With scenery reminiscent of a Jurassic Park sequel, ancient and mysterious stone temples, and the feeling of visiting a parallel universe – visitors to the remote Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia are in for the adventure of a lifetime.
Written and photographed by Avichai Ben Tzur
Of the five archipelagos that make up the Islands of Tahiti – officially known as French Polynesia – Mother Nature devoted her finest work to the Marquesas Islands. It is the final stop in a long and enchanting voyage across the remote islands of the South Pacific, an opportunity to visit some of the most isolated and stunning islands in the world where nature is free to sculpt the landscape at it pleases in the absence of a protective coral reef. Few are the visitors that make it out here, and even for residents of the dreamy French Overseas Territory, a visit to the Marquesas Islands is a wild fantasy.
Despite their distance from the territory’s capital in Tahiti – over 800 miles or 1400 kilometers away – it was the Marquesas Islands that were first settled by Polynesian explorers who arrived on outrigger canoes from Samoa. From here, later waves of migration led the Marquesans east to Easter Island, southwest to Tahiti and the Cook Islands, and over 2,000 miles (3,500 km) north to the Hawaiian Islands. Due to centuries of isolation from the outside world and even from other Polynesian islands, Marquesan Islanders developed a language, culture and even a genetic code that are unique among the five archipelagos of French Polynesia.
Life during this ancient period was heavily influenced by a strong belief in the gods, sacred spirits, demons, and ancestral stories. Such beliefs were expressed through the construction of countless of temples – among the most impressive in French Polynesia. Such temples were decorated with mysterious stone figures known as Tiki, which are believed to possess protective powers against evil spirits. Despite a cannibalistic tradition, life on the islands was for the most part peaceful and carefree, perhaps because nature provided the basic necessities.
The End of Isolation
Contact with the outside world first took place in 1595, with the arrival of a Spanish explorer who gave the island chain its name. But unlike other Polynesian islands, the Marquesas received few “post-discovery” Western visitors. It was only in the beginning of the 19th century that foreigners began to arrive in waves, setting up small settlements and trading with the locals. It wasn’t too long before other guests landed on the islands’ shores and were struck by the easy pace of life and the remarkable natural beauty.
Along with American and European maritime explorers, the islands welcomed whalers and adventurers – who at that time tended to be authors – such as Herman Melville (Moby Dick) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island) as well as other artists whom we’ll shortly meet.
Contact with the white man was especially devastating in the Marquesas Islands. Apart from the disintegration of the traditional social structure – caused by the likes of imported alcohol and firearms – natives were defenseless against diseases brought over by their foreign “guests”. From an estimated peak population of 100,000, as few as 4,000 lived to see the beginning of the 20th century. This tragedy greatly assisted Christian missionaries, who presented the new religion as a means of salvation. Following a successful alliance with one of the island’s chiefs, it was France who eventually annexed the Marquesas in 1842, an annexation which marked the beginning of a quest to unite all five archipelagos under the Republic’s flag.
These days, only about 10,000 lucky folks live on six of the inhabited Marquesas Islands, some of which are more accessible than others. Life here is still beautifully slow-going and locals mainly live off the production of copra, fishing, employment in the public sector, and small-scale tourism. And though little is known about the ancient and mysterious religion, an eerie and mystical presence is felt with almost every step you take on these islands.
The Real Jurassic Park
My first stop is the island of Nuku Hiva – the archipelago’s capital. The three-hour northbound flight from Tahiti takes passengers in the general direction of the equator, and if that wasn’t enough for the sense of remoteness, the captain’s voice over the PA system advises us to adjust our watches by 30 minutes to account for the time difference between the two islands. As with every domestic flight in French Polynesia, there is very little reason to complain. Every few minutes, the noisy ATR passes over a dreamy island or a deserted atoll before the infinite blue of the Pacific Ocean takes over the landscape.
