Hiva Oa: A South Pacific Dreamscape

Hiva Oa might just be the South Pacific island you’ve been dreaming of.

Vistas of Technicolor greens and blues are punctuated by the birdsong and throaty rooster crows competing with heavenly church choirs as the sunrise slowly paints the day upon dramatic mountain faces. Horses and goats, both wild and domestic, dot the roadsides. The smell of turned earth, flowers and marine mists float heavily in the air—alongside the smudgy, smoldering yard fires that are omnipresent in Polynesia.

The island is about as deep into the South Pacific as one can get. Part of an island group called The Marquesas, a cluster of rocky, volcanic islands nearly a thousand miles from Tahiti heading toward the equator, it’s at least several days of travel by air away from North America.

Upon arrival, the welcome is about as colorful and heartfelt as one might expect in Polynesia. Polynesian women in flower-crowned hats and members of the French paramilitary vocational corps SMA in camouflage short-shorts chat casually with each other while waiting to board or greet inbound passengers. Guests bound for the Hanakee Pearl Lodge are greeted with hei garlands made from whichever flowers are most abundant on property that day.

The lodge, twenty minutes from the airport, sits on a hillside overlooking Atuona with the cliff face of Mount Temetiu constantly imposing on the background, whether dressed with mists, flash waterfalls or morning sun. Views of the Pacific Ocean or the mountains welcome guests from one of the 14 well-kept bungalows, which have all of the expected mod-cons.

However, if guests wish to turn off the AC and cool their rooms in the traditional way, there are shuttered, screened windows on multiple sides for cross-breeze. Otherwise, the bungalows are well set up for enjoying the views from generous decks to picture windows—even guest room showers have outdoor ventilation and lovely views.

In the main lodge, guests will discover their compatriots to be a mix of fellow (almost entirely French-speaking) leisure travelers, Air Tahiti regional pilots on rotation and other visitors from France or Tahiti with business or administrative aims in the town.

These guests, along with those at a handful of other pensions and guest houses in Atuona, make up the entirety of the visitor compliment for the island—no more than a few dozen at any given moment on an island with a population of just over two thousand. The tourist faces you see on the flight in are the ones you keep recognizing in the town, for the trickle of visitors you arrived with are the island’s only strangers until they depart.

Atuona is best known throughout the Francophone world as being the last respites for the painter Paul Gauguin at the turn of the century and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel in the 1970s. They’re buried a few yards from each other in Calvary Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the town, shaded by an abundance of plumeria trees.

The main visitor attraction in town is the Paul Gauguin Cultural Center where exhibits follow a timeline of the artist’s life and work, with a wealth of paintings (all reproductions) financed by a donation from the Atomic Energy Commission in the mid-1990s. The center sits on the site of Gauguin’s residence, and a replica of the two-story grass house situated in the garden today, next to the property’s original stone well.

The house, dubbed La Maison de Jouir (House of Joy), was a popular party spot for the locals and likely named partially due to the second floor being decorated with the painter’s prized collection of pornographic photographs (which do not survive).

Jacques Brel has his own exhibit in the green hangar next door. Visitors can look upon the singer’s restored private prop plane, and read placards (only in French) detailing his career and association with Hiva Oa. Unlike Gauguin, his home sat atop a mountain ridge overlooking the town and bay.

Otherwise, it’s fun to poke about in the town, absorbing its rhythm and trying out some French. It’s not like more tourist-packed francophone destinations where a moment’s hesitation will have speakers switching to English. Here, where English is less common, also less common is automatic accommodation of non-French speaking visitors—and for the kind of traveler who wants out of their comfort zone, it’s delightful.

Friends on Tahiti advised that the French spoken in the Marquesas is more “textbook,” owing to the number of residents from Metropolitan France, but amongst themselves, the Polynesian residents of the islands seem to favor a mixture of Marquesan and French. Marquesan is distinct from Tahitian—Ia Orana (hello) and Mauruuru (thank you) won’t get visitors very far here—they get swapped out for the Marquesan Ka’oha and ko’utou.

