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Monday, May 1, 2017

Discovering Melville's islands with Paul Gauguin

As the whole literate world knows, the writer of the American classic Moby-Dick found his inspiration in the tropical waters of the Pacific.  In January 1841 he set off in the forecastle of a whaleship in search of adventure, as many young men did at that time.

The ship was the Acushnet of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  In June 1842 the anchor was dropped in the Marquesas Islands, and Melville, with a companion, jumped ship.  The weeks he spent in the Taipi Valley on Nuku Hiva, living dangerously with the warlike locals, inspired his first great novel, Typee. From there, he shipped on the whaler Lucy Ann, to become involved in a mutiny, which led to his being clapped into a Tahitian jail. And that was the inspiration for his second great effort, Omoo.

Following Melville's meanderings in French Polynesia is one of life's great adventures.  We did not try it out in a whaleship, however, or even a replica sailing ship.  Instead, we did it in style, on the Paul Gauguin, pictured above.

The Paul Gauguin is much closer in size to the Acushnet than your usual cruise ship, being just 500 feet long, with a 70-foot beam.  But in all other respects the contrast to a smelly wooden whaling ship could not be greater.  Luxurious quarters are matched with amazing French food served in a choice of three restaurants, matched with equally amazing French wines.  And that service is superb.  Most cruise ships, these days, are staffed with wonderfully friendly and helpful Filipino stewards, but on the Paul Gauguin they seem to be even happier.  Not only do they hover at your shoulder, eager to relieve you of plates and trays, and escort you from the buffet to the table, but they remember your tastes.  And the deck officers, who hail from all over the world, are equally remarkable -- on the Paul Gauguin I had the once-in-lifetime experience of being served my lunch by the captain!

But perhaps the greatest asset of the ship is its draft -- just 17 feet, meaning that it can venture into shallow waters, and offer an adventure that is replete with discovery.

Consequently, we were able to explore Fakareva, one of the Tuamotu atolls, where we found an exquisite church.

It also means that the ship can venture close to the rocks in the Marquesas, where there is no reef, and the surf pounds against the bottom of great cliffs -- as in this awe-inspiring first sight of our landing place at Fatu Hiva.

The landing can be exciting, but there are always strong, stalwart, and very amused Polynesians there to lift you bodily on shore.

Our discovery of Melville's islands was enhanced by the presence of an archaeologist on board, a multi-lingual New Zealander, Mark Eddowes, who is so laid back he could deliver his enthralling lectures lying down.  So fascinating were his introductions to what we would find in the valleys and heights, that the explorations were always a revelation.

Here he is telling us about the rituals and warlike practices on a marae site in Hiva Oa -- practices that were nasty indeed, and hard to associate with the friendly, handsome locals, who had greeted us with song, dance, and lovely food.

And of course time was spent at Melville's Marquesan island, Nuku Hiva, where we explored the same valleys that had inspired Typee.

On we wandered, through the Marquesas to Huahine (more ruins to discover) .... Bora Bora, Moorea (more ruins) ... and so to Papeete, the port of the main island of Tahiti, where we had a final gourmet meal, Polynesian style, on the deck beneath the stars, with the lights of Papeete twinkling at our feet.

Was Melville's time in the Tahitian islands like this?  Well, we saw the same islands, cliffs, valleys, and great marae, but, no, his time in the Tahitian islands was definitely not like this.

With a last toast to Tahiti, the Polynesian people, and the Paul Gauguin, we left ... and can't wait to go again.

And a last credit to our wonderful travel agent, Eva Henry of Avoya Travel, who organized our adventure.


Seymour Hamilton said...

I'd be jealous, were it not for the fact that you so richly deserve the experiences you report. Thank you for sharing.

Joan Druett said...

And thank you for your lovely comment!

V.E. Ulett said...

Fascinating! I wish I could go along in your pocket

Joan Druett said...

That would definitely be fun