Tahiti Diary – The Mythical Marquesas II, Tahuata and Nuku Hiva

Tahiti Diary – The Mythical Marquesas II, Tahuata and Nuku Hiva

The tiny island of Tahuata, or sunrise in Marquesan, lives up to its name as the Paul Gauguin glides to a stop at the edge of Hapatoni Bay in the golden post-dawn hour.

The Island at the End of the World

Marquesas-Tahuata Cliffs.

Tahuata’s sheer cliffs are covered with a coconut palm trees.

With a landmass of barely 61 square kilometers (24 square miles) and a population of 700, Tahuata is the smallest inhabited of the Marquesas Islands, and an end-of-the-world kind of place rarely visited by tourists. Located across a 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide channel from its big sister island of Hiva Oa to the north, this volcanic promontory of sheer cliffs covered with a lush canopy of coconut palms and dominated by Mount Tumu Meae Ufa (altitude 1200 meters, or 3900 feet), is accessible only by boat.

Marquesas-Hapatoni musicians.

Hapatoni musicians welcome us on the landing.

The ship’s tender ferries passengers ashore to a small landing tucked behind a protective breakwater. Curved along the edge of its bay, the village of Hapatoni is exceptionally secluded and unspoiled, even by Marquesan standards. The air is fragrant with the scent of tiare and frangipani blossoms, and alive with the sound of ukuleles, guitars and drums from the local musicians on hand to welcome visitors.The village’s claim to fame, the Royal Road, beckons. Built in the 19th century on the orders on the local sovereign, Queen Vaekehu II, this paved walkway stretches along the shore under a canopy of ancient tamanu trees before reverting to a dirt path as it looses itself in the coconut palm groves.

Marquesas-Hapatoni Copra.

Copra dries on racks along Hapatoni’s Royal Road.

Marquesas-Hapatoni cemetery.

The cemerety emerges from the lush tropical vegetation

It’s a leisurely ten-minute stroll to the end of this quintessential Marquesan village, more like a hamlet of some twenty colorful bungalow, each with its nearby drying rack for copra, one of the main sources of income of the village. Copra, the dried kernel of coconuts, is used to extract the oil, making it an important agricultural commodity throughout French Polynesia.

Along the way, I also pass the two main elements of community life for the some 100 inhabitants of Hataponi: the village church and its tidy cemetery of white crosses peering out of the flowering vegetation, and the craft center. The village is home to a community of fine sculptors, considered some of the finest in the Marquesas. Working with rosewood, horse bones and swordfish rostrums, they keep alive the meaning of traditional designs. Their carvings are exceptional, reminding me of some I have admired in European museums, and fairly priced for their quality. Should you get tempted, remember, prices are in French Pacific Francs (pegged to the Euro – 119,33 CPF = 1€). Cash only of course.

Marquesas-Tahuata sunrise.

Tahuata sunrise.

Of Landscapes and Legends

Marquesas-Nuku Hiva Taihoae.

Craggy volcanic peaks overlook Taihoae Bay.

The next morning finds us on Nuku Hiva, our fourth and alas last stop in the Marquesas. The main island of the archipelago with its landmass of 387 square kilometers (240 square miles), it is all razor-edged volcanic cliffs festooned by deep bays and remote high valleys. This craggy landscape is home to fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, most of who live on the southern coast, in the charming seafront village of Taihoae, the administrative and economic center, and de facto “capital” of the Marquesas.

Marquesas-Nuku Hiva vistas.

A ride into the mountains reveals vertiginous coastal vistas.

Beyond the sapphire blue bay sprinkled with bobbing sailboats, the mysterious mountains beckon. I feel a pang of kinship with all travelers, artists and writers who jumped ship here, and probably still do, if only for a while. These days, horses and all-wheel-drive vehicles are the favored way to negotiate the rugged terrain of the hinterlands. I opt for the latter to visit the Taipivai Valley, made famous by American writer and former sailor, Herman Melville (1819-1891). He deserted his ship and hid in this valley, living with the indigenous natives for three week.This experience was the inspiration for his first novel, Typee.

Marquesas-Nuku Hiva Tajpivai Valley.

The Taipivai Valley inspired American writer Herman Melvllle’s first novel, Typee.

Along the way, we ride up a steep winding trail lined with exuberant vegetation. Each turn reveals its own breathtaking views of precipitous valleys, and vertiginously far below, the wild coastline and infinite open sea. We pass by small agricultural hamlets as we descend into the valley, all the way to where a coastal village ends in a stretch of “beach’” I had anticipated a dip there, but the expanse of black volcanic rocks and pounding waves suggest a walk at the edge of the water (with reef shoes) as a wiser option.

Marquesas-Nuku Hiva Hikikua.

