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

Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Mention Tahiti and most people envision dreamy, secluded islands ringed with beaches of velvety white sand shaded by lush palm trees and thatched bungalows perched above crystalline blue lagoons. They are not entirely wrong. These iconic images are real, but they are just the beginning. The Islands of Tahiti (as French Polynesia is commonly called) are actually 118 islands and atolls clustered into five archipelagos: the Society, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Gambiers and Australs Islands, spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of the South Pacific.

The Island-Hopping Dilemma

Gauguin-Fakarava beach.

Rush hour at the beach in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Gauguin-Huva Oa

The soaring volcanic cliffs of the Marquesas islands.

While only half of these islands are inhabited and others mere specks of sand barely sticking out of the ocean, that still leaves an embarrassment of compelling destinations. Places far beyond the posh overwater bungalow resorts that festoon a handful of the now world-famous islands in the Society archipelago. They are the remote, unspoiled Tahiti Islands I have long been yearning for, and an island-hopping challenge

Over time, my list has grown to include mysterious sounding names like Hiva Oa and Taiohae. Now that time has come to check the travel possibilities, I give a passing glance to Air Tahiti, the domestic airline with small plane service to many of the islands. Understandably, it operates on the hub and spokes model, which unless I intent to stay put at one destination means a lot of back a forth between connection points. Besides, my dream is to sail on the South Seas, not fly over them. But boats aren’t much help either. Beyond the trendy Society Islands, ferry service is limited to cargo schooners that take passengers and sail every fortnight to the various Marquesas. From there local transfer can be arranged between nearby islands. Doable, but there has to be a better way.

There is: Paul Gauguin. No, not the late French Post Impressionist painter who put the islands on the art world’s map over one century ago, but its namesake, the M/S Paul Gauguin.

A Winning Proposition

Tahiti-Gauguin cruise.

The M/S Paul Gauguin proposed my ideal itinerary.

Launched in 1998 and fully refurbished in 2012, the 5-star Paul Gauguin is the longest and only continually operating, year round luxury cruise ship in French Polynesia. With a length of 504 feet (154 meters) and a draft of only 17.1 feet (5.2 meters) this lovely (relatively) small vessel is designed specifically to navigate the shallow waters of the remote islands, atolls and motus of the Islands of Tahiti. In case you are wondering, motus are reef islets of coral and sand that surround an atoll. In other words, micro-islands.

The Paul Gauguin offers a variety of weeklong and 10-night itineraries that include some of the lesser-known islands. By now, I am avidly scrolling through the various offerings, weighing trade-offs. Until I come across a winning proposition: a 14-night itinerary around the Tuamotus, Marquesas and Society Islands, all tied up in a gloriously easy, pre-planned package. Sign me up!

Five-Star Adventure

Gauguin-Fakarava anchorage.

The Paul Gauguin at anchor in the Fakarava lagoon.

Gauguin-etoile scallops.

Tonight’s menu at l’Etoile tonight features seared scallops on squid ink risotto.

And so it is that on a beautiful August afternoon in Papeete, we step aboard the Gauguin. My traveling companion is a dear, longtime friend who decided to share my South Seas fantasy. Our stateroom is a spacious 239-square-foot (22 square meter) Balcony Stateroom – Number 738, with twin beds, a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass outer wall opening onto a private veranda, and enough closet space to accommodate the vacation wardrobe of two women. The bathroom features double sinks, a full bath and plenty of cabinet space for all our toiletries. Settling in is a breeze.

Our luggage, collected earlier that morning from the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and Spa where we’ve spent the past three days getting into the Islands’ spirit, has preceded us here, ready to be unpacked. We dine at l’Etoile that night, one of three restaurants on the ship and its main dining room. The setting is formal, the atmosphere pleasantly relaxed, the menu inviting and the service superb. With only 166 staterooms able to accommodate a maximum of 332 guests and an international crew of 127 (for a crew-to-guest ratio of 1/1.5, one of the highest of any luxury cruise ship), the level of attention is truly remarkable.

At Sea in the Tuamotus

Gauguin-Topaka lighthouse.

The old Topak lighthouse dominates Fakarava Island.

