French Polynesia Headdress

In the travel world, there are organized Journeys known as a FAM, a familiarization trip to introduce you to hotels or countries. Days packed with movement, multiple site inspections interspersed with elaborate dining. Numerous whirlwind days when I often can’t remember what town we were in or which hotel. I prefer to create my own fam trips! Some Journeys are imprinted by the people you meet along the way, a simple act of kindness or generosity that make a site memorable. My Lindblad National Geographic Orion sailing adventure from Papeete to the Marquesas was extraordinary but memorizing the harbors and multi-syllabic atolls and islands was challenging! The charming people of each village fashioned my memories, especially the women wearing traditional flower headdresses. An enchanting recollection enhanced by their unpretentious beauty and ever so casual descriptions on making these, by my standard, elaborate floral hats. Beautiful, welcoming and humble women, a true joy to meet them.

French Polynesia Floral Headdress and a tattoo!

Passengers arriving in Tahiti are gifted with handmade floral leis when you arrive at the airport. Usually one spends a night in Papeete before embarking on an island adventure. The air at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are intricately woven into the fabric of everyday life. The beautiful women wear extravagant handmade floral headdresses. Often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Wouldn’t you agree they are charming?

Young girls learn their native traditions at the visitor welcome performances

You might also see a range of native flowers woven into the Tahitian headpiece, including hibiscus, frangipani or plumeria, and of course, the greatest symbol of the islands of Tahiti, the tiare flower. Everyone wears the fragrant white tiare flower behind an ear. If you wear the flower behind your left ear, the heart side, it means you’re married or taken or not interested in a relationship. Behind your right ear, it means you’re searching for love. And if woven in the hair and placed behind the head? That means “follow me”. The French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, inspired by the beauty of the Marquesas Islands and their inhabitants, did not fail to capture these flower-related practices in his paintings.

Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. On the atoll of Fakarava, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and second-largest atoll in French Polynesia, we motored in to shore and rode bikes around the small atoll. Fakarava has 837 inhabitants; the main village is Rotoava. An outdoor Catholic Mass yielded a small parish of radiant bedecked women. Mass was a combination of French and local language, in a garden grotto due to construction on their church. Village women in brightly colored floral muumuu’s and straw hats festooned with brilliantly hued flowers quieted young children, fanned themselves and sang hymns. Some adornment made of dried leaves were just as attractive. It was Mother’s Day and the ladies would celebrate with a craft fair presenting their shell and bead jewelry. Photos and shopping, I was thrilled to spend more time with these artistic ladies.

Mothers Day on Fakarava at the craft fair

On the island of Fatu Hiva, our welcoming singers and dancers were also bedecked in splendid floral headdresses. A village woman described the simple process: she picks a few garden flowers and assembles an elaborate wreath in a matter of minutes, it’s very easy! Obviously, a clever islander with years of experience. One of my favorite decorated women played a guitar in the welcoming band, a massive green leaf headdress drew all eyes to her.

Fatu Hiva – what an amazing headdress and flower behind her left ear

Hiva-Oa, the second largest island in the Marquesas and where Gauguin is buried, presented a small museum shop where I discovered my woven headdress, the picture-perfect adornment for evening cocktails!


Tahitian headpieces, or Tahitian flower crowns, are common throughout the islands of Tahiti. Worn by locals in order to celebrate a special occasion or simply, celebrate the beauty of everyday life. While some Tahitian headpieces can be very elaborate, it is not uncommon to see a simple crown made only from woven ti leaves.

There are many types of Tahitian headpieces beyond the simple flower crown. Typically, you will see the more elaborate forms only in Tahitian dance numbers. The headbands are sometimes woven with palm fronds or tapa cloth which gives the headpiece structure. Intricate designs and embellishments such as flowing raffia, feathers, mother-of-pearl, or black pearl, are often added as well.

Hiva-Oa local woman with garden flower headdress, which she assembled ‘in minutes’!
American Tourist who purchased her woven headdress on Hiva-Oa.

The Marquesas Islands

May 28 The Marquesas are farther from any continental landmass than any other islands in existence. They’re so remote that some are untouched since the era of European explorers. Moving onward toward Fatu Hiva. This morning, pilot whales staged our welcome formalities as we entered the protected harbor of Fatu Hiva. Baby whales joined the adults in circling the Orion, a hydrophone was dropped into the water to hear their communicating clicks. The pilot whales were joined by an oceanic whitetip shark who seemed to advise us to continue on. Adventure awaits every minute of the day!

