Ultimate Guide: No Wonder Gauguin Stayed Put ; SOUTH PACIFIC: THE MARQUESAS: Mark Rowe Sails the South Seas and Falls for the Marquesas, the French Painter's Final Resting Place

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So, just what would you like from your South Pacific island? Coconut palms, banyan trees and coral sands, with Mizzi Gaynor washing that man right out of her hair? Or would you prefer the other version, a trip back in time to a more remote, ruggedly volcanic land with perhaps a little light cannibalism thrown in?

I pondered this question as our tiny 18-seater aircraft, gently buffeted by South Pacific trade winds, descended into Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, an archipelago scattered along the north-eastern fringe of French Polynesia. The sight of this landfall, after hours of endless ocean, was dramatically beautiful as crescent-shaped beaches and vast peninsulas resembling the toes of some prehistoric beast emerged through the wispy cloud: this, it seemed, was a land where all South Sea isles come together.

Located midway between Australia and South America, and 800 miles from Tahiti, the Marquesas are the ultimate castaway islands, isolated like no other land on earth, even more so than Pitcairn or Easter Island. This is a remote part of the universe, one of the few remaining havens on this planet where you are safe from mobile phones and replica Manchester United football shirts.

The majority of those who come to Nuku Hiva are attracted by Typee, Herman Melville's first book, which describes a stay in a valley of cannibals of the same name with baroque tattoos, and his romance with Fayaway, the epitome of female South Sea beauty. Others come in homage to the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, whose resting place is the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa. Some, like me, read Willard Price's less weighty South Sea Adventure as a child, a tale of animal collectors Hal and Roger Hunt, giant squid and Professor Stuyvesant, a shady eco-scientist with a dodgy line in pearl farms.

The Marquesas are sometimes described as the thinking-person's South Sea islands. Many beaches are infested with no-nos, tiny white sand flies known locally as "noseeyums" which leave you with red, fingernail-sized bites. Diving is a slightly hair-raising prospect as shoals of sharks flick their tails just a few feet from the shore. These are not the people- friendly hand-fed sharks of Bora- Bora but hammerheads and tiger sharks. "If you swim, you'll find that shark-feeding has a different meaning here," Pascal, a local hotel-owner, told us. "In the Marquesas, even the sharks have tattoos."

Instead you must explore. Nuku Hiva was created by the collapse of two volcanoes, whose rims remain the dominant geographical features. The shoreside villages are hemmed in by sheer rock faces that plunge into the sea, while inland communities lie in valleys separated from one another by tough mountainous passes. In the centre of the island lies a vast plateau, the ancient cauldron of the volcano. To move anywhere you must negotiate a succession of exhausting and torturous switch-backs. The only paved road is the quayside strip in the main town of Tai-o-hae.

We first headed for Taipivai, the valley of the cannibals in Melville's precursor to Moby Dick. Though the cannibals have gone, the beauty of the place remains. Wood-carvers ply their trade by streams as the road leads through plantations of coconuts, grapefruit, breadfruit and mangoes. A short walk away is Paeke, one of the most amazing ancient religious sites in the South Pacific. Built on raised stone, this ceremonial site, known as a meae, is where sacrifices were made and enemies eaten. The site is guarded by large stone carvings of squat tikis, figures representing ancestral gods.

You'll probably have the place to yourself for the day, though don't wander too far as many places are tapu, or off-limits (this Marquesan word became our "taboo") and to tread on a sacred site is said to invite the wrath of the spirits watching from the surrounding woods. Be careful where you step, too, for there are many pits where what the guides euphemistically call "food" used to be kept. …