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Finding Eden in the Marquesas

The tale is told that 23-year-old Herman Melville jumped ship when he visited the Marquesas Islands in 1842. Melville, who would eventually write the seafaring classic “Moby-Dick,” believed he had found paradise when he arrived at this mysterious chain of islands in the South Pacific.

Fortunately, another ship happened by a few weeks later and picked him up — just when he began to suspect that his new friends were cannibals and that he might end up as the main course in an upcoming feast.

The story may be part true, part exaggeration. Regardless, the author went on to write “Typee,” which introduced the world to the mystical beauty of the remote Marquesas Archipelago.

I can relate to Melville’s fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to jump ship and stay here forever? (Especially when cannibals are no longer part of the picture.)

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“This place is so beautiful I’m thinking of taking up religion again,” said Australian traveler Bill Horrigan as he hiked on Fatu Hiva, an incredibly lush volcanic island that is part of the chain.

A horse back rider charges up the beach as clouds and shafts of light shroud a bay on Nuku Hiva Island.
(Daniel A. Anderson )

The Marquesas are farther from any continental landmass than any other islands in existence. They’re so remote that some are untouched since the era of European explorers.

Despite this, they’ve had famous boosters. Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel loved these islands, where misty, 1,000-foot waterfalls cascade down volcanic cliffs and rugged mountains disappear into the clouds.

Although the archipelago is part of French Polynesia, it’s 932 miles — a 3 1/2-hour plane flight — northeast of Tahiti and is 3,000 miles from the west coast of Mexico, the nearest landmass.

The isolation has put a crimp in tourism, which is good and bad. It makes it difficult to visit but heightens the experience. You won’t find a Maui-style luau here or lounge-show Polynesian dancers. You will find authenticity: dances and feasts at a community center where almost everyone in town turns out to welcome you.

I heard about these islands from a friend who had sailed a 42-foot sloop here from Long Beach en route to Tahiti. It was one of his favorite stops on a cruise that took him to dozens of islands throughout the South Pacific.

“Yachties” like my friend are one of the major categories of visitors. They anchor in island harbors, sleep on their boats and go ashore to explore and learn about the culture.

Others fly from Papeete, Tahiti, to the islands of Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa, where there are landing strips, then stay in small hotels or guest houses and get around by private boat or car.

(Los Angeles Times )

The third category of visitors arrives by ship: The Aranui 5 freighter-passenger ship visits frequently on two-week cruises from Tahiti. The Paul Gauguin, a luxury cruise ship, also sails out of Tahiti but visits less frequently.

I combined transportation modes, flying from Tahiti to Nuku Hiva, then hitching a ride aboard the Aranui 5 to see nearby Ua Pou and other islands.

Nuku Hiva was a beautiful place to start, with a spectacular bay rimmed by towering cliffs. It was here that Melville’s adventure began too.

Ua Pou was one of my favorites. Its name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue; neither does the name of its main town, Hakahau, population 1,600, but it’s an original, untouched by the influences of big cruise ships that disgorge thousands of visitors on other beautiful shores.

Three yachts bobbed in the harbor when I visited, two of them rigged for long-distance sailing. Looming over the bay were soaring basalt spires. I later learned that the name Ua Pou means “columns,” referring to these dramatic towers.

A few buildings ringed the turquoise blue waters: a school and playing field, a community hall, small homes. Kids rode bikes along the shoreline or paddled outrigger canoes. I strolled the bay, watching life roll by in a small town on a small island. I tried to imagine myself living here and getting used to this pace. It was a pleasant fantasy.

Of the 12 main islands in the Marquesas chain, six are inhabited. My three favorites — Ua Pou, Hiva Oa and Fatu Hiva — each have different attributes.

I think most visitors would agree that Hiva Oa, artist Paul Gauguin’s cherished home, ranks high on their list.

From left: Small river in Hanava; Paul Gauguin's headstone on Hiva 'Oa with plumeria blooms and a shell necklace left behind by those visiting the French post-Impressionist artist's grave. Hand carved wooden tools, right.
(Daniel A. Anderson )

One of the reasons is the simplicity of Gauguin’s grave near the village of Atuona. The site, high on a hill overlooking the island, is marked by an ancient plumeria tree. Its gnarled branches bear no leaves but are alive with fragrant white blossoms.

