By Oceania Cruises Guest June S.
Nuku Hiva, filled with paradise valleys, sacred tikis, dramatic waterfalls and Robinson Crusoe beaches, is the kind of spectacular South Pacific island that seems too dreamy to be real. In fact, I didn’t think a place like this really existed until we arrived at the dock via tender and were greeted with tribal conch shell blowing, rhythmic chanting and locals in colorful traditional dress. It quickly became evident that Nuku Hiva, one of the largest and most isolated French Polynesian islands, did not receive many visitors and when they did – it was a very special event. Even better, I was set to experience otherworldly Nuku Hiva through a Culinary Discovery Tour led by Chef Instructor Noelle Barille and our local guide, Ani. I could go on for pages and days, but below are a few highlights from our tour, “Traditional Polynesian Culinary Experience.”
Traditional Underground Oven Demonstration
We took an incredibly picturesque drive to the Taipivai cultural site, nestled in the heart of Taipivai Valley, for this unique demonstration and to enjoy a traditional Polynesian lunch. The literary nerd in me delighted in the fact that this was the area where Herman Melville lived for three weeks with locals when he deserted his ship, and had experiences that eventually inspired his novel, Typee. Here, we learned how the Ahi Ma’a, the traditional underground oven covered with banana leaves, is opened after the food has been cooking over hot volcanic stones – in this case, for more than two days. This method of cooking imparts an earthy flavor to the food and is found throughout the South Pacific.
The Ubiquitous & Essential Breadfruit
We quickly learned that Uru, or breadfruit, is a Nuku Hivan staple and is one of the island’s essential trees. In fact, locals love building with breadfruit wood because it’s one of the few types of wood termites don’t like. Breadfruit makes its way into everything culinary on the island and can be prepared a variety of ways – fried, roasted, steamed, boiled, sliced into chips or mashed with coconut milk, which is called Ka’aku. Before lunch, we watched as one of the local women mashed the breadfruit and later had a chance to sample it with coconut milk.
Polynesian Goat Stew & Purple Bananas with Traditional Music
As a former vegetarian for many years, meat dishes are not typically the courses I’m most excited about, but the goat stew, cooked in coconut milk of course, was delicious – savory and not at all gamey. The roasted bananas, which turn a surprisingly vibrant shade of purple when roasted, were another favorite – they were tropically sweet with just a bit of tartness to balance it. The roast suckling pig was a hit with all as was the poisson cru, a fresh South Pacific-style ceviche. We enjoyed it all in characteristic island-style, to the relaxing beat of traditional Polynesian music thanks to a local band that cheerfully played throughout lunch.
Family Taro, Manioc & Honey Plantations
After lunch, Ani and Chef Noelle accompanied us to Ani’s uncle’s farm, which was lush and full of taro, manioc, sugarcane and many other crops. Amongst the dense tropical foliage, Ani’s uncle showed us how they don’t need any tools other than the taro stalk to help plant the next round of taro and manioc plants. We learned that each taro plant takes about 8 months to grow and that these root vegetables make up an essential part of the local diet. We also sampled fresh sugarcane and spotted a prized noni fruit tree. Next up was a honey farm in another village where we received an insider’s look at how local honey products are made and tasted the local floral honey – deliciously sweet with a tropical fragrance.
Needless to say, at the end of the day I was thrilled to have one more full day to continue exploring this incredible island in the middle of the deep blue South Pacific.