Freighter Travel Goes Upscale: Aranui Changes the Numbers Game

Upscale freight liners, such as the soon-to-be-completed Aranui 5 offer a chance to see the world in luxury, and for a relatively low price.

Cruise passengers are used to changes in numbers. Some older cruisers who had sailed on the celebrated Queen Elizabeth, for example, were pleased to seek out the Queen Elizabeth 2, the QE 2, to arrange their deckchairs

and chat and reminisce with other passengers about the past, and wonder at the future.

Cruise passengers can be romantics and not want to find an old favorite upstaged by a newcomer with essentially the same name but, like a pope or a monarch, given a follow-up number. But comfort, safety, and convenience are powerful forces, which is why the middle-aged man we saw yesterday driving his great-great grandfather’s 1914 Buick conceded he did it out of loyalty but regretted it didn’t have anti-lock brakes, seat belts, or airbags. We think all this when Joan Hanselman-Wong, a San Diego-based area sales manager for the Aranui Comagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime, shows us what the Aranui 5 will look like, and, yes, it will be a lot more lavish than the Aranui 3 we sailed on.

Top: Joan Wong and Aranui 5. Bottom Aranui 3.

The Aranui 5 is scheduled to begin sailing in November 2015. It is being constructed in China. The original Aranui was purchased from a New Zealand ship owner in 1959. Its name in Maori language meant “Great Highway” — so apt its new owners kept the name. As trade grew between Papeete and the islands the ship became too small. The Aranui 2 was a converted German ship with strong hull-plates to handle Baltic ice but, in time, it also became too small. The Aranui 3 was built in Romania, still a working ship, but re-classified for passengers. There is no Aranui 4; 4 is an unlucky number in China. Even the number 5 may be awkward for a ship working in French Polynesia where its name would be pronounced as Aranui Cinq to be theoretically overheard by a chatterbox, “The Aranui sank? Oh my god. What went wrong?”

The freighter market has changed. Not so much the workload, just the preferences of passengers who sign up for soft adventure cruises. Say marketing and advertising companies about this group, “They want it softer and with greater comfort.”

Placed in service in 2003, the Aranui 3’s length is 386 feet against the 5’s 413 feet. The 3 carries 200 passengers and the 5 will carry 254 but both ships have a similar cruising speed of 15 knots.

Says Michael Wong, an Aranui sales associate and one of Joan’s four children, “You have to satisfy demand. People want what they want! We found our passengers asked for more suites than we could offer so we reconfigured the 5 differently with more suites, fewer simple cabins -- but we put in more balconies and made the ship more upscale. The Aranui 5 will have 14 more cabins. And it will have an option that has always been available but not well known: the convenience of a 11-day cruise for Americans living in the Midwest or East Coast who may have to spend two days getting to Papeete in contrast to lucky Americans who live closer such as on the West Coast”

Check details about the 11-day cruise with the San Mateo, CA office. We understand the shorter cruise flies you on to Nuka Hiva, the first Marquesas island on the cruise. The airfare from Papeete to Nuku Hiva adds $600 to your total air fare but the cruise is $300 less, so the convenience of getting the trip all within a two-week work vacation ultimately costs $300 more per person. And vacation-deprived Americans might say it was worth it. It wouldn’t be an issue with Europeans like the French with their five-and six-week vacations

Serenity in the South Pacific; a sail boat drifts into harbor A working ship gets ready to deliver to one of its islands.

However, no matter how close or far away passengers’ homes are, cruisers have to understand the Aranui is a fun but disciplined ship with freight duties and a published time schedule. The ship brings life to the Marquesas. And passengers have to be honest with themselves when they consider whether their personal health limits them in any way. The Marquesas crew is extraordinarily friendly and helpful with passengers (and they looked after one of us, Eric, so well when he fell and ruptured his quadriceps one-third of the way into the cruise that we stayed on, even though we had excellent evacuation insurance with MedJet Assist. The accident was not the ship’s fault. Eric said it resulted from his own inattention.)

Some excellent Aranui 3 advice and information by former passengers is up online here and although it takes a few comments to become useful it really should be studied.

The Marquesas are not coral islands so they don’t have sloping, sandy beaches. They are of volcanic origin and so at some of the stops passengers will need a degree of mobility to get up and down gangways and board and disembark from the barges that take them to shore. This truly is soft adventure but the Marquesans delight in knowing their islands were once named Terre des Hommes. Land of Men!

