This is the seventh in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far, and the sixth was about Raiatea and Taha’a.)

Maupiti is the farthest west of all the inhabited islands of French Polynesia, although not by much. It sits just 35 miles west of its far more famous sister island, Bora Bora, and 195 miles WNW of the main island of Tahiti. (To put that into perspective, Nuku Hiva, the island we visited a few weeks ago, is 860 miles from Tahiti.)

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Early in this trip, as we told people all the islands we’d be visiting, at least two of them told us Maupiti was their favorite, and it was because of the incredibly laid-back vibe of the place. In 2004, the local population of about 1,200 voted “No” to a hotel chain building a resort there, preferring to maintain the slow pace. There is only one pass from the ocean into the lagoon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most dangerous in all of French Polynesia, so not many sailboaters go there. None of the restaurants are open for dinner. So if you go, be prepared to slow down the pace of life while you’re there.

The only pass into the Maupiti lagoon – one of the most dangerous in French Polynesia

But we really liked it! Not enough to unseat Raiatea from the #1 spot on our list of islands in FP where we would choose to live for two years – but if we ever return to FP, you can bet we’ll spend a week on Maupiti.

We hiked to the top of the tallest peak, about 1,200 feet up. It was not only the most challenging hike we’ve done on this trip, but the most challenging we’ve ever done together, and for me, at least, probably the most challenging I’ve ever done. It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to the top, and almost as long to get back down, because the last 1/3 of the trail involves actual climbing of rocks, with each step considered very carefully, and made only after both hands had found good purchase on a rock or tree or root. But the view from the top was worth it! On the day we did it, conditions were good enough that we could easily see Bora Bora 35 miles away, but we could also see Taha’a, and Raiatea, 60 miles away.

I’m not sure which was scarier – going up, or coming back down!
But the view from the top was worth it!

We happened to be there for the start of their annual festival, called Heiva (means “community gathering”), which runs for about four weeks. It includes traditional dancing, a volleyball tournament, a triathlon, a bicycle race, and of course, tautai puputi, tautai pito, tautai puito, hira’a tarao (vahine), patia fa (tane-vahine), and a lot of other things on the calendar, which is all in Tahitian, and which we missed because they all happened after we left. We think they do a lot of carrying of things in races: carrying big stones, carrying fruit, carrying wives (all true, by the way). We did get to witness the traditonal dancing on opening night, by two local groups (one group of kids and one of mostly middle-age women), and a few groups from some of the other islands. It wasn’t a competition, just an exhibition, and it was really fun to watch. The costumes alone would have made it worthwhile.

So fun! Watch one of the videos in the link at the end to hear the music.

We stayed in an airbnb owned and operated by “John” (Jean, really), who speaks very little English, to match our almost non-existent French, but we made it work. We had half of his house, totally separate and private, with a full kitchen, living room, nice big bathroom with plenty of hot water in the shower (much appreciated considering how much time we spent diving and snorkeling), and three beds to choose from. No A/C, but plenty of fans, and like all of the other islands we’ve visited here that have a mountain in the middle, that’s all you need, because after the sun goes down, the temperature drops into the comfortable sleeping range. His sister and dad also live in his side of the house, but neither of them speak any English, so our conversations with them were limited to a cheerful exchange of “Ia Orana!” whenever we’d see them.

Our view from the balcony at John’s airbnb

While all of the above made for a really good week, I have to say that the real highlight for us was MANTA RAYS!!!!! Prior to this trip, we had never been in the water – scuba diving nor snorkeling – with manta rays, and they had been in the top three on our wish list of critters to dive with. (The other two being whale sharks and any sort of whale.) We saw one, very briefly, on a snorkel in Galapagos, and another, very briefly, on a scuba dive on Rangiroa. But we didn’t get a real manta ray encounter until Maupiti.

We’ve waited a long time to see this!

The first was while scuba diving with Maupiti Diving, the only dive operator on the island. Teddy, the owner, speaks English more than good enough to take us diving. Another of the divers that day is French but lives in Spain, so we were able to communicate with her in Spanish fairly well. (Much, much better than we were able to communicate with anyone in French!) We were scheduled for two dives, but the aforementioned pass between the lagoon and the ocean was really rough, so we did only the lagoon dive. But that was OK with us, because the lagoon dive is really the manta ray dive. It starts on the mooring ball between the two manta “cleaning stations”, and you visit them both, hoping to catch one or more rays getting their daily cleaning.

Circling back to the cleaning station (the coral head)

In case you’re not familiar with a “cleaning station”, it’s a place in the ocean where one or more small fish live and offer “cleaning services” to bigger fish, turtles, sharks, etc. The big fish come and hang out, and open their mouths, and sit still, while the little fish swim inside their mouths and clean the big fish’s teeth, tongue, gills, gill plates, and any parts of their exterior that need cleaning. Of course, the little fish aren’t using brushes and soap – they’re actually eating tiny parasites and bits of algae. The first time I heard about this, I was sure I was having my leg pulled, but then I saw it, and have since seen it hundreds of times, and it’s really quite amazing.

Hovering over the cleaning station with gills wide open

There are multiple cleaning stations in the Maupiti lagoon that are frequented by manta rays, and we dove on two of them. And there was a manta ray on one of them! We dove to the bottom and laid on the sand, about 25 feet from the coral head where the cleaning takes place, and just watched it happen. The rays very, very slowly flap their wings and swim around in small, slow circles, so the cleaners can do their job. On this first dive, we saw one ray get cleaned for about 5 minutes before it swam off. But we were stoked! We finally got a real manta ray encounter!

