It goes by several names: Rapa Nui, Isla de Pascua and Easter Island. But whatever you call it, this isolated mid-Pacific outpost is one of the world's most enigmatic, if not top-of-mind, destinations.
Culturally Polynesian, politically Chilean and semitropical in climate, Easter Island has much to offer the modern-day vacationer. But its primary draw remains the iconic moai, or mysterious stone monoliths, that have intrigued Western visitors for centuries.
In fact, if it weren't for those strangely beautiful ruins — massive carvings of abstract human figures, toppled and abandoned long ago — few would likely venture here. Easter Island lies in the balmy, far southeastern corner of the South Pacific, but it's no Hawaii. The stark landscape is windblown and largely barren. More Orkney than Oahu, its few palm trees are imported. There's one tiny town, Hanga Roa, and just two small, swimmable beaches. Accommodations consist largely of small, midrange hotels, with the exception of the exclusive, all-inclusive Posada de Mike Rapu, my own digs on a recent visit.
Then there's the distance: The island lies 2,236 miles west of mainland Chile, so getting here takes at least 16 hours by air from the U.S. East Coast, with one connection. (Chile's LAN Airlines is the only carrier flying the route, from New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and San Francisco. See related story below.)
Yet Easter Island makes for a worthwhile and fascinating getaway, particularly for clients staying at the posada. Run by Santiago, Chile, adventure operator Explora, the 30-unit, ecofriendly resort, built atop an archaeological site, offers all the key elements of a relaxing stay: luxurious accommodations (26 rooms and four junior suites, all with ocean views), gourmet cuisine, spa services and a pool. But guests would be cheating themselves if they journeyed all this way to merely loll by the pool or drink and dine away the days.
It's all about exploring
The resort's primary calling card is its guided "explorations," most on foot, of the island's archaeological and geological wonders.
These include not only 887 moai, the quarries where they were carved and the seaside ahu (platforms) on which they once stood but also abandoned settlements, dormant volcanos, rocky islets, caves, crater lakes and vertigo-inducing coastal cliffs.
According to General Manager Giovanna Rainieri, Explora's walking tours are unique on the island, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site in its entirety.
"Our guided explorations go into remote areas, and then we walk," she said. "Instead of taking a van and driving to the quarry where the moais were carved, we walk the trail on which they were transported from there. The way we explore takes more time."
Taking full advantage of explorations, all included in the price of a stay and led, for the most part, by native islanders, is a must. The posada is the only property on Easter Island to offer its own guided tours as part of packaged vacations and offers up to 25, varying in type, duration and difficulty.
According to Rainieri, most guests, who stay four nights on average, never get a chance to book spa treatments or swim in the pool, because of the explorations.
"[Guests] never miss explorations for a massage," Rainieri said.
During my stay, a choice of three to five excursions, in groups of two to eight people plus guides, was offered twice a day. Nine of the resort's 10 guides were local Rapa Nui islanders.
"Most information our guides share comes from their families, as here the oral tradition is very important," Rainieri said. "We ourselves consider it very important that history be related by islanders themselves."
A day on Rapa Nui
The following excerpts from my own travel journal lend a feel as to what a typical day at Posada de Mike Rapu is like:
"My introductory exploration was the 2.5-hour Coastal Platforms Walk. Kitted out with walking stick, water bottle and granola-and-quinoa bars, I set forth at 10 a.m. from the posada, on foot, through fields surrounding the hotel. I passed several herds of wild horses along the way. Our goal: The south coast, dotted with several archaeological sites, including ahu surrounded by toppled moai. Words of advice: Don't touch, stand on or tamper with moai or ahu; despite a lack of proper warning signage, violators can face hefty fines and possible jail time. Had a near-miss myself, when I unknowingly got too close.
"Then it was back to Posada de Mike Rapu for a four-course lunch and some rest before the day's second exploration, 'Fifteen Moai.' A resort shuttle deposited me at the famed Tongariki ahu, where 15 once-fallen moai have been restored and re-erected. The site also sports faded petroglyphs. From there, we walked a trail along the northern coast at Mahatua, stopping at sights such as the 'Navel of the World,' a stone orb said to be infused with mana, or spiritual energy. The afternoon ended with a brisk paddle in the South Pacific at Anakena Beach. The place was packed with locals enjoying a Sunday out, souvenir stands and snack vendors. I picked up a few miniature souvenir moai, at $6 a pop."
On other days, I climbed a 1,300-foot extinct volcano; snorkeled in crystal-clear waters; trawled the shops and museum in Hanga Roa; and prowled the moai-littered landscape of the Rano Raraku quarry.
In short, although Easter Island is small — just 63 square miles in area — visitors are spoiled for sights. Rainieri told me guests sometimes book stays thinking two days will be plenty but "then discover that there were plenty of options they didn't have time to consider."
All the hiking made me hungry — and I was in the right place. Explora prides itself on offering three healthful gourmet meals per day as part of its rate, which also includes an open bar, airport transfers, explorations, facilities use, lectures, and WiFi and computer access.
Breakfast consisted of a small buffet plus an a la carte menu, while lunch and dinner menus offered a selection of two to three entrees plus soup, salad and desserts. Dinners I tucked into included spicy gazpacho and roasted lamb with polenta and veggies one night, and an appetizer of raw beef tataki and beets followed by pot-roasted Wagyu beef and lentils, the next.
"Explora clients spend most of their days outside being active, so in general the meals are very healthful," she noted. "Here on Rapa Nui, we try to include local products such as fish and summertime vegetables and pineapples." (My own visit coincided with the first harvest of the resort's very own tomato crop, grown in a new orchard.)
Few guests venture off-property at mealtimes, and when they do, it's most often for a preshow dinner in Hanga Roa before a folklore performance. I attended the highly recommended Vai Te Mihi show downtown; clients should not miss it. In high season, Explora brings in similar troupes for on-site performances in the lodge.
Eighty percent of guests at Posada de Mike Rapu are North American, with an average age of 60. Demographics shift seasonally; families arrive in greater numbers during winter holidays, while honeymooners seem to prefer early spring.
Explora is seeing a steady dip in the average age of guests, said Rainieri, and many now tote children. To accommodate them, the posada is crafting a new family program that will offer special activities for children.
All-inclusive rates for adults, per person, through March start at $2,385 for three nights. Explora pays negotiated travel agent commissions.
For more, see www.explora.com.