Practically nowhere else on the planet can you get quite so far from the mainland as on this group of volcanic islands far out in the South Seas. Take a cruise and discover the extreme landscapes and unique culture of the inhabitants.
The ideal would be to arrive at Nuku Hiva, the main island of the Marquesas, with a copy of In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island. There, on the second page, you'll find one of those passages that leaps off the page: "The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island are memories apart."
Obviously you can't sail to the island on a two-masted schooner as Stevenson himself did aboard the Helmet, but there is a modern equivalent: the Aranui 3. This familiar sight in the area links the islands to each other and also with the rest of the world. It's neither a cruiser nor a cargo ship, but a kind of mixture of the two. The vessel wends its way from island to island carrying cargo and news from the outside world, as well as providing comfortable cruiser accommodation for around two hundred passengers.
In Nuku Hiva, you should take the opportunity to explore the hidden Taipivai valley where Melville set his great novel Typee. Farther north, lie the bays of Anaho and Hatiheu, which are little changed since Stevenson dropped anchor in the depths and became enslaved by the islands. A faithful, happy slave who never wanted to escape.
Back on the Aranui 3, the voyage continues from island to island. Every time you come ashore there's the chance to venture deeper into the heart of this paradise: search for local craftsmen and dancers, the best tattoo artists in the Pacific, lost beaches, waterfalls that roar deep in the forest... Then there are the ceremonial centres hidden among thick vegetation, brimming with mystery, with petroglyphs carved on the rocks, and the tiki - statues representing the gods - which are second only to the moai of Easter Island as the largest sculptures carved by the peoples of the Pacific.
Another key stop on the cruise is at HivaOa, where you can follow the trail of European painters and musicians who were ensnared by the spell of the islands. Here the Belgian singer Jacques Brel spent the final years of his life. And here, too, Paul Gauguin made his last home. This is where he painted so many of those canvases that hint at an exotic lost world, far away - the world of these, the most remote of the South Sea islands.
Getting There Air France and Air Tahiti Nui fly from Paris, and Air New Zealand flies from London. Prices and frequency vary widely according to season, but tickets are available from around £750. Air Tahiti has flights between the islands of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia.
Where to stay
The best accommodation options in the Marquesas are provided by the Pearl Lodge chain, with the Keikahanui hotel on Nuku Hiva, and the Hanakee on Hiva Oa. Both establishments are full of charm and comprise a series of luxury cabins, complete with all comforts, and both offer good restaurant facilities.
The expedition The trip on the Aranui 3 is the best way to explore the Marquesas Islands. The ship serves to transport both cargo and passengers, and makes 16 trips a year from Papeete, each lasting for two weeks. On these voyages, the vessel berths at Rangiroa and Fakarava, islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago, as well as at all the Marquesas. During the stopovers in different ports, passengers have time for shore excursions, to discover different views, both natural and cultural, of the islands. At the same time you get a glimpse of the importance of cargo ships in the daily life of the islands, providing a link with the outside world. Meals are served on board, except during excursions, when passengers eat at local restaurants serving traditional food.
Travel to Bora Bora, perhaps the most spectacular island of the whole of French Polynesia, with its landscape of basalt peaks, amazing beaches, luxury hotels and the bluest lagoons. Moorea, the closest island to Tahiti, provides the quickest and easier experience of the South Sea islands; just take the ferry from Papeete to discover one of the world's most beautiful islands. Make time for dinner at the port of Papeete; the stalls set up in caravans offer freshly cooked food at affordable prices and a unique opportunity to observe Tahitian society close up. Manihi Island, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, is the birthplace of black pearl cultivation, a sign of the purity of the waters: this remote location with its good hotel facilities is the perfect place to forget the world completely.