Hikokua is home to a number of powerful tikis

One cannot visit any of the Marquesas without coming across ancient sacred sites. Today, at the edge of the sleepy village of Hatiheu, once the preferred retreat of British writer Louis Stevenson, we visit Hikokua, a large temple and marae, the open area once used for ceremonies and human sacrifices. Restored for the 1999 Marquesan Arts Festival, it showcases a number of powerful ancient and contemporary tiki statues. The festival, which takes place every four years, brings together almost 2000 participants from all over the Polynesian world to perpetuates rites and ancestral traditions through dances, songs, sports, sculpture, and of course, tattooing.

A Living Art Form

Marquesas-Tattoos

Marquesan tattoes are an important representation of individual and group identity throughout French Polynesia.

Tattooing was introduced to the Marquesas when the islands were originally settled by Samoans between the 1st and 4th centuries A.D. But unlike other islands, here the tradition was not restricted to chiefs and their family. Rather, tattoos were broadly used to identify one’s affiliation to any number of groups such as warriors, healers or entertainers. Considered a rite of passage for both men and women and a protection against evil, they were also a record of genealogical history, status and wealth. Banned to near extinction by missionaries in the 19th century, traditional Marquesan tattoes have made a remarkable comeback throughout the archipelago and indeed the whole of French Polynesia. Over the past few decades they have become once again appreciated as a proud living art form and an important representation of both individual and group identity.

Nana Marquesas

That’s “see you later” in Marquesan. It is with a tug of regret that I watch Huku Hiva fade into the sunset, and with it the intoxicating wilderness of the Marquesas. The ship is headed for two days at sea before we reach the Society Islands archipelago.

Marquesas-Huku Hiva panno.

Huku Hiva panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereBy air: Air Tahiti flies daily from Tahiti to Nuku Hiva. From there, access to Tahuata can be arranged by local boats. By sea: Designed specifically to navigate the shallow waters of the remote South Sea Islands, the 5-star Paul Gauguin is the only luxury cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia. It offers a number of itineraries that include both Tahuata and Nuku Hiva several times a year. Contact: tel. (US) 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.  Additionally, the Aranui , a mixed cargo and passenger vessel, operates twice a month between Tahiti and the Marquesas.
  • The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Tahuata

Nuku Hiva

Tahiti Diary – The Mythical Marquesas, from Fatu Hiva to Hiva Oa

Tahiti Diary – The Mythical Marquesas, from Fatu Hiva to Hiva Oa

After a laidback day at sea, the M/S Paul Gauguin is approaching Fatu Hiva, the southernmost and most isolated of the Marquesas archipelago’s six inhabited islands. In the blur of morning mist, vertical cliffs jut over the cobalt blue ocean. After the sundrenched, sea-level atolls of the Tuamotus and their crystalline turquoise lagoons, this feels like emerging onto another planet.

The Island That Time Forgot

Soon, the rising sun brings signs of life into focus: a white catamaran at anchor, the red roof of a tiny bungalow clinging to the rock under a green canopy of palm trees. Golden rays of light filter through clouds suspended from the mountaintops.

Marquesas-Fatu Hiva Bbungalow.

From the sea, hints of human habitation are few on Fatu Hiva.

Marquesas - Omo'a

A majority of the inhabitants of Fatu Hiva live around Omo’a.

Fatu Hiva (population 500) can only be accessed by boat. Once ashore there are only two villages, Omo’a and Hanavave, connected by a narrow, 17-kilometer (11-mile) road over the mountain. Today, most locals live around the village of Omo’a, where traditional arts are reverently preserved. Tapa, sheets of cloth made from soaking and beating the bark of banyan and breadfruit trees, then decorated with geometric designs, are still produced here. Formerly used as floor cloths and room dividers, Tapa are now produced in smaller pieces and much thought after as wall hangings. The island is also reputed for its exceptionally fine woodcarvings made of sandalwood, rosewood and coconut wood.

Western “civilization” treads lightly here, and in the lush primeval forest above the village, it vanishes entirely. An uphill trek leads to a ceremonial site where ancient Marquesans prayed to their gods for abundant rain and crops. The reward for making it to the crest of the ridge is an important collection of petroghlyphs depicting the concentric circle eyes of magical tikis, primitive humans and even an ancient sailing pirogue.

Marquesas-Fatu Hiva Bay of Virgins.

The Bay of the Virgins is often considered the most beautiful anchorage in the South Pacific.

In the afternoon, I take a four-wheel drive vehicle to Hanavave, The road, little more than a narrow, intermittently paved mountain trail, travels through a photographer’s dream of breathtaking vistas, deep gorges and dramatic coastline. At the end of it, the fishing hamlet is sheltered deep within a spectacular bay surrounded by sheer cliffs and tiki-shaped rock formations that plunge from vertiginous heights into the sea. It is the Bay of the Virgins, one of the most iconic locations in the Marquesas. Before you start wondering how it got its name, 19th century Catholic missionaries decided that the tall phallic-shaped basalt outcrops (or “verges” in French) that surrounded the bay actually represented veiled virgins (or “vierges” in French). Which when translated goes to show that all it takes is the humble vowel “i” to transform a phallus into a maiden.

