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MARQUESAS ISLANDS CRUISE

(Continuation of Aranui Freighter Cruise)

Story and photos by

Ua Huka

Each Marquesas Island has a unique personality. Our means of exploring the Marquesas were equally diverse.

Sometimes we rode in flower-bedecked Jeeps. Once, we rode in le truck, a school bus with three wooden benches along its length. On Ua Huka, where 2,000 wild horses outnumber the 500 residents, some adventurous passengers rode tame, wooden-saddled horses.

Visitors walk through Hatiheu. Basaltic spires of Nuku Hiva mountains tower behind.
Visitors walk through Hatiheu. Basaltic spires of Nuku Hiva mountains tower behind.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Every day, we had the opportunity to hike. Carrying cameras and binoculars, we climbed to mountain-top crosses and belvederes. Gazing down over seas of swaying coconut palms to rocky coastlines, we often spotted the Aranui 5 glittering in a turquoise bay, its praying mantis-like cranes loading cargo onto barges.

Fatu Hiva

Where there were roads, Jeeps transported passengers, unable or uninterested in walking. It amazed us how many people walked — even a 16-kilometer (10-mile) hike from Omoa (population: 400) to Hanavave (population: 250) on Fatu Hiva.

Weighed down by camera equipment and heavy water bottles, the two of us commiserated over the heat of the 2 1/2-hour climb, until Parisians, Genevieve and Alain Tromparent, overtook us. They explained that the Aranui cruise was a celebration for their 70th birthdays.

Motivated by their enthusiasm, we quickened our pace to match theirs. A buffet lunch at the top of the mountain, transported by road by Aranui kitchen staff, awaited us. Jaw-dropping views of tall volcanic pillars rising above verdant coconut palms and lush ferns highlighted our descent to the sapphire blue Bay of Virgins.

While we hiked, a children's dance performance entertained non-hikers. "The Marquesan children were so cute, adorned with flowers down to their hips," said Marilyn Lipsky. On other islands, we noticed kindergarten children learning traditional dances, as their teachers accompanied them on drums.

Aranui passengers watch Marquesan dancers in Hakahau, Ua Pou.
Aranui passengers watch Marquesan dancers in Hakahau, Ua Pou.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Marquesas culture

A Spanish explorer named the Marquesas Islands in 1595, but it wasn't until Captain James Cook visited in 1774 that European traders and missionaries arrived. Their effect on the Marquesan culture was disastrous.

Diseases, firearms and alcohol collapsed the population from an estimated 100,000, in the early 19th century, to 2,000 in 1920. Today, France helps support the Marquesas population of 9,100 with education, medical care, roads and copra subsidies.

In the late 1970s, Marquesans began a cultural revival. Besides the Marquesan language, cultural remnants appear in enigmatic stone tikis (goggle-eyed human images, representing ancestral deities).

Small museums, like the Community Museum of Ua Huka, display historic photos and drawings of tattoo-covered men and women and ceremonial wooden paddles, bowls, arms and legs, carved with tattoo symbols. Aranui crew, and many Marquesans, proudly proclaim their cultural identity with body art.

"Being Québécois, we understand the Marquesans' desire to maintain their culture," says Samia Zoheir, a Montreal financial services consultant. "Georges Lebel, my husband, and I had long talks with them. They don't want to be considered Tahitians. They want to protect their Marquesan language and culture, while continuing their alliance with France."

Artist, Felix Fii, tattoos the arm of Georges Lebel in Tahuata, Marquesas.
Artist, Felix Fii, tattoos the arm of Georges Lebel in Tahuata.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll
Close-up of Georges Lebel's tiki and sacred turtle tattoo.
Close-up of Georges Lebel's tiki and sacred turtle tattoo.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Marquesas cultural revival impressed Georges so much that he asked Tahuata tattoo artist Felix Fii to create a permanent souvenir on his upper arm. "We originally decided on a tiki head, but as it progressed, we added a turtle as support," says Georges. "It was only later, that I learned its spiritual significance."

"Turtles are our most sacred animal," explained our French Polynesian guide, Vai Vivish. "Because they live in water and air, they can travel between earth and heaven."

Tapa cloth

Tattoo symbols decorate many Marquesan arts and crafts, especially tapa (barkcloth). In Fatu Hiva, we observed tapa-making.

The craftswoman peeled the inner bark off a log and pounded it on a stone with a wood mallet until the bark became soft and thin. We learned that light brown tapa is made from breadfruit tree bark, white tapa from paper mulberry bark and reddish-brown tapa, from young banyan tree bark.

Among the most beautiful tattoo-patterned works are the traditional motifs burned into bamboo with an electric needle. Catherine Kervella-Benatar, wife of our guide Didier, explained how she revived this technique called pyrograving.

