Destinations

The Other Side of Paradise

A traveling writer explores the historic allure and complicated cultural perception of French Polynesia.

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“I AM A child, a sauvage,” Paul Gauguin wrote home from Tahiti, explaining to his wife Mette why he had gone walkabout while she was home caring for their five children. “You must let me experience this … I’ll prove that I’m right. I’m a great artist and I know it. That’s why I’ve endured such suffering in pursuit of my path. Otherwise, I will feel myself to be delinquent.”

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This quote sounds a lot like every self-indulgent artist ever explaining their selfishness. But it is a legacy of Gauguin’s Tahitian and Marquesan escapes that I find fascinating, frustrating, and worthy of some consideration. It starts with that word sauvage, which, in addition to the colonialist and racist freight it carries, becomes a sort of manifesto for Gauguin. It was his main project, as he was explaining to his wife — who he hoped would then prepare his gallerists and potential buyers with this apologia, this self-mythologizing — to rewild himself, to run as far from industrialized Paris as the French Empire could allow, as far from the bourgeois constraints of work and childcare as money, privilege, and geography permitted. But more than the paint on his canvas, it was Gauguin’s mythologizing of this odyssey, this escape from civilization for a more primal existence and better living, that caught on with artists, and eventually tourists. With his trips to the South Seas, Gauguin became a kind of poster boy for what is commonly described as “the tropical journey” — an experience characterized by a kind of cultural appropriation in which tourists reset themselves by escaping into the Edenic cultures of a place where they don’t generally belong.

As I made my way west on Air Tahiti Nui, thinking, perhaps, that I might trace this mode of travel back to its source — the bucolic idyll of French Polynesia and the surrounding islands — I wondered how much of what is being sold by cruise ships and couples’ retreats, even now, differs from the kind of tropical journey that Gauguin helped invent.

“From the somber sky a black cone with jagged indentations became disengaged,” Gauguin wrote in the opening of his Tahitian journals. “We turned Morea [sic] and had Tahiti before us.” As I arrive in the Society Islands (one of the five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia, and the one that contains Papeete, Tahiti, the capital), I am greeted by the first skyscraper-high cruise ship to operate in the islands since the start of the pandemic — named the Paul Gauguin — and so I am delighted to immediately bounce across the channel by ferry to Moorea, an island near the main hub of Tahiti that somehow remains incredibly remote feeling. Or maybe it is just the distinctive swoopy, craggy spires of its peaks that immediately transport me to somewhere … else.

Never in my entire life have I seen such beaches, hemmed in between towering volcanic spikes on either side, and often backing up onto groves and groves of palm trees.

It is the rainy season in the Society Islands when I arrive, and a mist garlands the peaks of Moorea throughout my stay, sometimes darkening everything in sight to grayscale, and then, when lifting a bit, revealing the island to be a shocking tapestry of greens — emerald, kelly, Kermit, fluorescent, neon green, but glittering in the form of spritely palms by a slushy slate sea. From a catamaran, on a tour guided by two French Polynesian brothers, Moorea reveals another side, and then another, and another as the brothers regale me with the legend of the warrior who came to this island and collapsed the mountain in furious battle, creating the disc-shaped incision at the center of the island. For a few hours the mist clears and the sun comes out in full, electrifying the shallow water inside the reef that wreathes the island, turning it all a brilliant turquoise as we jump off the catamaran at several points to swim with sharks. Dozens of them — whitetip reef sharks — and more rays than I could’ve counted.

After Moorea, I hop a four-hour Tahiti Nui flight to the Marquesas — the most remote archipelago in all of the world, and still a part of the French Polynesian littoral — to Nuku Hiva, where Melville went AWOL from his whaling ship on the trip that would provide him much of his material to write “Moby Dick.” In “Typee,” his recollections of that journey, he wrote that as he pulled into Nuku Hiva, French warships were in the main harbor, their captains busily hoodwinking the island’s chiefs into treaties that would pave the way to making the archipelago a French colony. Estimates vary on the population of the island before European contact (from 50,000 to 100,000), but the devastation that colonization brought decimated the various tribes to the point that, when I visit, there are only about 3,000 inhabitants sprinkled among the various valleys. And that is how the geography of Nuku Hiva is communicated — by the valleys, the flat spots in the verdant folds flowing down from the craggy peaks at the island’s center, many of which are all but inaccessible. There is no ring road around two-thirds of the island, but instead one immaculate, brand-spanking-new road that cuts across the island. It extends from the rugged volcanic leeward side to the harbor town on the windward, traversing the misty, windy peak at the center and the Lord of the Rings-y grasslands that radiate from it, before giving way to the plummeting valleys and pristine, utterly empty (in most cases) beaches.


