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Ua Huka

Sitting 42km (26 miles) due east of Nuku Hiva and one-quarter its size, Ua Huka may be the least visually appealing of the major Marquesas Islands, but to my mind it is one of the more interesting from both artistic and cultural standpoints. Some of the most talented woodcarvers and sculptors in French Polynesia live and work on Ua Huka, and the island's 600 or so local residents are so proud to be Marquesan that they have established not one but four museums explaining their indigenous culture. They also have planted the territory's only botanical garden beyond Tahiti.

The success of its carvers and sculptors has made Ua Huka one of the most prosperous islands in the Marquesas. An acquaintance of mine told me of her sculptor brother coming from Ua Huka to Tahiti to buy a new vehicle. When he and the dealer had agreed on a price, he opened his backpack and counted out the purchase price -- in cash! Despite its not having a bank in which he could deposit his money, Ua Huka has three times more motor vehicles per capita than any other Marquesan island -- and its only road is fully paved.

Ua Huka is the top of an extinct volcano, whose southern half either exploded or fell into the sea, leaving two-thirds of a small crater and half of a large one. Only the tops of the mountains along the craters' rims get reliable rainfall, and only their upper slopes and the river- and stream-fed valleys are green. It wasn't like this in 1813, when American Admiral David Porter described lush vegetation and fertile, populated valleys.

All of the island's inhabitants live along the desertlike southern shore, which is made even more brown and barren than it would naturally be by wild horses and feral goats. Together they have destroyed much of the native vegetation outside the valleys. (The flip side of that coin is that horseback riding is easy to arrange, and some of the goats wind up in a decent local curry.)

An Offshore Ruckus -- One way ancient Polynesian navigators discovered islands in the vast Pacific Ocean was to follow birds to their land-based nests. This must have been true of Ua Huka, for millions of sooty terns (kaveka in the local language) nest on Teuaua and Hemini, small islands just off its southwestern coast. These huge avian flocks create such a ruckus that you can hear them from ships as you pass nearby -- and if the wind is right, you can smell them, too! Locals have installed a rope ladder up Teuaua's clifflike sides so they can collect kaveka eggs, which reportedly taste like sardines, from nests on the flat top. Cone-shaped Hemini, however, is off-limits.

Exploring Ua Huka

Ua Huka's three villages and all of its points of interest are on or near its south shore. A paved road runs the 13km (8 miles) from Vaipaee village in the west through Hane to Hokatu in the east. Vaipaee is the administrative center, although Hane is the larger of the villages. The post office and main infirmary are at Vaipaee, but I repeat: There is no bank on Ua Pou.

Nor is there public transportation, although many locals will gladly take you around the island in their ubiquitous vehicles. The Ua Huka Airport sits elevated above sea level on a plateau about halfway between Vaipaee and Hane. Your pension will arrange to meet your flight if you have reservations.

Your pension will arrange horseback riding, or you can contact Alexis Fournier (tel. 92.660.05) or Edmond Lichtlé (tel. 92.60.87).

Vaipaee -- Ua Huka's only safe harbor is at Vaipaee, and quite a harbor it is. A narrow fjord leads from the sea, and virtually hides the village and its black-sand beach at the head of a small bay. The bay is so shallow that the Aranui 3 -- but not larger vessels -- must pivot completely around and moor out in the fjord with its bow facing back out to sea. There is barely enough room for the ship to turn around without hitting the cliffs on either side of the fjord. We all got up early on the Aranui 3 to watch this remarkable maneuver, a testament to the skipper's ability with the helm and throttle.

A short walk inland leads to the island's post office and administrative offices, behind which is the small but exceptional Musée Communal de Ua Huka (Community Museum of Ua Huka) (tel. 92.60.13). Here is a remarkable collection of artifacts such as adzes (primitive stone axes), fishhooks, drums, war clubs, earrings, and necklaces. Be sure to go to the back, where one exhibit displays a prehistoric Polynesian kitchen and another re-creates a remote burial cave complete with an original canoe (which held the deceased's bones) and a wooden vase (which held the skull). The seashell collection is notable. Best of all are several tikis carved by Joseph Tehau Vaatete, the museum's custodian and Ua Huka's most noted carver. Since many of the best original tikis were removed from the island by collectors or traders, Joseph painstakingly re-created them based on photographs taken during a 1920s expedition by the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. Some of those photos are on display, too. An adjacent handicrafts shop sells some of the best woodcarvings I have seen in the Marquesas. The museum and shop are always open when cruise ships are here; at other times, ask at your pension about arranging a visit. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

At Papuakeikaha, between Vaipaee and the airstrip, Jardin Botanique Communal de Vaipaee (Community Botanical Garden of Vaipaee; tel. 92.61.51) was created in 1974 in an effort to protect and preserve the native flora, which was quickly disappearing into the mouths of Ua Huka's wild goats. The collection has steadily grown to include exotic plants from elsewhere, plus groves of citrus trees. Unfortunately, the examples are not labeled. There's a small aviary here, and this is a good place to watch for several native species of birds. The garden is open Monday to Friday from 6:30am to 4:30pm, on weekends by request. Admission is free.

