Jeff Hill, a senior editor for Weissmann Travel Reports, a
sister publication of Travel Weekly, visited the Marquesas. His
n a place as remote as the
Marquesas Islands, people don't just drop in on a whim. They're
looking for something.
Artist Paul Gauguin came to the Marquesas hoping to find a place
untainted by modern civilization. Unfortunately, he couldn't escape
the taint of syphilis, and he died there in 1903.
More recently, the cast of "Survivor Marquesas" arrived, seeking
a return on their cosmetic surgery investments. Sadly, they all
As for my wife and I, we were looking for tikis.
Anyone who has spent much time in a tropical-themed bar knows
the cartoon version of the tiki -- strange figures with large eyes
and snarling teeth.
The original tikis were statues carved by ancient Polynesians.
In the years before Christianity came to the South Pacific, the
figures were widely believed to possess mana -- supernatural
To be honest, our interest in tikis wasn't exactly scholarly; it
mostly came from studying the designs on mai-tai mugs and
But serious or not, we eventually followed our curiosity to the
Marquesas and to the island of Hiva Oa, known for its large
collection of ancient tikis.
It's not a journey for the impatient. From Tahiti, we had to
make a four-hour flight across 800 miles of ocean to reach Hiva
With so much distance between the Marquesas and the rest of the
world, the islands have always been a place apart. Traditional
practices such as cannibalism survived there longer than in most
other parts of the South Pacific.
The scenery has the appropriate end-of-the-world quality. Hiva
Oa shoots up dramatically from the ocean, leaving almost everything
on a tilt -- steep mountains, sharp ridges, sheer cliffs.
Much of the island is uninhabited. Only 2,000 residents live in
a handful of villages. Visitors also are sparse compared with
visitors to French Polynesia's other islands, though tourism is a
growing business (and one of few the island has).
For more information, contact Tahiti Tourism at (310) 4148484 or
There is only one hotel, Pearl Resort's Hanakee Lodge, although
several guesthouses and pensions also are available.
As with most resort hotels in French Polynesia, the Hanakee
Lodge doesn't come cheap -about $210 to $285 per night -- but the
accommodations are beautiful. Commission is 10%.
The luxurious bungalows are perched high on a mountainside,
overlooking the ocean and the main village of Atuona, where Gauguin
There is no beach, however. Biting no-no sandflies rule the
shores and prevent seaside lounging.
The rugged topography and rough roads make four-wheel-drive
vehicles the only practical way to get around the island.
And because it's difficult and unwise to drive yourself, the
archaeological sites are seen on guided tours. The lodge handles
all the arrangements.
Fortunately, we drew a good guide in Sabina, a native Marquesan.
She deftly piloted her Land Rover around hairpin mountain turns
while spinning folktales about walking tikis and giant,
Most importantly, she was fluent in English (in addition to
other languages), which isn't all that common on Hiva Oa. Most
islanders speak French and/or Marquesan.
For all her knowledge of local lore, Sabina didn't put much
faith in ancient beliefs. She was a member of the Seventh-Day
Adventist church, one of several evangelical groups active in
She drew a clear line between her religion and that of her
"People back then, they didn't believe in the real God," she
said. "They believed in the tiki!" And what did we bar-stool
anthropologists believe? We were soon to find out.
After a bumpy, two-hour drive, we arrived at the village of
Puamau, home to Hiva Oa's best archaeological site.
It may have been easy for us to joke about tiki mojo while
sipping drinks at the Hula Hut, but stepping into a jungle-shrouded
ceremonial site was an experience more solemn than silly.
Down a short path, several stone platforms sat beneath the
trees. Upon them were tikis -- five of them, all large.
They didn't look much like the cute cocktail-lounge figures or
even the modern wood tikis seen throughout French Polynesia.
Solid and stony, with blurry features, they looked otherworldly,
as if humans had little to do with creating them.
The star of the show was the huge Takaii tiki, which stands more
than eight-and-a-half feet high -- the tallest in French
Carved from brown stone and pitted from several centuries of
wind and rain, its lumpy appearance made it look as if it had just
risen from the earth.
On the drive over, Sabina had told us that many islanders
considered it bad luck to touch the statues.
We had laughed about it, but no one in our group seemed willing
to test the belief, least of all my wife.
But accidents happen. In true tourist spirit, I had her pose
beside Takaii for a photo. As she did, she accidentally brushed
against the statue.
"Oh my God," she said. "I touched the tiki!" She stared at her
hand as if she expected it to fall off.
"Don't worry," Sabina said. "These tikis don't have power
anymore." She was leaning up against one of the statues as she
spoke -- no superstitions for her. "The people don't believe in
them now, so they don't have power."
She was trying to put my wife at ease, but her words made me a
little sad. Not that I wanted to see my wife afflicted with a
strange curse (she already had me, after all), but I had to feel
bad for an idol that had lost its followers.
When I thought about it afterward, though, I realized the tikis
might have at least a little mana left.
Were it not for them, we wouldn't have traveled to an island
that ended up being my favorite part of French Polynesia, mostly
because it was so unlike any other place I had been to.
And who says the statues have to be bad luck? On our return trip
to the U.S., all our flights were on time and my wife got two extra
bottles of coconut liqueur past customs without paying duty.
All hail the tiki!