The Land Rover’s gearbox grates painfully. Our driver William thumps the poor beast into first as we grind up the improbably steep lane.
At its peak, a moss-covered gargoyle, or tiki, stands sentinel above the settlement of Nuku Hiva and its bay far below.
It was here in 1842 that the 21-year-old American author Herman Melville jumped ship only to seek out himself surrounded by Polynesian cannibals. Such was his naive charm and zest for all times that he leapt out of the frying pan and into the arms of the much-feared Taipi tribe.
He spent several splendid weeks of their embrace and went on to base his bestseller Typee on the experience, before sketching one among the fundamental characters in Moby Dick on the ‘noble savages’ of Nuku Hiva.
Mark Porter discovers paradise – the island of Nuku Hiva, a part of the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands archipelago. Above is Taiohae Bay on Nuku Hiva
Fringe of the world: An impressive aerial view of crescent-shaped Taiohae Bay
I’m smack bang in the course of the South Pacific — within the Marquesas Islands, a part of French Polynesia. Halfway between San Francisco and Recent Zealand, Nuku Hiva is the biggest of those.
You first fly to Tahiti (10,000 miles from London), then board a three-hour flight for an additional 1,000 miles. Door to door it takes 30 hours, but what’s 30 hours within the grand scheme of things, whenever you’re not halfway to paradise but actually knocking on its door?
We weave our way across an island of vertiginous basalt stacks that jut out of the ocean, past 1,000ft waterfalls that thunder down canyons.
Local children on the Marquesas Islands, which lie smack bang in the course of the South Pacific
Door to door it takes 30 hours to get to Nuku Hiva from the UK
We pass white Robinson Crusoe beaches next to beaches of black sand. ‘First got here the French missionaries. The whaling boats got here later, bringing with them alcohol, firearms and syphilis,’ says William, with practised ease. ‘The alcohol was OK.’
We’ve just driven past the island’s jail, which has space for 3. It’s the one constructing now we have seen since leaving the airport an hour ago.
I ask if there’s much crime and William says ‘none in anyway’. So, anyone locked up just now? ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It’s also a drunk tank.’
We go through emerald forests, ravines and valleys until we reach the bay on the opposite side. Here the three,000-strong colony of Nuku Hiva resides. It’s an overseas French territory where cannibals were converted to Catholicism within the late nineteenth century — excellent news for future tourism, not to say the island’s gastronomy.
We check into the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge with its ocean view bungalows, infinity pool, cocktail bar and suitably Gallic restaurant. Other than this well-run high-end hotel, there’s nothing to suggest luxury on the island. It’s a place for mountaineering, horse-riding, diving and breathtaking scenery.
Driving across the island, Mark spies 1,000ft waterfalls that thunder down canyons and white Robinson Crusoe beaches
In 1842, the 21-year-old American author Herman Melville – famed for later writing Moby Dick – spent several ‘splendid’ weeks with the natives of Nuku Hiva
Mark checks into the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, a luxury hotel on the island that boasts ocean-view bungalows and an infinity pool (above)
Pictured is Fatu Hiva, the southernmost isle within the archipelago. Mark notes that painter Paul Gauguin frolicked on the islands
Vaipo Waterfall on Nuku Hiva, which has a drop height of 1,148ft (350m). Pictured courtesy of Creative Commons
One can easily see why Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London followed in Melville’s footsteps, and why the painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel were also drawn to the Marquesas.
The local men all greet one another with fist bumps and the ‘hang loose’ shaka sign nicked from Hawaiian browsing culture. The latter consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while holding the three middle fingers curled and rotating the hand for emphasis.
There’s definitely plenty of chilling and shaka-ing. The heavily tattooed and heavily built men appear to be hang-out professionals, never doing nothing nor discernibly doing anything, either. But when it’s 35c and quite humid, you pace yourself until the hour of the sundowner.
Across crescent-shaped Taiohae Bay, the Aranui 5 sails in. That is the cargo ship that supplies the six inhabited Marquesas Islands with Heineken, toothpaste and bras.
It’s also a luxury liner and takes 230 passengers on its 14-day tour from Tahiti. The no-nonsense cargo foredeck conceals the swimming pool, bar, restaurant and the corridors of teak-lined cabins.
I am going onboard to examine and luxuriate in a chilly beer under a fan within the bar with a Parisian banker and her husband, before William arrives to take us for some sightseeing.
The shoreline is deeply scarred by inlets, and the deep blue bays shimmer under the insistent sun. But soon we’re in a shady bower, clambering on foot over awkward terrain to succeed in a 500-year-old banyan tree.
Nuku Hiva is the biggest of the Marquesas Islands – above are rock formations on the smaller isle of ‘Ua Pou
The island of ‘Ua Huka also sits within the archipelago. During his visit, Mark spies the one cargo ship that supplies the six inhabited Marquesas Islands with Heineken, toothpaste and bras
A 15-night trip to Moorea, Bora Bora and the Marquesas Islands costs from £6,540pp, including five nights at Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort, 4 nights at Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort and 6 nights at Le Nuku Hiva by Pearl Resorts, breakfasts and all flights (turquoiseholidays.co.uk).
For further information, go to: tahititourisme.uk/en-gb.
In Melville’s time its a whole lot of interconnecting trunks were filled with human skulls and bones. The dead were left to dry within the wind, then stripped of their flesh before their skeletons were disposed of in the upper branches. Underneath is a 20ft dungeon where prisoners were kept amid the smaller human bones in a fearful ossuary. There may be a terrifying feel to the place (and greater than a whiff of sulphur), so we gladly depart for a beachside restaurant next to the cathedral.
I attend a vibrant and glorious-sounding Sunday mass, before eating a wonderful chicken curry prepared by a bustle of voluble women in an open kitchen.
Nuku Hiva translates as ‘Land of Men’ and this continues to be true. It’s a socially mobile patriarchy, whereby someone of low birth has at all times been capable of stand up the ranks by virtue of his strength, bravery and leadership. We return to the hotel, past the soothing, rustling sounds of gravity sucking waves back across the sands, punctuated occasionally by the tinkle of goats’ bells.
This can be a communal society and when you fancy a child for dinner (the four-legged variety), you grab one, as there are free-range herds roaming throughout. The Marxist principle of property being theft prevails agreeably.
I contemplate a laminated menu floating on my back within the infinity pool, a second dry martini on the table. Sometimes the only things give the best pleasure.
The coast of ‘Ua Huka. Novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London are amongst those to have explored the Marquesas Islands
A 15-night trip to Moorea, Bora Bora and the Marquesas Islands costs from £6,540pp with Turquoise Holidays. Above is ‘Ua Huka