It almost feels like a scene out of the movie musical South Pacific . Our landing craft – a World War II vintage front-loader – alights onto the sugar-sand beach with a soft thump, and we step off into a crowd of musicians and women with armfuls of flower leis. “ Bienvenue a Raivavae ,” says one, as I stoop to accept one of the fragrant leis, made with tiaré gardenia blossoms, basil shoots and local flora. Raivavae (pronounced rye-vah-vah-eh), is the third stop of our tour through French Polynesia’s Austral Islands on board the combination cargo/passenger cruise ship Aranui 5. The arrival scene has become familiar: musicians with ukulele and drums, children and dogs darting between legs, coconuts hacked open for refreshing drinks, stalls with local handicrafts staffed by smiling women in woven palm-frond hats accented with intricate flower crowns. Each of the Australs has its own distinctive allure. Raivavae is known as the “Bora Bora of the Australs” – akin to what tourist-favourite Bora Bora was decades ago. We take an excursion to the motu piscine , an islet out on the lagoon with a depression shaped like a swimming pool, explore a marae (temple), and visit an extraordinary smiling tiki (most of these images of human figures have menacing expressions). View this post on Instagram A post shared by Aranui Cruises (@aranuicruises) Like Bora Bora, Raivavae is dominated by a volcanic peak with an aquamarine lagoon, but the difference here is an almost complete lack of visitors. The passengers and crew on Aranui 5 are virtually the only non-islanders on Raivavae during our visit. The island chain overall is light on tourist traffic. There are no resorts or hotels, only guest house accommodation. There are airports, but there’s only enough traffic for a flight to Tahiti a few days a week from and to most islands. In addition to Raivavae, our itinerary in the Australs includes stops at Rurutu, Rimatara, Tubuai and distant, airport-less Rapa. This is an extraordinary voyage for the Aranui 5, the sole vessel of Aranui Cruises, which normally has a sole destination: French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands, a voyage in the cardinal opposite direction from Tahiti compared with the Australs. The ship normally does combined cargo/cruise trips to the Marquesas, a formula that Aranui has perfected over four decades. But change is coming to the shipping company owned by Tahiti’s Wong family. Passengers wishing to repeat their voyages with Aranui have for years requested alternative itineraries, and Aranui has responded: a boutique-sized, passenger-only ship will join the fleet in 2026 to offer exploration itineraries to island groups like the Australs. Until then, Aranui 5 takes those itineraries without cargo (the company’s cargo authorities are only good for the Marquesas). It’s a comfortable ship. My Premium Suite has a bed with Polynesian decoration, a sitting area, a bathroom stocked with Aranui-branded amenities made with local monoi oil, and a balcony with a pair of chairs. Additional amenities include a refrigerator, tonnes of storage space (most sailings last just shy of two weeks), a television with mostly French stations and a fruit display. Most passengers take most of their meals in the dining room. Breakfasts are buffet-style, lunches and dinners are served in three courses. There’s no choice of entrée, but dietary restrictions are accommodated with notice. Meals also include a bottle of wine to be shared by the table. The passenger complement is split primarily between Americans and French travellers. Aranui staff – all Polynesians – are fluent in both English and French (many also speak a local language such as Tahitian or Marquesan), and touring groups are often divided between English- and French-speaking passengers. While the Marquesas are used to the routine of Aranui 5’s frequent calls, it’s more of an occasion in the Australs. On each island, we’re greeted with crowds of locals, dancing, and individual lei for the 200 passengers and crew coming onshore – touching when one considers the amount of work that goes into making a lei. On Rurutu, we’re greeted with a ceremony at the town hall, then visit a coffee plantation and the Ana a’eo Cave. The guide tells us that prior to the first European contact, Polynesians used the cave for ritual cannibalism, before adding, “but do not be alarmed, we have already prepared the lunch”. A cry goes up from inside the cave, and we venture through the foliage to find another troupe of dancers and musicians performing, with the cave’s stalagmites as an impressive backdrop. On Rimatara, we hike up a hillside to catch a glimpse of ’ura de Rimatara, a species of lorikeet found only on the island (aside from a population that has been reintroduced to an island in the Cook Islands as an ecological safety valve). The bird is a mascot for the island, appearing on the buses that we do our touring in, and we catch a glimpse of several, with their red, green and blue plumage. On Rapa, Covid-19 concerns keep activities limited to the wharf , but that doesn’t stop the spirited dancing, taro pounding demonstration, lavish buffet lunch and evening encore dance performance from taking place in a waterside warehouse. Tubuai, the administrative centre for the Australs, welcomes the Aranui 5 with a lavish fruit buffet and more ice-cold coconuts. There are also a number of handicraft stalls (Tubuai is renowned for its woodcarvers) for passengers to peruse before heading out on a tour to see the site of Fort George, the short-lived outpost of the Bounty mutineers. Because the Australs have little tourism infrastructure, Aranui 5 brings the benefit of tourist dollars without requiring significant shoreside facilities. Some of the logistics are learning experiences for everybody, but as the itineraries shift from expedition voyages to annual or biannual occurrences, port calls should go more smoothly. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Aranui Cruises (@aranuicruises) That’s not to say the voyage hasn’t been well planned. Shipboard routines include nightly happy hours in the veranda bar at the back of the ship. Many passengers entertain themselves with books from the ship’s library or ukulele or dance classes that culminate in an onboard show with passenger performers. One evening, the staff do a fashion show with items in the boutique; on other evenings, there is live music or karaoke. Arriving back in Tahiti feels almost like waking up from a pleasant dream.