Have I been here before? Only in my dreams

When Nigel Planer headed for the Pacific and took a trip on a cargo ship to the remotest islands on earth, he re-entered the world of his childhood imagination

There are some places which seem to have appeared in your recurrent dreams since childhood, so that actually going there creates a sense of déjà vu. Everybody has such a place, I reckon, probably first glimpsed in a big cardboard picture book. For some, this reaction might be stimulated by a Bavarian castle in magic mountains. For me, it has always been a rugged, jungle-clad desert island.

There are some places which seem to have appeared in your recurrent dreams since childhood, so that actually going there creates a sense of déjà vu. Everybody has such a place, I reckon, probably first glimpsed in a big cardboard picture book. For some, this reaction might be stimulated by a Bavarian castle in magic mountains. For me, it has always been a rugged, jungle-clad desert island.

I have often tried, unsuccessfully, to fulfil this childish fantasy by visiting island groups from the Canaries to the Caribbean. But even the Seychelles and the coast of Northern Australia lacked the unreality and the magic of the original childhood imprint. Which is why, for me, the trip of a lifetime had to be a visit to Polynesia.

The Marquesas are the island group furthest in the world from a land mass. Planet Earth is mostly blue because the Pacific Ocean covers a third of its surface and the Marquesas are the most remote archipelago within that vast expanse of water. To get there takes rather a long time. First, you have to get to Tahiti, which, from Europe, means wearing double-thickness thrombosis socks for two long-haul flights, back to back, via Los Angeles. Add to this the two days at sea that it takes, via the Tuamotu islands, from Papeete, the port of Tahiti, and you're looking at the best part of a week to get to Nuku Hiva, the main island of the group.

Although there are now a couple of landing strips on one or two of the islands, if you want to visit all of them the only way to go is by boat. All are worth visiting - from Fatu Hiva, where Thor Heyerdal conceived his now discredited theory about the origins of the Maori people and launched his Kon Tiki raft, to Hiva Oa, where the big Tiki statues are second only to those on the Easter Islands.

Each has breathtaking scenery - palm-covered pitons which plunge into the sea at their bases and poke up into the low-lying clouds above. The climate is temperamentally tropical and the vegetation is overwhelmingly luscious; apart from the ubiquitous cocoa-nut palm and breadfruit trees, there are giant banyan - or "upside-down" trees, whose root-like tentacles drop from its branches to the ground like vast drinking straws.

Aromatic flowers are everywhere - bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus, gardenia and tiare - which is the one they put over their ears. They also put them and over yours, every time you arrive on a new island or even enter a supermarket. This is where Paul Gauguin escaped to when he found Tahiti too commercialised, and the title of his famous note and sketch-book about the south seas is "Noa Noa", which means scent, or exotic aroma.

Another thing that must have attracted Gauguin - apart from the abundant supply of beautiful women to paint - is the light. At this latitude it has a lambent and unreal quality to it - extreme, white sunshine and deep, purple clouds are capable of co-existing in the same moment. All of this served to increase my feelings of subliminal connection with some buried childhood memory. And that's before mentioning the endless horizons of water and the unsurpassable sunsets.

Aranui is the only regular cargo ship to service the Marquesa Islands, if not the only ship to go there at all. Once every three weeks it visits each of the islands of the archipelago, to drop off supplies - diesel, baked beans, four-wheel-drive cars - and pick up sacks of limes, dried cocoa-nut, or "copra" and crates of empty beer bottles. But it is also a passenger cruise ship with a small staff of guides, a sunning deck and mini swimming pool.

The two-week voyage round the Marquesas on Aranui is a unique experience; neither a luxury cruise with dancing and dressing for dinner, nor a stowed passage in cramped quarters by the engine room. Although the crew, most of them Marquesan, often eat with the passengers, the restaurant is by no means a works canteen and Aranui brings with it not only its own chef, but its own pâtissière. The food was good and the quality of the wine on the table did not allow me to forget for one moment that I was in French Polynesia.

Aranui takes between 50 to a hundred passengers. Most of them are French but there is a smattering of Americans. I did not meet another British person for the entire duration of my trip. A good tip for any visit to Polynesia, but essential on Aranui, would be to brush up on your French, with particular attention to the phrase "Je ne suis pas Americain".

A typical day starts with embarkation at a new island, before which the passengers have been briefed on how much noo-noo trouble to expect (a noo-noo being a particularly fierce Marquesan mosquito). I am one of those annoying people who prompts zero interest from mosquitos, so I was free to ignore this advice. To get ashore meant clambering down the tilting gangplank into the wooden whaleboats. Sometimes, in a choppy sea, this means older passengers are swung up into the tattooed arms of one of the enormous piratical crew members and laid down gently on the quayside.