A guide explained that the artist’s thatched-roof home was just steps away, a place where he could look out the window and see the verdant green mountains.

He died here, a pauper, on May 8, 1903, and was buried the next day.

As I explored these islands, every day I felt as if I had found Eden. But then the next day, I felt that way again. When I finally reached Fatu Hiva, I knew I had found it, the most beautiful place in the world.

This lush island, the most remote in the Marquesas, is 100 shades of green, with towering cliffs and plummeting waterfalls. At the village of Omoa, I watched women pounding bark to make tapa cloth and saw men carving wood to make paddles, masks and war clubs.

I bought a colorful pareo (sarong) and talked with resident Fiaiho Christophe, 40, who said he’d tried living in Papeete, Tahiti, for a while, but he’d come back to Omoa.

“It was too big,” he said. “There are just 60 people here and everyone is family.”

Unfortunately, he’s in the minority. Experts say emigration is a huge problem for these islands, where 80,000 people once lived; now there are fewer than 10,000. In fact, more Marquesans live in Tahiti than in the Marquesas.

Later that day I visited the Fatu Hiva village of Hanavave, a steep 10-mile hike from Omoa. But the hard work was worth it. I was surrounded by spectacular scenery, saw frigate birds and gulls soaring across the blue sky and heard the music of streams and waterfalls as they bounced off rocks near the trail.

When I reached Hanavave, it seemed as if every village resident had turned out to dance and sing and welcome me and the other visitors.

I thought about Melville. Again I pondered, who wouldn’t want to jump ship and stay?

Tattoos tell stories

Visitors to the Marquesas Islands are greeted by locals performing traditional dance and music welcome ceremonies. In addition, some dances are those historically performed when readying for battle.
(Daniel A. Anderson )

I did a double take the first time I saw the smiling, tattooed face of Jean-Claude Pahuatini, also known as Mahalo.

The Marquesas Island native is heavily inked from his shaved head to his feet, with intricate black tats almost completely covering his face.

My surprised look didn’t faze him. He grinned even wider, amused by my reaction.

Mahalo, a longtime crew member on the Aranui 5 freighter/passenger ship, enjoys showing off his body art to passengers sailing through the Marquesas. It tells a story.

Tatau (tattoos) play an important role in traditional Polynesian culture, symbolizing major life events, rites of passage, social status, heroism, hunting and fishing prowess, family identity and religious power. Boys begin receiving the tattoos as children, adding to them as they grow older.

Missionaries prohibited the Marquesans from practicing this ritual art for more than 150 years. It was revived in the 1980s and has become increasingly popular worldwide in the last three decades because of its rich history and artistic lines.

Historically, Polynesian tattoo artists created designs using wooden tools and a serrated bone comb, but modern equipment is commonly used today. It shortens the amount of time the tattooing process takes.

Visitors often decide to get a tattoo while on the islands; designs include geckos, centipedes, the Marquesan Cross and other geometric patterns. A very small tattoo may cost as little as $150; large ones can soar to more than $1,000.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO MARQUESAS ISLANDS

From LAX, Air Tahiti Nui, Air France, Delta and Hawaiian offer nonstop service to Papeete, Tahiti. Restricted round-trip airfare from $1,768, including taxes and fees. From Papeete, Air Tahiti offers nonstop service to Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands. Restricted round-trip airfare from $691, including taxes and fees.

The passenger-freight vessel Aranui 5, www.aranui.com, sails 17 times a year on 14-night voyages through the Marquesas.

The cruise ship Paul Gauguin will sail to the Marquesas this month and in April, August and October 2018.

TELEPHONES

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) 689 (the country code for French Polynesia), 40 (the area code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY

Keikahanui Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge: BP 53, Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas; 920-710. Twenty bungalows set in a lush area overlooking the bay and village of Taiohae. Restaurant, pool, air conditioning, Internet. Doubles from $162 per night.

Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge, BP 80, Atuona, Hive Oa, Marquesas; 927-587. This hotel, a sister lodge to the Nuku Hiva Pearl, also is made up of individual bungalows. It features Polynesian decor and balcony views of Tahauku Bay. Restaurant, air conditioning, pool. Doubles from $218 per night.

TO LEARN MORE

Tahiti Tourisme, (310) 414-8484


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