Powerful, grand, mysterious, brooding, floral and charismatic. Those are some great adjectives to describe the Marquesas Islands. The six inhabited islands and several uninhabited islands are broken up into northern and southern groups. The two main islands are Nuku Hiva in the north and Hiva Oa in the south. My flight from Pape’ete set off for Nuku Hiva where I had a two-hour connection.
Flying into Nuku Hiva was like flying into a mystery. The Marquesas are an enigma of sorts, made notable by vagabond artists, writers and singers. They have an intriguing history of war, culture and European intrusion; which brought disease that nearly wiped the islands population out completely.
As we flew right into Nuku Hiva, part of the island was covered in clouds, the coast was jagged cliffs with waves crashing against its eerie shores. The plane veered from side to side as if the pilot didn’t know how to land it. Finally we arrived on the small airstrip at its delightful little open-air airport on the islands desert northwest.
In my short experience at Nuku Hiva airport and my walk around outside, I came across several islanders and the first thing I noticed was the incredible tattoo work. The Marquesas and their tattoo artists are world renowned for their tribal designs. It is not uncommon to see full body tribal tattoos including on the face and tongue. Normally I hate tattoos in general but in these cases, it’s super cool, kind of scary looking and actually means something to their culture, family or tribe. It’s not like a teenager getting a butterfly, sun or a Chinese symbol that they don’t even know what it means like you see in the States.
So after a croque monsieur and a delicious steak frites baguette; which I had never seen before. I took off for Hiva Oa, the island of the famous French artist Paul Gauguin and the Belgian born musician Jacques Brel.
After another seriously scary approach to a dinky little airport 440 meters high and you have to swoop around to even reach; I was met by the manager of my hotel. The Hotel Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge is the perfect setting on Hiva Oa.
It is a movie scene worthy location on a hill overlooking Tahauka Bay with Mt. Temetiu as a gorgeous backdrop. There are some 14 rustic bungalows laced with fresh flowers all over, a comfortable big bed, and my bungalow has a deck that overlooks the bay. The view is breathtaking.
It also has a great pool to chill out at and admire the view or have a local Tahitian brew. This is the best place to stay on Hiva Oa without a doubt. It also has an excellent restaurant that people from other hotels come to eat at as well.
My first stop after arriving was to head to the Paul Gauguin cultural center and museum. Luckily they opened the museum just for me as they knew I am a journalist from Tahiti Tourism. They arranged a special tour; which was excellent.
Gauguin lived on Hiva Oa for the last few years of his life before dying in 1903. He painted many of his best and most famous paintings. His tortured mind prospered here as an artist and he is best credited with putting the Marquesas and especially Hiva Oa on the map. French tourists flock to the museum to admire where he lived and worked.
After the museum, be sure to visit the ‘maison du jouir’ (house of pleasure); which is an exact replica of the house Gauguin lived and worked in. Behind the center you will see a nondescript looking hangar. Inside that hangar is the homage to Jacques Brel.
Brel was a Belgian born French singer who was and is apparently quite famous in France. When you enter the hangar, there is appropriately an airplane displayed above called JoJo; which was his plane.
He actually used to carry out humanitarian missions to fly sick islanders to Pape’ete to seek treatment. He was beloved on the island and died at only 48 years old of cancer. His music plays when you’re in the hangar and there are posters, pictures and descriptions everywhere. It’s actually pretty cool and worth a look.
After visiting their places of reverence, it’s only fitting that many people visit the cemetery where they are both buried. The Calvaire cemetery is in Atuona, the main town on the island and is a quick walk from the Gauguin Museum.
I am not really one for visiting cemeteries in general. It’s just eerie. I didn’t even enjoy visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, Eva Peron in Buenos Aires or JFK in Arlington. It’s just weird and I am not a huge fan.
Out of town and around the island there is a plethora of spectacular things to see. The main attraction for me is the scenery. The mountain roads, passes and windy rocky paths breed great panoramic views.
The trip I took to Puamau was the best on the island. It is literally a two-hour bumpy 4×4 drive, which gives tons of great views along with bone curdling bumps. When you finally arrive, you know why you came.
Iipona is the main archaeological site on Hiva Oa and is one of the cooler sites I’ve seen in all the Pacific. It’s not Easter Island, but it is still an eerie site to behold and wonder why and how it got there.
There are 5 monumental tiki and all are very cool to see. There are also some side sculptures and carvings in rock but the main attraction is Tiki Takaii,
Standing at 2.67 meters tall, he is the biggest tiki in French Polynesia and is somewhat mesmerizing to see in person. The location mixed with the lighting and the eeriness factor make it a really cool place to check out. It made the two-hour drive worth it.
After playing with the tikis, head over to Chez Marie-Antoinette for a great lunch spread of raw fish salad, strange fries and assorted types of meats and fruits. It’s the only option in town so eat up. We did and it was really delicious.
The other attraction in Puamau is the beach. It is the only really decent beach on Hiva Oa. The Marquesas are not a beach holiday destination. Let that be clear but this was a nice surprise and the locals were really enjoying it on Easter Sunday playing soccer in the sand.
I wanted to go in the water as the rest of the car did. However, the thought of riding home bumping around for two hours with a soaking wet bathing suit didn’t appeal to me. I’ve been down that road before. I dipped my feet in and the water was ideal but watching the local kids playing soccer entertained me immensely while the others swam.
After nearly two hours and just past the airport we stopped to see the other iconic tiki. This is known as the smiling tiki. As you can see, he appears to be smiling. He is also quite small and deep into the jungle down a steep hill. It’s worth checking out I suppose but don’t kill yourself if you don’t get there; Iipano is much more impressive.
On the other side of the island past the main town of Atuona there is the ruin complex at Taaoa. This is a very Mayan looking complex but the Banyan trees surrounding it make it distinctly Polynesian.
The complex is pretty large and is about 7km from Altouna. Up from the complex back in the jungle is a well preserved tiki that from afar looks like nothing but as you get closer you can really make out the contours of the face. It stands over 1 meter tall. It is pretty cool.
Finally as I headed back to the hotel for the final time I saw the oldest church built in the Marquesas Islands. The stone construction method is similar to what I have seen on other French Pacific islands such as Wallis.
As I get ready to leave Hiva Oa and head back to Tahiti for one last night before my flight to Mangareva to get the boat to Pitcairn in the morning; I leave you with a stanza from one of my all time favorite songs…
Southern Cross by Crosby, Still and Nash.
Got out of town on a boat
Goin’ to Southern islands.
Sailing a reach
Before a followin’ sea.
She was makin’ for the trades
On the outside,
And the downhill run
Off the wind on this heading
Lie the Marquesas.
We got eighty feet of the waterline.
Nicely making way.
In a noisy bar in Avalon
I tried to call you.
But on a midnight watch I realized
Why twice you ran away