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