Hane -- The attractive village of Hane begins at a beach and climbs into a valley created by its own volcanic crater. Archaeologists have dated pottery fragments found in a sand dune near the beach to about 150 B.C., making this one of the earliest examples of human habitation in French Polynesia. A paved road and shady parks now skirt the shore of this picturesque half-moon bay. The beach fringing the bay here is good for swimming and snorkeling, or just sitting back and watching local men carry heavy bags of copra out to whale boats sent ashore by other trading boats.

At the T-intersection near the center of the bayside promenade, the Musée de la Mer (Museum of the Sea; tel. 92.60.13) displays ancient canoes, fishhooks, and nets, plus re-created examples of canoe prows. It shares a building and phone number with the Centre Artisanal de Hane (Art Center of Hane), where you can buy excellent woodcarvings and stone carvings as well as tivaivai, the handmade appliqué quilts local women have been making since missionaries taught them how to sew in the 19th century. Both the museum and crafts shop are open when cruise ships are here; otherwise by appointment. Admission is free.

Super carver and community museum custodian Joseph Tehau Vaatete has his open-air studio on the paved road heading inland from the museum (tel. 92.60.13). Joseph accepts commissions and will ship your piece to you.

Keep walking about 30 minutes uphill on the paved road, a dirt path, and then concrete stairs to Me'ae Meiaiaute, the most important ancient temple on Ua Huka. Although its stone platforms have not been restored, and some of its four tikis are damaged, the site commands a splendid view back down over the coastline.

Hokatu -- From Hane, the main road reduces to one paved lane and climbs around a steep headland (if one vehicle meets another on this stretch, one must either back up or fall off a cliff!) before descending into another small bay and picturesque little Hokatu. The village's main street is lined with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and other flowers, but the beach consists entirely of black rocks and gravel. Rather than trying to swim, spend your time at the local handicrafts shop known as Huau Ote Papatuhuna (no phone), which has a wide selection, and observing the remarkable plaster re-creations of ancient petroglyphs found on Ua Huka in Oho'au ke'a Ha'atiki (House of Petroglyphs; tel. 92.60.55). Explanatory labels under the petroglyphs are written in both French and English. The shop and petroglyphs museum are open when cruise ships are in port; otherwise by appointment. Admission is free to both.

Where to Stay and Dine on Ua Huka

Ua Huka has no hotels, only four family-run pensions. All serve meals, but none accepts credit cards, nor do they have post office boxes. Write to them simply at 98744 Vaipaee, Ua Huka, or you can make reservations at www.haere-mai.pf.

Le Réve Marquisien (tel./fax 92.61.84; revemarquisien@mail.pf) is in Pahataua Valley about 1km (a half-mile) from Vaipaee. Owners Marie-France and Charles Aunoa have four bungalows with private bathrooms and TVs. They charge about 12,000CFP (US$150/£76) double for these luxuries.

Karen Taiaapu-Fournier's Pension Mana Tupuna Village (tel./fax 92.60.08; manatupuna@mail.pf), on a hillside overlooking Vaipaee, has three bungalows with private bathrooms (hot-water showers). Karen charges about 14,000CFP (US$175/£89) double, including breakfast and dinner.

Auberge Hitikau (tel./fax 92.61.74), in Hane village, is more like a motel than the others. It has three rooms (with shared bathrooms) adjacent to the open-air Restaurant Chez Fournier, where Celine Fournier serves lunch to cruise-ship passengers, including goat curry and an unusual poisson cru made with mayonnaise instead of coconut milk. Rates are about 3,500CFP (US$44/£22) double.

In Hakatu village, Maurice and Delphine Rootuehine have five bungalows with private bathrooms at their Chez Maurice et Delphine (tel./fax 92.60.55). Their tin-roof bungalows have fine views from their porches down over Hakatu's narrow valley and small bay. They charge 3,000CFP (US$38/£19) per person.

Ua Pou

About 40km (25 miles) south of Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou is one of the most dramatically beautiful islands in French Polynesia. I was awe-struck when I first saw it from the deck of the Aranui 3 as we approached at dawn from the southwest. Before us, the triangular, cloud-topped peak of Mount Oave stood 1,203m (4,042 ft.) high in the middle of Ua Pou, but most spectacular were a dozen basaltic thumbs protruding from ridges descending from the peak. This jagged outline of Moorea-esque spires justifiably appears in many promotional photographs, and it led Jacques Brel to write his song, "La Cathédrale." The first Marquesans also must have been impressed, for the name Ua Pou means "the Columns."

