This was our last port, and for that reason there was an edge of sadness when we pulled into the harbor on Saturday morning. The small island is rugged looking even from our anchorage with tall, jagged mountain peaks. The whole mountainous terrain is colored a lush green, and it almost looks as deserted as it is. There are only about 1,600 people who make their home here, and because of that there is not a very well-developed tourism infrastructure – certainly not to the extent you would see in Bora Bora or Tahiti. Nuku Hiva is one of the ten Marquesas Islands, of which only six are inhabited today.
Cruise ships only call here a few times a year, and one combination freighter/passenger ship arrives each month, which brings supplies and other things needed by the islanders as well as a few day tourists.
Because of the lack of tour operators, Holland America does not have a tour excursion program developed for this port. In the literature they put together for this port, the cruise line advises passengers to enjoy the simple and natural pleasures of the island. Admire the many splendid and dramatic views of this unspoiled island paradise. There is some diving, fishing, 4 wheel drive and horseback riding options available, but they can be hard to come by since operators are not really plentiful. There is only one resort located on the island, and a small town center. When a cruise ship is docked in the harbor, vendors will usually come to the dock area and set up stalls selling their wares. These include home-made fabrics and wood carvings. Of course, one can always find tee-shirts and other more “touristy” items located here.
In order to see a bit of this island, one of the Cruise Critic group members made arrangements in advance for a full-day island tour with Claude, who was able to arrange to accommodate 24 of us spread over six vehicles. The group I was with was among the lucky ones to share an SUV sedan that, while it did not have air conditioning, did have relatively comfortable seating. Our driver, however, did not speak English. So, another passenger fluent in French sat up front with him and translated.
We started out heading away from the town center, and up the huge mountain that makes up this volcanic island. When we pulled into our anchorage early in the morning, one could see way up at the top the outline of what looked like an antenna. Well, we got a close up look at that whole antenna complex – it was actually several, including satellite dishes and other electronics all mounted on the same tower. We went up to the very top of this steep mountain.
As we ventured up the mountain, we first were on a rather stable paved road. However, it was a road with many twists and turns, and sights of such beauty to behold on both sides. It sort of reminded me of the road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii. We saw many of the Piki Vehine Pae Pae – or traditional Marquesan homes. These quaint structures were often painted in pastel colors and often they did not have traditional windows, but rather were open to the air with perhaps curtain like material hung as privacy curtains. Beautiful trees were in bloom with all manner of flowers and fruits, and the colors were simply breathtaking.
As we got further up the mountain, we could look down into the harbor and see the beautiful blue of the Pacific Ocean with the Statendam, looking like a tiny toy boat, anchored out in the harbor. Chickens freely walked along the road, and horses grazed along the mountainside, along with goats and cows. Our guide told us that the owners rarely kept them in a corral as such was not necessary in this small island community.
The island does have a school for the children, but it only goes up through the primary grades. If a child wishes to go to high school, his parents must send him to Papeete for high school. Few of the children of the island continue their formal education beyond the primary grades.
To earn money, many residents of Nuku Hiva work in the crafts. We were told that Claude, the person with which we arranged for this tour, worked as a carpenter making furniture and other such items for the people of the island. Others are “taxi” drivers, who make daily runs to the airport when an airplane is coming in. Others leave the island to get work, usually venturing to Papeete or even Bora Bora.
The island does have a small airport which is used by small commuter airplanes that deliver tourists from Papeete. There is usually an airplane that arrives daily, but it is not a large one. For “island hopping” of short distances, a small Twin Otter airplane is used that seats about nine people. Believe me, this is a small airplane. In my neck of the woods, Philadelphia and New Jersey, we use Twin Otters as skydiving aircraft. They only hold about 16 to 18 jumpers, and that’s with all the airplanes seats removed.
The island does have one resort, but other than for its seclusion, it really doesn’t have much other appeal. There really isn’t a lot to do on Nuku Hiva, other than enjoy the lush scenery. There are diving operations, as well as fishing, foul-wheel drive excursions and horseback riding available here. Other recreational pursuits would also include volleyball and swimming. Nuku Hiva is not really known for its beaches, however. Because of the jagged mountains and the volcanic nature of the rock formations, the shore line is often dotted with rocks and stones, rather than the smooth powdery sand that makes up more attractive beachfront resorts. However, our tour group did stop at one of the few easily accessible beaches where we did have the opportunity to swim and walk the sand for about half an hour. The water here is not the clear blue of other South Pacific islands and the water is not idea for snorkeling since the visibility is rather poor. However, it was as warm as bath water and did provide for a very delightful dip.
As we made our way up the mountain side, the paved road gave way to mud and gravel, with steep drop offs along the sides. I am known for enjoying “extreme” pursuits, but I could not imagine the skill required to drive these roads, especially at night, since one miscalculated turn would clearly result in a long drop down a sheer cliff. I could barely watch as our driver expertly negotiated several of these sharp turns.
