Discover a paradise on earth at the Marquesas Islands

For centuries, visitors to French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands have tried to make them fit their own ideas of what a paradise should be – but the reality is so much better

5 mins
Mahalo could have squashed me like a piece of breadfruit, and yet I couldn’t stop marvelling at him. Arms broad as coconut palms extended from his sleeveless army surplus jacket, and etched into these limbs were black markings symbolising his ancestors, family, job and personality – he literally wore his heart on his sleeve. He then took off his hard hat to reveal a face and bald head almost completely covered in dark ink. I didn’t know it then, but in many ways Mahalo was a microcosm of how French Polynesia was changing.

Tattoos were banned for over a century in the Marquesas Islands, where my ship was headed. Today, they are a good example of how the archipelago is slowly reclaiming its culture from the whims of misguided foreigners. But more on that later. In the meantime, I simply watched in awe as Mahalo effortlessly worked the crane aboard the four-star Aranui V – our part-cargo ship, part-cruise liner. The newly launched vessel was the only one in the area able to deliver cement, cars, bicycles, sugar and travellers to the archipelago, but to me it was simply my gateway to this remarkable world.

For anyone unfamiliar with Polynesia, the Oceanic subregion forms a neat triangle deep in the Pacific, with Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand its three most far-reaching outposts. My destination, the Marquesas, lay more or less in the middle: a dozen volcanic islands within the collective of French Polynesia, only six of which are actually inhabited. These are some of the remotest clusters of islands on Earth; so remote that they even have their own time zone (30 minutes behind Tahiti). No wonder so many people had come here to escape.

Blue lagoons of Bora Bora (Emma Thomson)

A list of the Marquesas’ famous past residents reveals a who’s who of cultural outsiders. Notorious French artist Paul Gauguin lived, romanced and drank himself into a stupor on Hiva Oa. Explorer Thor Heyerdahl – famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition – treated his new bride to an 18-month honeymoon on Fatu Hiva, while Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel sought to avoid fame and advanced-stage lung cancer in the islands’ sculpted mountains and bays. Even Moby Dick author Herman Melville had once jumped ship here.

For many, the Marquesas offered a retreat from reality – well, all except Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who is said to have declared that they looked “just like the Scottish Highlands” when he visited in 1888. Travel writer Paul Theroux best sums up their appeal in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania, which he researched while touring the islands after the break-up of his marriage. ‘They are the tableau on which travellers can paint their fantasies,’ he wrote. It was this line that had provided the inspiration for my own visit. And fantasised I had – of mouthwashblue lagoons and reefs alive with rainbow-hued fish. But, like all dreams, it wasn’t long before reality came knocking.

“Don’t expect to see blue lagoons and coral reefs teeming with fish,” warned onboard lecturer Johann Bouit at the outset of my trip, as we set sail from Tahiti’s capital of Pape’ete. “The Humbolt current makes it too cold,” he added, pouring yet more cold water on my dreams. But I wasn’t the first visitor to the islands to arrive with misconceptions. I followed in a grand historical tradition.

Escaping the past

When Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña discovered the archipelago in 1595, he named them Las Marquesas after his patron the Marquis of Cañete, Viceroy of Peru. Back then, the islanders wore their hair long, were covered in tattoos and still practised cannibalism. Warriors hung the skulls of their enemies from their loincloths – no doubt something of a shock to the Europeans. Consequently, nerves were already on edge when 400 islanders in va’as (canoes) welcomed Mendaña’s ship. Fascinated by the glass, iron and guns on board, they started taking things – as they were free to do unless the chief forbade it – and, in a panic, Mendaña ordered his men to shoot. They raised anchor two weeks later, leaving behind a date carved into a tree and over 200 dead Polynesians. I hoped to make a better impression.

For centuries, visitors had brought nothing but trouble to the islands. At the end of the 1700s, groups of Catholic missionaries arrived. Horrified at the locals’ tattoos, uninhibited sex lives, nakedness and lewd dancing, they forbade all of it and convinced many islanders to convert by offering free education. Later, whalers – hunting sperm-whale oil to light London street lamps – taught the locals how to make alcohol from fermented coconut flowers and spawned an epidemic of alcoholism. And in 1863, Chilean-Peruvian slavers arrived to round up Polynesians to work in their guano mines. Those that returned brought back small pox, decimating the islands’ population. It’s a wonder that Te Henua’Enana (or ‘The Land of Men’) had any men left at all. “We’re relearning our culture,” explained Johann, and once again I thought of Mahalo and his ink.

