Published: 19th January 2014
I’m in a supermarket in paradise. A woman is picking up a pint of milk, but she’s doing so while wearing a magnificent crown of fresh flowers. A man wanders in to buy some beers, his brown legs and arms circled with dramatic geometric tattoos.
When the missionaries came to Hiva Oa, a remote island in the remote Marquesas Islands, in the 19th century, they put an end to the practice of tattooing. But since the 1980s, it has returned with vigour. Honeymooners, I was told, often return home with his’n’hers designs inked on their backs.
It’s the more intrepid honeymooner who makes it this far. The 118 islands of French Polynesia, roughly midway between Peru and Australia, are scattered over an area about a quarter of the size of Europe. Most people stick to Tahiti and the nearby islands of Moorea and magical Bora Bora. It’s a 3 1⁄2-hour flight from Tahiti to Hiva Oa, where just 2,000 people live. Here, horses wander. Black pigs stumble through the jungle draped over the mountains, and the Pacific lashes against the rocks and beaches. Blossoms of frangipani and gardenia dot the roads. The fertile ground is overflowing with mangoes, avocados and coconuts, and there are always fish in the ocean.
French Polynesia still has the raw and ravishing quality that drew Paul Gauguin here for the last years of his life. “It seems to me that the troubled life of Europe no longer exists,” wrote the painter of Tahiti. There is a fine museum devoted to him on Hiva Oa, along with a replica of his Maison du Jouir (“house of pleasure”), where he lived with his young girlfriend, and a simple gravestone beneath a frangipani tree in the cemetery.
Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville also chased the dangerous beauty of the South Seas. Melville’s first book, Typee, is an account of being marooned on Nuku Hiva, among the Polynesians. “To many of them, indeed,” he wrote, “life is little else than an often interrupted and luxurious nap.” His only anxiety was that he would never be allowed to leave, unless in a cooking pot. Even when Gauguin lived on Hiva Oa, there were, apparently, old men who sat around wistfully remembering the deliciousness of human flesh. Such dining habits have not come back with tattooing.
Adjusting the white gardenia in her hair, dressed in a sarong, the waitress in my small hotel, the Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge, gusted over the floor of the restaurant like the prow of a ship. “Ma chérie...,” she began, then asked me what I wished to eat, touching my arm as she did so.
The food was a blend of French fine dining and Marquesas traditions. The hotel itself was more modest: I slept in a bungalow overlooking the valley and the bay. I will never forget the beauty and the strangeness. At another nearby “restaurant” — the outside area of someone’s house — I ate raw tuna and coconut milk, goat and pig.
After a three-hour drive through exuberant jungle and along precipitous cliffs, I arrived at a clearing in the Puamau Valley. In the hot, still air, amid wild hibiscus, breadfruit and mango trees, stood a group of tikis — sacred carved statues. A big-mouthed fertility figure lay tummy down on the ground. The largest was 8ft tall, a formidable grey-lichen-covered warrior chief. If you want to see a bigger tiki in Polynesia, you need to go to Easter Island.
Afterwards, I swam in the ocean where wild horses are taken to be trained — if you fall from the horse, you don’t break your neck. But if that sounds like too much of an adventure, you can stick, like the honeymooners, to the luxury of Bora Bora.
I arrived at sunset and, in the hazy red light, the island, surrounded by its lagoon and necklace of coral, was like nothing else on Earth. A boat took me from the tiny airport to the landing of the Pearl Beach resort. Here, all the things that go wrong with marriages seemed as far away as Britain.
At Bloody Mary’s restaurant, I checked in my shoes at the door and dabbled my feet in the sand. Past visitors include Nelson Rockefeller, Roman Polanski, Pamela Anderson, Diana Ross, Prince Rainier and Marlon Brando, whose nearby overwater bungalow can be rented. Brando fell for the area — and for Tahitian women — when filming Mutiny on the Bounty in the 1960s.
In the middle of my overwater bungalow, a glass coffee table let me watch tropical fish gathering around the coral below. As darkness fell, the iridescent blue fish arrived. All night long, I kept getting up to look down at my private aquarium.
In the day, I swam in the lagoon, above rainbow fish and corals, and took a 4x4 tour round the island with my guide, Patrick. “When I had to go to college and leave my island, and the lagoon and the lobsters and the coconut crabs we used to catch, I cried,” he told me. He showed me the rusty American cannons from the Second World War he used to play with as a child. Later, I snorkelled above 6ft-wide manta rays, which flew through the water on sinister dark wings.
No wonder the Bounty mutineers didn’t wish to return to Britain. Melville wrote that the women on the island where he was marooned spent their time making flower garlands, swimming in the streams and rubbing coconut oil on their skin: “All was mirth, fun and high good humour.” Things have not changed all that much — apart, thankfully, from some of their eating habits.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson was a guest of Audley and Air Tahiti Nui.
Audley (01993 838815, audleytravel.com) can tailor-make a 15-day trip to French Polynesia, with two nights on Tahiti and three on each of Moorea,
Hiva Oa and Bora Bora, from £3,940pp, including flights. For island tours, email firstname.lastname@example.org.