The famed Belgian singer Jacques Brel sailed into Hiva Oa in 1975 and decided (a la Gauguin) to stay. Like Gauguin, he lived out his days here (he died in 1978), and both are buried in the cemetery that overlooks the island’s town of Atuona. For a look at the Marquesan past that Gauguin knew, look for the 7-foot-high stone tiki sculptures near the village of Puamau; the largest in Polynesia, they were carved around 1750.
Tattooing, an integral part of traditional Polynesian culture, was stamped out in many island groups, including the Marquesas, by missionaries in the 1800s, and the meanings of most designs has been lost. But since the late 1970s, traditional tattoos have made a comeback, and the Marquesas have led the way in adapting ancient designs. If you’re looking for some unique skin art, know that most of the tattoo shops on Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva use modern needles, although some practitioners still use the traditional (and more painful) bone chisel.
The islanders on neighboring Nuku Hiva do like to tool around in their 4-WDs, but horses have long been part of the Marquesan landscape. You can take a “jeep safari” to the Taipivai Valley, but why not take to the saddle? One of the largest valleys on the island, it was where Herman Melville (in his pre-Moby Dick days), stayed for a month in 1842 after jumping ship – and it served as the setting for his book Typee. Taipivai also has one of the archipelago’s major archaeological sites.