Vol 1: Spellbound‎ > ‎Read‎ > ‎

Ch 10: Paradise

Taiohoe Bay, Nuku Hiva Island, Marquesas
(By Sémhur (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons)

What was paradise like for my grandparents? I wish I could discover first hand what a sailing trip from the U.S. to Tahiti is like. But alas, with three children, a house, and other adult responsibilities, as well as a lack of funds for such a venture, I had to learn vicariously through interviews and research.

What I discovered was that French Polynesia is technically called the Overseas Country of French Polynesia.  It is still ruled by the French government, even today when most colonies in the world have gained their independence.  The islands have a small population of approximately 264,000 and are not very densely populated.  The capital is Papeete, located on the island of Tahiti.  The hot and humid summer season begins in November and ends in April, with the hottest months being February and March (73-87º F with lots of humidity).  The rest of the year, the climate is a bit cooler and drier. January to April is hurricane season.

French Polynesia is made up of five major island groups: the Society Islands (which includes Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora); the Tuamotu Archipelago (where Rangiroa and Ahe are located); the Marquesas Islands (including Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Nuku Hiva); the Gambier Islands; and the Austral Islands.  In total, there are about 35 islands and 83 atolls in French Polynesia.  The Marquesas Islands are volcanic and the Tuamotus are coral, while the Societies and Gambiers include both volcanic and coral islands.

The largest wave of early Westerners visited the islands in the mid 1700s and returned home with fabulous stories of “a paradise on earth with Venus-like women.” This was a tropical heaven. These stories inspired visits from the likes of Herman Melville and Paul Gauguin.  Each island was, and often still is, ruled by a local king.  Over the centuries, powerful families emerged, one of which was the Pomares from Tahiti, who came to control most of the islands.  As usually happened during this period in history, the locals traded with the Europeans for weapons in order to gain superior strength over each other.  Also typical after such in-fighting, they ended up under foreign rule.  Polynesia became a French protectorate in 1842 and a colony in 1880.

While the Polynesians would love to have their independence from France, the French have made it clear they do not wish to relinquish their overseas territories.  French Polynesia has a 41-member Territorial Assembly that is elected by popular vote every five years.  In 1996, after a 20-year transition, the Assembly took over local governance.  In 2004, France changed its status from a French Overseas Territory to an Overseas Country, which gave French Polynesia more autonomy over local affairs.

DID YOU KNOW .  .  . About the Gendarmerie?

What is it really like for a modern-day American to sail into French Polynesia?  It usually takes about a month to sail from North America to the Marquesas Islands, the first island chain a boat heading west is likely to encounter.  After you have been at sea for a month, there is probably mixed feelings about seeing land.  On the one hand, you are ecstatic that you have reached your destination.  On the other, the intimacy of the extended sea voyage is over.  Also, it can be quite tricky to sail into a French Polynesian harbor.

I imagine my grandparents, Kerry, Gary, and Lori sitting on the deck of the Spellbound as the mountains of Nuku Hiva came closer, the rugged peaks, and the beautiful vibrant green color of the dense vegetation leaving everyone speechless.  The water is crystal clear – they could likely see all the way to the bottom. There must have been hundreds of colorful fish swimming around, perhaps a stingray or two.  Then, a white-sandy beach comes into view with a few palm trees and jungle growing down to the edge in most places.  The usual salty sea breeze engulfs them with a new fragrant aroma.  The air in French Polynesia is sweet with the bouquet of tropical blossoms.  The heady fragrance must have been somewhat overwhelming after the smell of salt and sweat for so long.  Yes, this was paradise.

Nuku Hiva is approximately 330 square kilometers (127 square miles) and the largest of the Marquesas Islands.  It’s located about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) northeast of Papeete. It is here that Herman Melville wrote “Typee.”  And, for those who watch the television show “Survivor,” this was also the site for “Survivor: Marquesas.”  The native population when my grandparents visited was around 2000 souls. The town of Taiohae is located in the center of the southern coast at the foot of Taiohae Bay and is the administrative capital of the Marquesas Islands.

Nature is everywhere.  Large blue and green parrots fly wild.  There is one road around the island, which is steep, twisty, rutted and muddy; only parts of it near the three towns on the island are paved.  There are several large standing stones along the roadside.  You can see massive banyan trees, some of which are more than 600 years old.  All along the roadside there are wild horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, and goats.  You see many native Polynesians strolling about, some on horseback, others on foot. Many of them are tattooed in the traditional Marquesan way.

There is the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame des Marquises, built one year before my grandparents arrived, whose gate was built from the wall of the a 19th-century church on the same site.  The cathedral is adorned by a traditional Marquesan wood carved door.  You can visit the Cascade Tevaipo, one of the world’s highest waterfalls at 1,159 feet (350m).  Two of the best archaeological sites in the Marquesas Islands are here near the village Hatiheu: Hikokua and Kamuihei.  The Kamuihei sight has well-preserved stone tikis – petroglyphs of turtles, fish, and human figures carved into huge boulders.  Visitors will also see many stone ceremonial platforms.

Life in the Marquesas is slow paced.  What you need you grow and catch or it must be shipped in. This means life is also simple.  The languid pace is in stark contrast to the normal hectic Western lifestyle.  A month at sea helps Westerners adapt easier. Yes, my grandparents had certainly found paradise.