Thursday, 03 May 2012

Song and dance in the South Pacific

Home to Paul Gauguin, Hiva Oa is one of the string of volcanic islands that make up the Marquesas. Jennifer Arnell cruised the 900 miles from Tahiti to visit this historic archipelago

Written by Jennifer Arnell

What would be your idea of French Polynesia? White sand, coral reefs, coconut palms fringing the turquoise waters? All this can be found in Tahiti and Moorea, honeymoon destinations, but we were bound for the most remote and unspoiled islands, the Marquesas. Strung out in the Pacific, 900 miles from Tahiti, this group of volcanic islands has a starker beauty. There are few beaches here. The soaring peaks of ancient volcanoes are permanently shrouded in dark cloud. Sheer cliffs plunge into the ocean; softer slopes are swathed in lush vegetation, divided by fertile valleys dotted with neat villages.

Apart from the haunting beauty of the islands, they have a distinctive culture salvaged from near destruction. The arrival of the colonisers in the 18th and 19th centuries brought missionaries who suppressed the dances, songs and rituals. It also brought disease, which reduced the population from 100,000 in 1774 to a mere 1,800 by the 1920s. Although much was lost, there has been a determined effort to revive Marquesan culture. One of the best ways to discover this fascinating place is on board the Aranui III.

Not just a cruise ship, the Aranui is unique – she is also a freighter, a lifeline for these remote islands. There are all the comforts – excellent restaurant, swimming pool and a comfortable lounge where we have nightly briefings on the next day's excursions. One of the missions of the Aranui is to ensure that we are having a truly Marquesan experience, both past and present. Everyone who works on the ship is Polynesian and many are Marquesan. Not only are we to meet the locals when we go ashore, but we travel with them too. Without exception, they are friendly and helpful.


We visit all six of the inhabited islands. As the Aranui docks, people gather, driving down to the harbour in their flower-bedecked four-by-fours, bringing sacks of copra (dried coconut) to be taken to Tahiti for processing into coconut oil and noni fruit (one of the 'superfoods' rich in nutrients). New cars are offloaded, containers lifted ashore and opened to reveal a cornucopia of goods: mattresses, crates of soft drinks, electric rice cookers. Everything from foodstuffs to building materials has to be brought from Tahiti. There was even a horse aboard for one leg of the journey.

Meanwhile, the passengers leave the ship for a variety of expeditions. For 'wet landings', when the Aranui is anchored offshore, we put on our life jackets and scramble down to the landing craft. Here we are carefully handed on board by the tattooed crew and transferred to dry land.

We are always greeted by smiling islanders. Handicrafts are on sale, wood and stone carvings, seed and shark's teeth necklaces, tie-dyed pareos (sarongs). Recurrent motifs are the enigmatic tikis (stone statues) found here in the jungle. There's no pressure to buy, which makes browsing a delight; the quality is high – I wished I had brought more cash. In the villages we are treated to demonstrations of traditional practices: the making of tapa (bark cloth) and monoi (coconut paste). At local restaurants we feast on curried goat and marinated fish. On Nuku Hiva a fleet of cars takes us to a restored me'ae (sacred site), where at the foot of a giant banyan tree, dancers perform the 'pig dance'.

statueTiki on Nuku Hiva island

On day six we come to Hiva Oa where we board school buses and are driven past flower-filled gardens, up the hill to the cemetery. For this is the island chosen by Paul Gauguinand later, by Jacques Brel; both are buried here. I was surprised to discover that for the locals the Belgian singer Brel is the hero. At the briefing the evening before, our guide Mila told us that Brel wanted to take refuge here from the attentions of the press. He was informed that only those who could make a contribution were welcome to stay. He offered to teach the islanders to sing. 'But everyone here can sing!' was the reply. So he left, only to return with a small aircraft to spend his last years piloting people, mail and goods between the islands. He is still much revered.

We ended our Marquesan adventure with a relaxing stay on Moorea. On the last day we went out to see humpback whales, waiting in the balmy tropical waters for their calves to grow big enough for the long swim to Antarctica. Entranced, I watched a one-ton baby roll delightedly in a floating mass of seaweed. That night, a full moon shone on the lagoon, for first and second honeymooners alike.

Steppes Travel: 01285-880980, offers this 14-day voyage around the remote islands of French Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands, from £4,995 per person. This price includes international economy flights with Virgin/ Air Tahiti from Heathrow, one night pre- and post-voyage hotel stay based on a standard twin-share, full-board accommodation/cabin on board, and guided landings and excursions. Excludes travel insurance and visas.

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