Beyond poking about Atuona, the lodge will arrange several excursions for guests. One of the most popular is a day-long boat tour to the neighboring island of Tahuata. A Marquesan guide, resident on the island, sings songs, tells stories in French and English, and shares Marquesan vocabulary while carving gigantic yellow-fleshed grapefruits and hands them out as snacks, which the French visitors all rave is much sweeter than the grapefruits they get in Europe.

The first stop is the town of Vaitahe, the largest on Tahuata, where we’re proudly shown the imposing Catholic cathedral (another distinction from the primarily Protestant Tahiti) and the town’s cultural center, where representative tiki from each of the Marquesan islands are displayed.

At the mairie (town hall), we’re shown a placard proclaiming the reclamation of the islands’ indigenous name Fenua Enata (The Land of Men) rather than the Spanish name (Islas Marquesas) or its French version (Iles Marquises) that were bestowed by Europeans. It is with a rather co-equal sense of importance that we’re also presented the plaque commemorating the 1838 landing of the first French mission at Vaitahe, leading to the island group’s 1842 annexation by France. There’s no post-colonial sentiment here—“That’s the day we became French citizens,” the guide proudly shares.

After that, it’s onwards to Hapatoni. The islands are well-known for artisan wood carving; Hapatoni is especially noted for the craft. A handful of vendors set up tables to showcase wares like decoratively carved paddles, bowls, hairpins and other wearables for our small group of seven; I feel bad that none of the islanders make a sale, but I know that some of the Tahiti-based cruise ships call here on occasion, which probably brings much better business.

After that, it’s on to an abandoned white sand beach where a barbecue lunch is prepared with tuna, chicken, Poisson Cru (raw tuna cubes marinated in coconut milk and lime), fresh coconut, grapefruit and Salade Russe (potato salad). After lunch, while we feed the ducks and chickens, swim in the bay or relax in the shade, the tour guides take the opportunity to spearfish—and they come back with an impressive haul of fish, including a small octopus. The residents of Hapatoni will be eating well tonight.

The residents of the lodge will also be eating well. The lodge is also the spot to go for a nice dinner out, and the menu is a fine assortment of fresh seafood, pasta, meats and lovely desserts with inventive cocktails and fresh bread. Breakfasts spreads are extensive, with fresh bread and pastries, homemade cakes, crepes, preserves, jams and local Marquesan honey, cold cuts, bacon, sausages, fresh-made yogurt and papayas and mangos that will likely ruin all others one ever tries.

The Takeaway

Dramatic in landscape with a friendly, soulful population and a languor that reaches an almost dream-like quality, Hiva Oa is well worth the journey, and the Hanakee Pearl Lodge nestles modern yet rustic luxury right in its midst.

Getting There

Papeete, Tahiti is eight hours nonstop from the U.S. West Coast or five from Hawai‘i. Flights to the Marquesas typically depart in the early morning—too early for same day connections, requiring an overnight in Tahiti. Depending on the day and the number of stops, Atuona Airport on Hiva Oa is three to five hours from Papeete on Air Tahiti.

The Math

Room rates start at 28,500 French Pacific Francs (XPF) per night (at press time, that’s around $275 USD).

Instagrammable Moment

Views. Whether mountain or ocean views, there are views for days from everywhere on site.

Loyalty

None. But that won’t keep you from wanting to come back.

Good To Know

The hotel can include transfers to and from the airport in the room rate for a fee.

A free shuttle runs twice daily from the lodge to Atuona. Dropoffs and pickups outside the regular schedule are available for a very reasonable fee.

The hotel also has several prepaid meal plans, which are a good value, as there are limited dining options on the island.

Accommodations and meals were furnished by Hanakee Pearl Lodge in preparation for this story.

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