The next day, we did the same thing, but were rewarded with a much longer encounter – at least 15 minutes with a ray on one cleaning station, which then swam to another one nearby, where we got to watch it for another five minutes. When it left, it swam right by Fran, who got a great video of it, which you can see by clicking here.

Fran and our first really close manta ray encounter (click above to see the video she took)

On our last day on Maupiti, we did an all-day excursion with John, which started with him finding a manta swimming leisurely along the sand in 10 feet of crystal clear water, so we snorkeled along above it for several minutes. Then I dove down to get a closer photo, which spooked it and off it went. But John found another one almost immediately, so we followed and filmed it for several more minutes. But then, John put us on the cleaning station he knows about, and there were two mantas getting their daily hygiene, and then there were three! The water wasn’t as clear in that spot, but we were in no more than 15 feet of water, and they were above the corals, so no more than about 8 feet deep, almost directly under us. We hung out there for at least 20 minutes, in awe of their grace in the water, and so very thankful to finally have this opportunity. We got back in the boat only after we started to get cold, with cameras full of photos and videos, which you can see in the link at the end of this post.

I think we can finally say we’ve seen manta rays!

The rest of John’s excursion included snorkeling in a gorgeous coral garden with gin-clear water and only about four feet deep at most. Tons of healthy coral, and that always means hundreds of beautiful tropical fish. John plucked a giant clam from the bottom and served it up raw with a little lime juice. Not a lot of flavor, and quite chewy, like conch if you’ve ever had that in the Bahamas. He took us to his “camp” – a big plot of land on one of the motus (small islands) that surround most of the main island. He harvests coconuts into copra there, and his dad grows vanilla there. He also makes “Tahitian beer” there: water, sugar, and bananas in a big plastic barrel for about a month, which ferments into an alcoholic beverage that I would describe as “unpretentious but robust, earthy, with a hint of banana, and enough alcohol to knock you on your ass if you drink very much of it.”

Moonshine, Maupiti style!

We ended that day at John’s sister’s plot of land on another motu. She had prepared an island feast for us – grilled fish, tuna sashimi, grilled lobster, and poisson cru au lait du coco, served with rice, boiled manioc (aka tapioca) root, the ubiquitous frites (french fries), and ripe red banana for dessert. We got a tour of her chicken coop, where she has about 300 hens for egg production, which she sells to the local grocery stores. And she taught us how to weave coconut palm fronds into serving trays. We’ve done a lot of excursions on this trip that follow a similar model – take people snorkeling, feed them some local food, show them some local craft-making, etc. – and this one with John was as good as any of them, anywhere. Maybe it’s because Fran and I were his only passengers, maybe it’s because he was so enthusiastic about everything he showed us, or maybe it’s because of the MANTA RAYS – I can’t say for sure. But if you ever go to Maupiti, you really should stay with John and do his excursion – it will be as authentic a glimpse of traditional French Polynesian life as you’re likely to get anywhere.

A feast on the beach!

We packed a lot into our six days on Maupiti. Click here to see all the pictures and videos!

Raiatea and Taha’a

This is the sixth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, and the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far.)

We’re back in the Society Islands, the group of islands in French Polynesia that includes the two most famous ones, Tahiti and Bora Bora. (We actually spent the night last night on Bora Bora: it was our ferry stop between Raiatea and Maupiti, which is where we are now. We had an expensive dinner on the waterfront – we were so close to the water I thought our waiter might fall into the lagoon – but that’s all the time we’re spending on Bora Bora. Too touristy and too expensive!) Raiatea and Taha’a are interesting because they share a large lagoon (defined by a fringe reef). In the photo below, the turquoise “border” is the fringe reef, and the dark blue between the green and the turquoise is the deep water in the lagoon. At one point on our boat tour around Taha’a, we went from 18 feet deep to 180 feet deep in about 3 seconds, as we left the turquoise and passed into the dark blue.

Raiatea (bottom) and Taha’a (top)
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As I discovered and revealed in my last post about Nuku Hiva, my general happiness on a trip like this is heavily dependent on how much I like (or dislike) our accommodations. Let me say right up front, I loved where we stayed on Raiatea! It’s called Fare Oviri Lodge, and it has recently changed hands, after first opening about 11 years ago. The new owners have lived on Mo’orea for some time, and are now bringing this place up to snuff. It has three bungalow buildings – one is a really, nice, big one for a couple (it has a Jacuzzi), one is for a family with up to five kids, and one is split into two singles, each perfect for a couple. We were in one of those. Queen bed with plenty of space around it, room to unpack, a nice bathroom with walk-in shower and lots of hot water (very nice since we went scuba diving three of our days), and a very effective ceiling fan. (No A/C, so a good ceiling fan is essential.) The main lodge building is a big kitchen and dining room. If you want them to make breakfast for you, they will, and it’s excellent – or you can make your own. They don’t offer any other meals, but that was never a problem since we had a rental car and were in town every day for one reason or another, so we ate at a restaurant most nights, but used the kitchen to make dinner a couple nights.

Fantastic breakfast at Fare Oviri Lodge

Speaking of eating at restaurants, we got to spend time with our friends Max and Whitey again! Totally coincidentally, they had their boat on Raiatea for four of the same days we were there, and we had dinner with them twice. Didn’t get to dive with them – they had boat things to do – but it was fantastic hanging out with them – again – in French Polynesia!

