Of Ships and Sea – Pacific Islands

Of Ships and Sea

Pacific Islands

It’s safe to say that it was the success of the “Love Boat” era which prompted the construction of a fleet of seagoing behemoths – and a big business was born. It’s a competitive business too. These glittering vessels sometimes carry more passengers than the population of the ports they visit, plus there is the lure of many amenities. Numbers prove that these ships are immensely popular, and it’s reported that since 1992, some six million folks have gone to sea in this way. You can’t knock success.

For people not of cruise-ship persuasion, for those who require a more genuine seagoing experience, there are alternatives. Fortunately, voices have been heard and some cargo ship owners have agreed to – as they once did – accept a few passengers. So, and, happily, for those of us who look at working ships with an interest bordering on the sensual, it’s once again possible to set out in the company of a dozen or so kindred spirits ( not a thousand or more )
and voyage across many tempered seas.

The freighters on which these enthusiasts travel come in all shapes. Some carry bulk cargo, some carry grain, others bear wood products and others have decks laden with cargo filled containers. On some there’s room for the classical 12 passengers, others will accept only two, and there are others that carry up to 90. As to ownership, these ships sail under a wide variety of flags but, sadly, few of them are American. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions, the cargo ships that carry passengers adhere to standards that ensure comfort, provide cabins that often surpass cruise ship accommodations, and in company with ships officers, guests sit down to meals that may approach gourmet quality. Some of these vessels sport a swimming pool, and aboard some there’s a steward who’ll manage a congenial bar. On others the bar will be operated on the “honor system”.

These are the ships that cross major seas and move up and down the coasts of all continents. Some of them – like the extremely popular Bank Line ( British ) and the Rickmers Line (German ) – make convoluted, many port call voyages around the world that take about 110 days. The fare comes out at about $110 a day.

For shorter voyages there are transatlantic runs that take 8-14 days. There are even shorter ones that move about the Caribbean, others that run between European ports, Middle East and Asian ports as well. But there are conditions to be met. Cargo is king, and as a result, departure times can be changed, ports of call added or eliminated. Passengers, therefore, should have flexible expectations. hen there is the matter of age. Most ships that carry 12 or fewer passengers impose an age limit of between 75 and 82. But on ships that carry more than 12, a doctor is usually aboard and the age limit does not apply. A good example of this is the French freighter, Aranui, which sails from Papeete, Tahiti, and with some 60 passengers makes an amenity filled 17-day voyage to the mysteriously beautiful Marquesas islands of French Polynesia.

While I reverently admire the prominent freight lines, there is a much more elemental fleet of ships that sail from the District Centers of island groups all over the South Pacific – and they must not be ignored. These vessels, a mixture of island traders, copra boats, mission vessels, government field service ships, and inter-island ferries rarely appear in travel brochures and are largely unknown to travel agents.

Some of these ships provide comfortable cabins, complete with all meals. Others offer neither, and passengers come aboard with an open mind, their own – easily obtained – food and are required to sleep on a covered deck. This, for the adventurous, is akin to going camping at sea.

To accomplish such a voyage, fly to a District Center port, such as Papeete, Tahiti – Suva, Fiji – Apia, Samoa – Rarotonga, the Cook Islands – Honiara, Solomon Islands, the list goes on to Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Philippines – and beyond. Take Tahiti, for example. Wander down to the docks at Papeete’s harbor. Go aboard any ship that looks interesting. Ask the captain, mate or steward where they’re going. Ask to see a cabin, or what is called the “deck accommodation”. You’ll be in for some pleasant surprises, and a few that won’t fill your soul with joy. But, if you like what you see and hear, go to their agent’s office and buy a ticket – which will generally be very inexpensive

Folks have to come ashore at some point, and when it comes to accommodations in the islands of the Pacific, I’m pleased to say that there are inns, guest houses and pensions in the most remote areas. Wiithout resorting to Club Med glamour, they provide sustenance and hospitality. These are the sort of places that exist out of practical need, the kind used by transient island people, administrators, sailors, missionaries, medical folk, the odd scoundrel – and a few serious travelers.

In some of these inns guests are permitted whatever level of libido, laughter or fellowship they desire. In others there’s an abundance of hospitality but elemental behavior is frowned upon, and other than choir
practice, nothing much happens at night. Thanks – or blame – for this austerity dates back to early missionaries who arrived with heavy loads of severity. They bore a fundamentalism that was complete with injunctions against skinny dipping, erotic dancing, wearing next to nothing, and dining with strangers. Nevertheless, with South Pacific sea and land ventures, I’ll make a few suggestions.

