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.
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.
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.
The Island of Memories
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Good to know
- Getting there– By 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.