Island-hopping by Aranui

Perhaps you are a traveler, an adventurer in foreign locales. If so, I assume you have experienced the haut-everything of the Parisian Left Bank, the canals and mysterious maze that is Venice, perhaps sipped a coffee or cognac at an outdoor caf&

233; in Buenos Aires and smiled as the elegant women passed by. Perhaps you have enjoyed a Greek Island cruise, sped through much of Europe on high-tech trains, marveled at the czarist opulence stuffed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and even visited a wat or two in Thailand. But have you stood before the grave of the French Post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, high above the village of Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, almost a thousand miles beyond Tahiti in the vast South Pacific of French Polynesia? My wife, Jeanne, and I recently completed a two week journey aboard the Aranui-3, which conveyed us to the inhabited islands of the Marquesas Archipelago.

We spent the eight hour flight time from Los Angeles to Tahiti aboard an Air Tahiti Nui Airbus; though in the back of the plane, we enjoyed attentive service from the Polynesian cabin staff, bearable flight food and an open bar throughout the flight. We were in our hotel before midnight and in our Aranui cabin before lunch time.

Aranui, the 355 foot long, 51 foot wide cargo-passenger ship, is the lifeline to the Marquesas Islands. 16 or 17 times a year it deposits on island village docks everything from bandages to backhoes. The ship has a cargo capacity of 2,000 tons and 85 passenger cabins; it provides passengers a large lounge, dining room, small bar, a gym, a petit fresh water swimming pool and an ample supply of deck lounges and chairs. While the French chef produced uniformly excellent meals and the complementary wine bottles at lunch and dinner were bottomless, the Aranui is not a cruise ship: It has a single dining room, with one sitting. There are no cabin stewards at your beck and call with ice, sheets and towels twice a day; no spas, casinos, alternative Lido dining facilities and certainly no grand atrium dangling an outsized crystal chandelier. The Aranui is a working cargo ship. It carries a few passengers onto six volcanic specs so remote in the South Pacific as to be land the furthest from any of the globe's continents.

Our voyage touched three French Indonesian archipelagos (island groups): The Society, of which Tahiti is the capital, the Tuamotu, on whose atolls (shallow coral islands) we would briefly alight during the first and last anchorages from Tahiti, as the ship made its way to and from the Marquesas.

"How do you know so much about the Marquesas?" I asked the short, wiry man standing before me as I sat in the lounge, as he chatted about our destination with a small group of passengers. "I'm the lecturer on this voyage." In this way I met Robert Suggs, PhD; he, who in 1956 on assignment from the American Museum of Natural History, was the first archeologist to begin unearthing relics of the pre-European history of the Marquesan people, dating back to 150 B.C., Suggs believes. Fluent in Marquesan and French, he has been returning to the Marquesas Islands intermittently for 50 years. A retired U.S. Navy Captain now in his 70s, he takes three or four journeys a year aboard the Aranui to stay current on the six remote islands whose ancient history he helped discover and to impart his knowledge to interested passengers. Suggs became our traveling, whiskey-sipping and dining companion, friend and guru of all things Marquesan during our two weeks aboard ship.

The Aranui was on a mission of mercy, so our normal itinerary was knocked overboard as the ship sped to the furthest Marquesan island, Ua Huka. The smallest island of the chain had lost its generator and the ship was carrying a replacement. When we arrived outside the narrow passage into the island bay, it was a harrowing operation to watch. The smallest ship barge, with crewmen and the generator aboard, had been lowered into the rough ocean. The men on the too-small barge tugged on the restraining lines to keep the high, narrow, trailer-mounted generator from keeling over into the Pacific. Finally, the crane operator lowered a larger barge. Crewmen then lashed the two barges together and the stabilized two-barge raft successfully delivered the generator to the island.

In memory, the names of the Marquesan Islands all meld together: Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, Ua Huka, Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou and Tahuata. But the adventures and sights we absorbed in specific villages and bays are what remain riveted in the mind's eye. The sights were accented by the vibrant backgrounds of giraffe-necked coconut palms, extending up the sharply chiseled sides of the volcanic mountains, until giving way beneath the jagged peaks to verdant ground cover and wild goats. From shore, the vistas of the crystalline, royal blues of the calm bays and coves, with the gleaming white Aranui nearby at anchor, were mesmerizing. The tropical sun created sparkling highlights over everything nature and man had made, everything we saw, land and sea.

Tourism, travel in this day and age mandates confrontations with masses, crowds of people, but not in the Marquesas. The combined population of the six inhabited islands is 9,104, according to the 2002 census. Most of the islands don't have air strips, so the passengers of the Aranui are the only folks from developed nations to every reach this sparsely populated, lava-water-and-sun Paradise.

In the Calvary Cemetery, high above the village of Atuona, we did gaze upon the lava stone over the grave of Paul Gauguin, French painter and debaucher, whose omnipresent images and words are the principal brand of French Polynesia. With our backs to the grave site, we took in the vista of the white wave-rimmed bay below. Finished with gravestone gazing, we slowly walked the corkscrew road down to the sea and visited the Gauguin museum, where the paintings on the walls are not-so-well-done copies We bought a beer at the still-operating Yellow Store, whose American owner befriended the painter when he arrived in the village in the early 20th century. At the proper time, we were treated to a multi-colored buffet of local luncheon treats. The goat and baked bananas were my favorites.

Another day, the flip side of the same island, Hiva Oa, and it was Tiki Day. Tikis are carvings in wood or stone of Polynesian pre-Christian gods. Near the settlement of Puamau sits a ceremonial ground that came to be in the 15th or 16th century. It contains the largest known stone Tiki west of Easter Island, eight feet tall and tons of stone. Legend has it that three Naiki chiefs captured in battle a rival chief, boiled him up and used him as the dinner entr&

233;e. Such bad manners infuriated two brothers of the consumed chief to the point that they counterattacked, killed or ran off the Naiki tribe. Then the victorious brothers had constructed the ceremonial grounds and contained Tikis. Dr. Suggs explained it all to us.

One of the most enjoyable island excursions (down the ship-side metal steps, onto a bobbing green wooden launch, short ride and up and over often slippery concrete and rock docks) was to the 200 person, matriarchal village of Hapatoni. It sits above a half moon beach facing a tiny, protected bay.

When the Aranui passengers arrived, we were met by a spirited ukulele band, singing and dancing children. Green leaf garland crowns were placed upon our heads. Then we walked along the curving bay to the open village pavilion, where we dined and watched the children dance. Happiness abounded: When the Aranui makes its infrequent stops in Hapatoni it is a rare moment for the villagers to sell their carved wooden crafts.

It was in Hapatoni where I met Jean, as he walked to his camping site at the end of the island lava path. A Tahiti-born Frenchman, he has spent his 54 years largely off the money economy. "When I came to this island, there were no stores. We fished every day and ate fish and breadfruit." When he needs money he makes copra (breaking coconuts, tearing out the meat and air drying it) which sells for $10. a burlap sack. Jean told me that he had no complaints with his life, though he misses the seven of his eight children who have left the island to work in Tahiti. "I'm a happy man," he said. Shortly, he broke camp and began the walk over the mountain to his village.

Our adventure in French Polynesia ended, not in a walk over a Marquesan mountain, but in a luxurious Papeete resort, where we relaxed awaiting our late night flight to Los Angeles.

Many more vignettes and a 130-image photo gallery of our French Polynesian adventures are available on our website: .

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