The Marquesas

Fatu Hiva translates as “Bay of the Virgins”. Zodiacs at the ready to ferry intrepid hikers and birders to land for strenuous hikes and a waterfall dip. Local villagers warmly greeted our arrival with enchanting songs. Some of us hiked through the hills of the quiet town and visited a craft event. I had hoped to produce a photo journal of indigenous tribal tattoo art; however, the locals weren’t as decorated as I had hoped. Women crouched by the worn trails peddling vanilla beans and fresh fruit, the ship galley staff hustled through the village buying up provisions for the ship: root vegetables, honey and fruit. Stray dogs, stray chickens and drying coconuts covered the grassy hillsides. There didn’t seem to be a bare patch of earth in this emerald paradise.

Fatu Hiva Welcome
Fatu Hiva, always a quaint church in each village

Fatu Hiva is the southernmost island of the Marquesas Islands and has one of the most striking rock formations of the islands, an incredibly lush volcanic island. The eastern coastline of Fatu-Hiva is characterized by a number of narrow valleys, carved by streams that lead to the interior of the massive mountains. Between these valleys are headlands which end in cliffs that plummet directly into the sea, making travel between them possible only by travelling over the high mountain ridges between them or by boat. With only 650 residents, they survive on fishing and growing nono, a fruit with medicinal values.

There are also a variety of vegetable fibers, the island continues to produce tapa or bark-cloth, decorated with traditional designs – it is a forgotten art on many other islands. It’s here where Tua Pittman, our cultural specialist, introduced local craftswomen who showed us the painstaking steps to breakdown the bark to produce the wafer-thin fabric. Hiva is the island of tapa, a magnificent cloth which is made using the bark of the Banyan, Breadfruit and Paper Mulberry trees. The large sheets of fabric, laboriously made by a constant beating the layer of bark, were traditionally used for privacy as curtains and eventually costumes. Large lengths of cloth were worn during significant rituals and tribal war, the length and quality of the cloth was a sign of wealth and status. Today, smaller pieces are typically decorated with geometric or natural designs in colorful inks and dyes.

Tua asking a local woman about the process of tapa or bark-cloth art.

The villagers performed rhythmic tribal dances and serenaded us – many of the young children joined in the presentation. Tua also performed with the native women, it was abundantly clear they appreciated his style! The ship staff were never shy about enthusiastically joining in the festivities.

Tapa or bark-cloth, with traditional designs

Sharing their history, their dances and song, we felt an intimate bond with the locals. Imagine their isolated lives on these remote islands, visuals provide evidence of their modest lives. The juxtaposition of a still functional old pay phone booth adjacent to an oval transmittal antenna tower was an irresistible photo.

Tua, our cultural ambassador dancing with the local performers in Fatu Hiva

Massive banyan trees screen steep slopes and obscure the oldest tikis in French Polynesia, long-preceding their larger relatives on Easter Island. Also hidden beneath the thick overgrowth are stone fragments of houses built on high platforms, stone temples and ceremonial grounds where games were played and sacrifices made. Melville described these secret ceremonies and the mysterious taboo customs.

Divers took to the caves of sleeping sharks and a rare octopus. Afternoon outings included some calm snorkel sites and an extraordinary performance of spinner dolphins on the bow of our zodiacs – we raced the seas to keep up with the high-spirited creatures. A finale to our afternoon on the water – sea creatures providing surprises and delights.

Of course, every day, included sumptuous meals – breakfast, lunch on deck, afternoon ice cream snacks; icy Tahitian beer and salty potato chips were my after-snorkel indulgence! And then cocktails and ship briefings followed by convivial dinners. The menu was varied and delicious, I discovered a waiter who seemed to be the only one who knew they had coconut ice cream on board he also seemed to have a supply of Chablis for my dinner wine. After a few evenings, other guests discovered my top-secret coconut ice cream resource and joined in!

Under an infinite inky sky blanketed with sparkling stars, we moseyed up to the sun deck for a star gazing tutorial by Tua Pittman. Tua, our personal star navigator, has sailed the oceans solely by sun, stars and currents – a Master Navigator and an enchanting story teller. With a laser pointer, he expertly provided a mesmerizing celestial tour – making it sound so logical to navigate by the stars. I asked him to point out the Southern Cross, my favorite sighting whenever I am in the southern latitude. Tua provided the perfect ending to a brilliant day.

May 29 Hiva Oa and Tahuata, Marquesas Islands

An early morning arrival to the island of Hiva Oa, the largest and most lush of the southern Marquesas Islands. From my dawn balcony perch, I observe a fleet of NG Orion Zodiacs departing to explore the coastline and the main bay entrance to the chief town of Atuona, located on the southern side of Hiva Oa Island. A soaring peak, Temetiu rises up close to 4000 feet above the village. A lack of coral barrier, typical among all Marquesas islands, makes the coastlines vulnerable to erosion from heavy swells and waves. At Hiva Oa, a small break in the main bay provides a sheltered cove for landing and great snorkeling.

