Just as Nuku Hiva has had its famous guests in Herman Melville and the sand-fly-bitten cast of television's Survivor, so has Hiva Oa, for here lie the remains of French artist Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer-poet Jacques Brel. Gauguin arrived in 1901 to escape what he saw as harassment by French colonial officials on Tahiti. He died here in 1903. Brel sailed his yacht here in 1975 and just plain fell under the spell of Hiva Oa's beauty and serenity. Brel was planning to build a spectacular home here when he died in 1978.
The second largest of the Marquesas Islands, Hiva Oa is indeed a place of beauty and serenity. Its rugged scenery was created by a series of volcanoes on an east-west line. One of the craters partially fell into the sea, forming huge Taaoa Bay on the south shore and leaving the fishhook-shaped island we see on today's maps. Another crater dominates the center of the island, while a third, on the northeastern coast, also partially collapsed to form Puamau Bay, upon whose banks sit one of French Polynesia's most important archaeological sites. In fact, Hiva Oa is pockmarked with the remains of ancient me'aes, many of them restored.
Gauguin and Brel both lived in Atuona, the island's only town -- and my first landfall when I sailed to French Polynesia in 1977. Their graves and an excellent museum dedicated to both of them are highlights of any visit to Hiva Oa. Atuona isn't as physically impressive as Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, but it retains more of a French colonial ambience, with some buildings still standing from Gauguin's day.