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These Unspoiled Islands in the South Pacific Are Like Nowhere Else on Earth


Far out in the Pacific Ocean sits a small island chain whose idyllic aesthetic derives from being the antithesis of your clichéd tropical beach paradise. Tired of slumming it on Well-trod, white-sand, five-star beaches, NOAH HUNT takes two days and four planes to the Marquesas of Gauguin's dreams and finds no reason to complain. Photographs by JULIEN GIRARDOT.

Published on Feb 8, 2019

THERE ARE 64 TYPES OF mango on the island of Hiva Oa, all introduced," says Henri, my Marquesan guide, tossing a small fleshy plum-sized fruit across the hood of his 4X4. It is tennis-ball green, blushed with peach. I bring it to my face and the smell is intoxicating, like magnolia, apple pie and kaffir lime leaves. I bite into it. The taste is equally awakening, and suddenly the inside of my mouth feels like the host of what will become a wild party. Cue the Bollywood dancers and release the conga line. Henri watches as my normal resting bitch face slow-morphs into a wide smile as the tastes penetrate deeper, his own smile mirroring mine with a look of island pride. Henri and I both know that mangoes originally come from India. And that they're prized in Latin America and Asia. But mangoes here in these far flung, impossibly mystical and sun-drenched Marquesas Islands are not just fruits—they're revelations. Each one pregnant with the possibility of changing your mood. Each one a Proustian delight kickstarting a rush hour in your brain's dopamine pathways.

Taking in a dance performance.
Taking in a dance performance.

Who could be in a bad mood in the Marquesas? The late Flemish songwriter Jacques Brel, a friend of Henri's grandfather, once wrote, "Complaining is inappropriate in the Marquesas," succinctly summing up the paradisiacal vibe of these 15 (six of them inhabited) green, mountainous specks of Pacific real estate. The islands have been promising and delivering a rarefied exoticism to voyagers since they were first occupied by Polynesians around A.D. 1000, and according to some much earlier. And after my five near-perfect days seeking out the mysterious, fern-cloaked tiki believed by many scholars to have originated here, listening to colorful exotic bird calls harmonize with gently lapping waves, and eating edifying bowls of poisson cru—raw, cherry-red tuna soaked in lime juice and coconut milk so fresh the machete blade is still wet—it's understandable why whining here is taboo.

For me, and for the Marquesas' iconic visitors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville and French painter Paul Gauguin, the country is the edenic antithesis of everything that was wrong about the real world. Here on Te Henua Kenana, the Marquesan name of the islands that translates to The Land of Men, individual property cannot be owned, and there's a bounty of fruit and fish for everyone, not to mention a never-ending supply of mana, the sacred energy unique to Polynesia. After all, these islands are home to a seafaring and tiki heritage dating back 1,000-plus years. And they're farther from any continental landmass than any other islands on Earth. Mexico's west coast—4,800 kilometers away—is the closest.

Flying the flag.
Flying the flag.

Paradise can become parched and ragged on these volcanic, isolated islands, which are nothing like their sister Society Islands, Bora Bora and Tahiti. There are no dreamy atolls, no overwater bungalows. Except for a new Lindblad Expeditions sailing that launched earlier 2018, there are no mega-cruise ship crowds. The water itself—less placid, more Curaçao blue than gin-clear—is deeper, both in measurement and color, so the islands are not known for snorkeling reef visibility or glassy stand-up paddleboarding conditions. Obviously, they're not close enough to any major city (or continent) for easy weekend getaways, nor are they upscale enough for honeymooners looking to splurge on over-the-top luxuries. Depending on who you are, this is either a godsend or a disappointment.

I found The Land of Men a gift from the heavens because they don't suffer from the modern trappings and crowds seen at easier-to-access destinations. But also because for decades I've been intrigued by the rich birdlife, with 10 endemics and more than 200 other native species of flora and fauna, as well as by the tiki and tattoo cultures and the endangered language. French Polynesian cuisine is an earthy fusion. And those languorous and louche florescent green paintings from Gauguin didn't hurt either. All of this lived up to its promise. But there was so much more.

Marquesan manta rays draw divers.
Marquesan manta rays draw divers.

 

THE MARQUESAS WERE NAMED by Spanish Explorer Álvaro de Mendaña in 1595 for his patron, the Marqués de Cañete. Shortly after they adopted their European moniker, they fell into despair, almost like a curse. Their population plummeted a shocking 98 percent from 100,000 people in 1799 to 2,000 in 1926, mostly as a result of weapons, disease and alcoholism, brought on first by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries and finished off by waves of 19th-century whalers. The population never fully recovered and the islands' 8,600 residents still struggle with drought, isolation and a crippling lack of infrastructure. Some say that without the subsidies from France, the islands would completely collapse again.