My fascination with the Tuamotus goes back decades, ever since I came across the travel diary of Norwegian scientist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl, “The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas.” Heyerdahl and a crew of six had sailed in 1947 from the western coast of South America to the Tuamotus on a primitive raft to demonstrate the possibility that ancient people from the Americas could have colonized Polynesia. His hypothesis was later scientifically disproved. But as we approach the string of sea-level reef and motus stretching for 40 kilometers (25 miles) on the eastern edge of the Fakarava lagoon, the only thing that emerges from the ruffled coconut trees tops is a steep Mayan-looking pyramid. Could Heyerdahl have been onto something after all?

Gauguin-Fakarava guest houses.

Small family-run guest houses line the lagoon.

The mystery pyramid turns out to be the 27 meter (90 foot) high Topaka lighthouse, an old stepped tower of coral stone with a flat top, where during times of emergencies a fire would be lit to alert signal neighboring atolls. The tidy little village of Rotoava, home to most of the 850 inhabitants of the island, is a good place to get a sense of atoll life. The village has all the necessities, basic public services, a couple of grocery shops, a handful of dive centers, and nestled in the palm trees along the beach, a string family-owned guest houses. In addition to the traditional activities of the island: copra production (the dried kernel of the coconut used to extract coconut oil), fishing and black pearl farming, dive tourism is now a growing industry here.

Gauguin-Fakarava school.

The lagoon is teeming with marine life.

There may not be much happening on Fakarava, but the real thrills lie on and beneath the water. This afternoon, I am headed for Garuae, the north pass into the lagoon, famous for its shallow coral garden and exceptionally rich marine life. From the Zodiac, the magic hits me full force. I have never seen anything quite so blue – startlingly, vibrantly, intoxicatingly blue – as the blue of the lagoon of Fakarava. Until I don my snorkeling gear and enter the water. I feel I am floating in molten crystal around the coral, in the company of multicolored parrotfish, groupers, snappers, stripped “convict fish” and more that I cannot identify.

I am happy that we will be at sea again tomorrow, on our way to the Marquesas Archipelago. I need that time to fully internalize the dazzling experience of my long anticipated encounter with the Tuamotus.

Gauguin-Fakarava lagoon 2.

The lagoon glistens like molten crystal in the afternoon sun.

Good to Know

  • 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. They are also active participants in the international Reef Check program, a voluntary-based research and education organization monitoring coral growth, health and rehabilitation.
  • The Paul Gauguin is frequently recognized as a top awards winner by notable travel and lifestyle publications. For more information about Paul Gauguin Cruises, call 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
  • Fakavara has been a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. The delicate ecosystem of this marine wonderland is uncompromisingly preserved by its government and local population (n.b. Overwater construction of any kind is banned here).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Fakarava

Tahiti Diary – The InterContinental Resort and Spa

Tahiti Diary – The InterContinental Resort and Spa

After decades of dreaming, a year of planning, a week of packing and a endless night of flying through so many time zones I can only guess what day this is, I am about to land in Tahiti. Even from this bird’s eye vantage point, the mythical island looks worthy of the hype heaped upon it ever since 18th century navigators first set foot ashore. White sailboats dot the shimmering sapphire sea. The shore is lined with white sand beaches shaded by groves of palm trees, and a semi-circle of thatched overwater bungalows rising from a turquoise lagoon complete the postcard image the perfect South Seas Island.

Ia Orana Tahiti

Papeete-overwater bungalows.

Thatched bungalows rise from the sea.

Tahiti is the largest of 118 islands and atolls (of which more than half remain uninhabited) that make up French Polynesia. Scattered across a South Pacific area the size of Western Europe, this Overseas French Community as it is officially called, occupies a total landmass of barely 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles, approximately the size of the U.S. State of Rhode Island). Home to the capital city of Papeete and Fa’a’ā, the only international airport in French Polynesia, it is the point of entry for the majority of visitors.

The lobby of the InterContiental offers a spectacular view of the Lagoonarium and the island of Mo’orea.

Fa’a’ā is one of the most laidback airports I have ever come across. Entry formalities are expedited to the sound of a trio of enthusiastic local musicians. “Ia orana” says the official who hands me back my passport after a perfunctory glance. That’s both “good morning” and “welcome” in Tahitian, and his bright smile leaves no doubt that he means it. I emerge into the party atmosphere of the arrival hall to be lassoed with a traditional Tiare hei (necklace of fragrant white gardenia that is the symbolic flower of the island) by a cheerful greeter from the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa.

Anteroom to Paradise

Papeete - lotus pool.

My balcony overlooks Le Lotus pool and beach.

Papeete - pirogue.

