The easiest and quickest way to island-hop within the archipelago is by regular Air Tahiti flights. Bonitiers (‘skipjack boats’) can be individually chartered and you can hop on the cargo ship Aranui if your timing is right (ask about arrival dates). Tahuata and Fatu Hiva are only accessible by boat and it takes some ingenuity to organise this.
Guides and taxis are the main modes of transport for getting around the islands’ web of 4WD tracks (and, increasingly, surfaced roads). It is possible to hire your own vehicle on Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. On Tahuata, Fatu Hiva and ‘Ua Pou, you’ll have to charter a 4WD with driver.
If there’s an iconic trip in French Polynesia, it must be on the Aranui. For nearly 25 years, this 117m ship has been the umbilical cord between Tahiti and the Marquesas and a hot favourite with tourists. Its 14-day voyage, departing from Pape’ete, takes it to one or two atolls in the Tuamotus and the six inhabited islands of the Marquesas. There are 17 trips per year.
The Aranui has been supplying the remote islands of the Marquesas since 1984 and that is still its primary mission. Its front half looks just like any other cargo ship of its size, with cranes and holds for all types of goods. The back, however, is like a cruise ship, with cabins, several decks and a small swimming pool. There’s nothing glitzy about it – everything is simple and functional. Unless you’re on a yacht, there’s simply no other way to visit so many islands in the Marquesas (along with two Tuamotu atolls thrown in as a bonus) in such a short period. It’s also a sustainable approach, because you get to know the island life. Note that this is an organised journey; if you don’t like to be tied to a schedule or forced to live with a group, it may not be for you.
There are four classes of accommodation, from large cabins with balcony, double bed and bathroom (€3500 to €4900 per person) to dorm-style beds with shared bathroom facilities (€2100 per person). All the accommodation has air-con. Prices include all meals and taxes. It is also possible to join the Aranui on Nuku Hiva for eight days in the Marquesas.
While the ship is unloading and loading freight – a major event on the islands – passengers take excursions ashore, which typically include picnics, scuba diving, snorkelling, 4WD trips to archaeological sites and remote villages, horse riding, and stops at craft centres, where they can meet craftspeople and make purchases. No nights are spent ashore; all shore visits last just a day or half-day and include multilingual guides. European and North American art history experts, archaeologists and ethnologists are invited on the cruise, providing cultural insights.
You may try to use the Aranui as a means of transport from one island in the Marquesas to another, but it’s at the captain’s discretion; don’t rely too much on this option.
Bookings are essential, and peak periods (July, August and December) are booked up months in advance. Contact your travel agency, or the shipowner, Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime, directly.