My feet in black sand, my back against a smooth, wind-worn rock, I'm wrapped in a cocoon of sound from the crashing surf and tumbling sea stones. Jagged volcanic peaks rise behind me to over 4,000 feet, covered in deep-green forests so thick even the bush pigs have trouble navigating them. A lone paddler sets out from the beach in an outrigger. It's a stunning scene and one that has played out here the same way for thousands of years. I find myself wondering how many millions of times those surf stones have rolled up and down this beach, and then I realize that that's a thought I've never had anywhere else.
Some things have admittedly changed on Fatu Hiva, the southernmost island in the remote Marquesas chain, a thousand miles northeast of Tahiti. A hand- ful of silver metal mahimahi boats stream in beneath the sunrise, past a few sailboats from international ports anchored off the village of Omoa. But despite a bare few reminders of the modern world, the isolation is palpable.
First reached by peoples from the western Pacific, voyaging in canoes over stretches of ocean starting, many believe, about 4,000 years ago, this was the last part of the planet to be settled. Even today you can only get here on a passenger/cargo boat or the occasional cruise ship. Most residents prefer that isolation. Starting in Omoa, population about 600, I want to understand the value of being cut off and see whether it extends to short-term visitors like me.
Walking the main street, I fall into step with the town's honorary mayor, Anna, a septuagenarian wearing an umuhei in her hair -- a neat bundle of flowers, sandalwood and monoi oil, considered an aphrodisiac. We pass simple cement- block houses painted in fading pastels and shaded by palms, hibiscus, mango, breadfruit and lemon trees.
Thousands of people once populated this island, and I imagine the beaches lined with oceangoing canoes. Often I've wished I'd been born in the days before maps and GPS, when travel meant plunging over the horizon toward unknown destinations. I envy those first paddlers, but I also feel like I share their discoveries through the small wonders I encounter as I walk these valleys.
I hear a pounding, and down long drives I spy women banging on rock anvils with scarred wooden mallets. Fatu Hiva has long been known for its wood carvings and tapa cloths, the latter pounded from the fiber and bark of mulberry trees. Echoes from the past blend with the sounds of the day.
"You know, there is no word in Marquesan for 'work,'" Anna says. "The very first people who came here, they danced, sang, made love ... but 'work' was a foreign thing to the early people. I like that about them!"
She was born near here and lives today in a yellow house with a metal roof, surrounded by a vast garden planted in pots. I ask if she'd be happy living anywhere else. "No, not for me," she says. "Too expensive. I'd rather have lots of free time than to be constantly running after money." I nod in agreement.
From Omoa I climb into the mountains toward Hanavave, the island's other town, just a three-hour hike. A year ago, the track narrowed to a muddy trail at the peak; now it's been widened for four-wheelers. Talk about change! The bakery in Omoa now delivers croissants to the folks in Hanavave.
Heading down toward the spectacular Bay of Virgins, I pass a pair of pig hunters on horseback and a scattering of small houses, families sitting on the porches. There are more hints of modernity -- a couple of pickup trucks, electric lines running up the hill, radios sounding from cinder-block houses -- but these people live much as their great-grandparents did.
The mud track turns to cement just before I reach the small dock. I meet Stella and her 2-year-old daughter sitting on a stone wall, watching waves crash on the beach as I had done earlier. Stella offers me a Hinano beer from a blue plastic sack. She wears a flowered swimsuit under a yellow Dennis Rodman jersey. Her daughter, in pink shorts and gray T-shirt, jumps off the black volcanic rocks into the surf, laughing wildly.
I ask the same question I'd asked the mayor: Would she ever leave Fatu Hiva? "Never. Here we can swim, fish, pick fruits off any tree. Except for the stormy season in July and August, when the water is cold and there are big waves, it is the ideal life."
Her words disappear under the sound of rocks tumbling in the surf. We agree that things haven't changed much here. I tell her I envy the pace of her life, its consistency and beauty. I wonder aloud whether I'd rather stay or set sail to discover my own paradise on an island nearby. Stella just nods as her daughter climbs from the water then leaps again, still laughing, into the waves.
Plan Your Trip: Fatu Hiva
The isolation is palpable here in the remote Marquesas chain of Tahiti