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Whatever FLOATS your boat; BY FREIGHTER


© St. Petersburg Times

TAKAPOTO, French Polynesia -- Like the 43 other passengers aboard the freighter, I'd never heard of Takapoto, our first port-of-call, until the ship dropped anchor in its tropical lagoon.

One of 100 or more gorgeous islets in the Tuamotu Archipelago, the coconut palm-shaded speck of sand basked contentedly in the dazzling sunshine about 300 miles east of the Society Islands. With six hours to spare while the crew unloaded everything from ketchup to computers for the island's 500 residents, we passengers shuttled ashore in a whaleboat, strolled past tin-roofed homes in the fishing village, and boarded a canoe for a ride across a lagoon to an exquisite beach. That was our home base for the morning.

I walked its sugary shoreline, snorkeled in bathtub-warm waters, and picnicked under a thatched-roof palapa with the incessantly lapping wavelets as background music. Just one day into my trip and I was already frolicking on an island that's almost impossible to reach except by freighter or private yacht. This was just the kind of Polynesian idyll I'd been hoping for, and it set the discovery-oriented tone for the next 15 days on the freighter Aranui.

I had packed more books than shirts and I read seven of them as we made our way northeast from Tahiti, stopping for cargo at all six inhabited Marquesan islands as well as at Takapoto and Rangiroa in the Tuamotus.

I learned to weave a wide-brimmed hat from pandanus leaves. I paid homage to Gauguin at his burial place on Hiva Oa, rode a horse from one end of Ua Huka to the other, hiked 10 miles across Fatu Hiva. And made sure that I never missed a meal, because our French chef made sublime croissants and baguettes, and wine was poured with lunch and dinner.

Without any doubt, there was a huge gap between my preconceptions and the reality of freighter travel. And how could it be otherwise? Few travel agents have information on the freighters that carry passengers across the world's oceans, and there are practically no brochures or ads touting the product.

My Aranui voyage wasn't standard freighter fare, however, as nearly all other trips run far longer. "Even at a month, you're cutting it short," says Margi Mostue, president of the newsletter Freighter World Cruises. "Six weeks to four months is the average length."

Around-the-world voyages last 80 to 115 days; voyages to the South Pacific are about 70 days from the U.S. Atlantic Coast, 45 days from the Pacific Coast.

The Aranui voyage also stood out because of its 16 days, only two were at sea; all other days included at least one port where shore excursions were included in the fare. On other freighters, far more days are spent at sea than exploring ports of call, and excursions are arranged on arrival and paid for at that time by passengers.

For example, on a 110-day Bank Line circumnavigation of the world, disembarkation times vary from a few hours to four days at its 20 ports of call.

With the increase of shipping in containers, loading and unloading takes less time. Thus, half-days in port are common. That's perfect for a morning of snorkeling in Takapoto, but it doesn't let the passengers go far in Rio de Janeiro, say, or Dar es Salaam.

Fortunately, because day after day is often spent at sea, freighter cabins are more spacious than those on most cruise ships. All freighter cabins have bathrooms and often a TV/VCR and writing desk. Common areas typically include a lounge and a small library; some ships offer a swimming pool, exercise room and an elevator.

Card games, puzzles, videos, socializing in the lounge, and mealtime with the officers can occupy many hours of a day. "But people come prepared with shortwave radios, hobbies and a stack of books," says Ed Kirk, editor of the freighter newsletter TravLtips. "A good candidate for freighter travel must have a certain amount of independence."

As with cruise ships, there are big differences in freighters, too. The 88-passenger M.V. Americana is in a class by itself as a luxury passenger/container ship, with a lounge, exercise room and library, spacious staterooms that have full bathrooms, color TV, VCR, minibar, safe and telephone.

"Columbus Line is also high quality," says Mostue. The superior cabins in these German-owned ships are outside-facing, with refrigerator, desk, sitting areas, rectangular windows and air conditioning.

Cost is one of the big pluses of freighter travel. Most run about $100 a day per person, plus shore excursions, which works out to about a half or a third of many cruise rates. However, because of the length of freighter voyages, the cost is still considerable. Depending on the season, there are deals that can bring the daily price down to $70 a person. Many freighters add a 20 percent surcharge for single cabins, whereas on most cruise ships, this supplement is 50 percent to 75 percent. As on cruise ships, the service staff is tipped.

Whereas the average age of cruise passengers has been decreasing, freighters usually carry an older crowd. Given the voyages' length and cost, that's no surprise. Some lines have an upper age limit of 82; other lines have a cutoff of 79. Some require a health certificate for passengers older than 70; others charge an additional insurance fee (typically $300) for passengers older than 80.

"Some passengers try it once and never return," said Mostue, "while others return every year. One gentleman in his 70s has been on freighters at least six months a year for the past 10 years. He's currently on a 75-day trip from Savannah, Ga., to South Africa."

First-time voyagers are often steered toward the shorter voyages.

"Trans-Atlantic crossings are a good choice, as they are less than two weeks. They're like a training run for a more extended voyage," Kirk said.

Other shorter trips are 12-day voyages on the German Schepers line: Leaving from Miami, they stop for five to 12 hours in the Dominican Republic and in two Venezuelan ports.

Some voyages allow passengers to join for one segment. Blue Star Line's Fly-Sail program allows one-way passage, such as a 14-day crossing from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand.

Still, freighter travel remains just a tiny segment of the cruise industry; no more than 3,000 or so travelers book passage each year. Many of the new mega-liners squeeze nearly that many on one trip. But expectations are that as the numbers of retirees increases, freighter travel will increase in popularity.

Coincidentally, noted Kirk, "There are more passenger-carrying container ships now than in the last 10 years, largely because there's been a lot of subsidized ship-building by the German government."

As a result, there's good availability on most routes, even just a month or so before departure. The exceptions are that Australian and South American voyages are heavily booked during North American winters, and trans-Atlantic crossings are popular in spring and summer. Susan Kaye is a freelance travel writer who lives in Aspen, Colo.

Originally published September 7, 1997

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