Freighter in paradise: Cruising the South Pacific

Aranui 3 at anchor off Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago of the South Pacific.
Aranui 3 at anchor off Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago of the South Pacific.

The voice is unmistakable, even 20 yards away from a bright green barn that sits at the edge of a beach on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific.

Inside is a memorial to chanteur Jacques Brel, who was known throughout the world as a passionate singer, songwriter, and movie star.

Listening to Brel on a warm, humid afternoon was one of the highlights of a freighter cruise to the remote islands of French Polynesia. I loved Brel in French. English versions of his songs were recorded by artists ranging from Nirvana to the Beach Boys and swept across the United States in performances of the musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Brel’s private two-engine plane, Jojo, hangs from the ceiling of the barn in Atuona on the south side of the island. His grave, on a hill overlooking Atuona Bay, is well marked and celebrated with fresh flowers. His body lies only a row of stones away from less loved, less flowered Paul Gauguin, who died on the island in 1903.

Few passenger ships stop in Atuona (Seabourn Odyssey will call in 2016), so your best shot at Brel’s memorial is the four-hour visit every three weeks by the freighter Aranui 3, out of Papeete, Tahiti.

The number of travelers planning an exotic trip on an ocean freighter pales in proportion to the swarms of folks who vacation on big cruise ships. But freighter travelers are a serious, enthusiastic, and adventurous lot.

On the two-week voyages of the Aranui 3 (it rests every third week in port at Tahiti), conversations often turn to the joys of passenger life on a working freighter. You meet travelers armed with unread books and unfinished novels, or plans just to loll about at sea awaiting the next remote port to explore ancient tribal artifacts, meet locals, search for the infrequent Internet connection, or spend such an afternoon as mine, with the memories of Jacques Brel (1929-1978).

Long, fairly comfortable trips on freighters and container ships are available in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are booked reliably through specialized travel agencies (the most popular is Most freighter voyages are on French or German ships, with accommodations for 4 to 12 passengers. The ZIM Ontario, for instance, does a round trip every 10 weeks from New York through the Panama Canal to ports in Korea, China, and back.

Shorter, regularly scheduled freighter voyages, with passengers, are few. None offer the capacity, comforts and guided tour possibilities of Aranui 3 on its circle from Tahiti (with a port call at popular Bora Bora) through the remote reefs of the Tuamotu Islands and scenic, lightly populated, volcano-built Marquesas.

From Tahiti, the busy Aranui 3 churns north and east until Fatu Hiva, the most lush and remote of the Marquesas (no landing strip, no hospital), retracing some of the route on the way back.

The freighter ship is a lifeline to these islands, delivering mail, food, toilet paper, cars, boats, kitchen appliances, fuel, and, occasionally, a loaded casket. On one island of my voyage earlier this year, five pallbearers awaited a coffin as it was swung by crane from ship to shore.

About two-thirds of the Aranui 3, built in 2003 for a growing demand, is for freight. The rest is open to passengers, as many as 188 if all the beds are filled, including 16 in two bunk-bed dormitories with privacy curtains. Seldom are all the beds full.

The key to sailing on Aranui 3 is what this voyage offers that many cruise ships do not: A strong sense of place and a concerted crew effort, through guided tours and host lecturers, to help travelers understand local customs, food, cultures, and history in this part of the Pacific that is off the path of many modern ships. Through the centuries, the Marquesas have suffered from the importation of diseases, alcohol, and modern weapons, including nuclear testing.

At daybreak, on deck, we could join stretching exercises, led by the hard-working cruise director and based on local dancing techniques that were performed for us later on the islands. We roamed Nuku Hiva where Herman Melville was held captive in 1842, leading to his most popular book, Typee.

We met many islanders who are well etched in tattoos, now that ancient customs no longer are forbidden (by the do-gooders from afar, preaching against ancestor worship). “The tattoo was, and now is again, a man’s identity card, explaining his life and his family connection to ancestors,” said Didier Benatar, our local tour guide.

We ate well at big tables, tasting the many expertly prepared possibilities of breadfruit and fresh fish. An alternative main course was offered, but this was not a tasty cruise for non-fish eaters. One passenger on my voyage brought and finished off a giant jar of peanut butter, which served as dinner when his alternative was anything other than a thin beefsteak.

Freighter cruises such as the Aranui 3 also offer passengers a unique opportunity to get to know the seamen who work the docks and hold. One evening, a fully muscled crew member, who was always present when the ship was loading and unloading with cranes and chains, talked about his island and shipboard life. Another crew member gave a detailed body tour, head to toe, of his many artistic tattoos and their meaning.

These freighter cruises draw an adventurous crowd. If you want to sail on Aranui 3, better hurry. A new ship is under construction in China and promised to Tahiti for winter 2015-2016. Drawings show a fancier ship, but Aranui 5 — no number fours allowed because of superstition — will not be much larger than Aranui 3, with double the number of dorm beds.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of

If you go

For more information, contact a travel agent who specializes in cruises; the Aranui U.S. agent in California at 800-972-7268; or visit the company’s website, Brochure rate for a standard cabin for 13 nights is about $4,700 per person for two people. A dormitory bed is about $3,000. The top suite is about $7,200 per person. Prices include all meals, with wine, and guided excursions, including lunch picnics and catered meals on shore.