An Untainted World Apart
For years the wild beauty of the little-visited Marquesas Islands – the most remote inhabited islands on earth, located 1,000 miles from anywhere – has drawn literary personalities and artists. One of the most scenic places in all French Polynesia, this is the untainted tropics, where forest-cloaked cliffs plunge into the rocky sea and eerie volcanic spires that Robert Louis Stevenson once likened to “the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church” are often lost in the clouds.
Of the six inhabited islands (out of ten total), Fatu Hiva is said to be the most beautiful, due in large part to the beautiful Bay of Virgins, whose steep sides are ringed with lush groves of mangoes, oranges, and guavas. Paul Gauguin intended to live out his days here, but instead disembarked on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa. Herman Melville and Captain James Cook were just as captivated by the Marquesas’s allure, believing them to be even more beautiful than the Tahitian islands. The largest town, with 1,500 handsome, tattooed, brightly smiling inhabitants and a bay that rivals the Bay of Virgins, moved Jack London to write, “One caught one’s breath and felt the pang that is almost hurt, so exquisite was the beauty of it.”
The 343-foot freighter/ passenger ship Aranui is the lifeline that links the far-flung Marquesas with the outside world, delivering everything from cement to medicine to sugar. Entire towns – sometimes entire islands – turn out to greet the ship’s monthly arrival, bartering copra (pressed and dried coconut meat) for basic supplies. Aranui passengers make landfall in the same whaleboats that transport cargo, and once ashore can make excursions to see lush valleys populated by wild horses and the volcanic basalt peaks that inspired Melville, London, and Stevenson.
There are few roads, but follow the trails through steamy jungles to abandoned stone-carved tikis (Polynesian images of supernatural powers) or visit one of the world’s most movingly beautiful cemeteries, where you’ll find the frangipani-shaded graves of Gauguin and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel. A cruise ship could replicate the Aranui‘s route, but not the experience. You’ll come back from this cruise with much more than just a tan.