My Picks in the Marquesas, French Polynesia


My Picks in the Marquesas, French Polynesia

September 9, 2020

By Caroline Boyle-Turner

Gauguin Caroline Boyle Turner

After more than 20 magical cruises on the m/s Paul Gauguin as a lecturer, I am pleased to share with readers some of my favorite sites and activities in the Marquesas. As an art historian, specializing in the work of Paul Gauguin and author of Paul Gauguin and the Marquesas: Paradise Found?, I am most attracted by the vibrant colors, the special light, the people and the history of the places that he explored over the 10 years he worked in French Polynesia. The last 20 months of his life were spent in the Marquesas. There, he clearly captured the exoticism and the “otherness” of both the place and its history before his death in 1903.

Arriving in Papeete, Tahiti after a 23-hour trip from my home in France is always a joy. The airplane door opens to the heady perfume of fragrant flowers. Local musicians greet us with lively Polynesian songs, even at 6:00 a.m.

The ship’s first stop on the way to the Marquesas, 1,500 kilometers away, is the Tuamotus archipelago, home of black pearls. My goal, however is snorkeling. Sometimes on an organized excursion, or at a nearby beach, I revel in the clear, warm, turquoise water. Brilliantly colored fish dart in an out of small, scattered clumps of brightly colored coral, providing a languid immersion into a new palette of luscious colors. In 1930, this is where Matisse discovered snorkeling and the shapes and colors of a new underwater world, which he integrated into his later work.

The next stop is Fatu Hiva, a perfect introduction to the Marquesas. Walk into the village, say hello (kaoha!) to the locals, visit the simple church and then enjoy the music at the market while browsing the locally made crafts. The specialty is tapa cloth painted with traditional motifs. I always stop to watch the women demonstrate how to make the cloth as they vigorously pound sheets of tree bark. Almost hidden nearby is the 19th century house of the Swiss Grelet family, with its small collection of large carved wooden bowls and other carvings. The ship times its departure from Fatu Hiva to arrive at the nearby Bay of Hanavave as the sun slowly sets, bathing the strange rock formations in an ethereal golden light.

In 1595, Tahuata was the first Marquesan island visited by Europeans. It is a jewel, with dense vegetation, populated by a small, proud community eager to share its culture. Music greets you at the jetty and follows you along the short walk under the huge temanu trees to the village center. The children and young women are so obviously pleased to show you their dances while their elders sing and play guitars and traditional drums. Watch for the “Bird Dance”, an elegant rendition of the swooping and fluttering wings of local birds. The craft specialty is bone carving; look for the fine details in their work, as well as how traditional motifs are sometimes given a contemporary twist.

Arriving on Hiva Oa is always a moving experience for me. Following Gauguin’s footsteps makes his paintings and sculptures come alive. Especially in the early morning or late afternoon, it is easy to see the vivid colors and the dense shadows created by the thick jungle growth that give his paintings such mystery and drama. Chickens run free in the under-brush, available to anyone who can catch them. Hop on the wooden school bus to the cemetery where Gauguin was buried. It is capped by his sculpture Oviri, an enigmatic “self-portrait” that I enjoy explaining to the passengers who brave the short walk up to the site. As we turn to walk down to the village, we pass the grave of the legendary Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel, which has its own story to tell.

In town is the Paul Gauguin Center, a contemporary structure that contains over 100 copies of Gauguin’s paintings. Don’t expect that these often faded, often garish acrylic copies convey the power and beauty of the originals, but they can give you an idea of the richness of his imagination. And yes, he celebrated the beauty of Polynesian women, a controversial topic these days, which I wade into during my lectures. The gem of the center’s various buildings is a reproduction of the Maison de Jouir (House of Pleasure), the house/studio Gauguin designed and adorned with his own wooden reliefs. The originals are in Paris, but reproductions created by a Marquesan master carver demonstrate how Gauguin interpreted Marquesan motifs in his own style. Behind the studio is the recently discovered well, from which came scores of objects, including the four teeth I was able to identify as Gauguin’s. They led me to add more details to the artist’s tumultuous biography and medical history. It is quite a story!

As you leave Gauguin’s house, wind your way to the Jacques Brel museum where you can see his renowned airplane, Jojo. Not far away is the ocean and the black sand beach that Gauguin painted in vivid pinks to suggest a convivial gathering of horses and people on the warm sand. After this walk, a good lunch of poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk) or Goat Stew, can be enjoyed at the local favorite, Snack Make Make.

Archeologist Mark Eddowes, another ship lecturer, offers lively talks introducing the history of the Marquesas, including excursions to Hiva Oa’s vast, ancient site of Taaoa. We scramble over huge carved stone platforms to peer at tiki figures as he explains both spiritual and social traditions of the ancient Marquesan culture, most of which were destroyed during colonialization in the early 19th century; some of them have been revived today in local dances.

A day in Nuka Hiva, the administrative capital of the Marquesas, is a subtle re-introduction to the modern era. A large 20th century Catholic Cathedral features saints with Polynesian features, and the Stations of the Cross, which include local references. They were all carved by Marquesan artists. Taiohae, the bustling major town, is a jumping off point for excursions to ancient sites, including Taipivai, where Herman Melville spent a few weeks after fleeing his whaling ship. His novel, Typee (1846), has many exaggerations of native customs, but for outsiders, it was an eye-opener to a civilization with social and spiritual traditions so different from their own. Local crafts are available in small shops – carved coconut shells are my favorites. Back in Taiohae, at the far end of the bay, is Rose Corser’s small museum and shop. An American who settled there in 1979, she has dedicated herself to protecting and promoting traditional wood carvings, the island’s specialty.

Back on the ship for the return to the Society Islands, take advantage of the talented young men and women who dance, sing, and conduct classes in various Polynesian crafts and dances as they share stories of their lives in the islands.

At the end of each day at sea, my favorite moment occurs at the back of Deck 8: With a kir royale (champagne with a dash of Crème de cassis) in hand, mesmerized by the 360-degree view of the deep blue ocean, I say to myself: “Another day in paradise!”