Ultimate Guide: No wonder Gauguin stayed put

SOUTH PACIFIC: THE MARQUESAS: Mark Rowe sails the South Seas and falls for the Marquesas, the French painter's final resting place

So, just what would you like from your South Pacific island? Coconut palms, banyan trees and coral sands, with Mizzi Gaynor washing that man right out of her hair? Or would you prefer the other version, a trip back in time to a more remote, ruggedly volcanic land with perhaps a little light cannibalism thrown in?

I pondered this question as our tiny 18-seater aircraft, gently buffeted by South Pacific trade winds, descended into Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, an archipelago scattered along the north-eastern fringe of French Polynesia. The sight of this landfall, after hours of endless ocean, was dramatically beautiful as crescent-shaped beaches and vast peninsulas resembling the toes of some prehistoric beast emerged through the wispy cloud: this, it seemed, was a land where all South Sea isles come together.

Located midway between Australia and South America, and 800 miles from Tahiti, the Marquesas are the ultimate castaway islands, isolated like no other land on earth, even more so than Pitcairn or Easter Island. This is a remote part of the universe, one of the few remaining havens on this planet where you are safe from mobile phones and replica Manchester United football shirts.

The majority of those who come to Nuku Hiva are attracted by Typee, Herman Melville's first book, which describes a stay in a valley of cannibals of the same name with baroque tattoos, and his romance with Fayaway, the epitome of female South Sea beauty. Others come in homage to the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, whose resting place is the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa. Some, like me, read Willard Price's less weighty South Sea Adventure as a child, a tale of animal collectors Hal and Roger Hunt, giant squid and Professor Stuyvesant, a shady eco-scientist with a dodgy line in pearl farms.

The Marquesas are sometimes described as the thinking-person's South Sea islands. Many beaches are infested with no-nos, tiny white sand flies known locally as "noseeyums" which leave you with red, fingernail-sized bites. Diving is a slightly hair-raising prospect as shoals of sharks flick their tails just a few feet from the shore. These are not the people- friendly hand-fed sharks of Bora-Bora but hammerheads and tiger sharks. "If you swim, you'll find that shark-feeding has a different meaning here," Pascal, a local hotel-owner, told us. "In the Marquesas, even the sharks have tattoos."

Instead you must explore. Nuku Hiva was created by the collapse of two volcanoes, whose rims remain the dominant geographical features. The shoreside villages are hemmed in by sheer rock faces that plunge into the sea, while inland communities lie in valleys separated from one another by tough mountainous passes. In the centre of the island lies a vast plateau, the ancient cauldron of the volcano. To move anywhere you must negotiate a succession of exhausting and torturous switch-backs. The only paved road is the quayside strip in the main town of Tai-o-hae.

We first headed for Taipivai, the valley of the cannibals in Melville's precursor to Moby Dick. Though the cannibals have gone, the beauty of the place remains. Wood-carvers ply their trade by streams as the road leads through plantations of coconuts, grapefruit, breadfruit and mangoes. A short walk away is Paeke, one of the most amazing ancient religious sites in the South Pacific. Built on raised stone, this ceremonial site, known as a meae, is where sacrifices were made and enemies eaten. The site is guarded by large stone carvings of squat tikis, figures representing ancestral gods.

You'll probably have the place to yourself for the day, though don't wander too far as many places are tapu, or off-limits (this Marquesan word became our "taboo") and to tread on a sacred site is said to invite the wrath of the spirits watching from the surrounding woods. Be careful where you step, too, for there are many pits where what the guides euphemistically call "food" used to be kept. Given that cannibalism officially stopped in 1870 - with the odd lapse until 1920 - food hasn't always meant wild pigs.

Usually it was only men who participated in cannibalism and, mainly, it was only enemies killed in battle who went into the stone ovens. Today there aren't many Marquesans left to eat: the population of Nuku Hiva was 100,000 before contact with the Europeans; today it is just 2,000. The islands were first discovered in 1595 by a Spanish navigator, an early exponent of the art of brown-nosing who named them after his patron, a marquis in Peru.