Tattoos are an important part of Polynesian culture (Emma Thomson)

When I looked out my porthole on the third day, I saw something altogether more alluring than fish: a sweeping amphitheatre of untamed wilderness, where the cobalt-blue ocean pounded against steep green hillsides streaked with waterfalls. We had anchored in Taiohae Bay in Nuku Hiva – the largest of the Marquesas Islands. Not much had changed here since a 23 year-old Herman Melville jumped ship in 1842 to escape his job on a whaling boat. It was certainly the least-busy capital I had ever visited. There were a few shops, a post office, a bank and a pretty Catholic church built from stones found on all six inhabited islands, and rush hour consisted of three or four men descaling the catch of the day on the docks.

I was soon bundled into a 4x4 and driven inland to Kamuihei, a me’ae (sacred ceremonial complex) that had been cleared of ferns and trees. Together with the guide and my fellow passengers, we trip-trapped across a log bridge that led to an open rectangle of grass framed by giant stone blocks beneath the trees.

“This part is called the marae,” explained our guide Charlotte. “It was used for feasts, important meetings and dancing. Now it hosts the Marquesas Art Festival every four years.” I climbed up a series of slippery moss-covered stone platforms, then my eye caught a pit hewn into the rocks. “It’s where humans were kept before being sacrificed,” Charlotte interceded with an eerie whisper. She then pointed to a shallow groove in another rock. “This was for tattooing. They’d grind noix de bancoule (candlenuts) here and mix its black dye with coconut water because it was a natural anti-bacterial. Smart, eh? It would have been beaten into the skin using ‘combs’ made from pigs teeth, bird bones or even human teeth. Tattoos were used as a kind of identity card.”

Stamped out by the missionaries for over 150 years, the art form would have been lost forever were it not for the sketchings of a German doctor who visited in the 1890s and made records of the full-body tattoos of one of the islands’ last warriors. Today, tattoos are found across Polynesia, but all its traditional designs hail from the Marquesas. One of the crew had joked earlier that I should have one done, and suddenly it didn’t seem so amusing.

Tikis, troubadours & the troubled

Back at the archeological site, we hiked further up the hill to a cluster of boulders that had ghostly outlines glowing between the lichens: petroglyphs of turtles, human figures and fish. “We still don’t know their meaning, but it’s believed the valley may contain 500 or more. Can you feel the mana (energy)?” Charlotte enthused. As if on cue, a faint echo of drums emanated from the forest.

Marquesan dancers perform the Pig Dance on Nuku Hiva (Emma Thomson)

We hurried back down the hill to see dancers performing a Pig Dance. Dwarfed beneath a 600-year-old banyan tree, the women wiggled their hips – hidden by fresh palm-leaf skirts – and weaved their fingers elegantly through the air, while a duo of men pounded out the tune on chest-high pahus (large drums). We jiggled along, stopping occasionally to slap the nonos (sandflies) nipping our ankles.

Afterwards, we headed down to Hatiheu village for a traditional Marquesan feast. The men led us over to a large pit and we gathered round as they scraped away the earth and peeled back banana leaves to reveal an entire roasted pig nestled among a bed of uru (breadfruit) and taro. We waited impatiently as they carefully pincered the piping-hot food between finger and thumb, tossed it into a nearby metal container and brought it to the table with myriad plates of poisson cru (a raw fish dish), goat boiled in coconut milk, and octopus.

Ua Pou, our next island, looked like a Jurassic Park film set. Conical emerald mountains, partly cloaked in mist, towered above the village like ‘pointed witches hats’ – Theroux’s writing described them perfectly. Off to the left, a cement cross erected in the 1980s sat on a hill. We hiked up and stood at its base. From up there, my ship resembled a gently bobbing white pearl. The island is famous for its flower stone – volcanic rock that cooled so quickly that minute blossoms were preserved inside.

“The only other place it’s found in the world is Brazil, but the flowers there are much further apart. It’s our treasure,” explained Ben, a friendly greeter as we milled around the small craft market observing the miniature tikis and amulets that had been carved from the rare rock. Tikis are giant statues – very similar to the moai on Easter Island – that embody Polynesian ancestors. One of the largest collections can be found high in the mountains above Puama’u village on Hiva Oa, so off we set.

The Takii tiki staue on Hiva Oa (Emma Thomson)

Our 4x4s curled upwards, past stray cockerels and horses tethered by the leafy roadside, until we reached Me’ae Lipona. There, lichens and ferns sprouted from between the large stone platforms, and my eye was immediately drawn to Takii, the largest tiki of them all, with his thin solemn lips, chunky thighs and commanding broad nose. I was told that he was a chief and a great warrior whose spirit still guards the valley. “Islanders are very superstitious – they believe that the tikis come alive,” explained our guide Jorg Nitzsche, who had lived in Polynesia for eight years. “Takii has vertical lines in his eyes, so when the sun is in the right position, dark spots emerge, like pupils, so he appears to be living!”

