Paradise at the End of the World
Published in the Fall 2012 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos
With the connectivity of the internet and instantaneous communication, the world doesn’t often seem like such a big place. However if you venture out to the Marquesas Islands, part of the French Polynesia, you may feel as if you’ve stepped back in time and into a whole other world. Many venture straight for Tahiti when in this area of the world – which is fascinating and beautiful in it’s own right. But if you want to really immerse yourself in the true spirit of these beautiful islands, it can be well worth your time to check out some of the smaller islands chains that are less inhabited or commercialized but just as amazing to encounter.
I spent a large portion of the trip island hopping around the Marquesas and stepping onto the shores of small areas of land with big personalities. Each locale welcomed us with open arms as we visited their villages, sampled the exotic cuisine and swam in the crystal clean ocean.
Beginning and ending the trip in Tahiti
Most fly into the capital of French Polynesia before heading out to the neighboring islands. Popularized by imagines in the media of swaying dancers, palm trees and perfect beaches, Tahiti has been enjoying an influx of travelers in recent years, while still retaining its rustic allure.
The first amazing sight I witnessed was the natural beauty encompassing this region. We went on hikes and excursions through the forests, happening upon massive and majestic waterfalls, plus plenty of wildlife. The Bako National Park is wonderful place to start understand the magic surrounding this island, as it provides guests with dazzling shorelines, tropical foliage and limestone formations. You probably will spot a monkey or two as well swinging through the trees.
Another fun experience was eating out in Tahiti. A common practice for locals and visitors alike is to pull up a chair and table at one of the roulottes, which are the Polynesian version of a food truck. Before they ever became trendy in North America, Tahitian were serving up delicious dishes streetside to the masses looking for a taste of tradition and modern flavors. Fish like Mahi Mahi is often incorporated into the meals, as well as various French cheeses, French fries and crepes. Chefs also offer different genres of food, hailing from China, Australia and even America. After dining I wandered the streets and found some live music playing to the delight of dinner goers.
An interesting voyage with the Aranui 3
Unlike regular cruise ships, the Aranui brings both passengers and cargo through the Marquesas Islands. This allows guests to have a comfortable trip by “cruising,” while the necessary supplies are also provided to residents on a normal basis. The ship hold about 200 passengers and offers great cabin space similar to other lines in Europe, North America or Asia. Guests can indulge in fun activities, such as a lazy afternoon by the pool or sunbathing on the spacious deck area. During the journey, we made stops are more than one dozen islands, sometimes doubling back and visiting an area twice for a second glimpse. This was a wonderful (albeit the only) way to see most of the island sin this chain comfortably and in style.
First adventure to Fakarava
We left the ship for a few hours to see the island of Fakarava, which is known for pearl farming alongside some of the other close by land masses. Fakarava, and also Rangoria, are two islands we visited part of the Society group while sailing over to the Marquesas. All of these places lie a couple hundreds miles away from Tahiti and are as remote as you can get when it comes to tropical travel.
Hiking in Ua Pou
A great way to get a feel of the lay of the land is my hiking through these islands. On both Hakahau and Hakahetau we did small yet brisk walks to the best viewpoints around, showing us how the ocean simply stretches out endlessly around these green islands. I also saw the iconic mountain spires created by unique volcanic activity hundreds of years ago that jut out of the ground.
The Huku Niva group
These islands, which have a picturesque bay formed by past volcanic activity, are wonderful to explore. Some travelers took trials to the Anaho saddle in Hatiheu or spend the afternoon swimming at the beach. After a day of adventure, I loved walking the deck back on the boat to see the star illuminate the sky, unlike any other place on the planet.
Exploring Atuona and Vaitahu
Fans of fine art and music make pilgrimages to the Hiva Oa island group. I was able to see the graves of painter Paul Gauguin and songwriter Jacques Brel, which pay homage to these men’s’ lives as well as the spirit of escape and freedom in French Polynesia. Both were extremely talented in their trade and although were not natives to the islands, they would visit and spoke highly of their calming and beautiful environment. Near the grave sites are cultural centers that explain more about their contributions to this destination.
