Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Stretched across the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Andalusia, the southern-most region of continental Spain, is a land of fascinating contrasts. Here, ancient cities dominated by grand palaces still bear the memory of their glorious Moorish past. Dazzling whitewashed Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) cling to the rugged slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. From flamenco to bullfighting to gazpacho, many of the cultural references that permeate visitors’ image of Spain originated here and remain woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Moorish fortresses and While Villages are sprinkled troughout the Andalusia landscape.

I never pass an opportunity to revisit this compeling region. Therefore, I was thrilled recently when my son, Lee Fuller, who had yet to discover the area, suggested that we meet there. We live on different continents these days, but once a year we make it a point to visit – each other and a different destination. With only ten days to introduce the many faces of Andalusia to him, a road trip was the best option, and destinations had to be ruthlessly curated, lest our holiday turned into a marathon.

 

Let the Adventure Begin!

The village of Mijas clings to its mountainside.

We coordinate our flights to meet at the busy Malaga airport, where we pick up our car and immediately head for the hills. Although the city has retained several Roman and Moorish landmarks, it has grown exponentially since the 1970’s into the pulsating gateway to the Costa del Sol. Here, drawn by the sundrenched beaches of the Mediterranean coast, throngs of vacationers from Northern Europe have spurred the development of sprawling concrete seaside resorts. Once picturesque fishing villages are now considered historic centers, brimming with storefront eateries, souvenir shops and guest houses. Therefore, we opt to give the shoreline a miss.

Mijas dawn.

We stay in Mijas Pueblo this first night, a short 30 minute-drive west from the airport. Once a typical whitewashed village tucked in the hills some 450 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level, it too is now a tourist haven, surrounded by gleaming white, gated resorts. But mindful of our jetlag and our newly rented vehicle, we stay in one of them, chosen mainly for the convenience of its underground garage. The next morning, however, we are rewarded with a lovely sunrise over the Mediterranean.

Dizzying Ronda

The Puente Nuevo soars high above the El Tajo Canyon.

It’s only 95 kilometers (60 miles) on a road that winds through spectacular mountain vistas between Mijas and Ronda, the largest– and most visited – of the famed White Villages of Andalusia. Dramatically perched at the edge of a sheer cliff, the town is split in half by the 150-meter (500-foot) deep El Tajo Canyon. The two sides were connected in 1793 by the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an engineering wonder soaring nearly 120 meters (400 feet) above the Guadalevin River.

Ronda titters on the edge of a deep chasm.

On one side, the old town (La Cuidad) is a maze of narrow lanes twisting between whitewashed buildings and palaces that reveal a rich Moorish history. The 14th century Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King) clings to the edge of the chasm. In addition to its lush gardens and spectacular views, it features a 236-step staircase cut into the rock, which goes down 60 meters (197 feet) to a platform that once held an ingenious pumping system. Today, its main attraction is its forbidding perspective of the ravine. As I start my way back up, I have a sympathetic thought for the Christian slaves who made the journey daily to fetch water.

The Birthplace of Bullfighting

The bullfighting arena features two levels of covered seating.

On the other side of the bridge, the new town (El Mercadillo) is home to the Plaza de Toro de Ronda, one of the oldest and most illustrious bullfighting arenas in Spain. Built in 1785 by the same architect who created the Puente Nuevo, it can host 5,000 spectators in its two layers of raised seating covered by a roof supported by 136 pillars. Ronda is known to be the birthplace of modern bullfighting. While historians speculate that the practice actually began in pre-Roman societies around the Mediterranean, it is Ronda native Pedro Romero (1754-1839) who perfected the craft and laid down the first rules of engagement, thus going down in history as the father of the Ronda style.

The arena includes a bullflighting museum.

Although we definitely are no supporters of bullfighting, we nonetheless appreciate our visit of the vast arena with its elaborate “backstage” passages leading to pens where bulls are housed on fight days, and tthe adjoining equestrian facility where the proud Andalusian horses are still stabled and trained. The complex also includes a small museum dedicated to the tradition.

 

 

The Plaza de Toro de Ronda can seat 5000 spectators.

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo.