The day's activities might include a walk, a picnic, a swim in the sea, a visit to the local church or archaeological site, and always to an arts and crafts workshop. This is the chance to buy local wood carvings and bead jewellery. Cynical Londoner that I am, I refrained from buying any of these artefacts and it was only on returning that I realised my mistake, for these unusual pieces of dark polished wood are exceptional and not typical tourist items.

Until the Marquesan "renaissance" in the 1970s, the history of the culture and traditions of the Marquesans had been as sad and shaming as that of the native Americans or the Australian Aboriginal people. Before what is known as "The Fatal Impact" of white explorers, traders and missionaries, the Marquesans had lived in a series of warring villages with a strong tradition of tattooing, bloodthirsty combat and cannibalism which survived even into the first decades of the 20th century. They believed that if you ate someone, you inherited their life force, so they used to go out and catch a couple of neighbours to eat for family events, such as the birth of a new child or a wedding, or they might keep them alive until such an occasion occurred. They had no fridges. With France injecting vast quantities of post nuclear-testing compensation, they now all have fridges and all seem to own four-wheel-drive vehicles. However, this does not make for a lot of traffic, as several of the islands have populations of merely a few hundred.

The Polynesians' dark black hair and eyes, and buck teeth, make them charismatic, even a bit scary. They are invariably tattooed, often over the face: in fact the Marquesas is the home of the ceremonial tattoo. Both men and women tend to have the build of rugby players, and their national dances - performed at the slightest opportunity in restaurants and on quaysides - resemble a cross between a hula dance from an Elvis Presley movie and the All Blacks' haka.

Hiva Oa distinguishes itself as the home of the Tikis, and of the graves of both Gauguin and the Belgian singer, Jacques Brel. But, after a week, the other islands started to merge into one homogeneous fantasy super-island, particularly since we revisited some of them, or went to different bays on the same island. The whole experience had become dreamlike. As we called in on Ua Pou, the last island on the itinerary, I remember thinking "Did I visit this place in my childhood subconscious, or was it last Thursday?"

Nigel Planer's play 'On the Ceiling' opens at the Birmingham Rep in May

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Return flights from Heathrow via Los Angeles to Tahiti cost from £833 with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk).

The writer booked his trip on Aranui through Strand Travel (020-7766 8220; www.strandtravel.co.uk), which offers the 15-day round trip out of Tahiti from £2,615, including full board in a standard twin-bedded outside cabin with private shower room. Price covers excursions

Further information

Go to www.aranui.com

FREIGHT AND SEE: JOIN A WORKING SHIP FOR A VOYAGE WITH A DIFFERENCE

The 'Patricia'

A working vessel maintaining navigational buoys and offshore lighthouses around the coast of England, Wales and the Channel Islands, the Patricia also answers emergency calls and is equipped with special towing winches capable of pulling a fairly large ship out of danger. It provides very comfortable accommodation for up to 12 passengers on voyages lasting for seven days.

Prices start from £175-£200 per person per night. The ship sails from 13 April until mid-October. Departure ports vary.

Contact Strand Travel (020-7766 8220; www.strandtravel.co.uk; www.trinityhouse.co.uk).

Banana boat

Say yes to the man from Del Monte and climb aboard the boat that the company sends to transport bananas and other fruit from the Caribbean and Central America to the UK. Two to three ships leave Dover each month, calling at Antwerp, Hamburg, Le Havre, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Colombia and Costa Rica.

The round trip takes about 35 days and prices start at £2,005 per person, based on two sharing.

Contact The Cruise People (020-7723 2450; www.cruisepeople.co.uk).

Royal Mail Ship 'St Helena'

The last surviving ship operated by Royal Mail provides frequent services between the UK, Tenerife, Ascension Island, St Helena Island and Cape Town. It's a vital supply route for St Helena, which has no airfield. Comfortable ensuite cabins accommodate two to five people and facilities include a 24-hour steward service, sun-deck, swimming pool, film screenings, discos, bingo and cricket.

Fares range from £218 to £832 for Walver's Bay to St Helena, from £234 to £682 for St Helena to Ascension and from £288 to £1,107 for Cape Town to St Helena. The ship currently leaves Cape Town every three and a half weeks and will be back in the UK in November.

Contact RMS St Helena (020-7575 6480; www.rms-st-helena.com)

Norwegian Coastal Voyage

The working ships on this route have provided transport and communication to the remote coastal communities of Norway for more than 110 years. The 12-day trip leaves Bergen for Kirkenes, within the Arctic Circle, every day throughout the year. There are 34 stops, including Trondheim and Tromso.

Summer fares range from £1,814 (inside cabin) to £2,101 (outside cabin) for a one-way voyage and from £2,204 to £2,656 for a round trip.

Contact Norwegian Coastal Voyage (020-8846 2600; www.norwegian-coastalvoyage.com).

Susie Logan

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
football
Sport
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
News
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine