Inspiration to such writers as Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, final resting place of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel (both of whom spent the last years of their lives there), the remote, sparsely populated Marquesas Islands seem to loom disproportionately large at times in cultural consciousness. Travellers must be intrepid to experience the islands, but those who seek them out will be rewarded by a taste of the rhythms and delights of old Polynesia.
The Marquesas Islands, or Henua Enana – the Land of Men, were once feared throughout the Pacific for their tattoo-covered warriors. But on this occasion they were not exactly living up to their manly reputation. I was sitting in a café on Hiva Oa with Joel, the wonderfully camp head waiter from the cargo cruise ship Aranui 3, and we were deep in conversation about supermodels.
“Kate Mouse, she Eeenglish, I tink”, said Joel.
“Moss”, I replied, correcting his pronunciation.
“Moose, moose”, said Joel, puckering his lips to get the sound right, “I love Kate Moose, but who is she American, I see her on American supermodel TV?”
“Tyra Banks”, I chipped in, betraying an unhealthy interest in America’s Next Top Model.
“Yes. Wanna be on top, top”, Joel sang, sashaying his shoulders to the theme tune and doing a very convincing imitation of Tyra.
Joel was himself a strapping Marquesan lad, but also part of the large Mahu community that can be found all over Polynesia. In traditional society, effeminate boys were raised as girls to perform traditional female roles later in life. In the absence of the men folk who were often absent fishing, or at war, their extra strength was extremely useful for the more arduous domestic chores, and their artistic and musical abilities were highly prized. Today, the performing arts in Polynesia are full of Mahu artists and in the hospitality industry they are renowned for offering the highest levels of service in the Pacific Islands.
Joel was no exception. There’s always an awkward atmosphere when you first join a cruise ship, and the passengers queueing for the welcome lunch on the Aranui were standing in stony silence. With the rattle of a key, the dining room door slowly opened to reveal a beaming Joel dressed in a pink Hawaiian shirt and straw boater festooned with hibiscus flowers. He instantly won the hearts of all the passengers and at each meal would open the door to thunderous applause and flashing cameras, twirl around in a new colour coordinated outfit while pointing to himself and feigning surprise in true Hollywood starlet fashion.
The Aranui is legendary in French Polynesia and is the life blood of the Marquesas Islands, the most remote and arguably the most beautiful archipelago in the world. Fifteen times a year this sturdy cargo freighter heroically navigates some of the toughest seas in the Pacific, and is the sole source of supplies for the lesser islands. The stern of the ship has been adapted into a comfortable floating hotel full of old time South Seas charm. For the more intrepid traveller, it offers a unique opportunity to experience the stunning landscapes and culture of the Marquesas Islands which, bearing in mind the almost non-existent sea and air communications between islands, is almost impossible to achieve in any other way.
French Polynesia covers an area the size of Europe, and it takes three days sailing to reach the Marquesas from Papeete, the tiny bustling capital “city” on the island of Tahiti. On the third day, we arrived at the magically beautiful island of Ua Pou whose skyline of basalt, phallic-shaped mountains is typical of the contorted landscapes of this volcanic island chain. Following breakfast, during which I almost choked to death on an omelette after a student waitress whacked me with her hips while dancing a spirited hula, we went ashore for a song and dance display staged by the villagers of Hakehau. The gentle undulating movements of the girls were mesmerising but, in common with the other islands we visited, were only a prelude to the guys – who with skimpy pareus (sarongs), grass leggings and immaculate early-90s, boy-band blond highlights were straining at the leash to perform the Haka war dance. The next fifteen minutes of grunting, chest beating, thigh slapping and lunging at the audience made the All Blacks look like a bunch of Dancing with the Stars contestants and had the sizeable contingent of elegant retired French ladies dressed in floaty linen squealing with delight.
The Aranui visits all six of the inhabited Marquesan Islands, and its sedate itinerary gives you ample time to enjoy breathtaking hikes and trips to mysterious archaeological sites guided by guest lecturers. More adventurous passengers can book optional deep-sea dives to waters teeming with hammerhead sharks, horse-riding excursions on sturdy chestnut brown Chilean horses, and even arrange to have a tattoo done.
Among the first things you notice in the Marquesas are the exquisite swirling tattoos. These range from goggle-eyed tiki (ancestral spirits) to stylised manta rays representing protection at sea, and freedom. The artistry and workmanship of Marquesan tattoo artists are world famous but it’s an art form that only recently came back from the brink of extinction. Early 19th Century engravings depict islanders covered from head to toe in tattoos, including on their lips and ears. But when conservative Catholic missionaries arrived on the islands they banned the tradition. By the time Gauguin arrived in Hiva Oa in 1897, Marquesan culture had all but vanished and his paintings of languid island life are noticeably tattoo free. It was only in 1986 that the church lifted the ban, sparking a revival in Marquesan tattooing that has spread like wildfire throughout the Pacific.
Felix and Edwin Fii, brothers on the verdant island of Tahuata are two of the most renowned tattoo artists in French Polynesia and are also master bone carvers producing exquisite shark-bone pendants covered in intricate nautical motifs. It’s worth remembering if you do decide on a tattoo that you won’t be able to go swimming for a couple of weeks, as the salt water will affect the scarring process. If you’re planning a few days snorkelling in one of French Polynesia’s legendary lagoons you can leave the tattoo until you return to Papeete, where you’ll find several acclaimed Marquesan tattoo artists upstairs in the Marché de Papeete.
However enjoyable it might be visiting these remote islands on board the Aranui, you can’t really fully appreciate Polynesian island life without actually staying on an island. En route back to Papeete, the Aranui passes through the Tuamotus, the largest atoll chain in the world and makes its final port of call at Rangiroa, described by Jacques Cousteau as the most beautiful lagoon in the world. The cold seas surrounding the Marquesas have prevented any extensive coral growth, and the islands lack the spectacular reef life that Polynesia is world famous for. The Tuamotus on the other hand are home to countless pristine coral lagoons where you can enjoy some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving on the planet.
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience the Tuamotus is to stay at a family run pension. The Tevahine Dream in Rangiroa is one of the loveliest. The owner, Norbert, made his fortune in business and, more for a hobby than out of necessity, built a handful of beautiful Polynesian-style guest huts just metres from Rangiroa’s turquoise lagoon. Guests are always welcome to join him and his charming sons on his daily fishing trips and each day he dropped me off on an isolated reef where I’d drift along in the slow moving current, swimming amongst shoals of butterfly fish with the odd manta ray floating serenely by. An hour or so later he’d pick me up and, laden with fish, we’d return to the guest house to prepare the evening’s barbeque. There, sitting under a blaze of stars listening to chirping geckos and the gentle lapping of the lagoon, it was easy to slip into the languid Pacific Life of Riley immortalised by Gauguin a hundred years ago and still going strong today.