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Tahuata

Lying less than 4km (2 1/2 miles) south of Hiva Oa across the Bordelais Channel, lush and lovely Tahuata is the smallest inhabited island in the Marquesas. Most of its creating volcano dropped into the sea, leaving only the northwestern rim of its crater still standing. The old caldera wall forms Tahuata's steep southeastern coastline, while sharp ridges fan out and create beautiful valleys to the north and west.

Although Fatu Hiva was first to be sighted, Tahuata was the first of all Polynesian islands to be visited by Europeans. Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña "discovered" it in 1595 and sailed into the little bay at Vaitahu, then and now the island's main village. He named it Madre De Dios (Mother of God). Capt. James Cook stopped here in 1774. Admiral Dupetit-Thouars claimed the island for France in 1842, but a local chief named Iotete resisted. Several French sailors were killed in the ensuing skirmish and are buried on a hill above Vaitahu. The admiral built a fort overlooking the valley; although overgrown, it's still here, too. The French prevailed, but the Tahuatuans are still fiercely independent.

They also are the best bone carvers in French Polynesia, making this the best place to shop for scrimshaw and other such items.

Exploring Tahuata

Vaitahu has a post office, but there is neither a bank nor an airport on Tahuata. Access is strictly by boat from Tahauku Bay on Hiva Oa. The Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge and other accommodations on Hiva Oa will organize day trips to Tahuata, and the island's lone pension arranges transfers for its guests. There are no car rentals; in fact, there are few vehicles on Tahuata since its only road (linking Vaitahu to Motopu in the north and Hapatoni to the south) is barely more than a dirt track. Most folks get around here by boat.

You will definitely need a boat or yacht to reach the beautiful white-sand beaches skirting Hanamoenoa and Ivaiva bays north of Vaitahu. Unfortunately, both of these idyllic spots have no-nos.

Vaitahu -- Midway on the island's west coast, historic Vaitahu sits in a narrow valley. There is no harbor here, only a wharf on the north side of the bay, where boats from the cruise ships land their passengers (it's a sight to see a big yellow backhoe removing cargo from barges sent ashore by the Aranui 3). From there a paved road runs around the bay past a small, wooden Protestant church to the town hall, post office, school, and a large thatched-roof pavilion used for meetings and the sale of handicrafts to cruise-ship passengers. Definitely worth examining are museum-quality bone carvings by Teike Barinas (tel. 92.93.24).

In front of the town hall stands a monument declaring, in French, that after 1995 the Marquesas Islands shall be known to the world by their original name, Fenua Enata (Land of Men). Another commemorates Chief Iotete's rebellion against the French in 1842. As I said, the Tahuatans are independent-minded.

In the school, the small Musée de Vaitahu (Vaitahu Museum; tel. 92.92.19) tells of expeditions in the valleys and displays fishhooks, adzes (primitive stone axes), and other items discovered during the digs in the 1990s. Organized by archaeologist Barry Rolett of the University of Hawaii, the captions are in French, English, and Marquesan. The museum is open Monday to Friday and on cruise-ship days from 8am to 4pm. Admission is 150CFP (US$1.90/95p).

Facing the bay from a large open space stands the impressive Eglise Sainte Mère de Dieu (Holy Mother of God Catholic Church), built of stone with Vatican backing in 1988, the anniversary of the arrival of the first Catholic priests in 1838. The name also evokes Mendaña's visit in 1595. Look up at the church steeple, where a woodcarving by noted sculptor Damien Haturau depicts the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, as does an impressive stained-glass window inside the church.

A paved street follows an often-dry streambed inland from the beach. You will pass a number of wood-frame houses dating from the early 20th century. Across a bridge is the studio of Felix Fii (no phone), one of the best tattoo artists in French Polynesia.

Hapatoni -- About 15 minutes by boat south of Vaitahu, Hapatoni is one of the most pleasant and friendliest villages in the Marquesas. Enormous temanu trees and the Royal Road skirt the little bay, making for an picturesque stroll. The middle of the village is dominated by the restored Me'ae Anapara and Me'ae Eia, two large meeting and worshiping sites. Next to them, a gray stone Catholic church and cemetery offer a contrast of ancient and modern worshiping methods.

Hapatoni seldom sees foreign visitors except when the Aranui 3 pulls in every third Sunday. Then the entire village turns out to offer fresh fruits, a meal of Marquesan cuisine, and handicrafts for sale.

Where to Stay and Dine on Tahuatu

The only place to stay is Pension Amatea, 98743 Vaitahu, Tahuata (tel./fax 92.92.84), where Marguerite Kokauani rents five rooms in her house. Guests share a bathroom and shower. Marguerite charges about 4,500CFP (US$56/£28) per person. She also serves meals and will arrange horseback riding and other excursions. Book well in advance, for Marguerite must also arrange your boat transfer from Hiva Oa.

