Standing on a deserted beach on Hiva Oa, the second biggest island of the Marquesas, I’m gazing with new eyes at the Pacific rolling in, as my guide Brian O’Conner tells me about breaking in wild horses by riding them bareback in the surf.
“It’s a lot easier to control them in the water and you don’t get hurt if you fall off!” explains Brian, a native Marquesan, whose Irish ancestry is its own extraordinary story.
One of the last places on Earth to be populated by humans, the islands of Tahiti lie some 3,000 miles from the nearest continent — and the Marquesas are among these 118 islands, covering a region the size of Europe (although admittedly the South Pacific takes up most of that).
French Polynesia is a place of unparalleled beauty; islands of soaring green peaks, surrounded by picture-postcard coral reef lagoons and iridescent water so astonishing it must be seen to be believed. While many tourists don’t look beyond the beauties of Bora Bora, I’m channelling my inner Captain Cook and exploring some of Tahiti’s other islands.
Starting in the Society Islands, my journey begins in Raiatea, the second largest after Tahiti itself and just a 40-minute flight away. Revered as the cradle of the entire Polynesian culture, it lies at the epicentre of the ‘Polynesian triangle’ between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand; the ancient Polynesians set out from here in canoes to populate the Pacific.
Its name translates as ‘far away heaven’ perhaps after the towering, green-carpeted Mount Temehani dominating the skyline.
Vivien is taking me kayaking along the Faaroa River, the only navigable river in the entire archipelago, with wild hibiscus, Pacific chestnut trees, towering bamboo groves and banana trees lining the banks.
There’s a scent of vanilla permeating the air as we paddle, the silence only broken by occasional bird song and Vivien demonstrating the remarkable properties of the taro leaf — after dipping it in the river, it still comes out bone dry.
There’s more to learn at Raiatea’s Unesco World Heritage centre of Taputapuatea Marae, the religious and ceremonial site of the ancient Chiefs of the Islands.
Standing among the many ancient tikis and maraes — places used for religious or communal purposes — it’s a peacefully beautiful place to learn about early Polynesian traditions and beliefs prior to their conversion to Christianity in the 19th century.
While it’s easy to fly between islands, there’s nothing quite like sailing around French Polynesia. I join a yacht charter to my next destination, nearby Huahine. Spending two nights on board the crewed catamaran, complete with private chef, I join four couples enjoying a longer journey.
My ensuite cabin is compact but comfortable with a huge bed up on a platform with steps either side. I pray I won’t have to negotiate them during the night.
As we make our leisurely way past Taha’a to Huahine, there’s plenty of time to enjoy the ocean with stand-up paddle boards, snorkelling, fishing and swimming in the crystal clear warm water, as well as relaxing on the top deck sunbed.
Mooring up near a deserted palm-fringed atoll, we take a dinghy ashore to explore and watch the approaching sunset. It’s a Crusoe moment to remember.
Back on board, dressing for dinner here means wearing a T-shirt over your swimming gear, while evening entertainment is provided by small black tip sharks illuminated by the yacht’s lights, searching for their own evening meal of fresh fish.
Only the thought of exploring an island the locals call “Tahiti’s hidden one” can console me for returning to dry land. In fact it’s two islands in one, with Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) connected by a small road bridge.
Just ten miles long and eight miles wide, fringed by a deep crystal-clear lagoon with white sand beaches, what they lack in size they more than make up for in beauty. The locals call it the “garden island”, its verdant hills and valleys a hiker’s dream. It’s tranquil here, and I feel I am light years from the treadmill of tourism.
At the tiny capital Fare, metres from where Cook came ashore to meet Queen Teha’apapa in 1769, I meet my guide, Paul. We stroll along Fare’s single street lined with coconut palms, where street traders are hawking fresh fruit and veg and there’s a couple of artisan shops selling black pearls, Tahiti’s biggest export.
Paul drives me to a bridge by the tiny village of Faie where we take a short hike to the summit of Matairea Hill, among the lush vegetation and tall pines. As we pass the ruins of numerous maraes, he tells me that this whole hillside was deemed sacred and once reserved for members of the Island’s royal family.
We’re rewarded at the summit with a glorious panorama across both islands. Far below is Lake Fauna Nui and I spot submerged stones built in the shape of a V, an ancient technique used to trap fish, which local fishermen still use.
Back at the bridge, Paul has another surprise; giant blue-eyed eels. These creatures have lived happily for generations in the shallow freshwater creek being regularly fed with tinned mackerel by visitors. And yes, they really do have piercingly blue eyes.
Almost 1,000 miles and a 3-hour flight from Tahiti, the 12 islands of The Marquesas — the Islands of men — offer a completely different experience. Even the clock is different here, losing a half hour to Tahiti time.
It is a lot drier, the beaches are black and there are no coral reef lagoons. But different is no less wondrous: towering rocky peaks and deep sweeping valleys are the signature landscapes and these islanders live off the land.
Huge sections of family land handed down through generations provide fertile hunting opportunities, crops and fruit are abundant, avocados and mangoes as big as coconuts, while wild horses roam free. This is where I find myself meeting Brian O’Conner, on Hiva Oa, also the last resting place of French artist Paul Gauguin.
We drive along Tahiti’s equivalent of the Amalfi coast, a road hugging the side of dramatic craggy coastal cliffs, to reach the tiny village of Puamau for lunch at a local farm. It’s a right royal feast including kaaku, (pounded breadfruit mixed with coconut milk) with poisson cru — the national dish, raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.
Next door is Te Lipona, a remarkably intact archaeological site containing some extraordinary stone tikis, including the tallest one in the entire region. Beautifully maintained by the villagers, it is another remarkable snapshot into the Polynesian past.
From here, it’s only a short hop across to Nuku Hiva, the largest island of the Marquesas and their administrative centre. Taiohae Bay, the small capital, and most of the resorts are in the south and it’s a 90-minute drive from the small airport across an extinct giant caldera to get there.
The scenery is jaw-dropping, a doppelganger for an alpine summer landscape. Looking back towards it from the coast, the distant line of volcanic peaks stand like ancient tikis behind the capital.
There’s a wealth of Polynesian archaeology to discover here too, plus the chance to visit the 350 metre-high Vaipo waterfall in the Hakaui Valley, and Notre Dame Cathedral at Taiohae, a small memorial to the original missionaries who landed in the Marquesas back in 1848.
The lure of Bora Bora’s beaches is certainly appealing but with the sheer variety of experiences, scenery and local characters, island hopping around French Polynesia is a voyage of discovery that shouldn’t be missed.
Flights with Air Tahiti Nui cost from around £1,000 from Paris to Papeete (Tahiti) via Los Angeles, with connecting flights from the UK available from partner airlines.
American Airlines also flies from Heathrow to Papeete via Los Angeles from around £1,250 return.
Air Tahiti Multi Island Passes cost from around £270 for a Discovery Pass for Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea, and from around £440 including a Marquesas extension.
A three-night trip with Tahiti Yacht Charters costs from around £1,640 per person for a private cruise for two, including crew/cook, meals and water.
For more information, visit tahititourisme.uk
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