It is the largest single feature on our planet, covering 70 million square miles: the Pacific Ocean. And in addition to being the biggest, it is also the world’s deepest ocean and home to the largest collection of islands. My husband Humberto and I had crossed it several times before so we were already keenly aware of its immensity, and were so again now as our current world cruise on Holland America’s Amsterdam sailed on it for 10 days from San Antonio (the port for Santiago), Chile, towards Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, with a call at Easter Island and scenic cruising at Pitcairn Island along the way.
We were ready, after intensive sightseeing in Antarctica; Ushuaia, Argentina and the Chilean Fjords, to relax for a few days of pleasant sailing – and a string of 25-hour days (nice) as we headed west gaining hours as we crossed seven time zones. And we were more than ready to stow away our sweaters, scarves, gloves, caps and heavy jackets and dust off our shorts and t-shirts.
To enhance our appreciation of the Pacific and its Polynesian islands, and to keep us entertained during the abundance of sea days, Holland America put on a team of Polynesian “ambassadors,” who presented lectures and dance performances and conducted crafts sessions, ukulele classes and other enriching activities. The “ambassadors” increased our appreciation of the Polynesian cultures and our admiration of the ancient seafarers who, with only rudimentary canoes, longboats and navigational tools, ventured out from the Marquesas and Tahiti to such distant locales as what are now Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. Their knowledge of the ocean and its currents was such, that “even though they could not see those islands, they knew they were there,” our Polynesian Cultural Ambassador Kainoa told us during one of his lectures. Amazing.
In addition to the Polynesian cultural enrichment, there were also increased activities and festivities while we sailed across the Pacific including a Valentines’ Day Dinner and Party complete with lots of heart decorations and heart-shaped chocolate boxes as pillow gifts with a single red rose.
The lands sighted during the Pacific crossing are “Holy Grail” destinations among seasoned travelers: Easter Island and Pitcairn Island. The call at Easter Island, a speck of land of 63 square miles in the middle of the Pacific – one of the most isolated inhabited spots on the planet – is always memorable. Not only is it in the middle of nowhere, but also its waters are prone to big swells that make cruise ships’ tender operations tricky. And weather and sea conditions can change quickly. This was our fourth visit to the island – we arrived this time to the greeting of a lovely rainbow. Through the years we have visited various locations in its National Park with the world-famous, enigmatic, Polynesian-style “moai” sculptures. Most of the island, with three volcanoes, lakes and villages, is national parkland ($80 per person to visit) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Annexed by Chile in the 19th century and called Isla de Pascua (Easter Island in Spanish), Rapa Nui is its Polynesian name. The island was first seen by Europeans on Easter Sunday in 1722, when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen came upon it. Those who have studied Easter Island calculate that the Rapa Nui people settled here around 700 A.D. coming from Eastern Polynesia, and that they created the large Polynesian-style “moai” sculptures between 800 and 1600 A.D. to honor ancestors.
There are nearly 1,000 “moai” on the tiny island – monolithic, monumental statues carved from tuff or tufa (volcanic rock) depicting humans, and sometimes called “Big Heads.” The statues do have large heads (a three-to-five ratio between the head and the trunk) but the name “Big Heads” may come from the fact that some of the statues are half-buried by centuries of exposure to the elements – thus looking like “Big Heads,” sitting on top of the ground, but the rest of the body is simply underground. Characteristics of the statues include heavy brows, elongated noses and lips that protrude in a thin pout. Some statues are depicted with a type of headdress or hat.
Mystery surrounds the statues and scientists struggle to explain how a Stone Age culture managed to create them and move them into place. And mysticism is associated with them. One of our local guides, Carlos, once told us that the statues acted as “antennas.” Placed over graves of distinguished ancestors believed to possess “manna,” a supernatural quality that protects people, they “beamed” the “manna” from the ancestors back to the living through the statues’ eyes.
Popular spots to see the statues include the ceremonial site of Tahai in the town of Hanga Roa, where statues are displayed on altar-like platforms called ahu, including one statue with its eyes inserted. Other sites include Rano Raraku, the volcano that was turned into the main quarry for the “moai.” The quarry has about 400 “moai” scattered around including the largest of the island. Of the 400 statues, about half are finished and the rest were never completed. Among the unfinished statues is a 71-foot-high one estimated to weigh 200 tons. Some of the statues on hillsides in this site are the famous “Big Heads.”
