The Edge of Infinity

From sailing the Society Islands and surfing killer Fijian waves to going native on the Marquesas, we've navigated the South Seas' biggest adventures for you in our far-flung, sun-soaked, beyond-belief guide to the Pacific's boundless blue

Aug 16, 2006
Outside Magazine
The Marquesas

PACIFIC VIEW: Nuku Hiva's jagged volcanic coastline   

Access & Resources

Getting There: Air Tahiti offers round-trip tickets to Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa from Papeete for $612. It also sells a four-way island pass from Tahiti to Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Ua Huka, and Ua Pou for $661. 011-689-86-42-42, Where to Stay: On Nuku Hiva, Keikahanui Pearl Lodge's 20 luxury bungalows sit on stilts a few hundred yards above the black-sand beach and village of Taiohae. The resort's restaurant, Le Pua Enana, takes advantage of the abundant sea life below. Doubles from $183, not including meals; 800-657-3275, Hiva Oa's Hanakee Pearl Lodge faces the craggy outline of 3,903-foot Mount Te Metiu. The ...

The Marquesas: Let's Get Lost
Beating about a savage and sublime paradise

It's high noon on the island of Hiva Oa, and I'm marinating in the sweet stench of fermenting mangoes, papayas, breadfruits, and bananas that hang in the dense jungle air like perfumed exhaust. I'm so buzzed that when I hear the sound of a moose's bellow, it doesn't immediately register that moose wouldn't inhabit the world's most remote archipelago, 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. The "aaa-oooogh-aaah" grows louder as my guide, Bob Suggs, one of the world's foremost experts on the Marquesas, leads us toward a stone platform—once used for human sacrifice—at the base of a basalt cliff, upon which a dozen or so ripped natives are dancing to drums, horns, and nose flutes. They surround a chief with a feathery headdress who's chasing a frizzy-haired, bare-chested man wearing nothing but a loincloth. Doc Suggs leans over and interprets that Loincloth Man represents a female fairy tern—a symbol of Marquesan love—and the warriors represent its feuding suitors. In reality the fairy tern is the bartender at the Hiva Oa Pearl Resort, the luxury bungalows in the town of Atuona, where I'm staying. In the Marquesas, however, reality is a loose term: This is a land where men with head-to-toe body tattoos still race one another in handmade outrigger canoes, the telephone didn't arrive until the 1980s, and, in the old days, there were two ways to please the island gods: sexual exhibition or sacrifice.

There's a reason Mark Burnett filmed a season of Survivor in the Marquesas: Paradise couldn't come with more caveats. Sure, the chain of ten islands possesses the rugged volcanic beauty of Molokai, more than 20 varieties of breadfruit, and the standard laissez-faire of island life. But if you're looking for loping crescents of white sand with nothing but a pink-umbrella drink between you and a dip in the azure water, stop off in Bora-Bora. The Marquesas—even the largest, most modernized islands of Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa—are paradise in the raw, where the fun comes in communing with the islands' primal past.

Rose Corser, a 69-year-old American-expat art historian who's lived on Nuku Hiva since 1979, explains the islands' appeal this way: "I love the Marquesans because their life is their art, yet they were cannibals." This sublime-savage juxtaposition has attracted Western writers and artists for more than a century: Here, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his best poetry, Herman Melville was inspired to write his classic adventure Typee by a run-in with cannibals on Nuku Hiva, Jack London witnessed the haunting tubercular coughs of the lepers, and Paul Gauguin was so smitten that he moved to Hiva Oa in 1901 and built his infamous House of Pleasure, a tropical version of Studio 54—without the disco. In addition to his endless stream of concubines and hazy morphine bouts, Gauguin kept a fishing rod dangling from his second-story studio, to fish out wine bottles cooling in the well below.

These days, most of the Marquesas' roughly 3,200 annual pilgrims are less interested in replicating Gauguin's public display of decadence and more interested in trying to piece together Polynesian life as it was hundreds of years ago. Unless you've booked a berth on the Aranui 3, the passenger freighter that stops at all six inhabited islands, you're not likely to get to the smaller islands like Fatu Hiva and Tahuata, which internal flights don't access.

But Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa—with their jagged volcanic peaks, rugged jungle interior, and overabundance of coconut palms, crashing surf, and sultry air—are plenty. Both are riddled with ancient ceremonial sites where the crumbled remains of stone tikis grimace at you through thick layers of moss. Interspersed with four-wheeled excursions to archaeological ruins, there's time to hike to hundred-foot-high waterfalls or sunbathe on an isolated half-moon beach. And to experience a little living history, stop for lunch at village restaurants along the way, where you'll feast on breaded wahoo, shrimp, cassava, breadfruit, and mashed banana while you watch a villager cool off his horse in the surf or whittle an intricate tiki.

Luckily, it seems the only ancient practice that doesn't still exist is cannibalism. But even that ritual sacrifice wouldn't feel so out of line in a culture where the greatest desire was to please fickle gods and the ruling emotion is still passion. And as I bushwhack through the jungle with Doc Suggs, who points out skull repositories, embalming platforms, and stone tikis with frightening faces and fat bellies, I almost wish the song "Time Stops in the Marquesas," by Belgian singer Jacques Brel, who was buried here in 1978, were true. After all, what would you rather be? A bartender or a majestic bird?

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