Takii’s sculptor, Manniota’a, was clearly a man of skill and was also honoured with his own statue. It had a smaller head to show he was less important, and in front of him rested the tiki of his wife, Makii Tau’a Pepe. She died in childbirth – a common tragedy in Polynesian culture – and the horizontal statue rather gruesomely captured her final moment of agony. Strangest of all, though, was the llama carved into the base of her pedestal. The animals are found only in South America, and archeologists have long wondered why it was there. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that Thor Heyerdahl may have ‘tweaked’ it to prove his theory about there being a cultural link between South America and Polynesia. But no one knows for sure.

Back by the water, I paced up a steep hill to Calvaire cemetery, home to two men buried far from home: Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel. In comparison to Gauguin, Brel was a saint. He used his private plane Jojo to deliver mail to the islanders, as well as taxiing children to and from school on other islands. Beside his headstone a poem had been placed, and the first line read: “Homme de voiles, homme d'étoiles, ce troubadour enchanta nos vies” (‘Man of sails, man of stars, this troubadour enchanted our lives’).

By contrast, I imagine locals breathed a sigh of relief when Gauguin died in 1903 – most likely from a morphine overdose. During his 12 years in the Marquesas he fathered numerous children by his teenage mistresses, spread syphilis and drank copious amounts of absinthe at his home, which he nicknamed the ‘House of Pleasure’. His simple tomb sits further back, beneath a gnarled frangipani tree – a relic of yet another foreigner who escaped to the islands and remade them to his own ends.

Paradise found

View from the porthole (Emma Thomson)

The next day, my date with the island of Fatu Hiva was put on hold as Cyclone Victor, which had been circling to our west, wrought havoc. The view from my porthole resembled the inside of a washing machine as giant waves sloshed against the glass. Inside, we nibbled our fingernails nervously as Mahalo and the crew struggled to unload the cargo that swayed from the ship’s crane. Locals depend on the food supplies delivered every three weeks, so for eleven hours, non-stop, the men fought the roiling seas to work the cargo-transport platforms. Eager to do my part, I threw them bars of chocolate and packets of biscuits to help keep up their energy against the relentless spray. Against such a backdrop, it felt wrong to mourn the missed opportunity to visit the Bay of Virgins – even if it is hailed as one of the world’s finest. According to Theroux, it was originally called Baie des Verge (Bay of Dicks), on account of the phallic mountains framing it, but horrified missionaries slipped in an ‘i’ to make it ‘Vierges’ (Virgins). Even language had conspired to shape the islands to the whims of its mad visitors.

On the return journey our luck changed and I finally found my blue lagoon. I hitched a ride on a motorised va’a out to Bora Bora and headed for its calm shallows. Within seconds, a handful of rays had draped themselves across my legs, as soft as silk scarves. Before long, I had strapped on my snorkelling mask and lowered myself beneath the surface, keeping a watchful eye on the rays’ barbed tails and the blacktip reef sharks that streaked across the sandy bottom.

We celebrated the end of the voyage that night with drinks in the bar. There, I pondered the islands and their troubled past and recalled a suggestion made earlier. It was then that Ella, the barmaid, saw my face and passed me a note with a telephone number and a name written on it. “Go see my brother, Simeon,” she said, before adding: “He’s very busy, though, so I’m not making any promises.”

So the next morning we docked back in Pape’ete and I set off in search of the tattoo studio of Simeon. Fate decreed that I soon found it and set about climbing the stairs to the first-floor shop. “You don’t by any chance have a free appointment this afternoon?” I whispered shyly in French to the man on reception. He scanned a page and looked me up and down before agreeing to squeeze me in. Ninety minutes later, I found myself reclined on a black hospital bed, Simeon leaning over me – tattoo needle poised.

For a writer to admit that a place has got under their skin is a terrible cliché, but as the first scratch marked my flesh, I have to admit that on this occasion it was true. And while it was only a small gesture in itself, I couldn’t help but smile that, a visitor had come to the Marquesas and instead of leaving their mark on the islands, it would be the other way round. Mahalo would be proud.

The author travelled with Discover the World (01737 214 291), which offers a 14-day Marquesas Islands cruise aboard the Aranui V. The national carrier to French Polynesia is Air Tahiti Nui with departures from Paris. 

Main Image: The Aranui V in the bay of Ua Pou (Emma Thomson)

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