Joan Wong points out that the 118 islands of the Marquesas were once completely untouched by European or other national maritime powers. Their population then was 100,000. It fell in the late 1900s to 1,900! Now it is about 8,000. As you walk around Papeete you can see the ethnic characteristics of the races who have contributed to the culture of the big island, Tahiti, but in the Marquesas you find a true untouched nation with its pure values, beliefs, and philosophy. As the population strengthens so it rediscovers past traditions. Passengers will find natives who now embrace their local chanting and dancing, enjoy tattoo art, which is a really important part of their ethos, and support tribal society traditions — all os which have now given the natives a stronger Marquesa pride.

Joan reminds us of what Aranui passengers can expect to see on the islands: complicated tattoos, popular ukulele music, exciting tribal dances, and examples of really skilled wood carvings.

Joan has made more than a dozen Aranui cruises to the islands. It’s no surprise that she has two small tattoos of her own. Her staff must have been thrilled to see her support their culture. On board a local band readily demonstrates the music of the islands. The ship has a special function one night when passengers can invite a crew member who has been particularly helpful. Joan is particularly proud of her crew; “When you come aboard the Aranui,” she says, “our Polynesian crew will accept you and help you in any way as part of their family.” A church door is most beautifully carved. In some carved scenes those depicted from the Bible are dressed as if they were Marquesans.

Passengers will see the abandon with which the Marquesans enjoy music, and how quickly coconut shells dry in the sun and become copra, an important trade item for the islands.

Many fascinating places stud the shore line. A lot of walks are available. Afterwards some passengers have said the “walks” were really sometimes uphill hikes and they wished they had brought their hiking poles.

But even if you forgot to bring your cane where can you easily find views like this?

The cathedral spires or “plugs” rising above Oa Pou reach higher than 4,000 feet. The village here of Hakahau has the first Catholic Church on the islands. It was built in 1859. Many of the South Seas islands were decimated by disease when foreign ships came but some reports say the priests in the Marquesas locked their populations in the churches when ships arrived with European disease that islanders had no immunity to. If so, the church may have prevented widespread population losses.

Hiva Oa comes up next after Oa Pou, two delights so close together. This was Gauguin’s island where he painted many and loved a few and scandalized the priests who would surely have locked the maidens in the church if that was still an option. Passengers swim in the Marquesas surf today as Gauguin painted them in a previous century and ride horses but more completely dressed than his subjects

Hiva Oa has a small museum dedicated to Gauguin. Not a single authentic Gauguin painting has survived in French Polynesia but two sensitive artists Viera and Claude-Charls Farina volunteered to paint replicas of 75 of his paintings so visitors could enjoy what he had created. Gauguin’s grave is on the island as is the grave of Jacques Brel, a delightful songwriter not well remembered in America but beloved in both France and the Marquesas. The best easily accessed account of Jacques Brel is as listed here even if the videos have been taken down because of copyright infringement

Joan Wong reminds travelers to the Marquesas that the local natives don’t bargain over sales. It is not their culture, not their style. “They make money off the ship but making a sale or not is not the end of the world.” The purchase of the heavy dark tiki on her countertop required some finesse. She saw it. She wanted it. But the carver’s wife said he was sleeping. So wake him up, said the customer with the American energy and zip of an army “brat” who had been all over the world although she was born in laid-back Oregon. The wife went into a back room and the sleepy carver came out to make the sale.

As the ship gets closer to Papeete enthusiastic shoppers will finally get an opportunity to marvel at how well big business works on a small island like Rangiroa, and how to buy quality souvenirs, black pearls.

And passengers will have seen how much the Aranui contributes to those islands. Asked what she feels it has done for the Marquesas, Joan answers, “It has brought money into the school system, helped re-establish the economy and exposed people in the Marquesas to a whole new group of other cultures.” Like what? “The ship brought in a soft ice cream machine for a local merchant, a machine never before seen on the islands. He was so pleased and excited he invited all the passengers to come for a free ice cream. To him this machine was a huge event!”

To the children of the Marquesas the soft ice cream machine the Aranui 3 brought to their islands will be huge event too. Here, for example, is an islander with a wheel barrow ready to collect the first load of ice cream — if he can get it past his young assistant!

And isn’t that one of the joys of responsible travel? Making the world nicer for the next generation.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.