Wine has been made around Ronda since Roman times. This wine-making tradition endured through the end of the 19th century when the vineyard was devastated by the Phylloxera pest and never recovered. Until recently. The past couple of decades have seen a renewed interest in the powerful red wines of the Sierrania de Ronda, which now boasts over 20 boutique wineries. A number of them welcome visitors for tours and tastings, and traveling with the family oenophile means we must check things out.

The Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo vineyards.

A bit of research points us to Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo. Established in 2006 on a two-hectare (five-acre) plot of land of the picturesque Guadalcobacin River valley, a mere 20-minute drive north from the center of Ronda, it is a family owned and operated artisan winery. It was created and continues to be managed as a rigorously organic operation – an important point for us – by its founder Miguel Garcia Pereila, who also conducts pre-arranged personalized tours and tastings.

Miguel (right) and Lee (left) discuss wine aging in the cellar.

Since the property also features a couple of accommodation options, we have decided to stay the night. We arrive in the late afternoon to a warm welcome by Miguel and his wife Izabel and settle into our rooms before our tour of the vineyards and the wine-making operation – a visit said on the winery’s website to take approximately 45 minutes. Ours takes twice that long as we pepper Miguel with questions while he introduces us down to the smallest detail to the cultivation and care of his vines following timeless natural methods..

A Memorable Wine-tasting Experience

The patio is the heart of the Bodegas.

When we finally emerge from the aging cellar back onto the cloistered patio which is the heart of the property, the table is set for our three-course, four-wine tasting dinner. We sip on a glass of pale golden Moscatel with its citrus fruit scent and crisp, refreshing taste while Izabel brings forth the tapas. The white table cloth is soon covered with a generous spread of local Iberico ham, chorizo, coarse country paté, Manchego cheese, slices of succulent tomatoes just picked from her garden and a golden potatoe tortilla. With its basket of freshly baked earthy country bread, it looks like a meal onto itself. Miguel reappears to introduce hisf raspberry-colored Rosado. An equal blend of Syrah and Merlot, it has a lovely aroma of fresh flowers and cherries, and a definite fruity taste. Since I favor crisp, lighter wines, the Rosado turns out to be my favorite of this tasting.

The table is set for our wine-tasting.

Izabel’s paella is the best we’ve ever tasted.

As we finish polishing off the tapas, Izabel returns with her very own family-recipe paella, followed by Miguel with his Roble de Alcobazin, an intense red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot with a complex aroma of mature fruit, black currents and a hint of vanilla. We linger over our paella, sipping the rich, well rounded wine in the warm Spanish night, feeling the moment couldn’t get any better. Yet it does when Miguel returns one last time, bearing his prize-winning Zabel de Alcobazin vintage red. Yes, it is named in honor of his wife.

This blend in equal parts of select Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes is a deep cherry red. Aged 12 months in French and American oak barrels, then a minimum of two years in the bottle, it is clearly too complex for me. I defer to Lee, the connoisseur of full-bodied reds, to parse the “nose” of mature fruits and dark berries with a hint of butterscotch. As for the “palate”? Rich, oaky and well structured, with a big volume in the mouth – a worthy grand finale to a memorable evening.

We take our leave of our gracious hosts the next morning and head for Seville, well aware that our time at Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo will remain one of our fondest memories of this trip.

 

The Puente Nuevo affords a dizzying panoramic view of the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Malaga-Costa Del Sol airport is the main international airport serving Andalusia. It accounts for 85 percent of the international traffic of the region. It is located eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of of the city.
  • Visiting Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo welcomes visitors year-round by appointment only. Consult their website for visiting, tasting, and hospitality options and reservations. Contact:  tel. (+34) 622 87 90 05. e-mail: info@bodegasgarciahidalgo.es.

Location, location, location!

Ronda

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of  Languedoc  with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.

Follow the Via Domitia

The Roman Tour Magne (Great Tower) is built on the site of an earlier Celtic lookout.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..

The Amphitheater in now a venue for bullfights.

While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.

The Amphitheater

The vast interior passages of the Amphitheater are designed to accommodate crowds of spectators.

Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.

For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.

La Maison Carrée

The colonnade of La Maison Carrée borders the vestibule.

A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.

Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.

Le Jardin de la Fontaine

A formal 18th century French garden sits on the site of an ancient sacred spring.

