Skip to main content

Over tourism is one of the biggest issues facing travel hot spots, but as MAX FLETCHER discovers, there are still some corners of the world where tourism doesn’t exist and visitors are welcomed like part of the family.

WE’VE TRAVELLED more than 1,200 kilometres south from Tahiti, a journey that has taken us seven days and nights.

Just as the original Polynesian voyagers would have done, we’ve hopped from island to island and finally arrive in the caldera of an ancient volcano.

If we missed this 40 square kilometre speck of land and continued south, our next stop would be Antarctica. New Zealand is somewhere far off to the west and Easter Island or Rapa Nui is the next piece of land to the east but we’re interested in the other Rapa.

French Polynesia’s Rapa Iti is the southernmost island in the Australs and the highlight of a new Aranui Cruises itinerary taking in all five inhabited islands in the southern archipelago.

Flanked by dramatic volcanic peaks, Aranui 5 glides into Ahurei Bay on a moody morning and manoeuvres into position at Rapa Iti’s dock where the sound of beating drums and harmonious melodies draws guests out onto the passenger-freighter’s decks for a warm welcome.

On our week-long journey south, we’ve swum with whales at Rurutu and cycled around Rimatara in search of the atoll’s endemic and critically endangered red lorikeet known as the ‘thief of colour’.

We’ve marvelled at Raivavae’s smiling tiki and soaked in Tubuai’s luminescent lagoon, named ‘Bloody Bay’ after a vicious battle was fought between the Bounty mutineers and local warriors.


At every stop Aranui’s guests have been welcomed like part of the family.

Rurutu Mayor Frederic Riveta takes us around his island as part of a VIP entourage that also includes local firemen, policemen and elders, and then invites us to his home for a traditional feast of fish, taro and meat cooked in an underground oven.

At Rimatara, youths prepare platters of fruit and show off their musical and artisanal skills while the island’s grandmothers serve salads and sweets at a beach picnic overlooking a shallow lagoon.

We are invited, sans shoes, into a marae at Tubuai, which is a sacred site where locals and representatives from surrounding islands gather to solve conflicts and mark celebrations. 

We feel warmly embraced at every port of call, in large part because we are among the few tourists who ever visit these remote islands.

While there is an airstrip on a few of the islands and some have guest houses, most don’t have a tourist office because there isn’t a steady flow of visitors. 

These islands are so new to tourism that most French Polynesians haven’t visited them and locals from Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotus make up a third of Aranui 5’s guests as they take advantage of the new itinerary to holiday in the south.

Having them onboard, along with Aranui’s exceptional French Polynesian crew, makes for an especially authentic experience.

There is so much joy, colour and a never-ending soundtrack of Polynesian song and dance which hits a memorable crescendo when we arrive at Rapa Iti.

Popular Polynesian band Sissa-sué O’kota’I, who mostly hail from Rapa Iti, are special guests on the cruise and perform on the pool deck as Aranui 5 arrives at their home island.

It is an emotional start to a special two-day visit on an island which is so fiercely protective of its people and places that no one is allowed to stay here unless they have a family connection.

Aranui is working with the local community to bring supplies and a small, sustainable flow of tourism to the island so we are among the privileged few permitted ashore to meet locals, taste their homegrown fruit, vegetables and coffee, and hike to an ancient fort for incredible views of the volcanic mountains and bays.

We enjoy warm Rapa hospitality ashore during a lunch of veal, crab, fruit and salads, and then welcome locals onboard for an evening of singing and dancing on Aranui 5’s decks.

When it comes time to depart there is a lot of emotion onboard as we are farewelled by the people of Rapa and the ship circumnavigates the isolated island with its jagged, volcanic peaks.

There is a lot of ‘mana’ on the island and we are all feeling embraced by the energy and warmth of the Austral Islands.

All pictures courtesy Lionel Gouverneur. @photomarquises

Aranui Cruises will offer two, 11-day Austral Islands cruises in 2024, departing Papeete on March 30 and November 2, and calling at all five inhabited Austral Islands: Raivavae, Rapa Iti, Rurutu, Rimatara and Tubuai.

At present, Aranui 5 offers the only way to see all five Austral Islands as it’s the only cruise ship with permission to call at Rapa Iti, which is only accessible by sea.

Aranui Cruises is offering 50 per cent off the second guest in a twin share room and has removed the single supplement on its Pitcairn and Austral Islands voyages in 2024.

On sale until November 30, Aranui’s 11-day roundtrip voyage from Papeete to the Austral Islands departing March 30 and November 2, 2024, is priced from $8,503 for solo travellers in a stateroom, a saving of $3,967. A twin share stateroom is priced from $13,038 for two guests, a saving of $3,967. Conditions apply.