To the ends of … the Earth
Out of the early morning light, huge peaks rise out of the ocean ahead. A solitary cloud hovers above the mountains and frigatebirds wheel high in the sky. So magical and primeval is the vision, it’s like staring at the Lost World. And in a sense it is, for these peaks are part of the Marquesas: the most remote set of islands in the world.
Ua Pou, Marquesas Islands
Scattered across 4,167 square kilometres of South Pacific between New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii, French Polynesia encompasses 118 islands and atolls. The 12 Marquesas Islands – only six of which are inhabited – lie some 1,400 kilometres north-east of Tahiti and are its most isolated outpost.
In 1595 Alvero de Mendana, a Spanish navigator, was sailing from Peru in search of the Solomon Islands when he discovered these islands, naming them for his patron, the Marqués de Mendoza, viceroy of Peru. For almost another two centuries, not a single European ship recorded visiting the islands until Captain James Cook arrived in 1774, on his second voyage aboard the Resolution.
In subsequent years, the sheer remoteness of the Marquesas Islands, combined with their distinctive culture and otherworldly beauty, attracted writers, artists, explorers and adventurers. Moby Dick’s Herman Melville jumped ship here in 1842 to find himself among a tribe of reputed cannibals; Robert Louis Stevenson found inspiration for his work In the South Seas; Paul Gauguin painted his final canvasses in the islands; while Belgian singer Jacques Brel, terminally ill, found the Marquesas an ultimate sanctuary from the public gaze.
To this day, the islands’ distance from absolutely anywhere mean they remain largely unexplored. Their wild interiors – covered by dense jungle, steep volcanic outcrops, towering waterfalls, deep crevasses – and ancient archaeological sites remain largely untroubled by visitors, as do the pristine white beaches lapped by clear, warm waters. So arresting is their natural magnificence, travel writer Paul Theroux was moved to describe the Marquesas as ‘the most beautiful islands on the face of the earth’.
We’re sailing to the Marquesas on board the Aranui, a half-and-half freighter passenger ship that carries cargo to the Marquesas, providing a lifeline to these tiny, remote communities. Involving an epic 4,000-kilometre round-trip voyage from Tahiti – usually to places visited by no other ship – its arrival once every three weeks is as much a source of excitement for the islanders as the passengers.
Aranui in Tahuata, Marquesas Islands
With capacity for just 254 passengers and 103 crew, the Aranui is a fascinating hybrid. Berthed in Papeete docks, the front – designed to hold some 3,000 tonnes of cargo – is crammed with cranes, pulleys and giant shipping containers. The back is more akin to a traditional cruise ship – spacious, extremely comfortable suites and cabins (most with balconies), a couple of bars, lounge, pool, small gym and spa and a dining room from which buffet breakfasts and three-course set lunches and dinners are served.
Excellent on-board guides offer insightful daily briefings, lectures and excursions. In fact, the ship’s crew are central to the whole experience. The Aranui has none of the customary boundaries between passengers and crew; everyone relaxes in the same public spaces and eats in the same dining room. This means plenty of opportunity to get to know the wonderful, mostly Marquesan, crew, who are eager to offer a first-hand insight into life on their islands.
Following Captain Cook’s visit, the Marquesas were ultimately annexed by the French in 1842. The outcome for the islands was disastrous: western influences attacked the foundations of this society and the islands’ inhabitants and their unique native culture came perilously close to oblivion. Whaling crews brought alcohol, firearms and disease, and the population plummeted from around 18,000 in 1842 to just 2,096 by 1926. The Catholic Church sought to ban ‘pagan’ chants, drums and tattoos, kava drinking, embalming the dead, the wearing of scented flower crowns and other traditional Marquesan religious and cultural practices.
In recent decades, a highly successful revival of the native Marquesan culture was driven initially by Catholic Bishop Le Cléac’h (bishop from 1973 to 1985). Critical of past practices, he sought to reconnect the islanders (by then 70% Catholics) with their traditional culture.
The bishop, who during his own childhood in Brittany had been prevented from speaking his mother tongue in school, reintroduced the use of the Marquesan language during mass, replacing the Latin. He welcomed traditional chants and drums into his cathedral and, to decorate the building, he engaged local sculptors who chiselled a Stations of the Cross where Christ is seen praying in a garden of breadfruit trees – the abundant crop of the Marquesas.
