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A Social Whirl

By Shangri-La - Published July 01, 2008 - Viewed 3149 times

We’ve been in Ua Pou (pronounced: ooh, a poo) for almost a week now, and will be leaving tomorrow. The latest weather reports have been forecasting robust northeast winds for the Marquesas, 20-25 knots, gusting to 30, in the next couple of days. With the moon nearly full, I want to use the blow to make a speedy passage with well-lit nights to Rangiroa in the Tuamotus. The Marquesas have been good for amazing scenery, hiking, and the great people we’ve met, but the kids and I have decided it’ll have to be the Tuamotus where we find perfect clear blue waters for snorkeling and other watery fun.

The Marquesas have been a feast for the senses

Well, actually, this was mostly the kids’ decision. If it weren’t for them, I’d have felt obliged to drop in on Nuku Hiva, the most populated and well-known island of the Marquesas, just 25 miles to the north of us. On its south coast, the silhouette of which we can see from here on days with good visibility, is the large and deeply indented bay of Taiohae. With ample protection, it is the number one destination for cruisers after a Pacific crossing and we heard there are at least 20 boats anchored there right now, while here, we’re all alone.

We’ve seen only one other sailboat, a catamaran with a French mother, father, and three children under the age of 12 who’ve also taken off this school year to cruise, only they bought their boat in Raiatea to avoid any long ocean crossings, and are spending the time sailing the vast territory and many islands of French Polynesia before reselling the boat and returning to France. They left for Nuku Hiva yesterday to pick up a grandmother flying in for a visit.

Nicholas takes a refreshing drink of fresh coconut water

I didn’t stop in Nuku Hiva on my first pass in 1985 either, foregoing it for Hiva Oa and the Southern Group instead, and over the years, whenever I talked about the Marquesas with anyone else who’d visited the islands, they always knew Nuku Hiva, while I didn’t... and still won’t. Though I can’t say I didn’t try. Look, I said to the boys, the guidebook shows how, archeologically speaking, Nuku Hiva has lots of significant tikis and the stone remains of ceremonial plazas, temples, and house platforms to visit.

Are you sure you don’t want to go for just a couple of days? For some reason, after years of dragging them kicking and screaming to museums and other “educational” sites in all our travels, I’m still holding out for the day when something outside of the historical fiction books they devour will get them to uncomplainingly undertake a sweaty hike with mom making them pose for pictures. Silly me. No, they insisted, we want Rangiroa! As far as they’re concerned, the only perfect place will be the one that resembles the clear-blue lagoons and white-sand beaches of the San Blas Islands, their favorite stop so far.

We hiked up to this waterfall and cooled off by jumping in.

Truth be told, I haven’t minded not taking down laundry lines, hauling anchors and crossing another windblown channel just to set everything back up again and briefly see another place instead of staying and getting to know this one better before moving on. Pictures of Ua Pou’s enticing spires have also always called to me, and they’re truly awesome. The over-sized sand castles tower over the anchorage, swimming in and out of view from between the clouds clustering around the pinnacles. Ua Pou is downright gorgeous and with or without Nuku Hiva, we’ll always remember our best days in the Marquesas have been spent in Hakahau Bay, under this breathtakingly magical skyline.

Hakahau Bay has a breakwater, providing what the guidebook calls “considerable protection” from winds and swells. This is true, though the easterly swells still curve in, rebounding off stone cliffs, and the surge is constantly pushing and pulling Shangri La between her bow and stern anchors. The harbor is small. The main quay is immediately to starboard, about 50 feet from us, and it’s a quick walk around the beach, past the pirogue storage sheds, past the communal bocce ball sand pits, to the village stretching up and away from the waterfront.

The breathtakingly magical skyline of Hakahau Bay

Hibiscus, frangipani, tiare, bougainvillea, lime, orange, papaya, pamplemousse, pineapple, mango, breadfruit, noni, and coconut trees shade the homes and gardens lining the streets. Pigs, chickens, and dogs roam from yard to tidy yard, just about every single man, woman, and child has a flower tucked behind an ear, and everyone smiles and says kaoha or bonjour in crossing. There’s a post office and a bank for me, and several stores with fresh baguettes and frozen pork chops for the kids. We’ve all liked this package very much, only enhanced by the friends we made.

We arrived and anchored on a Saturday evening, and Sunday morning Sam rowed me ashore with a bucket-load of laundry and the garbage when suddenly, we found ourselves on a collision course with a man paddling a blue boogie board. “I saw you asking a fisherman some questions,” he said in English. “What do you want?”


A tropical altar

His stringy wet hair hung about his face, reddened by the sun. Sam paddled in place while I answered, said I’d been asking about the tidal range because we’d touched bottom during the night, and was also wondering if anybody on the island could dive and do a small job for me. Two days earlier, in the first anchorage of clear water since the San Blas Islands, where we could see down 30 feet to our anchor threading around rocks, I’d checked out Shangri-La’s underbody and found the zinc anode spinning freely on the propeller shaft.