Marquesas-Fatu Hiva Paul Gauguin

The Paul Gauguin at anchor off Fatu Hiva.

The Island of Memories

Marquesas-Hiva Oa

We approach the slopes of Hiva Oa in the morning sun.

It’s a short 90-kilometer (55-mile) from Fatu Hiva to Hiva Oa, the second largest of the Marquesas. We approach the island the next morning, sailing with tantalizing slowness along the steep emerald slopes of Atuona Bay. With its small harbor wedged at the base of towering mountain peaks, (Mounts Feani, altitude 1,126 meters or 3,700 feet, and Temetiu, 1,213 meters or 3,980 feet), Atuona, the largest village on the island, is a favorite first port of call for adventurous sailors crossing west over the South Pacific.

Marquesas-Hiva Oa

Visitors leave traditional tiare hei” on Paul Gauguin’s grave.

I am especially eager to get on shore today. I am on a mission, a pilgrimage of sorts. From the waterfront, I board an ancient wood-paneled school bus that chugs up the ridge toward the village. As it reaches the top, the driver stops. “Pour le cimetière,” he says, nodding at a steep pathway. A few of us file off the bus and up the steep hill to the Calvary Cemetery, where among a jumble of white crosses and blooming shrubs, two tidy graves lie. One is Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903), the post-impressionist painter whose radical visual expression would not be recognized until after his death.

Marquesas-Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel’s grave is marked by a bronze relief portrait and messages left by fans.

The other is Jacques Brel’s (1929-1978), the Belgian-born singer and poet whose gut-wrenching performances made him one of the most beloved French-language singers of all times. The two great artists, who chose to live out their life in the serenity of Hiva Oa, now rest within a few steps of each other facing the waters Atuona Bay under the soft fragrance of frangipani trees.

Marquesas-Gauguin Center.

The Cultural Center displays a significant retrospective of exacting reproductions of Gauguin’s body of work.

From the cemetery, it’s an easy 15-minute walk to the entrance to the village and the Gauguin Cultural Center, opened in 2003 to mark the centenary of the painter’s death. There are no original painting here of course, as those are scattered in museums and private collections around the world. The center is painstaking in pointing out that all the works displayed here are reproductions executed and donated by art scholars Viera and Claude-Charles Farina. But this significant and coherent ensemble of reproductions, along with a number of original letters Gauguin wrote to his family and fellow artists on the other side of the world, allow visitors to understand in great detail the complex history of the man. At the back of the museum, a replica of his modest thatched home stands in the garden.

The Tiki Island

Marquesas-Taaoa Valley.

The primeval nature of the Taaoa Valley shelters one of the largest archeological sites in Polynesia.

I have one more visit to pay before leaving Hiva Oa, to the spirit of its early settlers. Nestled the lush hills, the largest ancient tiki statues in French Polynesia are still watching over the island. A short off-road scenic drive along a cliff pass leads to the archeological site of the Taaoa Valley, where the Tiu, the founders of the early Hivaoan tribes, once lived. The massive, partially restored complex of the Upeke ceremonial center is considered one of the most important in Polynesia. It includes multiple house platforms, a tohua (tribal ceremonial center), a sacrificial altar stone and an abundance of enigmatic tiki statues and mea’e (ancient objects of worship) scattered among the lava rocks. Little is known of the mystical Tui, but here on their secret grounds in the shade of giant banyan and breadfruit trees their supernatural presence is palpable. The Marquesans even have a work for it – mana. And it’s coming on strong!

It’s especially hard to get back to the ship tonight, and let go of the sense of connection to those who, through ages came and never left.

Marquesas-Atuana Bay.

Hiva Oa’s Atuana Bay is a favorite first port of call for sailors crossing west over the South Pacific.

Good to know

  • Getting thereBy air: Air Tahiti flies from Tahiti to Hiva Oa daily, on some days directly, other days with connecting flights from, Nuku Hiva, the “main” island of  There are also daily flights to Nuku Hiva.. By sea: Designed specifically to navigate the shallow waters of the remote South Sea Islands, the 5-star Paul Gauguin is the only luxury cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia. It offers a varity of inineraries, including several that include  both Fatu Hiva and Hiva. Contact: tel. (US) 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.  Additionally, the Aranui, https://aranui.com a mixed cargo and passenger vessel operates twice a month between Tahiti and the Marquesas.
  • Espace Culturel Paul Gaugin (Gauguin Cultural Center), Atuona, is open 8:00 to 11:00 am and 2:00 to 5:00 pm Monday through Thursday, 7:30 am to 2:30 pm on Friday and 8:00 am to 11:00 am on Saturday. Closed on Sunday.
  • The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified.

Location, location, location!

Fatu Hiva

Hiva Oa