dancers performing in front of a banyan tree on the island of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
In French Polynesia, the banyan tree is considered sacred and can be found next to ceremonial sites. Ceremonial dances often take place in front of huge banyon trees. We enjoyed a dance show on Nuka Hiva. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Polynesian Night on Aranui 5

There was one special themed evening called Polynesian Night during the cruise. The evening featured a spectacular buffet including local food specialties, live music and a live Polynesian dance show. Tables were set up outdoors on the main deck and we dined under the stars.

An image of a group of dancers performing in front of an enormous banyan tree on the island of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
Another look at the absolutely enormous banyan tree and the incredible dancers on Nuka Hiva. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Aranui 5 – The Details

Aranui 5 sails year-round from Papeet, Tahiti, and has 103 cabins that range from deluxe staterooms with balconies to dorm-style rooms that are ideal for single travellers. Visit www.aranui.com or call 1-800-972-7268 for more information.  

Related: If you crave unique luxury travel experiences, check out our post Belle Mont Farm – The Uncommon Caribbean.

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