During the Panamanian shaft-seal replacement, a diver had been sent below to loosen the zinc and pull and push the shaft as needed. He’d never tightened the zinc back up and we’d transited the canal and sailed almost 4,000 miles like that. I didn’t suppose any good could come of this, and a late repair would be better than no repair. I’d tried on my own, but the attempt was pathetic. I just couldn’t hold my breath long enough to go below, get the wrench and screwdriver in position and do anything before needing to surface and gulp air. The boys were no better. So, the guy on the boogie board said he had friends, he’d find us some help (though, it was Hubert, the father on the French catamaran with heftier lungs who ended up doing the job for me).


Ashore were freshwater showers – such luxury. How could the boys want to leave?

I went ashore and while soaking the laundry at the outdoor shower and spigot in the shade of noni trees and coconut palms beside the pirogue shed, the man limped over and introduced himself as Xavier. He asked if we needed any fruits, that he had another friend who could provide some before we left. And, by the way, when would we be leaving? As he led the way to Ignace and Maria’s ha’e, where I was told to put in my fruit order the day before we left and they’d deliver, Xavier recounted tales of moving to the islands as an English teacher, being left by a wife, getting ripped off by a local nogoodnik, engaging in a retributive lawsuit against him.

While Ignace served me up a plate of ka’aku, a breadfruit dish soaked in coconut milk, and some poisson cru at a table between hanging bunches of bananas, drying fish strips, and a smoldering fire pit just outside her kitchen, Marie told me all about visiting one of their 13 children in France and Corsica, how hard it was to find the right ingredients there to make her kind of food.


Polynesian dance is a mesmerizing spectacle

Then, Xavier said he wanted me to see his house on the hill, that he had a leg of lamb cooking up there, would I join him for lunch as well. So, I did, and we ate some more on his porch overlooking Hakahau while he continued the saga of how his rental property burnt to the ground, how uncooperative the gendarmes were, how they even suggested he’d burned his own house, how he’d been hit by a drunken driver, went into a six-week-long coma, got rebuilt, and was still recovering. In the meantime, the boys sat on the boat and wondered where I was until I came waddling home, completely stuffed with food I couldn’t share, and stories I could.

The next two days, Shangri La’s cozy proximity to the wharf temporarily placed us at the nexus of a small community’s connection to the outside world, and it was pretty cool. On Monday, the Taporo lV came in and unloaded all kinds of goods and cargo that had the whole waterfront hopping with industrious activity.


The natural scenes are so breathtaking, and the thrill of seeing this with my boys was a dream come true

On Tuesday, the Aranui lll pulled in, another, and much larger, inter-island freighter, loaded with more cargo and up to 200 passengers. The Aranui was already plying this route when I was here 21 years ago, and had been doing so for many years prior to that. It had always sounded like a great way to see the islands, if one couldn’t sail here, and I’d recommended it to more than one prospective Pacific traveler. The Aranui dwarfed Shangri La, and the boys and I mingled with the debarking tourists as they milled ashore to the arts and crafts tables, then on to a Marquesan song-and-dance spectacle, then on to a traditional lunch at Rosalie’s Restaurant.

On the way back, we crossed paths with a group of three older folks who I assumed were Aranui passengers, until we got to talking and they said we’d already met at the showers a couple of days earlier, that they were on the island visiting a son, the local physical therapist, his wife, and their first grandson. They were the last three of what had been a family reunion of 14 over the Christmas holidays. Later, while I was preparing dinner aboard, I saw Nicholas talking on the beach with Bernard, the grandfather. When he got back, he said he’d just had his longest French conversation ever and guess what... not only did he really like Bernard, but he’d understood everything.


Nicholas was excited that his French was now good enough to carry on a conversation

And continued to do so, because we’ve just spent the past couple of days with the whole family, speaking French and getting to know them. First, on Wednesday, they invited us for a spectacular hike across the island, over a few ridgelines, under the spires, past a waterfall, to another bay and another place for dinner. Then, on Thursday we spent more time on their internet connection calling Dad with Skype, checking the weather and monitoring Cyclone Funa, inviting them come see Shangri La, and being plied with fruits and dried bananas and pizza and cake.

Today is Friday. Ignace and Marie have just come by with all the avocadoes, mangoes, pamplemouse, and limes we ordered. I can see Xavier paddling back across the bay on his blue boogie board, headed our way with some last thoughts on the value of a positive outlook in the presence of evil. Tonight, Bernard and family are having us over for a farewell dinner. Tomorrow morning, I’ll go to their house one last time to check the weather, exchange email addresses and invite them all to Vermont, as I’ve done with all the new friends we’ve made so far.

Ua Pou has been a feast for the senses, visually, socially, and gastronomically. The down side to getting to know a place a little and making friends is that it becomes harder to say good-bye. Fortunately, in French, they say au revoir, literally translated to “until we meet again.” It sounds so much less final. Saying it makes it easier to face cleaning, deflating and stowing the dinghy, hauling in both anchors, poking Shangri La’s bow out the breakwater again, cranking up the sails, and heading back out to sea, west to Rangiroa and beyond. So, au revoir, Fenua Enata. Until we meet again.


We get ready to set sail again

The boys stay on top of their studies, awaiting the next great snorkeling anchorage


The swaying of the palm trees calms us and makes us dream

















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We set sail into a rainbow.




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