The bishop’s efforts were embraced by the islanders and paved the way for the first Marquesas Arts Festival in 1986, now held every four years. This festival encourages its youth to approach the Tuhuka (wise-men) to be trained in the ancient traditions and culture of the islands. Centred on music, dance and cultural contests, groups demonstrate their skills at traditional dances, similar to Maori hakas, including the atmospheric Haka Manu (Bird’s Dance) and Haka Pua (Dance of the Pig). Aranui passengers have the opportunity to witness these outside of the festival period, including a spine-tingling performance at a jungle archaeological site, at the foot of a giant banyan tree.
The resurgent native culture is evident throughout the islands in an abundance of high quality arts and crafts, extensive tattooing and widespread participation in dance and song. The pleasure the islanders, including our Marquesan crew, find in their music and dance is uplifting, infectious and often moving.
Singers, Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands
One evening on my balcony, I was distracted from admiring the glorious sunset by the sound of distant singing. Venturing down deck after deck to locate its source, I eventually spied through a glass door a gathering of six freight crew – all familiar faces I’d watched skilfully manoeuvring the ship’s cranes, vehicles and landing craft in impossibly tight bays and enormous ocean swells. Here they were, at the end of a long day’s work, perched on cargo boxes on a tiny outside deck, joyfully singing their hearts out in the balmy Pacific night, each playing a guitar, ukulele or drums. They beckoned me to join them. And so, squeezed between two burly, tattooed Marquesans, I enjoyed one of life’s more surreal moments as the crew proceeded to sing a medley of love songs to their private audience of one.
Sailing north from Tahiti to the Marquesas, we anchored for a day in Fakarava in the Tuamotu Islands. We cycled around this pristine atoll and Unesco biosphere, with its stunning turquoise lagoon, glistening beaches and unique birds, plants and marine life. Our return voyage took in the equally sublime Bora Bora in the Society Islands, with an opportunity for spectacular snorkelling, and Rangiroa, whose magnificent lagoon revealed giant manta rays, sharks and teeming colourful shoals.
The undoubted highlight of the Aranui voyage, however, is the Marquesas Islands and its people. The islands’ stunning natural setting and history frame everything we do here with opportunities for hikes, deep sea fishing, swimming, horse riding, and explorations of secluded communities and jungle-clad archaeological sites.
The huge but sparsely populated island of Nuku Hiva is our first glimpse of the islands, its village of Taiohae sitting in a spectacular bay, a magnificent amphitheatre created by the successive eruptions of three concentric volcanoes. It was here that author Herman Melville lived among the island’s Typee tribe, observing of Nuku Hiva that ‘Very often when lost in admiration at its beauty I have experienced a pang of regret that a scene so enchanting should be hidden from the outside world in these remote seas.’
Traditional dance performance, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands
Largely arid, Ua Huka is the least inhabited of the six islands, its wild interior home to roaming wild horses, goats and pigs as well as mysterious archaeological sites.
On Hiva Oa, home of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel, we hike from Atuona, the island’s principal village, high up into the hills to find their final resting place, which offers sweeping views of the harbour far below. A fascinating talk on the life of Gauguin, and his final years on Hiva Oa, is given by our Aranui lecturer at the island’s Gauguin Museum, which includes a replica of his “House of Pleasure”.
Fatu Hiva is the most lush and remote of the islands, its Bay of Virgins arguably one of the most beautiful in the world, its glistening blue waters backed by spectacular mountains, immense in scale and dripping with vibrant tropical vegetation.
Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands
Tahuata is the smallest of the inhabited islands and historically one of the richest – the first in the archipelago to be discovered by Spanish explorers and site of the first French settlement. We take a launch to a stunning beach of white sand and crystal waters and swim against a breath-taking backdrop of enormous green mountains and blue skies.
Tahuata, Marquesas Islands
Each of the Marquesas islands has its own special ambience, but the jewel in its (very glittery) crown is Ua Pou. That dawn vision of the Lost World from the ship was the island’s Hakahau Bay, surrounded by 12 basalt peaks soaring as high as 1,140 metres. Like this whole distant outpost of French Polynesia, the island’s natural wonders are epic in scale, cinematically beautiful and, best of all, an almost private paradise.
Cox & Kings offers a 17-day / 14-night itinerary to the Marquesas Islands from £6,395 per person. This price is based on 12 nights aboard the Aranui (in a twin share cabin without a balcony) including all meals, excursions and selected beverages; international flights from London to Tahiti, via Los Angeles; a pre- and post-cruise night in a hotel in Tahiti; and transfers. For Aranui cabins with a balcony, the supplement is from £995 per person. To find out more, speak to one of our Australasia experts.