Easter Island, in the South Pacific, is famous for its enigmatic statues. Few people know about its beaches, scuba diving, charming homestays and slow-paced capital not much bigger than a village
“You’ll go feral,” my friend said, “I see beads, I see feathers.” I ignored him and kept on packing. Me? Feral? As if… I was about to set off for Easter Island – which, as my friend pointed out, is one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. This South Pacific territory, known mainly for its monumental statues (or Moai), is 2,294 miles from South America and 2,517 miles from Tahiti. As you might expect, it is not easy to get to (see Getting there, below) but it is certainly worth the effort.
Most people spend only a few days here, running manically around the sites before leaving. This is such a waste. Take time to get to know the place, and you will see there are many other things worth doing. Go to Mass, for instance, in the whitewashed church (there is only one) and you will be overwhelmed by the singing, with its distinctive Polynesian vibe, and by the warmth of the community welcome.
Rano Raaku volcano is a must – and it's only a short drive from Hanga Roa, the island's capital and its only town. Here the hillside is littered with hundreds of Moai, sunken up to their necks in the ground. Walk up the volcano to see partially-carved Moai, stillborn in the rock face. Rano Raaku overlooks the Bay of Hotu Iti which is home to the largest and most impressive Ahu (stone platforms, some with Moai mounted on them). Ahu Tongariki is 200m long with 15 statues, all wearing slightly different looks on their proud, stern faces.
Travelling north takes you to Anakena Beach, a lovely little stretch of white sand and clear water, perfect for bathing. It has a decent-sized car park, plus picnic tables and shady palm trees. Take a picnic or buy a barbecue from one of the little stalls. The beach also boasts one of the best-preserved Ahu, the very lovely Ahu Nau Nau. Buried in sand for years, it has been largely protected from erosion. Don’t forget to nip round the back and look at the fine tattoo carvings that the Moai are wearing on their backs.
On such a remote island, food is in short supply. Everyone has their own garden in which to grow vegetables, but everything else is imported. The supermarket in town looks, my Mum reliably informed me, like shops did in the War, with very little on offer. We had done a big shop in Santiago, Chile, before we arrived – but staples such as meat seemed to be scarce, though you can pre-order chickens if you are self-catering.
The restaurants do pretty well, given the limited supplies. There is a lot of fish, and the service is laid-back. Why rush? Servings are small and the prices are more Western than South American, but the waitresses find time to chat and the views are superb, whether you are at Haka Nini or Restaurant Playe Pea by the beach, or at Giovanni's pizza place on the main street in Hanga Roa where you can watch bandana-wearing locals ride their horses bare-backed through town. For great seafood, try Ko Tinita on Avenue Te Pito o Te Henua. All of these places are easy to find, since Hanga Roa is not much bigger than a village.
We stayed at Angelique Viscari’s house, in some ensuite rooms in her garden. They were basic, but clean and comfortable – and we were allowed to use her kitchen to cook. The house is opposite the airport, but flights are so infrequently that the arrival of a plane is an exciting event rather than a nuisance. Angelique’s huge, well-tended garden is full of flowers, some of which she used to adorn our hair and to decorate glasses when she threw impromptu cocktail parties for guests, first dressing us up in traditional costumes.
Angelique will cook for you, if you provide the food, and will also take you on tours, organise trips and hire cars. She even dyed my hair for me, and dispensed tablets when I was feeling unwell. Her son, Juan Carlos, is a local artist and speaks very good English (as does his wife) while her husband, Carlos, carved us two very beautiful and substantial Moai at a third of the price you can buy them at in town. This delightful homestay is not something you can book in advance; that's not the way it works on Easter Island. Instead, Angelique can usually be found hanging around the airport, lassoing new arrivals with her beautiful hand-made flower garlands. If you can't see her there, ask at enquiries.
Failing that, try the Taura'a Hotel (www.tauraahotel.cl), which is basic but comfortable and is in a fantastic location in the centre of town. At the Hotel Orongo (www.hotelorongo.com), Raul will give you an excellent Rapa Nui welcome.
If you're feeling adventurous, scuba dives and boat trips can be organised from the harbour in Hanga Roa through the Orka Diving Centre (www.seemorca.cl) and Mike Rapu Diving Centre (www.mikerapudiving.cl). For the more sedentary, there is a nightly showing of the truly terrible film Rapa Nui, so old that it crackles. There is also a fabulous dinner and cultural show at Mato To'a that tells the story of the island.
Dancing the night away is a way of life here – and no matter where you are staying, you will be kept awake at the weekend by the pulsating beat. Either join in, or invest in industrial-strength sleeping pills. Ear plugs will not do the job. Try Topatangi Pub or the Piditi Discotheque.
On our last day, our trip to the airport was in the "Rapa Nui limousine" owned and driven by Carlos – an old truck, minus the windscreen and wing mirrors. Angelique gave us presents: flowers from her garden for our hair, and necklaces made from tiny shells, feathers and birdman juju’s. As we settled into our seats for the overnight flight to Tahiti, my mother turned to me and said: "You look like you’ve gone feral." I just had to smile.
LAN Airlines (www.lan.com/index-en-uk.html) is the only carrier that flies to Easter Island, from either Tahiti or Santiago in Chile.
There is no public transport on Easter Island. Unless you are going on an organised tour to see the Moai, you will need a jeep, a motorcycle – or a horse. Pantu Tepano Rapu hires out good horses for about US$30 a day. Insular Rent-a-car and Oceanic Rapa Nui Rent-a-Car can provide an oldish jeep for about US$60 a day. You can also rent bicycles, motorcycles and quad bikes.
Hanga Roa is small. Its main bank is an automatic teller in a surprisingly modern cube, with a security door and air conditioning. It doesn’t take Visa, but MasterCard and Cirrus are accepted. If the cash machine isn't working, pop into Banco del Estado on Tu'u Maheke and get a cash advance on your card.