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Never in my entire life have I seen such beaches, hemmed in between towering volcanic spikes on either side, and often backing up onto groves and groves of palm trees. White sand, black pumice basalt, and then, suddenly, dark-blue deep-water sea — a dramatically different landscape from the one I’d seen in the Society Islands. It is the dry season in the Marquesas while it is the rainy season in Tahiti, for example, some 1,000 miles away. And one is, here, as elsewhere in the Polynesian Triangle, confronted by the sheer scale of those ancient navigators’ range, stepping off terra firma in Indonesia as they did sometime around 500 A.D., making their way here, to the Marquesas, then to the Society Islands, to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui. Immense distances, across an abyss, with only the stars to guide them.

But then, once colonized, these islands were all sorts of cutoff from one another and allowed to develop in a kind of vacuum, giving each of them their own very unique culture. Of course Nuku Hiva became very well known for its elaborate and wondrous tattoo tradition (Melville describes princesses covered in tattoos over every inch of their bodies), for their massive tiki sculptures, and for the cannibalistic tradition of devouring an enemy tribal combatant’s organs so as to acquire their strength. Deep in the forest here, on the site of an ancient village, a slightly less ancient though spectacularly grand banyan tree 50 inches in diameter grows out of the pit, where the priest or chief would have kept his captives before the ceremonial consumption. There is not another soul within miles and miles and miles of us while we tarry here, thinking of history.

Much as I hate to leave, from Nuku Hiva I travel on to Hiva Oa, where Gauguin lived during his second trip to French Polynesia, and where he died and is buried. At one point during my time here, a guide points in the direction of a man passing us on horseback and says that he is one of several descendants of Gauguin. When I ask if I might speak to the man, my guide rages at me, “He is not like you. He does not want to talk about Gauguin. He doesn’t like Gauguin.” Which is fair enough — I’m not trying to stop my day to talk to strangers about any abusive, deviant drug addicts in my family tree either, if there are any. I’m happy just to drive around and marvel at the landscapes here — the volcanic outcroppings that look like the face of King Kong, the lush jungles and caves, the mammoth stone tiki sculptures that have been carbon-dated back 4,000 years and still sit a silent vigil here in a misty valley, weighty, seemingly eternal, and hardly visited on the day of my pilgrimage.

Several times during my visit to Hiva Oa I slip into a kind of reverie, thinking what an Eden these islands are, what benign paradise (No snakes! No big cats!). And then my broken brain thinks, well, no it wasn’t the serpent or the leopard that brought ruin to the population that once inhabited this paradise, but man. And that raises the question: Am I continuing the tradition? Is tourism — welcoming a world of visitors, sharing super-specific cultural heritage, perspective, and marvelous landscapes in exchange for money — the best way forward, for us visitors, and for the islanders themselves, culturally or economically? And who am I to say, yet another mere interloper from the North.

I am a bit overwrought then when I arrive in Bora Bora. It is a literal screensaver, the picture postcard on which a good many notions of paradise are based. The “Couples Retreat” of movies and dreams. Nothing can prepare you for the perfection of Bora Bora, nor, frankly, for the newlyweds-gone-wild sort of playground infrastructure that maintains it. And so I keep mostly to myself, away from the many, many wedding parties and honeymooners, tooling around the reef by myself, enjoying the greatest hotel and hotel room I’ve ever stayed in by myself, thinking that if this form of travel is directly descended from the miserable example set by Gauguin, then maybe not all is wrong with the world, right? Right?

I returned home to see, with new eyes, a print I have — ink on paper — by the artist Jean-Philippe Delhomme, from a series in which he imagines famous artists of yore on Instagram. This one imagines an Instagram post from Gauguin’s account in which some nude, “primitive”-ly drawn women lounge about above the caption “About last night.” The post has 1,856 likes. It is funny and wry, and of course poses the question: What would we make of the louche artist today? Much the same as they did in the nineteenth century, I imagine, but what is maybe more important about that piece, and about the way we travel now, is how the platforms we use to communicate frame our experience.

While I was in Tahiti, I met with professor Riccardo Pineri, an Italian-born-and-educated philosopher specializing in aesthetics who is writing a monograph on Gauguin. And one thing the professor and I agreed on was that Gauguin’s work — on canvas and in his self-mythologizing — was directed entirely toward his audience and collectors in France. In other words, it wasn’t for the Tahitians or Marquesans, who are now far prouder of, say, the Belgian singer Jacques Brel living there than they are of Gauguin. And I worry that if our model for adventuring to the Antipodes, for running away from commerce and claustrophobic cities for an idea of Eden, is at least in part modeled on someone who gave so little to the people and places that nourished and inspired him, that we don’t really have a good example of how to do that.

I wonder if it is possible to travel without our past models in mind, without projecting onto our destinations the idea, and ideal, we expect from them. And if, when we visit French Polynesia, we can do so without looking through the prism of Gauguin, say, and the tired colonial, masculine narratives of personal adventuring. But instead go in search of what the people and places themselves have to say.