Marie Ange Seigel displays her white tapa art decorated with tattoo designs in Fatu Hiva.
Marie Ange Seigel displays her white tapa art decorated with tattoo designs in Fatu Hiva.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In Fatu Hiva, women wear perfumed sachets of flowers and herbs in their hair. A villager showed Aranui passengers how to make these umuhei. She layered tiare (gardenia), ylang-ylang (the blossoms that scent Chanel No. 5), jasmine, basil, mint and pineapple eyes (coated with sandalwood powder) on leaves, then rolled up the bundle for her hair.

Another woman showed us how she made monoi (perfumed coconut oil), by grating coconut, squeezing out the milk and scenting it with blossoms. After allowing it to sit for a few days, she collected the golden oil that rose to the top and poured it into bottles.

Cultured black pearls

Traditional handicrafts also reflect the culture. Each Tuamotu and Marquesas Island specialized in different crafts. If we saw something we liked, we bought it, because we were unlikely to see it elsewhere.

Tahuata boasts ivory-like cow bone jewelry. Ua Pou islanders carve sculptures from flower stone, which has embedded yellow garnet crystals.

Marquesas necklace made from cow bone with red and black seeds
Marquesas necklace made from cow bone
with red and black seeds
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The best woodcarvings are on Ua Huka. Necklaces, made from coloured seeds and carved nuts vary from island to island.

In the Tuamotus, Fakarava and Rangiroa, residents cultivate lustrous black pearls. On a tour of Gauguin's Pearl Farm, Aranui 5 passengers learned how to culture pearls in oysters and how to grade the lustrous gems.

In handicraft centres on every island, we admired, photographed and discussed items, with absolutely no pressure to buy. But buy we did, delighted with the unique souvenirs, and happy to do our part to maintain these Marquesan decorative arts.

Nuku Hiva

Fine craftsmanship was also evident in Notre Dame Cathedral at Taiohae, on Nuku Hiva. Marquesan culture merges with Christianity in the carved tree trunk pulpit, halved coconut shell candle holders, tapa altar cloth, statue of David playing a ukulele, breadfruit trees replacing olive trees in the Stations of the Cross, and Hinano beer depicted as one of the seven deadly sins.

Stone tikis on a paepae (house platform) with Aranui behind in Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva
Stone tikis on a paepae (house platform) with Aranui behind in Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ancient sacred sites (me'ae), for us, proclaimed the profound spirituality of the Marquesas more than the churches. With Aranui archaeology expert, Didier Benatar, we explored once-taboo sites like Me'ae Iipona at Puamau, Hiva Oa, which has a 2.4-metre (eight-foot)-high tiki, the tallest in the Marquesas.

Jungle encroached ancient tikis, which dominated the paepae (platform foundations for buildings). Our always-helpful guide, Sylvie Berthelot, showed us a stone skull and a tiki carved with petroglyphs.

At another me'ae, on Tahuata, Vai Vivish pointed out ancient bowl-like cupules in rocks, which her ancestors used for grinding medicines and holding tattoo ink and offerings for the gods. We gazed into a large stone bowl. "When they filled it with water, it became a magic mirror for viewing the future," she explained.

The ancient Kamuihei Ceremonial Center on Nuku Hiva overwhelmed us with its mana (supernatural power). Dominating the terraced stone platforms, once reserved for high priests, is a 600-year-old banyan tree.

Aranui guide, Vai Vivish, shows passenger a stone bowl, once used as a magic mirror at Me'ae of Anapara and Eia in Tahuata.
Aranui guide, Vai Vivish, shows passenger a stone bowl, once used as a magic mirror at Me'ae of Anapara and Eia in Tahuata.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"When archaeologist Robert Suggs explored this site, in 1956, he found bundles of human bones and skulls in the tree's aerial roots," Didier told us. We peered into the eerie pit at its base, which held taboo items and bones of sacrificial victims. In spite of the heat, shivers rose up our spines.

Petroglyphs, carved by priests during ceremonies, cover two mossy boulders. Amid the dancing stick figures, geometric tattoo designs, birds and fish, we spotted several turtles, similar to George's tattoo.

Like early Marquesans, we gathered in a nearby tohua (public ceremonial plaza). As drummers pounded tall wooden pahu, men wearing ti leaves and wild boar tooth necklaces performed an ancient pig dance.

It was another example of the Marquesan cultural renaissance, like the colorful women's bird dance that we observed on Ua Pou. According to Aranui guide, Pascal Erhel Hatuuku, the bird dance was recreated solely from the memory of an old lady who, as a child, saw women dancing on the tips of their feet.

The longer we spent in the Marquesas Islands, the more they captivated us. Like most Aranui passengers, we arose at dawn to watch our approach to soaring mountain pinnacles and deeply carved valleys, choked with primeval green vegetation.

We seriously considered jumping ship. Our footsteps would've followed those of Paul Gauguin, Jacques Brel, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Thor Heyerdahl, Jack London and Moby-Dick author, Herman Melville, whose book Typee, about Taipivai, Nuku Hiva, was more famous than Moby-Dick.

Les Marquises

"My father disappeared for three months when I was five years old," says Alain Bélanger, a retired provincial government manager and volunteer consultant from Quebec City. "When I was older, he explained that he had escaped to paradise in Polynesia to recover from burnout."

The Aranui cruise was a 25th anniversary celebration for Alain and Marthe, a clinical research assistant. "Our visit to Jacques Brel Center in Atuona, Hiva Oa, was an emotional experience for me," Marthe says.

Jacques Brel's plane at Paul Gauguin Cultural Center in Atuona, Hiva Oa
Jacques Brel's plane at Paul Gauguin Cultural Center
in Atuona, Hiva Oa
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The building contains the Belgian singer's plane, which he used to evacuate sick islanders to Tahiti. His French songs play continuously.

"We're big fans of Brel. Marthe gave me the Complete Works of Brel CD for my 40th birthday," Alain adds. "Whenever I listened to his song, Les Marquises, I thought of my father's trip.

"I Googled Les Marquises and found the Aranui. The Marquesas are Gardens of Eden. You can reach up and pick mangoes off the trees."

Paul Gauguin art reproductions

The Brel exhibit is part of the Paul Gauguin Cultural Center, which contains Paul Gauguin art reproductions. In Calvary Cemetery, above Atuona, Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) and Jacques Brel (1929 - 1978) are buried amidst the flowers, trees and ferns.

Paradise isn't perfect. The Marquesas have only a few beaches. Some beaches have nono, tiny sandflies, which inflict disease-free mosquito-like bites. To protect ourselves, we used DEET. The locals claim monoi works equally well.

A greater danger on this trip was obesity. We would have gladly drowned in the juice of the first tree-ripened mango that we slurped shamelessly at a fruit-tasting. We sampled delicious fire-roasted breadfruit and over-indulged in popoi (fresh and fermented breadfruit, pounded to a paste and served with coconut milk).

Local restaurant meals (included in the Aranui cruise fare) were delicious. At palm frond-decorated Rosalie's Restaurant, on Ua Pou, our delicious buffet included shrimp salad, cooked bananas and poisson cru (raw, marinated fish in coconut milk). We enjoyed more enormous buffets at Restaurant Hoa Nui, on Hiva Oa, and Chez Celine, on Ua Huka.

Passengers enjoy Polynesian Night buffet on Aranui 5.
Passengers enjoy Polynesian Night buffet on Aranui 5.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Earth oven

The most memorable feast was at Yvonne's Restaurant on Nuku Hiva. Mayor Yvonne Katupa welcomed us to her thatched open-sided restaurant.

We gathered around the earth oven behind the restaurant. As cooks removed the sand, ashes, burlap and banana leaves covering the roast pigs, bananas and breadfruit, mouth-watering aromas wafted around us. And if all this food wasn't enough, the restaurant accompanied it with fried shrimp and fish fritters.

Meals with French wine

"Food on the Aranui is wonderful," says Marilyn Lipsky. "Lunch and dinner included French wine."

The breakfast buffet featured fresh fruits, cereals, baked goods, cheeses, meat and eggs cooked to order. Lunches and dinners were served and frequently included tasty local fish. A typical Aranui menu? Onion soup, roasted leg of lamb with green beans and almond tart.

Aranui is justifiably proud of its patisserie, which bakes fresh bread, croissants and decadent desserts like molten chocolate cake.

A sumptuous buffet highlighted Polynesian Night around the pool. Passengers and staff modeled casual clothing and colorful pareus (Polynesian sarongs) from the Aranui boutique. (An earlier pareu-tying demonstration by Mila Mahagafanau-Ah lo ensured that we knew a dozen ways to wear them.)

The women in Mila's dance classes swayed their hips to traditional music. Crew members and passengers danced. We felt part of the Aranui extended family.

Couple admire a Marquesas Islands sunset.
Couple admire a Marquesas Islands sunset.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Standing on the deck, as the Aranui departed the Marquesas, we watched the islands disappear into a sunset as orange as succulent mango flesh. We recalled the fragrant flowers, the precipitous mountains, the verdant valleys, the mystical me'ae, and especially the warm-hearted people and their rich culture.

We like places with exotic names even more now.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Aranui (Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime)

For brochures and bookings contact: GLP Worldwide

Getting There: Air Tahiti Nui flies daily non-stop from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti: www.airtahitinui.com

Where to Stay: Because Aranui 5 embarks on Saturday mornings, passengers overnight in Tahiti. Intercontinental Tahiti Resort is just two kilometres (one mile) from Faa'a International Airport. On Friday evenings, it hosts a magnificent seafood buffet and performance by the Grands Ballets de Tahiti: www.tahiti.intercontinental.com

Marquesas Climate: Year-round average temperature is 26°C (79°F). The Marquesas are not in the cyclone zone. The smoothest seas are from September to December.

More things to see & do in French Polynesia:

Tahiti - Hiking the Fautaua Valley Trail

Tahiti Honeymoons - Romantic Vacations in French Polynesia

Tahiti Reward Programs

(Return to Aranui Freighter Cruise)