One thing that hasn't changed since Gauguin and Melville's time is that getting to the Marquesas is extremely difficult. For me, it was an epic four flights, including 48-plus hours of travel time, and an entire calendar day missed by crossing the dateline. On my third leg, LAX to Pape'ete, I spent eight hours flying over nothing but Pacific, an infinity of silver ridges bleeding into blue bleeding into green again. I savored the monumental journey from my leather Air Tahiti Nui flatbed. With a cold, oaky French Chardonnay at my side and a rom-com on the flat-screen, I daydreamed about the hardships encountered by generations of Polynesians who made similarly epic Pacific voyages 10,000 meters below me. Nodding off, I laughed to myself at the absurdity of in any way comparing my time in this turquoise and banana-leaf festooned business-class cabin en route to a known terminus with my predecessors' perilous, intrepid, interminable explorations of the legendary Polynesian Triangle upon handmade wooden water crafts. Sorry, Moana!

Local wood carving.
Local wood carving.

After a connection in Pape'ete, I was finally Marquesas-bound, though it was still another three hours within what is technically the same country despite the vast nothingness in between. On that final leg, I perused Melville's 1846 account of the Marquesas in Typee. Melville's anticipatory idea of the islands was surprisingly similar to mine and reads like a pro/con list written by a marketing rep of Marquesas Tourism: "The Marquesas! Naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoanut—coral reefs—tattooed chiefs—and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit-trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—HEATHENISH RITES AND HUMAN SACRIFICES."

Fortunately, Marquesans gave up their love of human flesh, so I felt no trepidation about arriving in Nuku Hiva, the largest island in the region. This wasn't the case for Melville, who after spending six months at sea and finally docking on Nuku Hiva, promptly jumped ship from the Acushnet, and escaped to the woods for the summer of 1842—and almost became a Marquesan main course. I glanced down at what appeared to be a scattering of chicken cutlets floating in antifreeze. From above, the Marquesas look completely artificial. The colors are so bright and otherworldly, it felt like a screensaver stock image that'd been manipulated with filters. If the Marquesas were an Instagram user, I'd unfollow. Surely this was fake news. But as we approached, the landscape came into focus and suddenly we were flying past emerald mountains topped with hoodoo (fairy chimneys), cliff pinnacles and animalistic spires of gray rock protruding from soft green forests into sky and rocky fingers resembling narrow alligator heads jutting into the ocean. It was lush, but pocked with large arid patches. And suddenly, a tiny airstrip atop a plateau materialized out of nowhere.

Headed for the high ground on Nuku Hiva.
Headed for the high ground on Nuku Hiva.

Five minutes after landing, rain started pouring out of steely clouds that also materialized out of nowhere, turning the Technicolor into black-and-white. As if my journey hadn't been long enough already, it was a 90-minute ride from the airport to the island's main village Taiohae, said to be one of the world's most scenic drives, with panoramic vistas of the lush Toovii Plateau (the Marquesas' Grand Canyon) so sweeping you'll want to pre-delete your iPhone photos to make space. One travel blogger wrote "Pray there's no fog because if there is, you're totally missing out!" So of course there was fog. Thick fog. For the duration of the drive around the seatbelt-locking loops and switchbacks of the island's one road, which was only sealed over in the 1990s, we didn't see another person or sign of human activity. Nuku Hiva may as well have been Neptune.

Finally, we reached the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge and were greeted by the receptionist, a cheerful rae rae, (men who identify as women and often run hotel receptions). Twenty breezy, thatched bungalows snaked around a brushy hillside, each fitted with tapa-cloth art made from breadfruit tree bark, and king-sized beds scattered with hibiscus flowers. I moved to my spacious deck to make sure my view of Taiohae Bay was real. My bungalow, No. 10, was a five-minute walk up a steep pathway lined with candlenut and noni trees, alive with zebra doves, tropic birds and endemic Marquesan swiftlets. It was worth the walk for its better sea views and proximity to waves rhythmically lapping the empty beaches below, but was an annoying schlep when I needed to access the lobby-only Wi-Fi.

A Marquesan horse underneath the large leaves of a breadfruit tree.
A Marquesan horse underneath the large leaves of a breadfruit tree.

After a lunch of smoked Marquesan fish salad with Espelette pepper, I rode to town on the hotel's complimentary bike, barreling down the steep dirt road the lodge sits atop, before cruising into town. The flat, breezy, ocean-side ride was superbly beautiful, with the afternoon sun igniting the fluorescent green landscape around me. I watched wild horses on the beach, browsed jars of amber Marquesan honey and wood carvings at the port's somewhat dour artisan market and meandered through the modernist stone and rosewood church.

Like torii in Japan and totem in indigenous Pacific Northwest cultures, tiki—human-like statues carved from stone or wood—indicate sacred places and can be as large as the iconic mo'ai of Easter Island or small as a foot stool. These Polynesian treasures are found everywhere, including Temehea Tohua, the grassy ceremonial grounds and ancestral home of Queen Vaekehu, Taiohae's last chieftainess. The plaza's moss-covered stone figurines are rendered intricately to showcase the Marquesas' prized carving techniques, but were modern interpretations of ancient tiki. Next door was a cemetery marked with white crosses. It was here Melville jumped ship and fled to the Taipivai.

Mysterious, worn tiki.
Mysterious, worn tiki.