The pirogue is a popular mean of transportation on the lagoon.

The resort, a mere three kilometers (two miles) from the airport, turns out to be the idyllic stretch of coastline I had been gazing at from the plane. At the far side of the open lobby, my eyes lock onto a jaw-dropping panorama of lagoon, ocean and rolling surf against the chiseled backdrop of the sister island of Mo’orea just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. My Polynesia dream is getting real!

Despite its proximity to downtown Papeete and the airport, the InterContinental, the largest luxury resort on Tahiti with 246 guest rooms and overwater bungalows, is an oasis of tranquility nestled in 25 hectares (62 acres) of tropical gardens. My spacious lagoon view room opens onto a curved, panoramic balcony overlooking Le Lotus, one of the two fresh water infinity pools on the property. With its inviting swim up bar and shaded beach, the white sand-bottom Lotus is a quiet haven to laze away the hours while watching pirogues dart across the lagoon and the Black Noddi birds nest in the coconut palm trees. For those who prefer a livelier environment, the lake-size Te Tiare pool with its waterfall and Jacuzzis is a popular gathering spot at the heart of the public areas.

The Lagoonarium supports a thriving reef ecosystem.

However, my absolute favorite swimming hole is the Lagoonarium, a giant natural aquarium that recreates the natural underwater environment for hundreds species of tropical sea creatures. Regularly monitored by a team of scientists, it houses a thriving reef ecosystem that supports a wide variety of fish as well as corals and shells. I spend many glorious moments snorkeling through the fragile coral formations, surrounded by a swarm of fish of all sizes, shapes and colors, my popularity doubtless enhanced by the net bag trailing from my wrist, filled with rolls purloined from the dining room’s bread basket.

Tahitian Fare and Traditions

Papeete-Marquesas dancers.

Traditional dancers re-enact the ancient tales of the Marquesas Islands.

Papeete-Lotus dining

Intimate fine dining at Le Lotus comes with a generous helping of lagoon views.

Overlooking its pool and waterfall, Te Tiare is the main restaurant of the resort, as well as the stage for cultural performances. Open from 6:00 am on with a gargantuan buffet featuring traditional breakfast fare from Tahiti and the world over, it then offers a menu of light summer dishes as well an extensive array of local specialties throughout the day. Additionally Te Tiare features two weekly theme nights. Wednesday is Marquesas Night, when local legends are reenacted in the traditional dances of the remote Marquesas Archipelago, and a rich buffet of Polynesian and Marquesan specialties complement the show. Meanwhile, Friday night is dedicated to contemporary Polynesian dancing with a spectacular show by the perennially award-winning troupe Hei Tahiti.

For a more refined dining experience, the intimate Le Lotus restaurant proposes a creative menu of fusion cuisine based on local specialties and complemented by a selection of fine French wines. Located in a trio of thatched overwater bungalows adjoining the sand-bottom pool, it offers glorious views of the ever-changing life on the lagoon with the mountains of Mo’orea beckoning in the distance.

With its easy access to the airport and the ship terminal, its superb location and amenities, and its attentive staff, the InterContinental Tahiti is an ideal launching pad for any French Polynesia adventure.

Papeete-Tahiti dusk

Taking in the magic of a Tahiti dusk – seen from my balcony.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Air France flies daily from Paris to Papeete via Los Angeles. The national carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, also connects Papeete to France, the USA, Japan and New Zealand. Some of their flights code share with Air France and Air New Zealand.
  • Visiting – Papeete is mainly a connecting destination for visitors traveling on to the remote islands of French Polynesia. What little I saw of the town in my jetlag-induced daze on the short first morning drive from the airport left me with a first impression of a provincial port city, traffic-bound and a bit scruffy. A subsequent walk around the center of town confirmed it: not unpleasant but unremarkable. I also took a drive along the coastal road that circles the island, the center being dominated by three of the highest extinct volcanoes in Polynesia and quasi impassable. Other than a couple of waterfalls gushing through exuberant walls of ferns and a small botanical garden, I saw nothing much of note. However, I didn’t regret the few hours spent exploring, if only for having reassured myself that I hadn’t missed anything.
  • Staying – For my pre and post-cruise time on the island of Tahiti, I stayed at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa, B.P.6014, 98702 Tahiti, French Polynesia. Contact: tel. + (689) 40 86 51 10, email: tahiti@ihg.com.

Location, location, location!

InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa