The dog was carrying a whole baguette crosswise in his teeth. He trotted off the beach at the head of the cove, through a scrim of palms, maneuvering it between a red flowering hibiscus and a beached outrigger canoe. We followed. The dog passed a low tin-roofed house, one of only six dwellings in this roadless, remote island valley. He skirted two shirtless young men untethering a horse from a breadfruit tree. Ink covered their chests and arms in black patterns that looked like manta rays and birds. The dog went on, jauntily carrying his baguette, passing a grapefruit tree that shaded a telephone booth. Labeled “Téléphone” and containing a coin-operated pay phone, the steel-and-glass cabin looked wildly out of place in this setting. But we were in the Marquesas, where I was learning not to be too surprised by anything.
The Polynesian name for the Marquesas is Te Fenua ‘Enata, the Land of Men. This volcanic archipelago of 12 islands is located 900 miles northeast of Tahiti and 2,340 miles from anywhere else. Only six islands are populated. They are so remote that they were one of the last places on earth to be colonized. They are so rugged that before the French brought baguettes and téléphones, each of their many distinct, walled-in valleys had its own tribe. The island my wife, Kim, and I were on was Nuku Hiva, the largest in the chain. We planned to spend three nights here, then move on to the smaller islands of ‘Ua Pou and Hiva Oa. This morning we had taken a boat in rough seas to get to the Hakaui Valley, where we hoped to hike up to a waterfall called Vaipō.
Maria, our guide for the day, glanced at the phone booth. “Do you want to call your grandmother?” she asked, her eyes sparkling. I was also learning that the Marquesan sense of humor is as relentless as the trade winds. Maria was a descendant of the valley's original tribe and was related to everyone who lived here.
“That'd be tough,” I said. “My grandmother is in heaven.”
She cocked her head as if to say “So what?” and followed after the dog.
The trail to the waterfall ran along a small river before entering dense tropical forest. There was barely a breeze, and what breeze there was carried the scents of humid earth, cool water, and tiare, the fragrant white flower that blooms everywhere and is braided into leis. The walls of the verdant canyon soared above us. We waded across the river, which was brown with recent rain, and clambered out. As we climbed the path, I noticed that we were hewing to a neat line of black rocks dug into dirt, like a low guardrail. Maria stopped.
“We are on the chief's road,” she said. “He lived nine miles inland, for protection.”
Maria had told us how the cove would have filled with the canoes of the next tribe over, the warriors tattooed head to toe and carrying javelins. “How old is all this?” I gestured to the markers.
“Over 2,000 years. It is not certain.”
We walked on. A mile further upstream, we rounded a corner and I stopped cold. We were on a little promontory, and the canyon opened enough that I could see the forest below and half a mile across the valley. Volcanic landscapes are the most dramatic. Unlike bedrock, the more they erode, the sharper and more tortured they look. Here, the cliffs were covered in vegetation, with knife-edge spurs and basalt towers that soared into the dark clouds above. A waterfall cascaded more than a thousand feet before us, a slash of white against all the green. A faint rush thrummed in the basin. High up along the cliffs, birds glided and gyred. Terns and phaethons with long pointed tails silently circled and climbed.
“It's like Avatar,” Kim murmured. It was. To the left of the falls, gouged halfway up the cliff face, was a cave. Maria pointed out a long white object on its shelf. “Do you know what that is?” she asked. “A coffin?” Kim answered. “Yes. For the chief. It's white because it is carved out of uru, breadfruit. It is carved in the shape of a canoe, so he can paddle into the afterlife.”
We hiked back. Two hours later, at the first house we reached, we were joined by Maria's cousin Kua, two nephews, two more dogs, and a small cat who stared down every canine. As we ate a lunch of fresh tuna and breadfruit grilled over coconut husks, Maria told us that 8,000 people once lived in the valley. They were mostly wiped out by diseases brought by the French in their warships and Americans and Europeans in their whalers. “My clan has been living here for thousands of years,” Maria said. “We leave it open for anyone to visit, but this is our land. We will never sell it.”
The evening before, we had driven across Nuku Hiva and come upon the tiny village of A‘akapa. A single 500-year-old mango tree shaded a marae, or sacred stone platform, where chiefs and priests once presided over rituals. A saddleless horse loped up and down the main drag, carrying little girls who screamed with glee. More children ran after it yelling, and dogs ran after the kids. At the top of the street, the whole pack turned around and did it again. Below, men and women, boys and girls played boules; others played soccer. Above, the steep rampart of the mountains was swept by veils of rain and sun. I wondered if life could really be as sweet as this scene. Probably not. Half of these kids most likely wanted to blow this backwater and travel to Papeete on Tahiti, the teeming capital of French Polynesia. And yet, on this afternoon, a score of young men and women sat on that stone wall, chatting and laughing.
Unlike in Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the other Society Islands, where overwater bungalows aimed at honeymooners reign and mega cruise ships are an increasingly common sight, there are very few tourists in the Marquesas. In large part this is because the islands are difficult to get to, and the journey to reach them seems tinged with menace. The eastern trade winds blow ceaselessly, driving steep swells that explode onto lava-rock headlands. The archipelago is newer than other island chains in French Polynesia and hasn't had time to grow the ringing coral reefs that create quiet lagoons. Once you arrive, moving around on and among the islands, whether by boat, car, or plane, isn't any gentler. In the harbor town of Taioha'e, the main community on Nuku Hiva, there's a single hotel, a few restaurants, a jail that leaves its doors open, and an anchorage for the dozens of sailboats that have made the long Pacific crossing and whose married crews, I'm told, have often just decided to get a divorce. Getting to Taioha'e on a twisty road from the airport, on the dry northern side of the island, we'd climbed up into foggy, rainy forests of Caribbean pine where visibility dropped to a few feet, navigating around horses and goats and the occasional mudslide. The drive had been hair-raising (though nothing compared to a later jaunt on Hiva Oa, where Gauguin is buried, during which our guide Heimata played a ukulele while skirting the edge of a cliff and steering with his knee). And the open boat ride from Taioha'e to Maria's valley had been…invigorating.
After Nuku Hiva, we flew to the island of ‘Ua Pou on a prop plane that seemed, like a seabird, to relish the bucking winds. The island is so rugged that there isn't a flat place long enough for an airstrip, so the single runway climbs gracefully up and over a hill. The beach below it is haunted, according to the guide who met us. Picnickers leave before dusk so they don't hear the screams of grumpy ancestors who can't stand partyers.
On ‘Ua Pou there is no hotel, just two guesthouses. I have been to few places that felt so raw. We got used to it and then we loved it. We stayed at the Hakamoui Plage guesthouse run by Daniel Tehahe; his 23-year-old son, Gaspard; and Gaspard's two-year-old daughter, Esparanze, who pretty much owned everyone. The main house and four bungalows fronted an empty beach that faced east, straight into the trade winds. The curtains blew in all night, and the surf was incessant, unruly, and somehow soothing. The ridges hemming the bay were stippled with dry acacia trees; when we arrived, it hadn't rained in five years. But despite the parched landscape and the harshness of the sea, the place felt welcoming. Maybe it was because Daniel was so warm and gracious. He was a superb chef, who made us fresh papaya tuna gratinée and Polynesian chocolate lava cake with mango sauce. And maybe it was because curly-headed, quiet Gaspard was so easily and constantly amused. And because after dinner, Esparanze would stand on the lawn in the dark and wave and wave, saying in her best English “G'nigh! G'nigh!” until we disappeared into our bungalow.
When we turned from the hypnotic, roaring sea to look back up the valley, we saw 4,000-foot rock spires and a jagged basalt ridge that could pierce a typhoon. One day, Gaspard took us into his valley. He showed us the houses that his neighbors had built on pae pae, the ancient platforms of cobbled rock that were constructed by the ancestors—his ancestors. He admitted that he was a descendant of the chiefs.
“You're a prince!” Kim said.
And then Gaspard took us behind a small cottage where a carved rock tiki stood next to a clucking chicken. This one was eroded and might have been created before the birth of Christ.
That night, lying in bed in the bungalow beside Kim, I listened to the constant rush of the waves and thought about the days we'd spent on this smattering of islands, clustered in the middle of the Pacific like some obscure constellation. We'd been to just three of the Marquesas, and I felt the impact of a place where extended families still lived very near each other, and where being close to the land and to one's ancestors was highly valued. I thought about Maria, probably sleeping now in her house off the beach in the Hakaui Valley. How she had asked if I wanted to call my grandmother from the pay phone. And I thought that if there were anywhere on earth from which I might be able to call her, it would be from here.
And then I remembered the chief, maybe Maria's great-great-great-grandfather, sleeping in his canoe up on the cliff, his soul paddling into the night. How he had been there for centuries while the stars wheeled and the waterfall fell and thrummed like a song.
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There are direct flights from Seattle and Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti, on Air Tahiti Nui. The flights take about eight and a half hours. Once on Tahiti, the archipelago's interisland airline, Air Tahiti, has regular service between the main islands of French Polynesia. It's about a three-hour flight from Papeete to Nuku Hiva and a quick 20-minute hop between Nuku Hiva and ‘Ua Pou.
Where to stay
On Nuku Hiva, Pension Mave Mai is a delightful guesthouse on a hill overlooking the harbor. The owners prepare fantastic family-style breakfasts of local fruit, crepes, eggs to order, and café au lait. Pension Hakamoui Plage on ‘Ua Pou has sweet cabins right on the beach and serves home-cooked gourmet meals. It has a wonderful vibe, and the owners have tons of local knowledge. On Hiva Oa, the place to stay is Hanakee Lodge, a collection of luxurious bungalows above the water with a swimming pool and great local food.
This article appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.