One of the many great things about having dinner with them is that they speak English! Really well! (Although Whitey, being from Australia, gets a big kick out of asking the locals “Parlez-vous Australian?”) And since Fran is such a social critter (me, too, if the timing is right), we usually have a great time on trips having conversations with people we meet. But there are very few native English speakers visiting here, and most of the people who speak English as a second (or third) language aren’t conversational in it, so we’ve been Jonesin’ for some conversation. Max and Whitey helped fill that gap big time! And we might actually get to see them AGAIN, when we’re on Tahiti, which would be pretty incredible, and wonderful.

Raiatea is home to the second largest town in all of French Polynesia – Uturoa (population: about 3,700 in 2011) – which means it has pretty much everything you need, right there, in a store, on a shelf! This is most definitely NOT the case on any other island we’ve visited on this trip, so it was a bit of a luxury. Not that we need a lot of stuff, but we did need some little dessicate packets that keep our cameras dry in their underwater housings, and we walked into Gauguin Photo and they had them! We needed some beer that wasn’t Hinano, and we walked into The Bottle Shop and bought some Guiness Draft (the 16 oz. cans), some Duvel Belgian Strong, and a couple of craft beers made on Tahiti that weren’t half bad. So, you know… we were pretty happy to be in the big city of Uturoa for a bit!

We were on Raiatea and Taha’a for only five full days, and we did two dives on three of the days, which kept us pretty busy. Four of the dives were essentially the same – go outside the pass, hang a right until you come to the mooring balls, tie up, and dive the reef slope. (They call it the Miri Miri Dropoff.) It wasn’t spectacular, like some of our dives on Rangiroa and Fakarava, but the whole slope is covered in hard corals that are quite healthy, and there are tons of fish everywhere. With excellent visibility and virtually no current, we completely enjoyed all four of these “repeat” dives.

One of the fancier fish we’ve met here – a Flame Dart Fish, about 2″ long

Another dive was actually inside the lagoon, and right in front of the ruins of the very first resort to feature “over the water” bungalows. The resort opened in 1967 and they built three bungalows on the water, right at the edge of the shallow reef, before it drops off steeply. The resort has been abandoned for years, but one of the docks is still there, and we were quite suprised when the dive master said “when you get in the water, stay on the surface and swim to that dock – we’ll descend from there.” We weren’t 10 feet from the dock when he gave the “dive” signal, and down we went – almost straight down a wall, until we could see the wreck of the Nordby looming up from the bottom. It’s sitting mostly on its side, exactly where it sank in August 1900. We reached the deck at about 65 feet, and swam through the deck (all the wood rotted away long ago) and into the hull. The anchor is still there, right where it was stowed when the ship went down. Legend has it that the ship was scuttled on purpose so the owners could get the insurance money. It sat in place, slowly sinking, while they offloaded everything of value, and when it finally sank, they called Jake from State Farm with the bad news. The coolest thing for us about diving this wreck is that there are several species of nudibranch that live on it, and we found three of them, including one of the biggest, and most beautiful, of the hundreds that we’ve photographed before.

Three inches of gorgeous (at about 75 feet deep on the Nordby wreck)

One of our days was spent on an excursion to Taha’a. On a fast boat, it’s a quick trip to Taha’a, and we had a busy day: visit Pari Pari Rum Distillery at 9:00 a.m. (breakfast of champions!), snorkel the Coral Gardens, visit a pearl farm, have special Father’s Day lunch prepared in a “Tahitian oven” (dig a big hole in the ground, build a fire in it, put a bunch of food on the coals, cover and let sit overnight), and snorkel with a LOT of black tip reef sharks. I don’t have space to detail everything we did, but it was a fun day, and the weather was perfect to be on and in the water.

Sorting pearls at the pearl farm – we really wanted just five minutes with this pile!

Raiatea, like all the other islands we’ve visited that have a mountain (or mountains), is strikingly beautiful to drive around and to view from the sea. Our two 55 minute drives each day (to town, and back to our bungalow) gave us ample opportunity to see it in all lighting conditions, and there are multiple views on this island that will take your breath away. Views looking up at the sheer peaks, and looking out at the lagoon and surrounding reef – you want to have your camera ready on Raiatea!

The view on our daily commute to town

Each time we leave an island on this trip, we ask each other “If you had to choose one of the islands we’ve visited to live on for two years, which one would it be?” This morning, as we were traveling to Maupiti on the ferry, I think I presented a pretty good case to Fran for it to be Raiatea! (Not that we’re going to actually do that – nope, I really don’t want to have to learn French, and that would be a must for such an adventure.)

Here’s a link to all the best photos and videos from Raiatea and Taha’a: click here.

French Polynesia Status Check (and Nuku Hiva)

This is the fifth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, and the fourth was about Hiva Oa.)

We’re on Nuku Hiva, in the very middle of our nine weeks here in French Polynesia, which seems like a good time to take stock of the trip so far. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about French Polynesia. I’m writing this post at 7:40 p.m. while sitting on the bed in our room in Loic* and Chantal’s* house. I’m sitting on the bed because there is nowhere else to sit in the room, or for that matter, in the part of the house that we’re staying in, and I’m doing it at 7:40 p.m. because there is nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. Even if there were something to do in the village of Taiohae, it would be a 30 minute walk down a pitch-black road to get there.

