Love Boat meets Dirty Dancing
Cruising the mighty Pacific on the Aranui 5 is not a holiday for the sedentary or slovenly, writes
The stage is set for a diplomatic incident. Team NZ sits high on the water, its tippy coconut shell hull balanced by a stone adze-weighted keel. Across the pool, the French craft – beautifully constructed as it is with tapa-cloth sail and seed-pod double hulls – is taking on water.
‘‘It’s sinking,’’ shouts Maria – one of Team NZ’s builders. Too bad – the prizes have already been awarded. France is King.
An angry woman strides across cruise deck 7 from the French camp to silence the Kiwi protest. ‘‘He’s only a kid,’’ she growls, of the French boat’s 10-year-old creator, who watches forlornly poolside.
This was supposed to be a celebratory Polynesian evening – one of the Pacific cruise’s two outdoor buffet dinners. Instead, the crowd cranes to see if there’ll be a fist fight between two women over a boat.
The tension is broken by Maria’s husband petulantly bombing the pool to retrieve his creation. The crowning irony? First, second and third place all earned the same prize – two free cocktails from the bar. It’s Love Boat meets Dirty Dancing. A cruise ship, 200-odd passengers and two weeks of shared mealtimes and mai tais, shore excursions, dance lessons and karaoke.
The ship is the passenger/cargo hybrid Aranui 5, which every three weeks gathers in the 1400 kilometres of open ocean between Tahiti and the dramatic Marquesas Islands – Pacific paradise of choice for Kon-Tiki adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and painter Paul Gauguin.
The passengers are mostly Kiwis, Aussies and French. Mostly older, adventurous types keen to look beyond Tahiti’s palms-and-white-sand atolls to one of the world’s most remote island clusters. A landscape of volcanic peaks and misty spires; of bird and pig dances and traditional tattoos.
The two-week round trip is long enough to make friends and enemies; to make and break stereotypes. There’s the guy in the Aston Martin T-shirt who drives a Porsche. The Belgian boy who doesn’t eat chocolate. The bignoting Kiwi who dispenses property advice while scrolling his phone for selfies with important people. And ‘‘captain leary’’, whose roving eyes fix on legs leaving dinner.
No doubt our motley crew of four have also earned nicknames – the blond man-magnet; the Samoan Michael Jackson; the high priestess of cool and me, the hapless hanger-on.
We’re the rowdy bunch always cackling at dinner, drinking and dancing with the crew, rocking to Just an Illusion – the cheesy tune that’s become our theme song since an awkward first-night serenade by the bare-chested entertainment director.
But that’s part of Aranui 5’s charm. Owned by a Tahitian family, this ship and its predecessors have been delivering passengers and cargo to the far reaches of French Polynesia for 33 years. Unlike the united nations of mega cruise ships, the crew is predominantly Marquesan or Tahitian, meaning you don’t have to leave the ship to get an insight into the culture.
Somewhere in the vast roll of ocean between Tahiti and the Marquesas, you lose half an hour – and about 50 years. Marquesas time is 30 minutes ahead, but its culture is rooted in the Polynesian migration that ended with Ma¯ori arriving in New Zealand. The languages have similarities, too. ‘‘Ka Oha,’’ Marquesans call in greeting.
The island group has a combined land mass similar to Corsica, but is scattered across an ocean expanse the size of Europe.
Nuku Hiva is the first to sharpen into focus, a lineup of Toyota Hiluxes waiting to take us on an island tour. While we watch the violent pig dance beneath a 500-year-old sacred Banyan tree at the Tohua Kamuihei archaeological site, the crew unloads the islanders’ precious cargo. Crates of Coke and Heineken are swapped for a shrink-wrapped scooter. The ship’s dual passenger-cargo function makes our arrival feel less parasitic.
The arrival of settlers and traders brought with it guns and alcohol, syphilis and smallpox, which decimated the population, from 75,000 in 1774, to just 2000 in 1920. Religion brought other perils – a ban on singing, dancing and tattooing nearly destroyed the islands’ cultural identity.
Over the hill, at Hatiheu, dirt is shovelled from the umu earth oven at Chez Yvonne restaurant. What does it mean to be Marquesan, I ask its owner,
The grunting ‘‘ho, he’’ of the pig dance becomes a familiar soundtrack during a Marquesan visit.
Beating bark to make tapa cloth is a slow and tiring process.