At the end of last year Stanley Johnson, journalist and writer departed the UK and headed for the South Pacific, courtesy of the Steppes Voyages team. The article he wrote whilst he was travelling featured in The Times earlier this year and highlights of it are featured below.
French Polynesia and the South Pacific conjures up images of pristine, untouched palm-fringed beaches and it doesn’t disappoint! “My wife and I have just spent two weeks on board a cargo ship called the Aranui. In a lifetime of travel, this has been one of my most unforgettable experiences.”
Aranui is Maori for ‘The Great Highway’; a small cargo ship crewed mainly by Marquesans, many descendants of some of the most adventurous Pacific explorers. Travelling to the little-visited group of islands called the Marquesas, six of which are inhabited and so remote that the *Aranui* is their lifeline to the outside world, bringing supplies and picking up copra, dried coconut and noni fruit.
“The ship also carries passengers on its two-week voyage, but this is not your typical cruise. The service on board is exceptional, and the level of comfort in terms of the accommodation provided is excellent. The food is superb – a combination of French and Tahitian cuisine.”
The islands themselves are untouched and have few roads or cars. Visitors are rare and as such are very much welcomed by the friendly Polynesians. There are mysterious jungle ruins, with the largest tiki gods outside Easter Island, along with sacred ritual sites and enigmatic petroglyphs of birds, fish and sacred turtles carved on boulders.
“These delightful Marquesans have managed to retain – or at least to have reinvented – a strong cultural presence. With the possible exception of Easter Island, this must be one of the finest examples of Polynesian culture in the whole of the South Pacific. Though only a fraction of the site has been cleared, you are able to gain a clear impression of what must have been an immense archaeological complex.”
Travelling at the relaxed Polynesian pace of life, the ship sails from island to island allowing time to explore not only on land, but the chance to snorkel in the beautiful, marine rich waters.
Upon reaching land, there is always a welcome party. Stanley expains, “Because the monthly visit of the Aranui is the high point of their calendar, the islanders most often came down en masse to the dock as we moved from island to island. While half of them helped with the unloading, the other half entertained us with dance and song… but what struck me more than anything was the sheer niceness, the overwhelming friendliness of the Marquesans.”
A real insight into island life can be gained by joining the locals in their daily routines. Stanley describes one morning when, “along with several other passengers, and virtually the whole population of the village, he attended mass in the tiny village of Vaitahu. The church itself was built a few years ago with funds provided by the Vatican. Brilliantly designed, it is a light airy structure. If your attention wanders, you can indeed lift up your eyes to the surrounding tree-covered hills. High above the altar there is a stained glass window of surpassing beauty depicting a Polynesian Madonna and Child.
There was a wonderful cheerfulness about the service that morning. The men wore their best pareos; the women all had flowers in their hair. Several of the Marquesans had brought drums and ukuleles. The congregation broke into song, or so it seemed, on every possible occasion.”
This truly special cruise to the Marquesas Islands offers the chance to travel at a leisurely pace to a tropical destination that is beyond the ordinary, but also provides one of the warmest welcomes you will find anywhere in the world. To discuss travelling to the Marquesas Islands please contact Steppes Travel.
Find out more about Stanley Johnson, who will be launching his latest book, ‘Where the Wild Things Were; Travels of a Conservationist‘ in July 2012.