The Temple of Diana is believed  to have once been a library.

One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.

Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.

The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.

 

Le Musée de la Romanité

After holding  pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité

The rear of the Musée de la Romanité opens onto a vast  archeological garden.

Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.

The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

The Roman home features a display of household pottery unhearthed during local excavations.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
  • Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
  • Visiting –  The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Nimes

Tahiti Diary – The Glamour Islands, Bora Bora and Moorea

Tahiti Diary – The Glamour Islands, Bora Bora and Moorea

Tahiti, as French Polynesia is commonly called (after its capital island) may consist of 118 islands and atolls spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of South Pacific ocean, but at the very mention of the word, even the most casual armchair traveler will sigh: “Bora Bora… Mo’orea…”

Society Islands - Catamaran.

Catamarans are a popular means of transportations around the Society Islands.

Ever since English explorer Captain James Cook first landed on their shores in 1769, these two beauties of the Society Islands Archipelago have attracted the notice of visitors for their spectacular volcanic peaks and their lagoon in infinite shades of blues, But it is cinema, and especially the various remakes of “Mutiny on the Bounty” that has made them a destination every romance seeker in the world yearns to experience.

 

 

Bora Bora the Diva

Bora Bora-Otemanu

Bora Bora’s Mount Otemanu rises from the lagoon.

Bora-Bugalows.

The shores of Bora Bora are lined with guest bungalows.

Captain Cook coined her the “Pearl of the Pacific,” and 20th century American author James Michener, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the Pacific, anointed her “the most beautiful island in the world.” These do not seem overstatements as I catch, from the tiny nearby island of Taha’a, my first hint of Bora Bora’s iconic Mount Otenamu rising across the vast aquamarine expanse of the lagoon. When I finally set foot on this most celebrated of islands, however, I am saddened to find that it has fallen victim of its popularity.

Many cruise ships on their way across the South Pacific make it their “Tahiti stop.” And since the Hotel Bora Bora opened it first bungalows standing on stilts over the lagoon in the late 1960’s, the island has developed into an environment based mainly on tourism. With ten luxury hotels now thrusting their tentacular rows of bungalow over the most secluded parts of the lagoon, the leading industry on the island is the “honeymoon package.” It’s undeniable that the romantic quotient of these secluded properties, with their eye-popping views of the lagoon and the mountains, is as stratospheric as their prices. But for those who seek pursuits beyond enjoying a special moment of marital bliss, Bora Bora can quickly become Bora boring.

Friends beneath the Sea

Bora-Clownfish.

A clownfish swims among the anemones.

Bora-Manta Ray

A manta ray comes to check me out.

Bora Bora-Coral.

The colorful coral reef of the Bora Bora lagoon.

Like a majority of visitors, I come ashore in Vaitape, the main population center of the island. What must once have been a charming Polynesian village is now a typical tropical tourist place, a main street lined with strip malls offering every imaginable flavor of local souvenirs. Makeshift stands touting bottled water and cups of local of fruit to go share the sidewalk with stories-high signs and banners advertizing “quality South Seas black pearl jewelry by international designers” and resort fashion. Mercifully, my plans for the day lay beneath the lagoon. I am off to experience what underwater exploration was like before Jean-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (respectively French navy diver and engineer) brought diving into the mainstream when they invented their “Aqua-lung” in the late 1940’

Seen from a dive boat speeding toward the destination our underwater walk, the island regains its ethereal beauty, even seen through the row of heavy metal diving helmets that line the center of boat. I eye the contraptions with eager anticipation tinged with a fair amount of wariness, as our dive instructor goes through the logistics and safety instructions. Then I am on the stairs with water to my shoulders. The staff settles the helmet firmly in place over my head. A tap tells me the oxygen valve is connected. That’s my cue to let go.

I land a few meters lower on velvet sand, and for a magical half-hour, I wander past exotic coral formations, inches away from colorful clown fish in their anemone shelters. I make friends with a manta ray who is as interested in me as I am in it, repeatedly brushing my ankles with its silky wings. Seen from the bottom of the lagoon, Bora Bora is still magical.

Mo’orea the Magnificent

Moorea-Roto Nui.

Mo’orea’s volcanic peaks soar into the clouds.

Moorea-water garden.