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But there isn’t anything to do in the village, because everything closes before the sun goes down. On the plus side, we just had a nice dinner of fresh-caught tuna (some sashimi, some grilled) with rice, and local watermelon for dessert. Dinner conversation with Loic and Chantal was fun, the highlight being when Loic tried a little of our soy / wasabi mix with his sashimi, and had to refill the pitcher of water to regain normal feeling in his mouth and sinuses (accompanied by much laughter from Chantal, so it was OK). Dinner began as the sun set behind the mountain ridge that is scarcely a half-mile up the hillside from their house, giving us another visual reminder of how beautiful this island is.

(*Not their real names.)

Our breakfast and dinner view

Thus begins my attempt at explaining how I feel about French Polynesia, now that we’re halfway through the trip. There are parts that I love, and parts that I really dislike, and strangely, some parts that I both love and dislike. But before I do that, I have to share with you something I have just this very minute realized, while trying to compose this sentence – or perhaps just admitted – about myself: I’m either a snob, or a spoiled brat, or a bit of (maybe a lot of) both. And, since I’m baring my soul, a bit of a hypocrite. Because every single thing I can think of that I have not liked about French Polynesia has to do with my own comfort, or my own biases, or my own opinions about how people should think and behave. Ugh… that hurts, but I can’t deny it.

We’re staying with Loic and Chantal because they operate a pension (pen-see-OWN), which means they rent out part of their house to tourists. Because we made all of our travel arrangements very last-minute, and because the only actual hotel on the island is about $400 per night, this is where we ended up. I applaud them for having the initiative to run a pension, because it usually means that your guests will not only be sleeping in your house, they’ll be eating with you, too – so you HAVE to have some breakfast ready every morning, and you HAVE to make dinner every night. (In addition to making dinner for yourself and your children – they have a 10 year old girl at home.) But to be honest, they haven’t exactly gone out of their way to spruce the place up for paying customers, and breakfast is the exact same three items each morning, and dinner is pretty monotonous as well, and not at all nicely presented. Chantal works full-time so she’s rarely here, and Loic speaks very little English, making any kind of conversation challenging at best. So I have this little dark cloud over my head, because the accommodations aren’t wonderful.

The pool at Villa Enata (where we were last week)

And it’s because the spoiled brat in me can’t help but compare this week’s stay with last week’s, when we stayed with Mimi# and Pierric# at their fabulous home on Hiva Oa, and enjoyed wonderful breakfast every morning, and interesting, delicious, and beautifully presented dinner every night, followed by lively conversation, and we slept in a perfect little bungalow beside their house, with the most incredible views all around. But the village of Atuona also rolled up the sidewalks before sundown, and we also were a long walk up an unlit road, so we also spent every evening in our room, without much to do except read or write.

(#These ARE their real names! And their place is called Villa Enata, on Hiva Oa, and you should stay there sometime!)

Similarly, I also didn’t love our first week on Rangiroa because of where we were staying, but my mood improved immensely when we relocated to a wonderful little bungalow with a much better location. Same atoll, same village, same amazing scuba diving, and we even got to spend time with good friends who also happened to be there the first week we were – and yet, I was unquestionably happier the four days we stayed at Rangiroa Cottage than I was the previous week.

Here’s another thing – Loic, our current host, was born and raised here on Nuku Hiva. His native language is Marquesan – he didn’t even start to learn French until he started school, and he has taught himself all the English he knows by watching YouTube, and by trying as hard as he can to communicate with his English speaking guests who haven’t bothered to learn more than about four words of Marquesan or French. So how in the hell am I the one who’s unhappy about the lack of communication happening between us? He’s trying – HARD – to communicate. And I’m not. And yet I’m the one who’s always complaining that Americans don’t value other cultures, other languages. Hypocrite much, Mr. Smith?

Our hosts and their family celebrating their culture

Alright, enough of the self flagellation. I now realize that if I tried to explain the things that I’ve not liked about French Polynesia, they would sound like the whinings of a spoiled brat, and should fall on deaf ears. Instead, let me dive into the things that I love about Nuku Hiva and French Polynesia, as there are many!

Typical of the views all around Nuku Hiva

Like Hiva Oa, the landscape here is stunningly beautiful. Tall (over 3,000 feet) peaks jutting up from the sea, with sharp ridges and dramatic cliffs. Covered in green, which when you walk through it, is revealed to be a fascinating melange of flora. In our hikes the past two days, we have walked past coconut, breadfruit, starfruit, grapefruit, passionfruit, guava, banana, mango, almond, and papaya, all within picking distance. We have seen rosewood, bamboo, teak, wild hibiscus (a tree, not a bush), and manioc (better known to us as tapioca). Multiple colors and styles of hibiscus, bougainvillea, wild orchids, and a little purple flower you can eat, and it tastes like mushrooms!

Guava fresh from the tree (This one’s for you, Beth!)

Our hike yesterday began with a 30 minute boat ride to another bay and beach, and on that ride we stopped for five minutes to watch eight or ten manta rays swimming all around the boat. (Oh, how we wanted to jump in with them!) The view of the cliffs and the peaks from the sea is spectacular, with the big swell crashing into the jagged rocks and sending water and spray 30 feet into the air. The views from the anchorages, where the sailboaters spend their time, are almost good enough to make me consider getting on a sailboat here for a tour of the islands. (Almost.) While we were hiking, the owner of the excursion boat and a couple of guests caught at least 20 fish of at least five different types, all of which would be frozen and sold in Tahiti for spending money. (Whatever they didn’t keep to eat, of course.)