Yet another “moai” must-see is Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial center of the island with the Pacific Ocean on its back. It has an impressive 15 “moai” displayed on an ahu. One of them is 30 feet tall. Other points of interest on Easter Island include Orongo, a stone village and ceremonial center with ruins and petroglyphs that are associated with the cult of the “bird man,” a competition to select the “bird man” who would rule the island for one year. And Anakena Beach, with beautiful pink sand, is not only wonderful for an hour or so of sun and surf, but also the site of several “moai.”
On Pitcairn Island, the other land sighted during our Pacific crossing, we just did scenic cruising. This has been the case every time we have come during some of our world cruises. There is a small pier on the island, but our ship has never attempted to tender us ashore – probably the more than 1,000 of us would overwhelm the less than 50 inhabitants of this tiny isle. Officially named the Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, this group of four islands, whose waters are a protected marine reserve, are the last remaining British overseas territory in the Pacific. The fewer than 50 inhabitants, from nine families, make Pitcairn the least populated jurisdiction in the world, though it is not a sovereign nation. Some of the residents came aboard the Amsterdam on a motorboat the morning of February 19 and they set up a market by the Lido pool where they sold wood carvings, t-shirts, stamps and other souvenirs as well as local honey. We had a chance to chat briefly with one of them, Bradley Christian, 19, who had his woodcarvings displayed on a table in front of him and said he had just returned from his high school studies in New Zealand.
“My father taught me,” Bradley said of his wood working skills, as he stood in the Lido Deck with Pitcairn visible out of the windows behind him. He seemed very proud and slightly shy in dealing with the throngs of the Amsterdam’s passengers perusing his work and talking to him.
Later that morning, another islander, Melba Warren, who works to promote the island’s tourism, gave a presentation on the ship’s Mainstage about life on Pitcairn, followed by a Q&A session.
This tiny island was the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers of the HMS Bounty came after their famous mutiny against their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, in the 18th century. They decided to settle in Pitcairn and burned their ship in Bounty Bay to avoid it being seen by other passing ships – the islanders memorialize that event by burning a replica of the HMS Bounty in Bounty Bay on Bounty Day, January 23 each year. The HMS Bounty’s anchor, Melba said. is displayed in front of the Public Hall in the Town Square in Adamstown, the island’s village named after one of the original settlers, John Adams. The village’s small museum has Fletcher Christian’s Bible and the Bounty’s cannon raised from Bounty Bay in 1997.
Melba said Pitcairn receives some 18 cruise ships each year, and that accounts for 50 percent of the island’s economy. Life on the island is simple. There is one school with three students; one clinic; one doctor; one house of worship, a Seventh Day Adventist church; one café, owned by Steve and Olive Christian (a common name on the island); one general store that receives merchandise from New Zealand four times a year, and one cemetery.
Life is good in this paradise with sparkling blue waters: breadfruit, bananas, pineapples and papayas, in addition to other fruits and vegetables grow well on the island and there is plenty of fish and lobsters that the islanders are allowed to take for subsistence. They collect the plentiful rainwater for the village’s needs. But life is busy, Melba added, it takes a lot of time to maintain the island and make the souvenirs that they sell to passing ships. “We don’t have many people,” she said. “We need more people.”
There are only two women of child-bearing age on the island and one has two children and is probably done, and the other one does not have a partner, she added. So, it’s sort of up to us to help them out. It might be tempting to some: there are no taxes, and there is no private ownership of land. So would-be settlers have to pay only for building their house. And the beaches on nearby Oeno where the locals go “to get away” as Melba put it, are pristine and idyllic. Any takers?
Some quick superlatives on our way to our next port of call, Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia:
- Most exotic and thought-provoking: Easter Island.
- Most unusual: Pitcairn Island.
- Most popular shipboard activity: The Hei Pupu Tahitian seashell-necklace-making session by the Lido pool.
- Most delicious: The vanilla souffle at the Valentines’ Day Dinner and the chilled pineapple/banana soup and the halibut/mahi-mahi brochettes with tomato jasmine rice during the Easter Island Dinner.
- Most imaginative dining room decoration: The “moai” centerpieces with a lighted clear container with volcanic rocks – its blue light highlighted the “moai’s” features.