Learning from the locals in Fatuiva
Here is where I was able to see the skills of the residents who call these islands home. Guests were given a demonstration on how to create several items used everyday in Fatuiva, such as Tapa, or bark cloth, and umu hei, or bouquets of flowers. Next, we visited the local school and were delighted with a live presentation performed by the students. They dress in customary costumes are learn moves that honor the Polynesian style of dance. I also was able to pick up a few souvenirs of the crafts we saw made in the village. Purchasing local, handmade goods is a usual practice on most of the islands we saw.
History and culture in Hiva Oa
Outside settlers certainly made their mark on French Polynesia in history, but there is also a wealth of rich traditions and stories among the locals. On Puamau, we headed to the archeological site that held a megalithic Tiki, as well as a tomb for the last great ruler and chief of the island. There also some eerie and eye-catching ruins to see in the jungle as we were led by our seasoned guides through the dense forests.
Faith in the Marquesas on Vaitahu
Missionaries brought Christian traditions and faith to the marquesas, which still resonates today inside their magnificent churches. Vaitahu has a Catholic place of worship made from stone and wood, framed by amazing stained glass windows and statues. It was sanctioned by the Vatican in the 1800s and remains a meeting place for locals to pray and keep their community strong.
Swimming and sunning in Ua Huka
Enjoying all the nature, culture, history and mystery of French Polynesia was incredible, but I have just as much fun relaxing on the islands of Vaipee, Hane and Hokatu as well. Some opted to try a horseback riding excursion along trails in the forest and beach, while other swam and snorkeled near the bay. There is a wild horse population that was introduced to the land by Chileans more than 150 years ago. The handsome creatures have thrived and now outnumber the human residents.
Villages in Taiohae and Hakahau
Locals living out their day-to-day lives on these islands made for a relaxing and fun atmosphere to check out the scenery. Many people sport tribal tattoos and big smiles, both of which complement their historical traditions and laid-back attitude. Everyone I connected with and encountered with extremely friendly, helpful and willing to share about their love of the islands.
Admiring the marine life in Rangiroa
Rangiora was one of our last stops and is part of the Society Islands chain near Marquesas. We had the option of taking a glass-bottom boat tour, or checking out the scenic beach. The island has the largest atoll in the world, which is a massive ring of coral that has a lagoon inside. This is perfect for those who want to see colorful sea animals up close by snorkeling or scuba. No matter what your level of diving expertise, you can learn or practice your skills in these oceans, as the temperature is ideal and clarity of the water is superb.
Among the fish, sea plants and mammals are oysters that are harvested by experts who are in search of black pearls. The harvested precious stones are sold on Rangiroa and all over the world, as it is the main economic resource in the region. The pearls are lovely in all types of jewelry, some of which is made right on the island. I got the chance to visit the Gauguin pearl farm to see these experts at work. They will insert the beginning of a pearl without harming the oyster and let nature do the rest, producing a beautifully shiny black, yellow, green, pink, blue or gold piece.
Off into the sunset on the Aranui
At the end of each day, I was rewarded with amazing views from the deck of the Aranui, or inside of of the great lounges. Of course the off-boat excursions were the highlights of the day, nothing beat returning to my cabin or spending some time socializing at the bar, going to the ship’s gym or simply reading a book on the deck. I could not be more pleased with my experience aboard the cruise liner that doubles as a cargo ship – they have seemed to perfect the art of luxury paired with functionality.
With all the travels I’ve made over the years, this one will certainly stick out in my mind. It’s rare for people to feel so off the grid anymore, and I cherished the time I had exploring the islands and understanding the simple pleasures in life, whether it be seeing a Polynesian dance show at a local school or sipping a cocktail by the emerald green ocean.