Mo’orea’s mountainiside water garden.

Just when I think the Society Islands cannot get any more spectacular, Mo’orea rises out of sea the like a fairytale land. Sharp volcanic spears pierce the puffy white clouds above. Silvery waterfalls streak down the fern-draped cliffs. Pinnacles of emerald forests frame serene meadows sprinkled with small villages of pastel-painted house surrounded with a jumble hibiscus and birds of paradise. Despite being just a short ferry ride away from Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the main island of Tahiti, Mo’orea retains a bucolic atmosphere.

What better way to explore this magnificent island believed to have inspired Michener’s mythical Bali Hai than a tour with local professional photographer Renaud Fayada? His off-road vehicle takes us first into the interior, past pineapple fields and sub-tropical forests. to a mountainside vanilla plantation and a dreamy water garden. After a stop at the Belvedere lookout for stunning views of Mou’a Rotui (altitude 899 meters, or 2950 feet), the peak that separates Cook’s Bay from Opunohu Bay, things get serious.

Moorea-Barrier reef panorama.

The top of Magic Mountain offers dazzling aerial views of the barrier reef.

We start onto an impossibly steep rocky trail that earns itself a place high on my list of off-road rides I am thrilled to have taken but never will again! However, from the very top of Magic Mountain, the 360-degree panorama of the northern part of the island and the dazzling aerial views of the barrier reef are worth the stomach-churning experience. Afterward, in spite of multiple switchbacks, the drive down the verdant slope that is all that remains from a giant two-million-year old caldera to the small fishing village of Papetoai on the western side of Opunohu Bay is anticlimactic.

I wistfully re-board the ship’s tender for one last night on the Paul Gauguin. The next morning finds us already docked in Tahiti harbor. After two unforgettable weeks of exploring the farthest reaches of the storied South Seas, it is time to reluctantly re-enter the “real world.”

Moorea-Caldera.

A panoramic view of the northern part of the island illustrates its volcanic origins.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting to Bora Bora – by air: Air Tahiti offers several daily flights between Tahiti and Bora Bora as well connections with other major Society Islands.  Bora Bora airport is located on a small motu (islet) north of the main island, with boat transfer to it. The major luxury resorts have counters at the airport. For accommodations on the main island, Air Tahiti provides a free shuttle transfer from the airport to Vaitape. By sea: Two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora (with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a). A number of South Pacific cruise ships make frequent stops on the island. The Paul Gauguin, the only cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, makes over 30 stops a year on the island.Contact: tel. (US) 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
  • Getting to Mo’orea – by air: Air Tahiti flights between Papeete and Mo’orea are about 15-minute long, and run back and forth several times a day. For latest schedule, check Air Tahiti. By sea: the high-speed Aremiti ferry runs throughout the day. For latest schedule, check Aremiti Arimiti.
  • Activities –Bora Bora ocean floor walk, Bora Bora Diving and Reef Discovery. Mo’orea photography tour,  Eyes of Moorea Photography.

Location, location, location!

Bora Bora

Mo'orea

Tahiti Diary –  The Garden of Eden Islands, Huahine and Taha’a

Tahiti Diary – The Garden of Eden Islands, Huahine and Taha’a

After a week of exploring the breathtaking vistas of the remote Marquesas islands followed by two laidback days at sea, we are entering the most visited archipelago of French Polynesia, the Society Islands. Created by volcanoes eons ago, they have evolved into the dreamy landscapes of soft mountains covered by lush jungle greenery and silky white coral sand beaches of South Seas fantasies.

A Busy Day in Paradise

Society-Huahine morning.

Sailling around the lagoon reveals many secluded coves.

Within the shimmering turquoise ring of its lagoon, Huahine retains the alluring authenticity of timeless Polynesia. Actually two islands, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine), connected by a short bridge, it is a jungle of coconut groves, banana plantations, breadfruit trees and watermelon fields. And this lush landscape sprinkled with bright tropical blooms is also a preserve of sacred temples and unique pre-Columbian structures.

Society-Huahine Maroe Bay.

A lone sailboad shares our Maroe Bay anchorage.