The Marquesas

Atuona was the final home and resting place of Paul Gauguin, who died here, his last resting place enjoys marvelous sea views and overlooks the town. A short hike up the narrow over grown roads with Tua as our guide, ended up on the steep hillside where Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel are buried at the Cavalry Cemetery. The two deceased men lie side by side, graves decorated with traveler’s mementos, painted rocks and shells, they have one of the most breathtaking views of the island and the sea. Gauguin died here, a pauper, on May 8, 1903, and was buried the next day.

Atuona, the view from Calvary Cemetery
Atuona gravesite of Paul Gauguin

The main town square has a large complex resembling an ancient ceremonial pavilion lined with stone statues. Behind the Tohua Pepeu, there is a small arts and crafts market with authentic hand-crafted souvenirs including jewelry, wood products and exquisite tapa cloth. A small cultural center hosts a museum devoted to Gauguin, without any of his paintings, there are original letters he wrote to family and friends, behind the museum in a garden is a replica of his simple wood home.

Atuona small home amid the green jungle environment

Small resident shops are always interesting to me – I peek into little grocery and hardware shops and chat with locals. A few of us sat out the heat on the sidewalk curb, licking ice cream pops, whiling away the leisurely afternoon in the village. People watching and observing local life – a perfect pastime for me when I travel.

Our enthusiastic welcome to the island of Tahuata

In late afternoon, the Orion repositioned to the near island of Tahuata, which is about 2.5 miles from Hiva Oa. Discovered in 1595 by Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, Tahuata (“sunrise” in Marqusan) is the smallest island of the archipelago. For me, this was the most welcoming and authentic arrival ceremonies. Approaching in a Zodiac, we were greeted by small children blowing huge horns carved from bone. The main dock had a small religious grotto at the base of the towering rocks. At first one can’t look away from the towering 1000-foot mountains that disappear into the clouds, but here my eye was drawn back to the local singers and dancers. The welcome chants and guttural tribal songs were accompanied by striking dancers.

Our enthusiastic welcome to the island of Tahuata local dancers

The friendly animated villagers swarmed around us and lead us on a musical procession along the ancient paved royal walkway shaded by fragrant tamanu trees, we danced under the trees through the village to an open air cultural center. Offering a stunning array of delicious snacks, tables piled with gorgeous beads, carved wooden handcrafts, objects carved from bone. The genuine welcome was infectious. Small children mouthed the words to the songs, music passed down from generation to generation. They knew the dance movements and often slid into the adult performance, lovingly encouraged by the adults.
It was hard to tear myself away, but we had free time to walk around the Hapatoni Village and I didn’t want to miss anything in this paradise. Ambling down the deserted royal road, the little village is built atop a raised dike, the paved walkway was ordained by the queen and lined with ancient tamanu trees and is fragrant with the scents of tiare and frangipani blossoms. Following the shoreline to the top of a promontory, where you enjoy sweeping vistas. In the middle of the village, there is a beautiful stone church with stained glass windows and elaborate local carvings. The large Catholic church was built by order of the Vatican. Adjoining the extensive expanse of lawn is a small cemetery.

I reluctantly hopped aboard the last Zodiac, hating to depart back to ship.
Later that afternoon a group of guests joined staff on a Citizen Science project known as Planet or Plastic, which for the first time, conducted a plankton tow survey to be further analyzed and determined the amount of micro-plastic contents in it. This is a revolutionary way to integrate Orion guests into real science conducted onboard.

Beautiful women singers on the island of Tahuata

May 30 Nuku Hiva
Last on our island stops in the Marquesas was Nuku Hiva, some guests were sailing on to Hawaii, but this was my last port. This island has important archeological sites, vivid landscapes and fierce warriors. Another brilliant welcoming committee of locals playing drums and chanting fierce tribal songs. Some of us sadly loaded our bags into trucks piloted by locals, a rainy drizzly afternoon was my farewell. I was heartened to discover that he small airport was 2 hours away on the other side of the island, wanting to see what was ‘on the other side’ of this massive vine tangled islands, the airport transfer provided the perfect opportunity to discover the topography. Wet grassy, towering swaying palm trees, enormous banana trees, wild horses roaming the side of the road, stray cows, small brightly colored homes were tucked into the greenery – when we crested the top of the mountain, the stark desert terrain was quite a surprise.

Nuku Hiva warriors welcome us with song and dance

Overall, this expedition was so amazing, the ship staff and educators are beyond beyond – so helpful, fun and welcoming! The Marquesas Islands need to be seen to be truly appreciated, the geographic distance from civilization is daunting – learning the history of Polynesia, and seeing how these small communities have developed and survived while maintaining their culture is a phenomenal experience.

Lindblad National Geographic offers an array of expeditions all over the world, we have clients who thoroughly enjoyed an Alaska/Russia expedition and have signed up for an Amazon Journey! Are you ready for an Expedition?

Bead makers on the island of Tahuata
The welcome on island of Tahuata
Small rock church with stained glass windows island of Tahuata