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


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


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

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