An unusual Tahitian cruise ship takes us to unusual destinations
By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
When you think of Tahiti, most people conjure up exotic images of Bora Bora and the gorgeous peaks and atolls of the Society Islands. The islands of Tahiti are a lot more both geographical and cultural than the popular islands 95% of tourists visit.
In square miles over the ocean, Tahiti is as large as Western Europe. It has 121 islands and atolls with 75 islands inhabited. Many of these little islands can have villages of just a few hundred people. The capital and the largest island is called Tahiti.
Visiting the outer island is not easy. It can mean catching a weekly small airplane, taking a ferry service that does not run often, or boarding an uncomfortable freighter for a couple of days.
Then when arriving, finding a hotel or guest house to your standards could be a problem. Boating through this area on your own requires good seamanship. This is because of large sections of open water followed by hidden reefs near the atolls.
Aranui V is a Different Looking Cruise Ship
In 1984 the Aranui Cruise Company converted its freighter to accommodate passengers who wished to cruise to the remote Marquesas Islands.
The idea was that tourists can see these unspoiled places while freight was being loaded and unloaded.
The Aranui V was built in 2015. It can carry 230 passengers and 2700 tons of freight. Her profile is different from any vessel.
From mid-ship to stern she looks like a typical small cruise ship. There are nine decks of cabins, a bar, a spa, small gym entertainment areas, a dining room, sun decks, and a small pool.
When looking at the Aranui V mid-ship forward, it is all commercial. There are two large cranes, storage in the hull, and areas to stack shipping containers and vehicles. The two “passenger barges” that act as the ship’s tenders are stored here.
The Aranui V does 25 cruises a year. Most of them are to the Marquesas Islands for their freight and passenger runs. Visiting these islands can be a unique experience few visit. They do two “special cruises” to Pitcairn Island.
The Polynesian Experience
The Aranui V is a four-star ship with three-star food that cruises to a special part of the world. What it does well, is give a five-star Polynesian experience with its all-Tahitian crew. Guest’s immersion into Polynesian culture can include lessons on the ukulele, singing, and Ori Tahiti dance.
What we did not know was that while we were taking lessons, the crew was prepping us for an all-guest review. (I sang in Polynesian, showing that travel opens you up to new experiences!)
Music was a highlight aboard. Happy hour was always lively with Tahitian music sung and played on the ukulele, bongos, and guitar.
Anytime there was music playing, the staff both on and off duty could be heard singing in the background. During our days at sea, a Ph.D. in Polynesian studies gave three lectures.
This covered migration, language, and the shared culture of the people of the Polynesian islands.
These islands ranged geographically south from New Zealand and north to Hawaii with several other island nations to the west.
Culture also continued the islands visited. Hereafter landing, passengers would be met by a warm welcome and a lei, flowered head cover, or a neckless of shells. Afterward, there would be local dancing. Each island also offered its own style of dance and handicraft.
Guest’s cultural immersion also included food. While the ships’ food had limited choices, the islands were different with beachside BBQs and Tahitian buffets.
Meals here were a combination of salads and vegetables from the ship with the locals cooking up fish, bread, pork, clams, and local specialties.
To complete your Polynesian experience, guests can sign on with the ship’s tattoo artist and bring home a permanent personal piece of their art.
Mutiny of the Bounty’s Pitcairn Island
Twice a year the Aranui V runs a special cruise with its furthest destination being Pitcairn Island. The Pitcairn cruise is considered “special” because the ship cannot carry freight to the islands visited due to licensing restrictions.
Pitcairn Island is infamous for a few reasons. First, it was where the mutineers of the HMAV Bounty and their Tahitian cohorts settled.
The other is that Pitcairn is considered the most remote island in the world. (Some say that Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic is the more remote, while others say that island is 247 miles from the scientifically staffed island of Gough making Pitcairn number one)
It was on January 15, 1790, that nine mutineers of the Bounty along with eleven Tahitian women and six men landed on this uninhabited island.
Each mutineer took one woman as a wife while the six Tahitian men had to share the three remaining women. This was a bad beginning that got worse in a short time.
Morning in Pitcairn
Our arrival at Pitcairn was met with a beautiful blue sky highlighting the jagged cliffs and green hills. It was made better with a mother whale and her calve breaching out of the water on our port side.
Pitcairn is an impressive 2.8 square miles made up of jungle, cliffs, peaks, and the hamlet of Adamstown. While it is only two miles long by one mile wide, it seems to be much larger when you are ashore.
Boaters coming ashore have to heed the five-foot swells when boarding the tenders.
This is done through timing, patience, and little man-handling by the excellent ships’ mariners. Tenders tie up at the manmade cove at Bounty Bay where the ship was burned.
At Bounty Bay, you arrived at the steep “Hill of Difficulty” as the mutineers named it. People with walking issues were given rides on the back of the residents ’ATVs (quads). The scenic 15-minute steep climb took us to Adamstown, named after the last survivor of the mutiny.
Adamstown is the third smallest populated capital having 47 people during our visit. The village has a church, town hall, post office, museum, small store, and dirt roads with directional signs leading to all points on the Pitcairn.
The Bounty’s Anchor
In the village, you will find the Bounty anchor, and a cannon, and near the museum on the corner of a private house is 75% of the Bounty’s bell.
Tourism is 60% of their economy from the dozen ships that stop here each year. In Adamstown, we found over a dozen residents that set up a market in front of their food store.
This store is closed when a ship calls on the island so visitors don’t reduce their stocks that arrive every few months by freighter.
Pitcairn’s market consisted of tables with wood carvings, handcrafted jewelry, their famous honey as well as HMAV Bounty-themed shirts of all types. The post office and one resident sold postage stamps the island is known for.
Before a group lunch in the plaza, the mayor of Pitcairn welcomed us. Afterward, passengers separated to either hike one of the many dirt roads, shop, or take a tour of the island.
Like many passengers, we elected to take a tour. We chose the seventh-generation islander “Pirate Pawl”. For his tour, we passed on the very bumpy ATV and used his small 4X4 Toyota.
Pawl took us is to scenic overlooks as well as the highest peak on the island. At one point we were able to see over 60 miles of the Pacific Ocean and the occasional whale.
In touring with Pawl we did miss a few key places like Christian’s Cliff, St. Paul’s Pond, and the sole Galapagos tortoise because his 4X4 could not go where the ATVs could.
We found Pitcairn beautiful and fertile with so many edible things growing on trees that you can never go hungry while walking around.
After the tour, it was off to Pirate Pawls “Whale Tooth Tavern” which bills itself as the world’s most remote tavern. While having two beers Pawl displayed some metal pieces taken off the sunk Bounty.
He was also proud to show his self-made prosthetic thumb tip while he played the ukulele. If you ask him how he lost his thumb, the answer will surprise you. Before leaving the Whale Tooth Tavern, he poured us a shot of Tequila using a large whale’s tooth as a shot glass. The man is larger than life.
On our second day at Pitcairn, the Aranui V was scheduled to depart at noon. This gave passengers time to catch up on what they missed.
As this is a good island for hiking, we elected to walk to St Paul’s Pond because some of the ruts would have ripped Pawl’s Toyota the day before. (Tip: when in Pitcairn, take a tour via ATV or quad to see more of the island if your back is good)
Paul’s Pond is a 50-minute moderate hike from the top of Hill of Difficulty. The impressive view at the end looks out to the tall cliffs to the right and then down to the “pond”. This place is a work of geological beauty.
The pond is actually a pretty blue tidal pool protected by natural rock outcroppings. Here waves break between two tall rock pillars.
The water is then flushed through cracks in the rock on the far end. During rough seas, water may be tossed back over the rocky wall. Swimmers must use caution and common sense.
Museum and Grave
On the return hike to Adamstown, we visited the Pitcairn Island Museum. This small building houses both HMAV Bounty and ancient Polynesian artifacts from the island. This was followed by a visit to John Adam’s grave.
When the mayhem and killings stopped, he took charge of the island until his death. He is one of only two mutineers to die of natural causes and the only mutineer that has a known grave.
Our island visit ended at the top of the Hill of Difficulty with $3 New Zealand beers at Christian’s Café. This place is owned by the decedent of mutineer Fletcher Christian.
Pitcairn’s “Elephant on the Island”
It is not every day that a quarter of a country’s population gives you a sendoff at the dock. Standing there, I brought up the “elephant in the room” no one talked about on the island or at the ship’s lecture by a Pitcairn official.
