Have you ever wished you could have visited Hawaii just after cannibalism and before tourism?  If you venture a bit further out into the Pacific, you can do just that because there’s a remote, yet accessible, cluster of pristine gems called The Marquesas just waiting to be discovered—by you!

Catamaran Tethys–Our “hotel” in the Marquesas
Photo credit: Philip Courter

Almost nobody goes there, but with a little effort and an adventurous spirit, you can transport yourself to this unspoiled Bali Hai.  Think of the evocative paintings of Gauguin, who in 1901 ventured there, and remained until his death.  Not much has changed since.  These lush islands are matted by dense jungle snaking up steep volcanic outcrops and plunging into unexplored crevasses.  Silvery beaches are vacant except for local children and fisherman.  Very little has been done to accommodate tourists, but all are welcomed.  Your friendship is more desired than your wallet.

Location of the Marquesas.
Google Maps

Poverty is non-existent because the citizens are residents of France, which provides teachers and medical personnel to run the schools and clinics.  Communities also receive reparations for nuclear testing.  Everyone seems to have a fairly new vehicle and a horse.  Houses are simple, but have electricity satellite television, and internet.  Imported canned goods and frozen food are expensive.  A few restaurants offer delicious meals and French bread is baked daily.  Fruit grows in abundance and they have goats, cows, chickens, and vegetable gardens.

Dancers at Bastille Day Party.
Photo credit: Philip Courter

Most visitors arrive by private boat—some awesome yachts, but the majority are sailboats with adventurous families aboard who sailed through Panama Canal, provisioned in the Galapagos, and then traversed 4000 miles of the Pacific—an odyssey of several weeks before sighting land.  While there are no curated trips or fancy brochures, you can travel in the wake of Herman Melville and Thor Heyerdahl by following a few hints.

The fastest choice is to fly to Pape’ete, Tahiti and then transfer to an Air Tahiti Beechcraft ATRs headed toward Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa over 800 miles of open ocean.  Travel light because the weight limit is 50 lbs.  Carrying more costs the same as buying another seat on the plane due to the strict weight and balance requirements, which is why a sold-out plane has empty seats.

Get a window seat for three hours of breathtaking views—from the donut-shaped atolls of the Tuamotus to the coral reefs surrounding Bora-Bora, a turquoise oasis in the vast expanse of the cerulean sea.  After landing on the narrow plateau, you will be greeted at the “airport” by locals bedecked with floral wreaths and leis.  Informal taxis will take you to any accessible part of the island.

Other travelers arrive on cruise ships that stop for a few hours several times a year or on the Aranui 5, a freighter that makes the two-week trek from Tahiti 17 times a year.  This modern ship carries passengers along with trucks, appliances, pallets of provisions before being reloaded with copra—dried coconut before the oil is extracted—fruit, fish, mail, and people headed for other islands.  You can’t stay more than a few hours unless you book accommodations until the freighter returns or depart by plane.

Smiling Tiki found on HivaOa. His large head symbolizes power; his eyes knowledge.
Photo credit: Philip Courter

There are only two small hotels in the island chain: the Hanakee Pearl Lodge on Hiva Oa, and the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge on Nuka Hiva.  Both offer the security of restaurants, pools, air conditioning, and organized excursions.  Step out of your comfort zone by staying in one of Airbnb’s economical listings in villagers’ homes.  A few yachties rent small cabins and offer the opportunity to swim in the tropical waters, snorkel with the manta rays, sail to other islands, and visit settlements only accessible by sea.

Rent a car –with or without a driver—to explore the islands with peaks in the clouds and winding roads to deserted beaches.  Or hire a horse and ride hidden trails with magnificent views at every turn.  Channel your inner Indiana Jones and discover ancient petroglyphs, tikis—with the supernatural powers of mana—and stone temples where human sacrifices were performed now guarded by massive banyan trees and voracious insects.  (Insect repellant and soothing lotions are necessities!).  Hike the ancient royal road and traverse shallow rivers into Nuku Hiva’s Eden-like valley where Vaipo, the highest waterfall in Polynesia, cascades from basalt pinnacles.

Tattoos originated here and their hallmark geometric designs that were prohibited by the missionaries adorn most of the men.  The artists—now using modern tools—offer their services to visitors.  There are a few markets as well as craftsmen who invite you to their homes where you can purchase exquisite jewelry fashioned  from bone or shell, handmade ukuleles, wooden bowls, paddles, and carved tikis.

Try to be there for the July 14th—French Independence Day—for the drumming and dance contests between the villages.  For us the highlight was the selection a “prom” king and queen, their bodies glistening with coconut oil are festooned with freshly woven leaves and flowers.

Contestants for King and Queen of Ua Pou during Bastille Day celebrations.
Photo credit: Philip Courter

Although you will be invited to join the feast, none of this is done for tourists; it’s part of an effort to preserve their traditions.

Once only available to the most stalwart of seamen, the Marquesas still hold the magical enchantment which lured early explorers.  Through proud and vigilant guardianship, these islanders offer the intrepid traveler a peek at a primeval landscape, which continues one of the planet’s most idyllic cultural heritages.

When you go:

Air Tahiti:  https://www.airtahiti.com

Aranui Freighter: https://aranui.com

Pearl Lodges:  http://www.pearlodge.com/en/

About the Author:

Gay Courter is a bestselling novelist (The Midwife, Code Ezra, Flowers in the Blood) and documentary filmmaker.  She travels for both work and pleasure since her first around-the-world trip at age six.

Gay Courter