Waterfall hike lunch: Our guide Maria (left), then the fishermen

On our hike, which happened to be to a 1,000 foot tall waterfall, we met two different men coming the opposite direction. The first was easily in his sixties (probably seventies), and he was returning from a night hunting wild pigs with his dogs. His weapon? A big knife affixed to the end of an eight foot long wooden pole. The other gentleman was younger – maybe 30 – and he was wearing a necklace of wild pig tusks and bone that had come from animals he had personally hunted – probably with a weapon similar to the first gentleman’s. How much closer to the land can you live than that? How much more can you know about your source of protein than that?

This dude could be in GQ, sporting his hog tusk necklace

Everywhere you look you see evidence of the culture of these islands – stone tikis, carved poles supporting every roof and awning, tattoos that are almost exclusively of the old designs, designs so old that no one is even 100% sure what they mean (although there is general agreement on that). Boats bringing their fish and crustaceans to the public pier every morning after a night of fishing – with rod and reel, deep-drop rigs, handlines, and by freediving for the lobsters and crabs. You want fresh seafood? It’s at the pier, but not in the grocery store. Fresh produce? At the outdoor market next to the pier, not the grocery store. Drive anywhere and you’ll see the low covered platforms where the coconut is getting ready to be bagged and shipped to Tahiti: copra, the last step before the production of coconut oil.

One thing that I love, but am also a little disappointed in, involves all of the pre-European community sites. I love that evidence of the ancient history of the island is everywhere (you see houses built on top of the stone platforms – called pae pae – that were built hundreds of years ago), and I’m sad that it’s not being preserved, nor even very well researched (you see houses build on top of ancient stone platforms!). A busload of tourists can traipse all over a magnificant site like Tohua Koueva, and if they happen to dislodge a stone with their Birkenstock, that was placed there a thousand years ago, oh well! Some of these sites, with the clear evidence everywhere of them moving giant stones all over the place, are a bit mind-boggling, and it’s a shame they’re not valued more than they are.

A small fraction of the Tohua Koueva site – so impressive!

On five islands so far, we have not seen a single bar – a place where alcohol is the main attraction. Some restaurants sell beer, but most don’t. Some grocery stores sell alcohol, some don’t. Most don’t sell cold beer. Most of the people we’ve spent time with here don’t drink, or if they do, they drink only a little, or only occasionally. Everyone knows I love a good bar and a regular drink, but I can also appreciate a culture in which those things are not important.

I don’t have detailed knowledge of the education system here, but I do know that most kids who live on any island other than Tahiti go to Tahiti for high school. From about age 16, kids leave their homes and their families and travel long distances (particularly for Marquesan kids) to live for three or four years in a very unfamiliar place, simply for the sake of education. Even earlier than that, some kids go to “college” – a form of boarding school for kids in what we would call middle school or junior high school. Many young people, after high school, go to university in Tahiti or France. (It’s paid for by the government – what a concept!) Education is clearly important here!

Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, was here on Nuku Hiva for three or four weeks, when he and another guy deserted a whaling ship that had stopped here. He wrote his first novel about it – Typee. We have now visited the Taipivai valley each of the last three days, and it’s obvious why he chose to write a novel about this gorgeous place and its wonderful people. (By the way, at least 8,000 people are estimated to have lived in this valley before the decimation caused by visiting Europeans.)

Looking across the Taipivai Valley, home of Melville’s novel “Typee”

This is a place where the views are spectacular and the people are as real as people can be. No pretense, and tons of pride in their culture, which is rich and fascinating. You know, I think I like French Polynesia a lot! I’m just going to have to put a sock in it the next time I start to utter a complaint about where we’re sleeping that night.

P.S. – I originally wrote this two night ago. I’m pleased to report that, since my little epiphany spawned by that writing, I have had a wonderful time, all the time! Breakfast, dinner, and the funky smell in our bathroom have not improved, but my perspective has, and it’s made all the difference in the world!

Hiva Oa

This is the fourth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, and the third was about Fakarava.)

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For this post, we had to put some miles between us and Tahiti. Back to class for a minute – Hiva Oa is one of six inhabited islands in the Marquesas Archipelago, which is in the northeast corner of French Polynesia. If we had continued on our sailing adventure to FP, this is where we would have made landfall, as it’s the closest island to the Galapagos where you can check in. (Coincidentally, the day after we arrived here, Oneiro did, too. They were about 22 days getting here from Galapagos, and from all accounts, they had a wonderful time making their dream trip. In that same amount of time, through the miracle of flight, we have already had a fantastic time exploring three other islands. Different strokes for different folks.) Hiva Oa is 870 miles from Tahiti – that’s about the distance from Indianapolis, Indiana to Satellite Beach, Florida (the two places I’ve lived the most in my life). The little island right next to Hiva Oa (Tahuata) is where the first Europeans (the Spanish) “discovered” the Polynesian islands, in 1595. Of course, they didn’t discover it – there had been people living here for centuries. They just came across it while looking for the Solomon Islands. Came ashore, and while here, did a Catholic Mass, erected some crosses, and “through a misunderstanding, massacred about 200 of the natives”. (Yep – not making that up. Sigh…)

Copy of a Gauguin hanging in our guest house

We had only four full days on Hiva Oa, so we tried to make the most of them. The day we arrived (Day Zero), we walked around the main village of Atuona, which is where the French painter Paul Gauguin spent the last year or so of his life. He died and is buried here – we visited the museum the day we arrived, and later visited his grave in the local cemetery. In 2015, a Gauguin painting sold for about $300 million, so it’s no surprise that the museum here doesn’t have any originals. (You could buy most of the homes on the whole island for that, I’m guessing.) But they have some nice copies of many of his works, especially the works from his time in French Polynesia, which included a stretch in Tahiti before Hiva Oa.