The volcano that created Ua Pou, the third largest Marquesan island, was different from others in the group, for it created both phonolite, a hard rock that was excellent for flaking into cutting tools, and so-called flower stones, or pebbles whose imbedded crystals create flowerlike designs in the dark rock. Found only on Ua Pou, flower stones are excellent, easy-to-carry souvenirs.

Exploring Ua Pou

Although a rough dirt road circles the island, most of Ua Pou's population of some 2,200 lives on the northern coast in and between the villages of Hakahau and Hakahetau. Hakahau is the administrative center, with a gendarmerie, infirmary, post office, and Banque Socredo branch (both the post office and bank have ATMs).

There is no public transportation system on Ua Pou. The pensions pick up guests who have reservations at Aneou Airstrip, on the north shore about equidistant between the two villages. With the sea at one end of the airstrip and a mountain at the other, Air Tahiti's small planes land uphill headed inland and take off downhill in the opposite direction, regardless of which way the wind is blowing.

Hakahau -- Ua Pou's basaltic spires form a picturesque backdrop to Hakahau, which sits beside a black-sand beach in a gorgeous half-moon bay on the northeast coast. A breakwater protruding halfway across the bay protects the local dock from the sea swells and makes it possible for the Aranui 3 (but not larger vessels) to come alongside here. From the dock, a paved street runs along the bay past a large, thatched-roof pavilion -- under which locals sell handicrafts when ships are in port -- to the town hall, post office, bank, and island school.

The street beside the school leads inland to Tenai Paepae, the ancient gathering place restored for an arts festival in 1995. Locals stage dance shows on the paepae for cruise-ship passengers.

Facing the paepae is Eglise Saint-Etienne (St. Etienne Catholic Church), a stone structure erected in 1981 on the site of the first church in the Marquesas. In addition to spectacular woodcarvings, the church is worth visiting for the view of the mountainous spires framed by a triangular window above its southern nave. Carved from a single tree trunk, the pulpit symbolizes the bow of God's ship splitting the stormy seas of life.

A partially paved, partially dirt road leads through dry scrub brush from the eastern side of the bay across a ridge to Anahoa Bay, site of a lovely beach. It's good for swimming in the surf, but cover yourself with insect repellent to ward off the no-nos, and be on the lookout for jellyfish in June and July. It's worth the 20-minute hike up to the large white cross standing atop the ridge, where you will have a marvelous view down over Hakahau.

Hakahetau -- Unlike arid Hakahau, which sits in the dry rain shadow of Mount Oave, the charming little village of Hakahetau is green and lush. Its little bay is unprotected from the sea swells, and the village dock -- at the base of a sheer cliff -- is often buffeted by waves. The eroding beach has been replenished with black stones. Although the bay is picturesque, Hakahetau's charm is along the paved street following a stream inland. It passes a small Catholic church built of river stones in 1859. One of the oldest in the Marquesas, its roof is supported by posts carved with likenesses of the Apostles and the Polynesian transliterations of their names. Cross the bridge farther upstream to a pavilion where stone carvers work and sell their handicrafts.

Keep going past the pavement to a natural, open-air copra-drying platform, where locals lay out coconut meat to dry in the sun. It commands an excellent view of the village and bay. On the way up, you will pass a sign for the Manfred Cascade, a waterfall about a 30-minute walk upstream via a track best negotiated on foot or in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The cascade is like a swimming hole in the jungle, but lather up with insect repellent against the hordes of mosquitoes living up here.

Where to Stay and Dine on Ua Pou

There is no international-standard hotel on Ua Pou, but only pensions run by local families.

The best view and most attractive digs are at Pension Pukue'e, B.P. 31, 98745 Hakahau, Ua Pou (tel./fax 92.50.83; http://chez.mana.pf/~pukuee), on the road to Anahoa Bay. Owner Hélène Kautai has five rooms sharing two bathrooms (both with hot-water showers) in her modern home overlooking Hakahau. Hélène also has an outdoor swimming pool.

Pension Vehine Hou, B.P. 54, 98745 Hakahau, Ua Pou (tel./fax 92.53.21; heato@mail.pf), is down in Hakahau village. Owner Marie-Claire Teikiehuupoko has two rooms in her house with shared bathrooms and two bungalows with private bathrooms (and hot-water showers).

At Chez Dora, 98745 Hakahau, Ua Pou (tel./fax 92.53.69), up in the valley south of Hakahau village, Dora Teikiehuupolo has three bedrooms in her two-story house, one of which has a private bathroom.

All charge about 8,500CFP (US$106/£54) per person including meals. None accepts credit cards.

The restaurants at Pension Pukue'e and Pension Vehine Hou both are open to outsiders who make reservations. Rosalie Tata, who makes a delicious poisson cru, opens her Restaurant Chez Rosalie (no phone) only when cruise ships are in port.

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.