This involved the sexual abuse of women and minors in its recent history where one-third of the island’s men were arrested.
At the dock, I mentioned to an official that we saw the sole police officer in the village.
The official said for this New Zealand cop it was like being on a one-year vacation. I then asked if the officer on the island improved things regarding “the recent past issues”.
The response was a stare, a pause, and a complete switch in conversation as if I was not sure what I was talking about (when it came to the sexual abuse arrests and convictions.)
At that awkward moment, I realized it was my time to board the tender. For a descriptive book about HMAV Bounty, Pitcairn, and its difficult history both past and recent, consider reading “The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania and Mutiny in the South Pacific”.
While the majority of the Aranui V passengers chose this cruise for the Pitcairn stop, the ship did visit five other little islands. None of these islands was an “OMG, must-go place”. However, they were each worth visiting because it allowed us to catch a glimpse at a slice of life few get to see.
Populations of these islands varied from 150 to about 1400. These islands had few or no cars, no T-shirt shops, or internet coffee cafes. On most islands, people lived without internet and air conditioning.
They also had spotty telephone service and electricity. On one island electricity came from an eight-foot generator.
Tahitians in these remote locations earned a little money producing copra. Copra comes from coconut meat that is dried in the sun and pressed. Its uses include soaps and cosmetics.
At the markets, ladies sold copra-based soap and skin care oil. People on these islands also survived on subsidence fishing and handicraft sales of wood carvings and items made from shells. This included elaborate jewelry, handbags, and even lamps.
On each island, the locals looked forward to the infrequent visiting little ship or yacht that stopped. At the islands we called on, villagers met us warmly with leis, flower hats, or shell necklaces.
They would perform Tahitian dances and play music and the mayor’s speech. All island stops were on atolls with a pretty blue lagoon.
Anaa is a mile long by 1000 feet wide with 500 villagers living on it. On shore, guests had a 40-minute bus tour. This took us to a micro-sized botanical garden to pot a small tree and to the inlet for the pretty view.
There is a church there with a shell-decorated altar and lighting. Not far from the beach was a market set up with vendors selling all kinds of shell-made handicrafts along with copra skin oil
On Anaa we took a 20-minute small boat ride across the shallow lagoon to a 15-foot wide sinkhole just below the surface in the channel called a Pito Ogoogo. (Tahitian for navel).
This unusual formation goes deep and attaches to a lava tube that has access to the ocean. Snorkelers can look down into the depths and view the fish when conditions are good.
The two activities recommended on Anaa are renting a bicycle for an hour as well as floating off the beach in the warm tropical waters.
The 197-person village of Ikitake takes up half of the 2000-foot island of Amanu. It is the only inhabited place on the atoll and they rarely get visitors. What made this stop special was the warmth of the people.
After our flower and music greeting, passengers walked to the village center for a wonderful dance show put on by the island’s beautiful children.
The entire village was there to enjoy the day. In the center of the village, a feast of freshly caught fish and clams along with bread, fresh coconut juice, and cakes were made by the locals.
Salads and other courses were brought from the ship. This lunch featured the traditional Tahitian dish of raw fish cooked in lime and coconut milk.
The island has a church, meeting hall, some ruins as well as a rocky beach where water shoes were needed to cool off.
The Aranui V made a call on two different Gambier Islands on way to and from Pitcairn. Rikitea on the island of Mangareva was our largest port of call having about 1400 residents.
It is a regional shipping hub. It is also the closest port for Pitcairn residents to go home via freighter taking 32 hours.
On Rikitea, we were met at the commercial dock by a dozen women dressed up in flowers and palm leaves. This was followed by a welcome speech, dancing, and the opening of a market with several tables selling mostly black pearl jewelry.
The highlight here was the 25-minute hike up the hill to the cemetery to pay respects to the 35th and last king of Mangareva.
The view from there to the nearby islands and village below was worth the effort.
Strolling through Rikitea we viewed fortified ruins and a large church with an ornately decorated altar of shells.
Its main street is a few blocks with small food markets and a lunch café where they were happy to sell us a drink for the internet code that did not work.
