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
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.
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.
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.
Of Landscapes and Legends
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Good to Know
- Getting there– By 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.