Freighter with amenities visits South Pacific ports

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lthough I have sailed on more than 100 ships to all seven continents, I had never before sailed on a vessel like the Aranui III.

A combination cargo/passenger ship, it transports tons of freight in its foreward section, while providing creature comforts and amenities for up to 200 passengers in the seven-deck passenger area in the stern.

I flew from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti, the Aranui III's year-round port, to board the 386-foot "freighter to paradise" for a cruise to some of the most remote and romantic islands on earth.

From Papeete, the vessel sails on a series of 16-day roundtrip itineraries enriched by 12 days in the Marquesas, a group of lush volcanic islands 800 miles from Tahiti and, to my mind, the most spectacular of French Polynesia's five archipelagos.

Besides visiting 13 ports of call on six different islands in the Marquesas, the ship calls at two islands in the Tuamotus and spends two days at sea.

Having debuted this March, the Aranui III lays claim to being one of the world's most technically advanced passenger freighters. It is far more spacious and comfortable than its predecessor, the 90-passenger Aranui II, which had sailed a similar itinerary since 1990.

The cargo ship offers passenger cruises to the Marquesas islands from Tahiti. The ship is manned by a friendly, experienced crew, many of them Marquesans sporting the earrings and multiple tattoos favored by islanders.

There are four categories of accommodations. The 63 standard cabins (all outside) measure 126 square feet and contain twin lower beds, showers and ample storage space.

Clients requiring more space may want to reserve one of the 12 deluxe cabins (188 square feet) or one of 10 suites (237 square feet). Deluxe cabins and suites come with queen-size beds, refrigerators and a bathtub. (Note that suites are the only units with balconies.)

For those who don't mind rooming with strangers, there are two dormitory-style accommodations with 12 berths each.

Among the onboard facilities is an expansive lounge/bar with a connecting library; an outside bar overlooking a swimming pool and sundeck; and a small gym and boutique.

All cruises feature lectures and slide presentations by experts on various aspects of Marquesan history, culture and the arts.

The main entertainment consists of performances under the stars by the crew band, which plays native tunes on handcarved ukuleles.

Extraordinary excursions

Key selling points of this South Pacific cruise are the shore excursions (all included in the cruise price), which take passengers into the heart of these rugged, unspoiled islands.

Since the mid-1800s, the mystique of the Marquesas has lured to its shores the likes of artists Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, and writers Jack London, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Following is a snapshot of some of the Marquesan isles and their lore:

• Hiva Oa. Gauguin, who in his quest to escape civilization sailed here from Tahiti a little more than a century ago, spent his final two years in the village of Atuona, where he died on May 8, 1903. We came ashore here in May during a commemoration of the centennial of Gauguin's death.

The day was marked by a graveside ceremony, an open-air feast and an arts and crafts fair. A new Gauguin museum and cultural center was dedicated during our stay.

• Nuku Hiva. We wound our way by Jeep up a steep dirt road to Taipaivi Valley, where Melville hid out after having deserted his whaling ship in 1842. The author's experiences here formed the basis for his first novel, "Typee."

• Fatu Hiva. The artistic side of Marquesan life exhibits itself in the village of Omoa in the homes of local woodcarvers. The homes are open to the public.

Life on board

Informal attire is "in" at all times (shorts, T-shirts and sandals), but many of the women don the native "pareo" (a sarong-like wraparound skirt).

Meals are served at single open seatings in the Polynesian-themed dining room. American-style breakfasts are available; lunch and dinner feature French and Polynesian cuisine plus complimentary wine.

Passengers also get the opportunity to sample buffet-style meals at restaurants on the Marquesas, where they can try out various island favorites such as barbecued rock lobster, curried goat, taro and sweet red bananas along with poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and soaked in coconut milk).

Bookings on the rise

Occupancies have been running 50% to 60% throughout 2003, with average passenger loads from 90 to 110 per cruise, a situation marketing director Jules Wong blames on a number of factors while touting a "substantial" rise in 2004 bookings.

The new Aranui, in operation since March, had been delivered several months behind schedule, making it difficult to promote it; then there was SARS and the Iraq war.

"Americans tend to book our cruises six to eight months in advance, and the combination of SARS and the war in Iraq were key factors that kept U.S. travelers close to home in the first half of 2003," Wong said.

While the number of U.S. passengers has fluctuated between 10% to 20% of passengers per cruise this year, he said he expects an increase to 30% in 2004.

Aranui agent-friendly

Agents have long been the Aranui's bread and butter, and Wong emphasizes the robust commissions that come from selling this high-ticket item.

"The travel trade in the U.S. has been our loyal business partner over the years, and we are conscious of our obligation to them," he said. "As a result, we devoted time and energy designing the new Aranui for the growing market of clients that enjoy exotic cruising."

Suites have been selling especially well and are often the first accommodations to sell out at $5,000 per person.

"Our standard 'A' cabins are also a good sell at $3,500 per person, especially when you add on air fare and one or two nights' stay pre and/or post cruise at a hotel in Tahiti," Wong said.

For current rates and reservations and a schedule of cruises, contact Compagnie Polynesienne de Transporte Maritime at (800) 972-7268 or (650) 574-2575; e-mail: [email protected]; or visit www.aranui.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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