ANAHO BAY, French Polynesia — The barbequed ahi tuna tasted like quality beef when it came off the grill on the beach beside this pristine bay on the remote island of Nuku Hiva, administrative capital of the Marquesas island chain about 900 miles northeast of Tahiti.
This is a place you’ll never see on a shore excursion from a cruise ship like the one on which my wife and I took a celebratory trip this winter. It’s clear across the island from the sheltered harbor where our ship, the 1,258-passenger Oceania Marina, dropped anchor for a 10-hour stay.
Fodor’s travel guide to Tahiti and French Polynesia called Anaho Bay one of the prettiest places on earth, giving us a yen to come here. But the ship’s excursion wasn’t even going near; the closest it came were some lovely overlooks and a valley where author Herman Melville once hid out for three weeks. It looked pretty much like other tropical valleys we’d seen.
So via a website, we found a guide named Philip Beardmore on the island. He answered his phone. Philip explained he could take us to Anaho Bay via a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a small speedboat, both necessary because the road over Nuku Hiva’s rugged mountains is partly paved, partly dirt, and there is no road to Anaho; it can be reached only by sea. Cost would be $250 per person.
We blanched at the price, and Philip suggested we mention the tour on bulletin boards at www.cruisecritic.com. If the tour were to include more people, the price would drop. So we posted on both cruisecritic and tripadvisor.com. By the time we flew off to board the ship, our group numbered 20, all Philip could handle.
“Be on the first tender off the ship,” the veteran guide admonished us by email, referring to the lifeboats that shuttle passengers ashore when cruise ships anchor in a harbor whose pier isn’t big enough. “We’ll need all the time we can get to make this work. But don’t worry, none of my people has ever missed a sailing time.”
We all caught that first lifeboat, and there was native Londoner Beardmore, a white-haired 35-year resident of the island, standing on the pier in the main Nuku Hiva town of Taiohae, wearing a white polo shirt with his name printed on it.
Quickly, he led us to a row of five four-wheel drivers, all owned and driven by locals, and we were off. “There’s the bank (only one on the island),” Philip said, “and there, right next to it is the jail, and then City Hall...”
Soon, our little SUV caravan swung uphill onto a bumpy, but paved, road. We paused at the same overlook where a little later other cruise passengers would snap photos of our ship in the harbor. As we ventured past the crest of the 4,000-foot mountains, every few minutes we got stunning new vistas of bays and forests and headlands, many of which the regular tour wouldn’t reach. On we went, now on a rough dirt track, stopping at the remains of an 1,100-year-old royal Polynesian palace and temple en route to the 200-person hamlet of Hatiheu, where even the dirt roads have streetlights. Just past the town waited five skiffs.
Four or five to a boat, we waded aboard, and with a roar of outboard motors took off up Hatiheu Bay, set beneath dramatic natural pinnacles and steep slopes of lush greenery, the flora usually seen in America only as house plants.
As we rounded a headland into the open sea en route to Anaho Bay, swells grew higher and the boats came within a few yards of steep black volcanic cliffs. One boat carrying four Rhode Islanders turned back. Those in that boat later said some aboard couldn’t swim and they thought it unwise to continue. But the other four skiffs pushed on, bows carefully pointed into the swells, which makes for a bumpy ride, but a lot less chance of getting swamped. No one in the other boats knew at the time why one turned back, because we had neither radios nor cell phone signal.
Soon we rounded another headland into Anaho Bay and saw immediately that Fodor knows his stuff.
This, some of us thought, might be what the Garden of Eden looked like. Here was a pristine white beach, surrounded by palm, mango and breadfruit trees, with only four houses around. The upper reaches of a sharp mountain peak were sometimes shrouded in cloud; a row of shadowed pinnacles created mostly by wind and rain erosion stood on the far side of the deep blue bay.
Awaiting us were three large folding tables where members of the lone Polynesian family living by the bay had laid out a feast of ahi, homegrown salad, fresh cut mango and star fruit. Plus a cooler full of beer.
Then came snorkeling on a nearby reef, an hour of walking at leisure along the shore, and friendly talk with our hosts before we climbed back into our little fleet for the ride back to the SUVs and the hour’s drive to the ship.
For sure, no cruise line could ever schedule a shore excursion quite like this one, with its individually-owned speedboats and cars. “This wasn’t easy to organize,” said our guide, Philip. “I wasn’t born here, so I don’t know enough people with these things and I needed help. Even after 35 years, you’re never a native unless you’re a native.”
But we had seen one of the prettiest places on earth, and as all who persevered agreed, we will not soon forget this little adventure.
Thomas D. Elias writes the California Focus public affairs column appearing in 93 newspapers, including The Madera Tribune.