French Polynesia
There’s lots of opportunities here. Take one of several ships to the nearby beauty of Moorea, Raiatea, Huahine or Bora Bora. Choose, perhaps, a two- day trading boat voyage from Tahiti to Rangiroa ( one of the 69 atolls in the Tuamotu Group ). There you can visit one of the distant islets in the lagoon and book yourself into an inn or private home and live within the discipline of island life. Here you can wander among nesting birds, stroll palm fringed beaches, swim in multi-hued water – and it won’t cost a bundle. Better yet, you’ll enter the animated life of Polynesians who enjoy nothing more than a good party.

The Cook Islands
For much the same environment, choose an outer island of the Cooks. Try Aitutake, Atiu, Mauke or Mitiaro. Because of the irregular schedule of ships, I’d advise flying. Aitutake, with its magnificent lagoon
and pristine beaches is a jewel. Here there’s plenty of hotels, inns and guesthouses to choose from. Here too the American dollar goes a long wa – and for a spirited night out, don’t neglect Ralphie’s Bar and Grill. The other mentioned islands, while beautiful, are even more elemental.

To the Northern Cooks by Sea
There is a ship called the Tai Moana that sails from Rarotonga and makes its way 800 miles north to the atolls of Penrhyn, Manihiki and Rakahanga. Length of the trip is about 12 days, and the fare, with crew
share cabin and food, comes to about $US 275. But I need to make it clear that the voyage to these “back of beyond” islands should be only done by those who consider themselves hardy and resilient travelers. The ship is small, the seas can be rough, and the food is far from gourmet. But the islands, some of which are called the most beautiful atolls in the world, are superb

From Western Samoa’s island of Upolu, take the ferry across to the less developed island of Savaii, which is said to be “The Ancient Soul of Polynesia”. Check out the Vaisala Hotel, which with generous measures of hospitality, animation and island food, is hard to beat. And it’s on a good beach.

Then, at a 65 mile distance from Pago Pago in American Samoa, there’s a pair of gemlike islands called the Manuas. To them, because of a scarcity of ships a flight is best – $US 65. round trip.

These are “high islands”, verdant places rung with good beaches and quietly inhabited by 500 Samoans, who along with Congregational churches live in two island style villages. It was here that in 1925 Margaret Mead did some of her controversial research. There’s been little change since.

On Ofu there’s a five-unit inn, only steps from the airstrip. They provide serene hospitality and good Polynesian food. Rates, food included, will be about $US 60., double occupancy.

From Nuku’alofa, the capitol of Tonga, an inter-island ship, the Olovaha, sails north to the Ha’apai atolls, and 12 hours later, fetches up at green, lovely Pangai on the island of Lifuka. Fare with cabin ( bring your
own food ) is $US 20.

In Pangai we stayed at Mrs Selutete’s guesthouse. The island food, reef fish, taro, breadfruit and baked bananas were exceptional, the beer was cold, and the family warmly inclined. However, bear in mind that
the church inspired tranquility of the Ha’apai’s will either drive you crazy or fill your soul with heavenly bliss.

The Solomon Islands
One of the best short voyages in the Pacific sets out from Honiara, capitol of the Solomons on rqouadalcanal. Here the trading vessel Iuminao, which has two first-class cabins, sails on Sunday and arrives at Gizo 24 hours later. Bring your own food.

En route the ship makes 11 stops at lonesome islands where beauty is profound. On arrival at Gizo there is a comfortable hotel. I’d suggest you spend the night there, and in company with other guests – usually
Australians – enjoy a spirited cocktail hour and a good dinner. The ship sails the next day and after 36 hours returns to Honiara. Fare will be around $US 90.

One of the most unusual trips in the Pacific originates on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. This is the sailing of the Government Field Service ship, Micro Glory. If you mesh with her schedule, you’ll have
an 11-day voyage that will include Kosrae, Pingelap, and the two exotic islands of Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi. The purpose of this trip is to collect copra, carry cargo, sell trade goods, check births and deaths, perhaps respond to a medical emergency. You can, however, expect to be greeted at each stop with song, flowers and palm liquor. Fare will be about $US 250., which includes cabin and meals.

So it goes for putting out to sea, and so it goes for settling into “Back of Beyond” inns run by islanders who will be as curious about you as you are about them. However, duty prompts me to assure travelers not inclined to sea travel, that thanks to the allies and enemies of WW II, airstrips built in those days now allow for domestic air service. One way or another, by sea or air, adventure and beauty await. Bon Voyage.

For long distance freighter information, contact the following. Freighter World Cruise Inc. 180 S. Lake Ave., Ste. 335 Pasadena CA. 91101 Phone – 626-449-9573

For the sailing of the ship Micro Glory, contact – The Office of Government Field Service Vessels – Kolonia, Pohnpei

96941, Federated States of Micronesia.

For the sailing of the Cook Island ship, Tai Moana, contact the Tapi Taio Shipping Co. Avarua, the Cook Islands.