Fatu Hiva

Lying 56km (34 miles) southeast of Tahuata, remote Fatu Hiva is one of the most dramatically beautiful islands in French Polynesia. Like Moorea, it's half a bowl formed by the remaining third of a volcanic crater that rises steeply from the sea, resulting in many cliffs plunging precipitously into the surf. Rising from the middle of the original crater's floor, rugged Mount Teamotua is flanked on either side by narrow valleys in which the island's 560 residents live. On the south side, Omoa is the administrative center, while to the north, Hanavave is the most unusual valley in the Marquesas.

The island came to the world's attention in 1938 when Thor Heyerdahl published Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature, describing the year he and his bride, Liv, spent here trying to live a totally natural life. It didn't work. Nearly emaciated, he and Liv were evacuated by local missionaries. While here, Heyerdahl developed the theory that the Polynesians came originally from South America, which led to his sailing the balsa raft Kon Tiki from Peru to the Tuamotu Archipelago in the late 1940s.

Today Fatu Hiva (whose name is sometimes spelled Fatu Iva) is French Polynesia's leading producer of tapa, the natural cloth made from the bark of paper mulberry, banyan, and other trees. Geometric designs were tattooed on the bodies of the wearers in ancient times, not on the cloth, but the modern version is decorated with a multitude of designs. Local women show cruise-ship passengers how bark is beaten into cloth and then painted. Fatu Hiva is the best place in the territory to buy tapa.

Exploring Fatu Hiva

There is no airstrip on Fatu Hiva, and the only sensible way of getting here is on the Aranui 3, which anchors first at picturesque Omoa village beside a small bay. Omoa has a post office and an infirmary. There is no bank on Fatu Hiva; hence, credit cards are useless here.

Omoa's prime attractions are large, back-to-back tikis standing at the waterfront and Musée Grelet (Grelet Museum; no phone), on the first level of a colonial-era house built by François Grelet. A Swiss man, he settled here in the 19th century, married a local woman, and began collecting Marquesan art. Carried on by his descendants, the museum contains war clubs and spears, adzes, tikis, and stone pestles used to pound breadfruit into poi. Most impressive are intricately carved wooden koka'a bowls, from which poi is served. Many modern items are very much for sale. The museum is open on cruise-ship days, other times by appointment. Admission is free.

From Omoa, a 17km (11-mile) dirt road scales the central mountain and down into Hanavave. It's much faster and easier to go between the two villages by boat, but four-wheel-drive vehicles occasionally use this road, which was built to service the electric power lines linking the two settlements. It's a popular 4- to 5-hour hike, especially for Aranui 3 passengers since they rejoin the ship at Hanavave. Although usually passable, the track has sections of slippery mud that can stick to the bottom of shoes and hiking boots. It can be a hot walk, too, so bring ample supplies of water, snacks, and sunscreen. You should be in good health before making this hike.

The road gradually climbs out of Omoa Valley, crosses the central mountain, then descends very steeply into Hanavave. The views from the switchbacks are awesome; at one point, it seems as if you are looking straight down into the Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins) at Hanavave. The valley itself is punctuated with tiki-shaped spires protruding from sharp ridges descending from the old crater wall. No other place in French Polynesia is this ephemeral.

Hanavave village sits on a small flat plain beside a beach of black rocks and boulders. Its backdrop consists of huge black pillars standing like the posts of a giant gate between it and the valley. The phallus shape of these posts has given rise to humorous conjecture that the 19th-century French missionaries added an "i" to Baie des Verges (Bay of Phalli, let us say), thus renaming it Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins). The Marquesan name means "Surf Bay."

Hanavave attracts scores of cruising yachts, in part because the setting sun invariably paints this gorgeous valley with an enormous variety of changing colors.

Where to Stay and Dine on Fatu Hiva

You must be an intrepid traveler to get to Fatu Hiva on your own, but you can stay at Bernadette Cantois' Chez Lionel, B.P. 1, 98740 Omoa, Fatu Hiva (tel./fax 92.81.84; chezlionel@mail.pf), about 1.5km (1 mile) inland from the Omoa wharf. Bernadette has a kitchen-equipped bungalow whose private bathroom has a hot-water shower, plus two rooms in her house (with shared facilities). She charges about 9,000CFP (US$113/£57) double for a bungalow, 7,000CFP (US$88/£44) double for a room, including breakfast, but she does not accept credit cards. Bernadette will arrange horseback riding, fishing, and excursions. You can book through www.haere-mail.pf.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.