The locals call them Te Henua Enana, the "Land of Men". In their version of the island's history, the islands are a great house built by two gods in which Nuku Hiva means "rafters" while Hiva Oa is "the main frame". Fatu Hiva, said to be the most stunningly beautiful of all the islands, is the "roof".

There is a melancholy timelessness to Nuku Hiva. Over the pass from Taipivai we came to Anaho Bay, a gorgeous palm-fringed beach where the coconut trees seem to be tilting their heads towards the sea and which prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to settle in the region. We walked to the beach from Hatiheu, a tiny hamlet, occasionally passing a house where the sound of a ukulele could be heard as villagers sat around talking, taking each day as it comes.

We ached to linger but other wonders awaited. On the south side of the island lies the Hakaui valley, home to one of the largest waterfalls in the world and reached through a jungle path of truly Lost World proportions. Every hundred yards we encountered the paved floors of pre-European houses, along what was once the "Royal Way" where the king and queen of the valley would pass.

We waded through rivers while moss-covered tikis peered out at us from among a dense lattice of tree boughs, tugging at our imagination. More than once, a chill seemed to linger in the air, as though the place we were passing through carried a dark history.

The valley is a vast natural supermarket. Robinson Crusoe would have had to be particularly stupid not to have survived in such a place: chillies, guava, mangoes, coconuts, wild pigs, goats and chickens thrive in abundance. Just before we reached the waterfall, the valley narrowed into a teetering gorge where wild horses grazed.

The horizon was limited by spectacular basaltic rock needles, which seemed freshly cast from the moulds of giant inverted ice-cream cones. Our guide, Jean, stopped as often as we did to gape at the wondrous views. Did he ever get bored with such a sight, we wondered. "No," he said with a smile. "It is impossible."

Many people have fallen for the extraordinary charms of these islands, among them Paul Gauguin, who spent his last years on the nearby island of Hiva Oa. When he died he left an unpaid wine bill and before his death was announced, a servant bit him on the head, the traditional Marquesan way of establishing whether someone has died.

Gauguin's grave is located in what must be a strong contender for the world's most beautifully located cemetery, overlooking the romantically named Bay of Traitors in Hiva Oa's main town of Atuona. His grave is made of red sandstone and shaded by a frangipani tree. It is oddly moving, particularly at dusk when the pastel colours of his paintings become vivid in the setting sky and darkening clouds. Nearby lies Jacques Brel, the great Belgian singer who also settled on these isles.

Disillusioned with French influence in the Marquesas, Gauguin selectively edited out trappings of westernisation from his paintings to create a Pacific idyll that had already ceased to exist in his lifetime. But even today his subject matter lives on, in the long-haired youths who ride bareback along the beaches and the well-rounded women wearing pareu (sarongs) who sit and talk on street corners. We found it easy to ignore reminders of home - mainly very rich French tourists who spent most of their time complaining about the quality of vinaigrette on their salade nicoise or about the plumbing in their bidets. And while I was not entirely dismayed to travel 10,000 miles to find fine French food and vintage wine, it was a pity that local cuisine, mainly centred on breadfruit, was hard to find.

The serpent in this particular paradise (apart from Santa Barbara dubbed into French on local TV) is cost. Until recently you would have had to sell one, perhaps two, grandmothers to come to French Polynesia. But things are changing as those on middle incomes and backpackers make inroads. Packages are much cheaper than trying to buy air fares and hotels individually.

It is worth the effort: sitting on my hotel balcony overlooking the vast amphitheatre of Tai-o-hae, an outrigger canoe manned by six bare- chested Marquesans sped across the bay. Above the ukulele music of the nearby bar, a tune from that musical, South Pacific, drummed away in my head: "You've got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"

GETTING THERE

Mark Rowe flew with Air New Zealand (tel: 0181-741 2299) to Tahiti. Flights from pounds 1,109 return plus taxes in January. From there he travelled with TransPacific Holidays (tel: 01293 567722) which has all-inclusive tailor- made packages to Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa from pounds 1,299 per person for six days including air travel, transfers, accommodation, car and meals.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information and brochures, contact the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (tel: 0181-876 1938).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week