Typical Marquesan tiki: big eyes and mouth, no neck, hands on belly

We also visited the local artist’s co-op, and the community’s outdoor gathering and performance venue, which is decorated with large stone tikis that have been given as gifts to the island from surrounding islands on various special occasions. But we were just priming the pump for the next two days, when we would get to experience some real local culture.

Fran clipping her toenails on the deck of our bungalow
Fran’s view from the deck of our bungalow, while clipping her toenails

Day One began with by far the best breakfast so far on this trip. We’re staying at a guest house called Villa Enata (“enata” is the word Marquesans use to refer to themselves), which includes breakfast and dinner. Breakfast every day: baguettes, fresh baked multi-grain bread, real butter, soft cheese, some kind of deli meat to eat with the cheese and bread, and fresh grapefruit, papaya, mango, star fruit, and banana, all of which comes from trees in their yard! Two or three kinds of homemade jam, local honey, and coffee. Finally – real, good, strong, flavorful, brewed, black coffee, in a pot that you can pour into your own cup and luxuriate in, as much as you want! (We have not encountered this on the entire trip, since leaving home March 31 – could you tell?) Dinner has been excellent as well, most nights featuring fresh-caught tuna, which is very common everywhere we’ve been in FP. Sashimi, tartare, carpaccio, and two other raw preparations that are to die for: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk) and poisson cru de chinoise (raw fish Chinese style). We’ll be making some of this stuff back at Southermost Smartini, you can bet!

Tuna carpaccio – one of many ways to enjoy fresh tuna in French Polynesia!

But I digress. I was going to tell you about Day One. After breakfast, we were picked up by a local gentleman who was introduced to us a “Bly”. He spoke excellent English, and we hopped in the back of his truck, then picked up another couple, and headed for the dock, where a third couple joined us. We all boarded a boat (mainly used for fishing, but today for carrying passengers) and headed for Tahuata (see above). Just like the first Spaniards, then the first French almost 200 years later, we made landfall at the small village of Hapatoni. As we walked along the beach in the village, Bly stopped about a half dozen times and told us how to use the fruit or nut or leaf or root of the tree or bush we were walking by, to cure insomnia, a stuffy head, ciguatera, and all manner of other maladies, as taught to him by his grandmother. He explained everything in a perfect mix of French (the other two couples were French) and English, with plenty of Marquesan thrown in for local flavor.

Translation: “Arts and Crafts”, maybe?

Our first stop was Fae Apuu Taiuoho, which you probably know means “arts and crafts”. (No, I don’t know what it really means, but it was on the sign of the place where we stopped, and inside were the amazing works of the local artists. See the picture.) The people on Tahuata live mostly off the land and sea, catching fish and raising goats, cattle, pigs and chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables. But to buy things they can’t get locally (flour, sugar, Milky Way bars, etc.), they historically would process coconuts into something called copra and sell it in Tahiti. (Copra is the intermediate step between coconuts on the tree and coconut oil.) But several decades ago, they began to expand the practice of carving on the island, and now their “cash crop” is no longer copra, but carvings. And they are amazing. We bought some smaller ones to bring home, and wished that we could have bought some of the bigger ones, but getting them home would have been a problem. There were a few swords / spears (not really sure what to call them) made from bone and wood and the bill of a marlin, with a wrapping of twine made from coconut husk (all in the same piece) that were absolutely spectacular. Out of respect (or just stupidity), we didn’t take pictures of things – probably should have, huh? Below is a photo I found online of one of them.

I should have bought this…

(While looking up information about Tahuata, I found a really well-written blog post of a sailing couple, about their visit to Tahuata in 2015. Click here to read it if you’re interested.)

One of the gentlemen who did the carvings was a living exhibit of another art form that is attributed to the people of the Marquesas: tattoos! The word comes from the Marquesan word “tatao”, and is on exhibit everywhere in French Polynesia. A large percentage of the locals have one or more tattoos, and many of them are quite large, often covering an entire arm, or leg, or part of their torso, or, as our artist friend demonstrated, all of that and more! In case you’re wondering, I did buy something from him, because after I foolishly took his picture without asking, he threatened to disembowel me and serve me to his family if I didn’t. Best 472,000 French Polynesian Francs I ever spent!

The Illustrated Man

No, seriously, he was very nice, spoke way better English than I speak French or Marquesan, and had some incredible carvings. I did buy one from him, an exceptional tiki necklace, the smaller one in the picture below.

Part of our loot from Tahuata

After Hapatoni, we visited the village of Vaitahu, where we had a fabulous lunch at Chez Jimmy, and got a good look at the beautiful Catholic church, made from all local stone and wood. We’ve seen larger, more impressive churches in Europe, but never one more perfectly suited to its environment. The story goes that the local people had only a small church, so they wrote the Vatican asking for money to build a nicer one: the money came, and this is what they built!

Catholic church at Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata

The last stop of the day was a secluded white sand beach with hundreds of coconut palms starting at the beach. We snorkeled a bit, and then Bly taught us how to cut a stout stick into a coconut husking tool, then husk the coconut, then crack it open, then remove the juicy white meat for snacking, then shred the husk so that he could, literally, rub one stick of wild hibiscus tree against another larger one, to start a fire in it. Finally, he taught us all how to weave the fronds of the coconut palm into wreaths to wear on our tourist heads, and little palm frond fish. By this time, Bly had earned a place on our All-Time Top Three Tour Guides Anywhere… and we couldn’t think of any two others who really deserved to be on the podium with him!