We made several stops along the way to view the amazing scenery and to take photographs. Flowers of every amazing color, palm trees hugging the sheer cliff-side, lush trees hanging precariously to the edges of what appeared to be sheer vertical drop-offs, all made for awesome photographs. We also stopped at several settlements that had once been home to the ancient Polynesians who first migrated to these islands some 2,000 years ago. They built giant stone idols that were an important part of their culture, and in their settlements we could see those places where they worshipped and made sacrifices to their gods – often human ones. One could see the intricate detail on their tikis and in these stone idols, often depicting birds of the air and other animals of significance in their cultural practices. Some of their tikis face the sea, as it is believed that the spirits of their departed will return from the sea one day. In fact, our guide told us that they had a custom of sacrificing their first born child to the gods, and we saw the ceremonial place where those sacrifices were made. We were also told that the bones of deceased elders were deposited in open graves where it was believed they would watch out for the rest of the still living members of the community.
Some of these settlements were very elaborate, and we stopped at a couple. I did not make the hike to view the entire community, as some parts of it involved a somewhat arduous hike to reach – not something I am particularly suited to. The one thing of note, however, is that at this particular settlement, it didn’t matter if you stayed on the road with the vehicles or made the hike. Either way you were getting eaten alive by thousands of tiny bugs. Despite dousing ourselves with bug repellent, little could be done to avoid these nasty critters and several of us were onboard the ship that night still scratching. One woman reported that she had over 75 bites on her legs.
We then stopped at the islands only full service restaurant for lunch. Here we were treated to an assortment of chicken and fish items all served “family-style” on a large platter fashioned from palm leaves. Fresh fruit followed for dessert along with what, at least to me, was the best-tasting cup of coffee I have ever had. It was somehow blended with what tasted like fresh cocoa beans. These gave it a somewhat chocolate tinge, and while it was clear one was drinking coffee, it had a definite chocolate taste. Totally enjoyable.
The only thing I did not like is that when the waitstaff offered us coffee, they never told us there was an extra charge for it. We had been led to believe that the cost of lunch (with the exception of beer and soda) was included in the tour cost of $130.00 USD each. So imagine our surprise when we were informed that those who ordered coffee were being assessed an additional charge of $3.00. Clearly, this should have been made clear to us before ordering, or the tour coming should have eaten the additional cost.
After lunch we continued our tour of other remote sections of the mountainside. Around these hairpin turns we continued to drive, and at one point we crested the very top of the mountain, where we drove right by the antenna complex that we had viewed that morning from onboard the Statendam. We had to stop at one point in order to allow a group of what appeared to be wild horses to cross to the other side of the road. This was truly rustic countryside here.
We stopped at a beach for a short swim. Most people chose to just walk along the beach, letting the water come up to their ankles. The water didn’t look very inviting as it wasn’t the beautiful shade of blue we had become accustomed to from our visits to the other islands such as Moorea and Bora Bora. I was the only person to actually take a swim, and I found the water to be very refreshing and quite warm.
After a bit more sighseeing from the vehicles, we then made our last stop at a small beachfront settlement. Here we viewed more of the stone idols, these ones facing out toward the open sea. The scenery here was particularly beautiful, and one couldn’t stop taking pictures – there was so much here one wanted to capture. Many flowering trees provided postcard type photos, while the stone carvings were particularly intricate and beautiful.
All good things come to an end and we were finally deposited back at the dock area. A quick race to get into the shops to perhaps pick up a souvenir, as the security officer at the tender dock was frantically waving at us to get onboard. It was time for the Statendam to sail and we were the only group still on Nuku Hiva. They wanted us on the tender and headed back – like right NOW.
I was planning to be up on deck for the sailaway festivities, but as I came out of the shower I noticed the peaks of Nuku Hiva moving past my window. The Statendam had already sailed, so we must have been the ones holding everyone up. We had really packed a lot into our tour and thus cut it really close. Thank God we didn’t miss the ship! Wouldn’t that have been a bummer – having to fly all the way home from Nuku Hiva?!?!?! Guess that would have meant a flight to Papeete and then God knows to where else to connect with the United States!
We now have six glorious days at sea before arriving back in San Diego on the 25th. It’s depressing to know that this sailing is coming to an end. I can actually remember boarding the Statendam in Vancouver as though it were yesterday – leaving my hotel room at the Pan Pacific and making my way down to the cruise ship level, and through the pier facility. I can remember so clearly as I first stepped onto the ship, and the anticipation of knowing that I would be making my home here for the next 35 days. How sad to see that all come to an end.
But, on the positive side of things, there are still six days at sea, with all the adventures that will bring.
Blue skies –