Marquesan Revival

[Aranui for Cruise Passenger]

On islands as far away as one can get, a once mighty Polynesian culture is returning. Roderick Eime disappears in the Marquesas in search of the original Tiki.

The islanders gathered around the newcomers, gazing curiously at their pale and pocked skin, examining their unusual garments and incomprehensible footwear. The strangers carried long metal objects, books and religious objects the like of which they’d never seen before.

Then, just as a simple dialogue began with hands and gestures, the wrath of God was unleashed. The sharp crack of a dozen muskets tore the peaceful air apart, followed by the gut-wrenching sound of flying metal on bare flesh. Before anyone knew what happened scores of men, women and children lay sprawled on the sand, now running red with their blood.

The year was 1595 and this was the Polynesians’ first encounter with Europeans, their ferocious weapons, pompous manners and short tempers. Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira was one of the elite Spanish navigators then scouring the Pacific in search of more gold and civilizations to plunder in the name of king and God. Despite the reprehensible carnage, there was still time for Mass before they continued their voyage.

Mendaña named the islands Las Marquesas de Mendoça after his patron and uncle, the viceroy of Peru, a name that persists to this day and still serves as an uncomfortable memory of those first meetings.

Alvaro de Mendaña (1541-1595), Spanish discoverer

“Their faces and bodies were marked with representations of fish, and with various other devices, which were painted or wrought into their skins, of a blue colour: they were of good stature, and so well shaped, that in person they had much the advantage of ourselves. They had fine teeth and eyes, and good countenances: their voices were strong; but their manners gentle.” - Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, Spanish navigator, who proceeded to murder two hundred of the Marquesans.

Almost two hundred years later in June 1774, our own Lt. James Cook re-discovered these islands and likewise found the inhabitants friendly, generous and attractive despite being forced to shoot one for theft. He moved on only to be followed by Americans Joseph Ingraham, David Porter, Herman Melville and many unnamed whalers. The stream of idealistic missionaries began at the start of the 19th Century and met considerable resistance, despite the bible-toting interlopers being treated well by their hosts. Racked with disease and bitter infighting, the once strong and healthy population collapsed into chaos and the islands finally fell to the French. By 1870 Les Îles Marquises were firmly established as part of their expanding collectivités d'outre-mer.

To sail into any of these stunning islands today, there is little to remind the visitor that such turmoil ever existed. Quiet villages swept by soothing ocean breezes dot the coastlines of the six inhabited islands, all splendidly isolated from the tribulations of modern life. For many, their only contact is the fortnightly arrival of Aranui 3 with her cargo of food, consumer goods and tourists.

Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (CPTM) have supplied the marine lifeline to this far flung archipelago for almost fifty years and have progressively upgraded the service to the point where the 14-day voyage is now marketed as one of the world’s must-do adventure cruises.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, do a quick list check. Visited by an honour roll of the world’s most famous modern and historic explorers, these volcanic islands stick out of the ocean like a dragon’s bottom, with some peaks reaching up to 1200m. Vegetation clings desperately to sheer craggy outcrops cutting up vertically through the dense rainforest matting beneath. Next to that other Polynesian ‘paradise’, Hawai’i, the Marquesas are the most remote inhabited archipelago on Earth.

No romantic tropical island would be complete without a star-studded cast of eclectic artists and musicians. The Marquesas can boast strong connections with authors Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville and Thor Heyerdahl. The troubled French painter Paul Gauguin created some of his masterpieces in the Marquesas, while publicity-exhausted chain-smoking Belgian idol, Jacques Brel sang his last notes on Hiva Oa.

Originally populated by as many as 100,000 thriving Polynesians before European arrival, the islands now maintain a paltry 9,000 having dipped as low as 2,000 in the early 20th Century. The ravaged Marquesan culture, nevertheless, is making a comeback. At each island visited, guests are feted with song, dance and feasting in a way something like the first Europeans may have experienced. Young maidens dance energetically to drum beats after the fashion that sent missionaries scampering for their rosaries.

Intricate and ornate carvings are offered in natural material such as basalt, bone and the much coveted flower stone – a kind of volcanic anomaly that produces tiny starbursts in the metal. Turtle, manta ray, tiki and whale motifs dominate.

One of the most prominent features of the revival is literally in their face. The ancient art of tattooing is enjoying such resurgence that it’s almost impossible to find a Marquesan man without them. And not some hidden scribble either, a Marquesan tattoo is an intricate saga that adorns a man (or woman) that speaks directly of their status. Those examples seen by early explorers would have almost covered the entire body with intricate and highly symbolic patterns. The Aranui’s crew will eagerly display their ancestral insignia.

Rich in vibrant Polynesian culture and history, a 3500 kilometre cruise through these islands will thrill you as it did the early visitors while refreshing your hope that years of cultural vandalism may be slowly repaired.


Cultural Experience
Scenic splendour
Natural beauty


French Polynesia is expensive
Try and travel with a confirmed English-speaking group

Doing it:

Aranui 3 sails year round on a 13-night itinerary with as many port stops at nine islands including Tahiti, Rangiroa and Fakarava.

Activities include cultural displays, hiking, museums, swimming, some diving, Polynesian dance lessons, sightseeing, horse riding and fishing. Most activities and all meals are included in the cruise price. Wine is included with lunch and dinner.

Accommodation is in four classes; 14 suites, 9 deluxe cabins, 63 standard cabins and 18 dormitory berths.

Prices start at AU$7999 for an 18-night package ex-Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane inclusive of pre- and post-cruise accommodation, transfers and economy airfares. Specials are sometimes offered.

Air New Zealand flies regularly to Papeete (PPT) via Auckland (AKL) in fully modernised B767 and B777 aircraft.

Contact: Ultimate Cruising 1300 662 943

Aranui 3

Aranui 3

Vessel: Aranui 3
Cruise Line: Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (CPTM)
Star Rating: not rated
Tonnage: 3800 tons
Max Passenger Capacity: 200
Entered Service: 2003

Editor’s Notes

Image Gallery:

Filed under: World Comments Off
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Trackbacks are disabled.