Our guide Bly (on the right) and his cousin Harry, playing ukulele for us at lunch

Fortunately for us, Day Two was also with Bly, this time on his home island of Hiva Oa. There was a lot of driving, because the main objective of the day was to see the most famous of the tikis on the island, and they are scattered far and wide. The road was surprisingly good 99% of the time, which is a good thing, because much of it ran right next to cliffs that, if we went over them, would turn our truck into a fiery ball of screaming, flaming tourists tumbling down to the sea. And while the road is as smooth as you could ask for, I could have asked for a lot more guardrails! But the tikis smiled on us (and Bly is an excellent driver), so we didn’t die.

Speaking of smiling tikis, there is a famous one on Hiva Oa, and it was our first stop. The vast majority of tikis seem to have no facial expression, other than “stern”, but this one is unquestionably grinning. No one knows why he’s grinning (I think it’s because he just got his new glasses and he can finally see!), but he’s the only one they know of who is.

The only two known smiling tikis in all the Marquesas

Our second stop was the village of Hanaiapa on the north side of the island, where we sat at the beach and learned about life in the Marquesas, from someone who has lived it, and continues to live it – the amazing Bly. As you might have guessed, Bly is short for Captain Bly, which is what he’s been called since he was a baby. When he was young, he literally thought his first name was Captain! But it’s not – it’s Bryan, and his last name is O’Connor! His great grandfather came from Ireland to French Polynesia and married a Polynesian woman. They had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son and named him Bryan. How fun is that!

Wall art in the pretty Hiva Oa village of Hanaiapa

Bly (that’s what everyone still calls him) went to university in Hawaii and was there for three or four years, where he learned to speak excellent English. But he came back to Hiva Oa and, like all of his recent paternal ancestors, married a Polynesian woman (she’s from Nuku Hiva, about 100 miles away). They have six children, including a 1 1/2 month old boy named – you guessed it – Bryan O’Connor. 🙂 But the full names of all of his children are amazing Marquesan names, so be sure to play the video link below. Now he’s a local tour guide who carries on the Marquesan traditions with his family, and shares them with lucky visitors. If you ever happen to be on Hiva Oa, you Oa it to yourself to spend a day or two with him!

Click here to see Bly recite his children’s amazing names.

After learning about the family history of the Marquesan O’Connors, we drove from Hanaiapa for 45 minutes or so to Puama’a, the site of several tikis, including the largest one in all of French Polynesia*, and the only known tiki to be oriented horizontally (like a turtle). The tikis are scattered around a site that includes a lot of stone walls and platforms, which were common in Polynesian, and especially Marquesan, culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the tikis or the platforms or the culture in general because white men from Europe pretty much obliterated the people and their culture. An estimated population of 80,000 native people in what is now called French Polynesia shrank to about 2,000 by 1925, due to diseases introduced by Europeans and weapons wielded by Europeans. Because Polynesians had no written language, this decimation of the population also resulted in the loss of the vast majority of their stories – their history. And of course the Christian missionaries did all they could to stop the practice of so many of their traditions – carving tikis (“false idols”), tattooing themselves, building stone structures that weren’t Christian churches, etc. Way to go, white folks!

(* Largest of all the ancient tikis – of course there are larger ones created in modern times.)

One of the large stone foundations that they built buildings on – see Fran in the corner for scale

At some point during the day we stopped for lunch at Cafe Marie Antoinette, where we were treated to several local favorites: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk, which had already become a favorite of ours by that time in this trip), goat in coconut milk (it was cooked), wild boar (also cooked), fried tapioca root (a.k.a. cassava), and a couple of very sweet, very delicious desserts made with bananas, tapioca, and coconut. While enjoying lunch, Bly and his cousin Harry (we never got Harry’s story, sadly) serenaded us with ukelele and song, and then had us all do a sing-along that you can experience on one of the videos in the Google Photos library linked at the end of this post.

The only known horizontally oriented tiki

At another stop along the way – your typical roadside “scenic viewpoint” – Fran spotted something in the water about 500 feet below us (not joking), which turned out to be eight manta rays cruising around the bay. That brings to ten the number of manta rays we’ve seen on this trip, none of them very satisfactory. I mean, it’s cool to see them, even from 500 feet up, or cruising past or under you in a dive – but we want to experience them! That’s still possible: there’s a place called Maupiti…

How’s that for a view?

Wow, what a couple of days! But before I forget, I need to try to convey how incredibly beautiful the island of Hiva Oa is. You can get a small taste of it in the pictures in this post and in the photo library at the end, but as with virtually all majestic views, the pictures don’t do it justice. The peaks are so big and spiky and dramatic, often covered in clouds, or backlit by the rising or setting sun. The ocean crashes right into the feet of the mountains in so many places, which may explain why the ocean seems so big here! (I know – the ocean is big everywhere – but it seems bigger here.) The valleys are so green, the villages so colorful, the trees and flowers so gorgeous. It’s no wonder Gauguin fell in love with the place. So, too, did a very famous Belgian singer / songwriter / actor, Jacques Brel. He and his wife spent a good deal of time here during the final years of his life, and he’s buried here, not far from Gauguin’s grave. If you ever plan a trip to French Polynesia, you need to include Hiva Oa!

The lone tiki at Taaoa – possibly unfinished?