A tall order, I know. And I certainly seem to have failed to do so, but still, I feel as though I have a very personal and specific relationship with the islands of the Marquesas. I don’t know if they changed me, or I them, but I have added to my lexicon, to myself, something completely new. I did not bring back from my journey the same self I took, to borrow from Somerset Maugham (who, of course, wrote “A Moon and Sixpence” based on Gauguin’s mythical life and adventure). I wouldn’t trade my days in Nuku Hiva for anything, that experience of entering a sublime new memory, like a new love affair, for the first time. I don’t know how many times I can feel that again in my life, or where I’ll ever be able to find it. I wonder if Air Tahiti Nui has flights.

Where to Eat, Shop, and Stay in French Polynesia

Writer Chris Wallace shares his top picks.

  • Four Seasons Bora Bora

    This has to be among the most beautiful, and beautifully situated hotels in the world. The overwater bungalows are the stuff of dreams (and screensavers). And the food! The food at the various restaurants — ranging from locally inspired to grill fare and something more akin to Japanese — was sublime. I took a class in the hotel lagoon on coral reef regeneration with a marine biologist, snorkeled to my heart’s delight, and had lunch, alone, on a semi-deserted islet. Bliss.

  • Vaapiti Canoe

    Raphaël Labaysse spent five years hand-building a traditional Polynesian canoe, on his own, and now he is welcoming others to join him on half- or full-day tours around Moorea and beyond through Vaapiti Canoe.

  • Pearl Lodge on Nuku Hiva

    This property was undergoing renovations when I visited, but on the strength of their sister property I would love to go back for a visit. The restaurant at the Pearl Lodge is meant to be amazing. And that counts for quite a bit on Nuku Hiva, where dining options are a bit limited.

  • Hilton Hotel

    The newishly renovated Hilton Hotel in Papeete is really nice. There are a few restaurants, from very casual poolside fare up to formal dining, an incredible gym I had all to myself, and a magnificent pool area from which to watch the boats and canoes of every description racing by.

  • Mate Excursions

    Nuku Hiva was, I say, a revelation. The best part of it for me was exploring the many valleys with Mate Tata, a local guide. Fluent in French and English, Mate led me around the island, providing the most incredible, intimate history of the island, and patiently indulging my endless photo stops.

  • Hiva Oa Hanakee Pearl Lodge

    The bungalow rooms here are personal cliffside cabins with thatched roofs, decorated in minimalist warm wood and ornamented with Hiva Oa–style art — and they are incredible. The restaurant and reception are in the main lodge, shaded by a massive banyan tree. They open onto the infinity pool to end all infinity pools, overlooking the main harbor on the island and often swirling with clouds and dramatic, dappled sunlight.

  • Chez Yvonne

    I had a great lunch at the farmers’ market on the harbor, but as everyone there will tell you, Chez Yvonne, on the far side of the island, in the most magical Hatiheu Bay, is worth traveling for. And the beach where it is situated may be my favorite place I’ve ever been.

  • Four Seasons Bora Bora

    This has to be among the most beautiful, and beautifully situated hotels in the world. The overwater bungalows are the stuff of dreams (and screensavers). And the food! The food at the various restaurants — ranging from locally inspired to grill fare and something more akin to Japanese — was sublime. I took a class in the hotel lagoon on coral reef regeneration with a marine biologist, snorkeled to my heart’s delight, and had lunch, alone, on a semi-deserted islet. Bliss.

  • Mate Excursions

    Nuku Hiva was, I say, a revelation. The best part of it for me was exploring the many valleys with Mate Tata, a local guide. Fluent in French and English, Mate led me around the island, providing the most incredible, intimate history of the island, and patiently indulging my endless photo stops.

  • Vaapiti Canoe

    Raphaël Labaysse spent five years hand-building a traditional Polynesian canoe, on his own, and now he is welcoming others to join him on half- or full-day tours around Moorea and beyond through Vaapiti Canoe.

  • Hiva Oa Hanakee Pearl Lodge

    The bungalow rooms here are personal cliffside cabins with thatched roofs, decorated in minimalist warm wood and ornamented with Hiva Oa–style art — and they are incredible. The restaurant and reception are in the main lodge, shaded by a massive banyan tree. They open onto the infinity pool to end all infinity pools, overlooking the main harbor on the island and often swirling with clouds and dramatic, dappled sunlight.

  • Pearl Lodge on Nuku Hiva

    This property was undergoing renovations when I visited, but on the strength of their sister property I would love to go back for a visit. The restaurant at the Pearl Lodge is meant to be amazing. And that counts for quite a bit on Nuku Hiva, where dining options are a bit limited.

  • Chez Yvonne

    I had a great lunch at the farmers’ market on the harbor, but as everyone there will tell you, Chez Yvonne, on the far side of the island, in the most magical Hatiheu Bay, is worth traveling for. And the beach where it is situated may be my favorite place I’ve ever been.

  • Hilton Hotel

    The newishly renovated Hilton Hotel in Papeete is really nice. There are a few restaurants, from very casual poolside fare up to formal dining, an incredible gym I had all to myself, and a magnificent pool area from which to watch the boats and canoes of every description racing by.

Our Contributors

Chris Wallace Writer and Photographer

Chris Wallace is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York. His forthcoming biography of the late photographer Peter Beard will be published by Ecco Press.

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