The M/S Paul Gauguin is anchored in the serene Maroe Bay this morning, with the ship’s tender taking passengers the rest of the way to the sleepy Huahine Iti village of Maroe, where an off-road vehicle (the de-rigueur means of transportation throughout French Polynesia) awaits. We cross the bridge to Huahine Nui and the charming little town of Fare before climbing the steep road to the Belvedere, the island’s prime lookout with a panoramic view of the bay and the wilderness of Huahine Iti. It’s back down after that, to feed the sacred giant blue-eyed eels that fill a stream running through the tiny hamlet of Faie. Our guide buy cans of mackerel from a nearby road stand, tosses in a few chunks and the water becomes alive with writhing eels. Although I am assured they don’t bite, I pass on the opportunity to step into the stream and hand-feed them.

Fish Traps and Black Pearls

Society-Huahine fish traps.

The centuries-old fish traps are still used today.

We continue along Lake Fauna Nui to Maeva. Once the seat of local royalty, it has the highest concentration of ancient marae (sacred stone platforms) in French Polynesia. Its most unique feature, however, is its ancient maze of fish traps. Laid out in V-shaped patterns pointed toward the ocean, the stone labyrinth emerges above the water level. As the fish are drawn toward the sea by the ebb tide, they become trapped in a circular pool where they are easily netted or harpooned. The centuries-old traps are still in use today.

The waters of Motu Murimahora are a snorkeler’s paradise.

We part company with our guide to board an outrigger canoe for a cruise around the lagoon. After a stop at the “Huahine Pearl and Pottery Farm” to learn about the cultivation of the rare Polynesian black pearl, we bounce across the crystalline waters to Motu Murimahora on the east coast of Huahine Iti (motus are reef islets of coral sand that surround an atoll. In other words they are tiny slivers of heaven). The snorkeling is magnificent here, a slow drift over coral heads amidst schools of multicolored fish. When I regretfully come out of the water, my six companions on this adventure are already convivially lingering on our host’s dock, sipping the ‘milk’ from freshly beheaded coconuts before we re-board the outrigger for more spectacular views of the island on our way back to the pier.

Society-Huahine bridge..

A short bridge connects the twin islands of Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti.

 

The Vanilla Island

Society-Taha'a catamaran

A catamaran cruise around Taha’a is a great way to get a first glance at nearby Bora Bora.

Society-Tahaa Motu Mahana.

Motu Mahana on the Taha’a lagoon.

Like its neighbor Huahine, the flower-shaped Taha’a is a botanical beauty. In addition to her fertile valleys and hillsides covered with banana and coconut groves, this island is also a vast natural greenhouse for the prized Tahitian vanilla orchids (Taha’a produces about 80% of all the vanilla in French Polynesia). Its intoxicating scent wafts on the warm breeze as I board a catamaran for an exhilarating morning of sailing on the infinite shades of blues of the Taha’a lagoon. The ultimate destination of the morning is the Taha’a coral garden and another memorable snorkeling experience before completing the sail around the island.

After a quick stop back on the ship, I catch a tender to Motu Mahana, the Paul Gauguin’s very own private motu, where a lavish beach barbecue lunch is already in full swing. Many of the ship’s passengers are here, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, or just chilling on the pristine sand with a drink from the floating bar. No scent of vanilla here. The mouth-watering aroma of grilling meat and fish fill the air. In the shade of the coconut grove, a good-humored game of beach handball is in progress. I wander off to the back of the islet. Here, the narrow water’s edge path is deserted, and the lagoon so shallow it looks like molten crystal. After a couple of hours on Mahana, I begin to fantasize about getting left behind. Robinson Crusoe never had is so good.

On the western side of Taha’a, the Tiva village church marks the entrance of Hurepiti Bay.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air: Huahine is served by Air Tahiti with flights throughout the day from Papeete, and regular flights from other Society Islands (Moorea, Bora Bora and Raiatea). Faha’a, which is located less than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from and within the same lagoon as Raisatea, can only be access via ferry from that Raisatea airport. By sea: The 5-star Paul Gauguin, the only luxury cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, offers frequent itineraries that include both Huahine and Taha’a. For those who wish to travel independently around the Society Islands, two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a. However, it is my understanding that they are slow, rather uncomfortable and booked months in advance.
  • 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!

Huahine

Taha'a

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