Where in the World Is Niuatoputapu?

Mike Messick, April 2004

Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, and the Marquesas have come to symbolize romantic Polynesia; a simple mention of their names conveys images of tropical paradises familiar to Western travelers through Gauguin's paintings, Melville's and Michener's writings, a Broadway musical, and numerous Hollywood films.

Certainly they are an essential part of any South Pacific expedition, but travelers who limit themselves to those shores catch only a narrow glimpse of Polynesia's wide spectrum. For a full appreciation, one must explore the variety of archipelagoes and islands that lies along the region's southern and western limits. These destinations -- the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, and Wallis and Futuna -- are perhaps only specks when set against the whole of the South Pacific, but each is distinct and varied in its culture, history, and natural abundance.

The twin pleasures of leading expeditions are discovering a region's unique qualities, the hidden anchorages, little-known islands, and pristine underwater sites, that give a voyage its identity, and then sharing these with travelers. In October I look forward to taking you to some of Polynesia's lesser-known wonders:

The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are in many ways a microcosm of the entire region, replete with fertile islands, atolls, isolated peoples, and stunning bird and marine life.

On last year's expedition we experienced the quintessence of the South Pacific during our first landfall in this archipelago. As we rode Zodiacs through the turquoise waters surrounding Atiu Island, the morning light revealed native women arrayed on either side of our landing site, blowing conch shells to herald our arrival, young men accompanying them on slit-drums. You could not ask for a more perfect Polynesian moment.

Niue

At roughly 100 square miles, Niue is both one of the world's largest raised coral islands and one of its smallest self-governing states. It is also one of the South Pacific's best-kept secrets. In a region of omnipresent physical beauty, Niue stands out. A coral reef nearly encircles the island, which has an unusual, tiered shape, having twice uplifted from the sea. Limestone cliffs form the coastline; above them another set of cliffs rises to a central plateau. The resulting chasms and caves offer hours of exploration for the adventurous visitor. Stunning primary and secondary-growth forests drape much of the island, and orchids, frangipani, and bougainvillea provide a backdrop for Niue's birdlife. Offshore, snorkelers and divers have the opportunity to spot katuali, the rare black-and-gray-striped sea snakes that ply the clear waters surrounding the island.

Tonga

From the uplifted limestone Vava'u Archipelago to volcanic Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou, the islands of Tonga offer a greater geological diversity than any other Pacific nation. Niuafo'ou is so remote and inaccessible, it is largely unknown even to Tongans. We'll land on its black-lava beach and hike inland to a sulfur-rich crater lake, hoping to spy the rare endemic megapode, a bird that incubates its eggs in the warm volcanic ash. How rare is this species? Peter Harrison, in a lifetime traveling the globe studying birds, finally saw his first mega-pode on last year's voyage.

Wallis and Futuna

Although they are collectively an overseas territory of France, the islands of Wallis and Futuna are more different from each other than they are similar. Volcanic eruptions formed Wallis, a barrier reef island, whereas Futuna was uplifted from the sea. Wallis possesses excellent archeological sites, but a population that reflects a more Western influence in its buildings and customs. Futunans tend to follow more traditional ways, still observing the nightly kava ritual. Our time here will reveal how disparate societies can arise even in proximity to each other.

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