All of the sudden, the endless blue is interrupted by scenery reminiscent of something I’ve seen before in a Jurassic Park film: enormous mountain ranges, deep valleys meeting pristine beaches, and greenery as far as the eye can see. We touch down in a rare flat and dry area of the island known as “desert land”. The elation among locals returning home to their families and the excitement on the part of the tourists are both easily felt in the recycled air of the tiny plane.
On these remote islands, overnighting in small lodges and family-owned pensions is an intimate experience, and the friendly hosts are ready to pick up the new arrivals with a fleet of Landrovers for the 90-minute drive to Taiohae – the only town on the island. The twisting road from the airport is an attraction on its own, traversing multiple micro climates from the alpine to the tropical to the point where you double check with the driver if we indeed landed on the correct island. After countless waterfalls, Swiss-like fertile plains, sky-high pine forests, and the local version of the “Grand Canyon” – we reach our destination.
The picturesque town is shaded by a mountain range which hugs a quiet bay. Anchored in its waters are yachts that just completed the long journey from the Panama Canal. At the dock, fishermen are busy ahead of tonight’s dinner – some are fishing and some are cleaning. The bells of the Notre Dame cathedral – as if taken from the set of Game of Thrones – are ringing in a final rehearsal ahead of Sunday’s mass. Before returning to my pension, I stop at the local artists market. The craftsmanship of Marquesan Islanders is well known throughout the Polynesian Triangle. In the tiny hall, visitors and shoppers are treated to exquisite sculptures made from local basalt rock, decorative wooden bowls, traditionally painted tapa cloth, and ancient tools of warfare made from animal bone. Even though I am not a fan of souvenirs, this opportunity is simply too hard to resist and my wallet quickly opens up. Cash only, of course.
Back at my hilltop pension overlooking the bay, my warm hosts Alvain and Claudine are waiting with tonight’s dinner: red tuna carpaccio and salty fries made of breadfruit – a local Polynesian staple. And what’s for dessert? Thrilling conversations with like-minded guests and the hosting family night capped by the daily light show under the canopy of the star-filled sky.
The King’s Highway
Among Nuku Hiva’s highlights – which can easily fill up a number of action-packed days – the most memorable is the expedition to the Vaipo Waterfall – the tallest in French Polynesia. The day begins with a short cruise along the coastline, offering a unique angle over the island’s impressive natural skyline. Our tiny boat is occasionally rocked by ripples in the open ocean before entering the protective comforts of Hakatea Bay. Shielded by the surrounding cliffs, the emerald bay is calm and we make landfall on a golden-sand beach together with local fishermen returning with the catch of the day. Thierry, our guide for the day, informs us that this exact beach was home to one of the “tribes” in a season of the long-running reality show “Survivor”.
Beyond the beach is the Hakaui Valley, squeezed at the hips by towering and jagged basalt cliffs – Nuku Hiva’s signature feature. We begin to hike along the valley floor on the “King’s Road” – an ancient trail that celebrated its millennial anniversary a long time ago. Prior to the deadly epidemics imported by Westerners, this lush valley was quite a busy place. Thousands of inhabitants once called it their home, prompting the local king to order its construction. In a feat of engineering – considering the time and the place – rocks were even used to fill in the natural gradients to create a relatively flat surface that made the transport of goods feasible.
Along the way, we cross several shallow streams and even pause to feed the resident eels. It’s impossible not to notice the “souvenirs” left behind by the valley’s former residents, though the impressive tentacle roots of the mape trees (Tahitian Chestnut) have already taken over the man-made masonry. There are stone bases of ancient homes and temples, underground fermenting pits, tiki statues believed to hold supernatural powers, trees loaded with fruits, and medicinal plants. We frequently pause as Thierry explains the story behind each one, and we come to the decisive conclusion that this valley is no need of a supermarket!
Without warning, we find ourselves in a rare clearing in the thick rainforest as Thierry instructs us to look up. Usually, it is impossible to be so close to a waterfall without hearing its roar. But the Vaipo Waterfall is quietly gliding down the smooth cliffs from a height of over 1,000ft as if trying to remain hidden from the outside world. Engulfed with the feeling that we’ve just found the missing piece in some treasure map, we rush towards its source through a narrowing creek until finally reaching a secluded and (very) rewarding pool.
Back in the town, the sun is beginning to set. But after such a perfect day, the eight-person expedition group that made it to the hidden waterfall is fully acquainted and refuses to end the day. We enter the only bar in town for an evening of delicious local cuisine, lots of French wine, and hours of singing and dancing to a trio of guitars and ukuleles.
The Island of Gauguin and Brel
The final leg of this journey is to the southern tip of the archipelago and the island of Hiva Oa. In an impressive display of flying, our Air Tahiti pilot manages to safely land in a lush narrow valley that is almost completely encircled by cloudy peaks. I am greeted in traditional fashion with a heavenly scented tiare flower necklace that must have been woven just a few hours ago by my warm host – Tania – whose smile easily lights up the tiny terminal.
The short drive to Tania’s pension – accompanied by constant chit chat in half English half French – reveals a fraction of the rare beauty of this particular island and leads me to conclude that on Hiva Oa, you don’t need to be a millionaire to have million-dollar views. This is likely the same conclusion that broke French painter Paul Gauguin and renowned Belgian singer Jacques Brel arrived at, evident in their decision to spend the rest of their lives on Hiva Oa after setting foot on the island for the first time. Overlooking the scenic town of Atuona and its wide bay, both celebrities – who are still very much revered by the locals to this very day for their community service – are buried at the Calvary Cemetery – a pilgrimage site not to be missed.
Taller Than LeBron James
Hiva Oa offers a wide range of activities to keep you busy, including hiking, horseback riding, a visit to the local artists market, and an unforgettable day trip to the neighboring island of Tahuata – where time really has no meaning. But without a doubt, the climax of the visit to Hiva Oa is reached on the drive along the island’s rugged northeastern coast to the archeological site of Lipona.
The 56-mile journey fills up an entire day’s itinerary as the rough road is unpaved and twists atop frighteningly-tall sea cliffs. The scenery is simply out of this world and frequent stops are required in an attempt to photograph what your eyes are seeing both literally and mentally. En route, I pass secluded bays and sleepy villages that can count the number of daily visitors they receive on ten fingers. From time to time, a family of sheep slowly crosses the unpaved road, offering the unsolicited chance for another scenic stop to enjoy the views and the symphony of waves violently meeting the tall cliffs.
The climax is reached as I park the two-door 4WD on the edge of the mysterious ancient temple in Lipona – the real reason for driving all the way out here. It is without a doubt the most impressive ancient temple in French Polynesia, perhaps only rivaled by the likes of Easter Island. On two raised platforms, altars decorated with giant Tiki statues made of stone are starring in the same direction. Some appear to be smiling, some have six fingers, and some are even taller than LeBron James. Nobody is quite certain how and why such mysterious figures were created, especially considering the painstaking labor that must have been involved. But what is absolutely certain is that one must not move these statues in even the slightest fashion, for the belief that these tikis hold supernatural powers known locally as mana.
Without a single soul around and without any warning, low clouds are beginning to move in the direction of the temple and quickly reduce visibility. This is yet another reminder of the mystical feeling that accompanies you throughout your visit to these islands. It is definitely time to commence the long drive back to Tania’s pension. I wonder what she’s cooking for tonight’s dinner?
My visit to the Marquesas Islands is coming to an end, and with it, so is the need to bid farewell to my warm host at the very same humid terminal which I just exited a few days ago with such excitement. This is the usual ritual which accompanies every departure from one of the islands of French Polynesia, a sincere hug from your local hosts and a few shed tears. There is a mixed feeling of immense satisfaction for having experienced the magic of these islands but also the sad realization that years will pass, if not eternity, before we all get the chance to reunite once again in paradise.
Avichai Ben Tzur publishes in-depth guides for independent travelers on his website – xdaysinny.com. In 2015, he left a comfortable job at Google to voyage across the remote South Pacific Islands and has yet to return to the “real world”.