 

FULLY ADJUSTED TO ISLAND-time, I lingered the next morning over a breakfast of guava juice, crepes with banana confiture, and flaky croissants stuffed with papaya before departing for my next isle, Hiva Oa. The 45-minute flight gave me just enough time for a cup of pineapple juice and a few Jacques Brel tracks, who was buried on Hiva Oa in 1978 next to Paul Gauguin, who died of syphilis there in 1903. All domestic Air Tahiti flights board from the rear and feature open seating. While boarding, I asked the attendant which side of the plane offered better photographs. She smiled and unbuckled a safety belt for me that was blocking off a particularly choice, behind-the-propeller seat on the right rear. While making our descent, the crew announced that electronic devices were not permitted until after landing, but I simply couldn't stop photographing it. All the Marquesas Islands were photogenic from above, but I couldn't take my eyes off Hiva Oa. It had the exact same shades of arresting florescent green that Gauguin captured in his paintings, with nary an arid pocket in sight. Suddenly, I heard electronic snaps behind me. Both flight attendants were furiously snapping photos of the island. Like Melville and Gauguin, even the locals were compelled by the islands' magnetism to break the rules.

In the South Pacific, it's hard to understand one island's assets until you've fully experienced a second one's. Contrast is everything here and the love of one island can make you like the previous one slightly less. Such was the case with Hiva Oa, which is everything Nuku Hiva is not. Located in the North Marquesas, it is cooler, lusher, older and more fertile, and offers that rare, perfectly-off-the-traveler's-radar vibe that is increasingly hard to come by these days. It's also the Marquesan point of entry for visitors arriving from Galapagos by yacht on transpacific sailings, so unlike Nuku Hiva, which at times felt distant and cash-strapped, Hiva Oa retains an arty, intrepid and warm affluent vibe. The owners of both the Keikahanui Pearl earlier and Hanakee Pearl here, Jean-Jacques and his glamorous Parisian- Marquesan wife Josephine, greeted me and a few other guests at the airport with fragrant leis. Exact replicas of the Nuku Hiva villas, the property's 14 bungalows stretch across a ridge overlooking Tahauku Bay and with terraces offering views of the island of Hanakee, which floats on the horizon absorbing sunlight and manna like a sponge.

The islands here offer a soft green but rocky landscape.
The islands here offer a soft green but rocky landscape.

I wandered the town of Atuona's shops, juice vendors, and artisan markets run by cheery and chatty locals selling hand-dyed handkerchiefs and carved and painted tagua nuts (as opposed to Nuku Hiva's artisans who scowled when I didn't buy anything). I popped into the Gauguin Museum to peruse the hundreds of replicas they arranged in a sprawling gallery on the site where he lived and died. It's right next door to the Jacques Brel museum, a slightly eerie airplane hangar that houses his beloved twin-prop Jojo plane and pipes in his music. And I admired the birds and flowers from my hotel's spacious balcony—which did have Wi-Fi, but which I gloriously no longer craved in my new Island Time state of mind.

The next morning I planned to visit the island's famous smiling stone tiki, the only tiki that wears such an expression. I met Henri, built like a rugby player—fierce but full of jokes. He told me he spent time in the military in France, and spoke French, English, and some German, Japanese and Chinese. "But my native language is Marquesan, an endangered species," he said. Different from Tahitian, it's only spoken by the island’s remaining 8,600 people, a reminder of what was once lost from this great Pacific society. And a warning of what else could go missing in the future.

Festival day on the islands.
Festival day on the islands.

The smiling tiki is hidden deep in the woods on an unmarked dirt road. We passed a gate and walked down a path under giant ferns and banyan trees in the greenest woods I'd ever seen. "There!" he pointed. In a shaft of filtered forest light sat a moss-covered stone carving that looked more like a Minions character than a tiki—the 93-centimeter-tall, oval-shaped creature had carvings said to represent tattoos, which also have origins in the Marquesas, and a look that could only be described as a shit-eating grin. It was 700 years old. "Tiki sculptures represent Ti'i, a half-human half-god ancestor," Henri continued. "The missionaries destroyed many tiki," he said plainly. "There are 151 known tiki today, but we think there are at least 600 more waiting to be discovered." Then he clarified: "Re-discovered."

 


THE DETAILS

Marquesas map

GETTING THERE
There are no direct flights to the Marquesas. air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com), French Polynesia's international carrier, flies nonstop to Pape'ete from tokyo, auckland, paris and los angeles. The airline's domestic carrier, Air Tahiti (airtahiti.com), flies nonstop from Pape'ete to Nuku Hiva and weekly to Hiva Oa—though the latter flights are frequently canceled. On your inbound journey, grab a seat on the right side of the plane. For visa rules, check tahititourisme.com/en-us/travel-planner/tahiti-visa-requirements.

WHERE TO STAY
Keikahanui Pearl Lodge on the island of Nuku Hiva has 20 thatched bungalows that wrap around a brushy hillside. its sister property, Hanakee Pearl on Hiva Oa, has 14 identical bungalows. pearlodge.com; doubles at both from US$250.

CRUISE
Lindblad Expeditions launched cruises to the Marquesas earlier 2018 from Pape'ete, and will resume tours there in May and september 2019. lindblad.com; 17-day cruise from US$15,680.

 

 

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Vaitahu Bay, off the island of Tahuata.
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