Aukena was the other Gambier Island the ship stopped on our return to Tahiti. It is 1.5 miles by .3 miles in size and barely populated. For our six-hour stop, the highlights included a 20-minute hike to the top.
Here we viewed the blue lagoon, reefs, several atoll islands, and Mangareva across the way. After a beachside BBQ, it was a 10-minute walk to the back side of the island to float off a sandy beach with snorkeling a few hundred yards out. This path should be used for people sure-footed.
Hikueru was our stop. This island is less than half a mile long by 300 feet wide with about 150 people on it.
Our Polynesian experience here involved delicious food at a banquet called ma’a Tahiti. Here the villagers started at 5 AM digging a 3 by 10-foot pit.
Afterward, a fire was started to superheat rocks and coal. When the rocks got hot, steel pots of pork along with banana leave-wrapped fish, bread, and breadfruit were placed in the pit.
The pit was then covered with steel, and burlap, and topped off with a foot of sand to insulate.
The heat trapped in the pit slow-cooked everything for six hours. This was an incredible feast and our best lunch.
For the “I have not seen anything like this before”, an islander let loose what looked like a giant hermit crab weighing nine pounds. From the distance, it did not look real and was a bit scary.
This 2 ½ foot wide creature is called a coconut crab and is the largest arthropod in the world. They can live 60 years and can spread out to three feet. Their claws are the strongest in the world.
To cool off, Hikueru has a rocky beach on the lagoon side with only average snorkeling.
Aboard the Aranui V
The Aranui V is a different type of cruise ship not just in looks but operations.
Life here is casual for guests and crew. Here the captain and officers dress in shorts and a collarless “Aranui” pullover shirt showing their rank on a patch sewed in the middle.
The ship’s bridge is open day and night and the officers are happy to answer any questions.
As a licensed captain, the bridge crew was more than friendly with the questions I had about its navigation. Don’t miss a night’s visit there.
Tahitian heritage can be seen through its people aboard. We had servers that wore boar-toothed necklaces, flower headdresses, colorful airy Polynesian dresses, and of course tattoos.
We saw housekeeping and serving staff dancing and singing at the cruise end passenger show or anytime music was played.
At the main bar on deck six, it was not unusual to see several crew members after work at happy hour enjoying the Aranui V’s Polynesian band with a beer.
They sat off to the sides or next to the band but never mingled with the guests. The bar was a good place to buy a drink for a crew member that may have especially helped you.
Food and Dress
For dinner, cruisers can leave the suit and cocktail dresses at home. Most men wore a collared or “Hawaiian” style shirt.
While women always dressed better than men, they also kept it casual and comfortable. A bonus on the ship is that guests get free laundry every six days (minus underwear) so travel light.
Food was not the ships strongest point based on taste and not having choices. Dinners and lunch when on the ship were always three courses with no choices.
Menus are posted the day before and if there is something you did not like or had an allergy to, the staff would work around it. Meals were always in two sittings 30 minutes apart. with wine included.
There are 103 cabins aboard in eleven categories ranging from quad bunk beds to the Presidential suite.
We found the premium suite with a balcony at 200 square feet comfortable. The seating area was separated partially by a lattice wood wall making it easy to read while your partner was sleeping.
At check-in, upgrades were available at steep discounts so we jumped to the owner’s suite.
This included a bedroom and a small second room with a half bathroom, desk, and TV. It was perfect for my early morning work.
Television stations are in French with a movie and documentary playing each night in English. For the Pitcairn cruise, Mutiny on the Bounty was shown in French and English.
The internet and connectivity were a sore subject aboard. For $45 you get only 300 MB at modem speeds.
If you need to be connected with family or business you may have a problem.
Their Wi-Fi needs to be upgraded to standards you see on other ships that offer it free or at a reasonable daily unlimited rate. I will update this story if the connectivity is upgraded.
For my next visit to Tahiti, I would go aboard the Aranui V following the footsteps of painter Paul Gauguin and author Herman Melville cruising to the Marquesas Islands. This is because the Aranui V is the most experienced ship for this remote chain of islands.
New for the company will be its first dedicated passenger ship the AraMana. The AraMana will be painted in a Polynesian motif and will carry 280 passengers throughout Tahiti and the Cook Islands. I hope to bring you a review after its launch.
For direct bookings on the Aranui V go to https://www.aranui.com/