Days Three and Four were spent leisurely driving around the island in our trusty rented Suzuki Jimmy 4×4. It’s like a miniature version of the original Ford Bronco. We needed it to get up the hill to our bungalow, though! (There’s a video of that, too.) We visited another ancient village with stone structures scattered over an area of a couple of acres, with just one remaining tiki. We drove to the beach to watch the locals enjoying their Sunday. (They play a game here called petanque that is, as far as I can tell, just like bocce, and they play seriously!) And we soaked up the wonderful vibe of the island, and of our very special home away from home there, Villa Enata. I can’t imagine returning to Hiva Oa and not staying with Mimi and Pierric again!

One last look at our fabulous bungalow

Fun Fact: the time zone of the Marquesas is 30 minutes ahead of the time zone of Tahiti! Not sure why – time here doesn’t seem all that important, so it seems it would have been simpler to stay on Tahiti time. But they didn’t, and maybe that says something about how Marquesans feel about being Marquesans. I love it!

Click here to view our Google Photos library from Hiva Oa.


This is the third in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa.)

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Our first island, Mo’orea, is in the Society Islands. The second, Rangiroa, is in the Tuamotu Archipelago, as is our third, Fakarava. I really think I can make this post short, because there are truly only three things to do there: dive, visit the pearl farm, and relax. I’ve already written about diving and pearls (in the Rangiroa post), and I’m not going to write about relaxing, as fascinating as that sentence could be.

Two of our three lottery pearls

There was a fun twist to the pearl farm on Fakarava – three days a week, they hold a pearl lottery! You get to see the whole demonstration of how they cultivate pearls, like we saw on Rangiroa, but at the end, you can buy an oyster, and you get to keep whatever pearl it has produced! The oysters they put in the lottery have already produced one pearl, and from that they have a pretty good idea that the next pearl will not be especially large, or perfectly round, and probably won’t have spectacular color, but for about $33, you still get a nice pearl, which they put onto a simple black cord to make a bracelet or necklace, and every one comes with a story, and pictures! We bought three, and ended up with the necklace pictured below.

Our pearl lottery necklace

The diving is similar to Rangiroa, in that you dive in, or just outside of, a pass through which the tide rushes four times every 24 hours. Similar, too, in that some large creatures frequent the pass, most notably sharks. But the number and concentration of sharks is… well, let me put it this way. If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know before you get there that it’s going to be a big hole in the ground, right? But until you’re standing on the rim looking down into it, you simply can’t appreciate what people have told you about it. Same thing for the sharks of the South Pass (a.k.a Tetamanu Pass, a.k.a Passe Tumakohua) – you can hear about it, read about it, see the photos and videos from it, but until you’re in the middle of it, with what seems to be hundreds of grey reef sharks cruising around you – ALL around you – it just doesn’t sink in. There are some pretty good videos in the Google Photos album that’s linked at the end of this post, but if you want to see even more sharks than we saw, watch the documentary 700 Sharks. It’s about the sharks of Fakarava, during a time that the pass is practically overrun with groupers, because they gather there to spawn once a year, and sharks apparently like grouper tacos as much as we do! (While we were there, the groupers were gathering, but the actual spawning, which I think is what makes the sharks go crazy, won’t happen until the next full moon, two or three weeks after our dive there. Actually, tonight or tomorrow night, as I’m now typing this on Hiva Oa, our next island after Fakarava.) This video is from early in our dive, when just one shark seemed worthy of filming – and then it turned into a LOT of sharks!

Because black and white just looks scarier, don’t you think?

I’ve written a bit about some of our lodging on the various islands, and our lodging on Fakarava is worth mentioning. It’s called Ralais Marama, and is a collection of 10 bungalows, a small comfortable seating area at the main office, and a breakfast area – two tables, set up each morning with basic breakfast items. Baguettes (always baguettes in French Polynesia!), some other bread item (homemade donuts one morning, for example), fruit juice, coffee, tea, butter, jam, Nutella, cheese, and eggs if you want to cook your own. It was very nice to have, and was included. The bungalows were extremely basic – essentially tents, but made of 2×4’s and plywood, with large “windows” that opened on all sides. (Not actually windows, as there is no glass in them – just big holes cut in the walls that have plywood covers that you an tip out, or pul in to close.) Two twin beds pushed together in the middle of the room and covered with a mosquito net. No ceiling fan, but fortunately, the breeze usually cooled things down nicely by bedtime. Bathrooms were shared – four shower / sink / toilet stalls, only one of which had hot water. Bikes (mostly pretty janky, but the road is good and not too long) are provided. We met two young couples who were staying there while we were, and they were sleeping in actual tents in the small camping area at the back of the property, so – especially when it rained – we felt fortunate to be in our bungalow. It’s all about perspective sometimes.

So much nicer than a tent!

As simple as life is on Fakarava, it’s been our favorite one so far. Maybe because the diving was so good, maybe because the local people were so nice, maybe because the village is laid out so you can get to everything easily by biking – I’m not sure. But we really loved it!

Here are some of our better photos, followed by the link to the Google Photos album for Fakarava:

Two beautiful, but different, butterfly fish
Saddled Butterfly Fish
Giant Clam Close-up
Phyllidia madangensis nudibranch – I think! About 3/4″ long.
Two groupers and an octopus – look very closely!

Click here to see a great video Fran took, starting with a totally white trumpetfish (which we have never seen before – and we’ve seen hundreds of trumpetfish) cruising with a young female Napolean Wrasse. But at about 6 seconds in, in the lower left corner, a dark shape comes in – an octopus! The rest of the video focuses on it, although “Thelma and Louise” hung around the whole time, occasionally coming into the fram.

Here’s the link to all of the pictures and videos from Fakarava: