HEADLINE Easter Island rocks STANDFIRST Tourism on the tiny island has been steadily climbing in the last two decades and another new hotel complex is due to open soon. Scott Snowden took the chance to visit before it really takes off MAIN BODY About half the size of the Isle of Wight and over 3,500km from land – more than the distance from Abu Dhabi to Athens – Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to give it its proper name, is an almost certain entry on most people’s Places I’d Love To See list. Made famous by the enormous stone statues, called moai that were carved from volcanic rock over 1,300 years ago, it has the same mystical magnetism that radiates from Stonehenge. These giant, granite guardians stand over the island, seemingly safeguarding its inhabitants. The small, almost equilaterally-shaped island is rich with history. More than 1,000 years ago, Polynesian explorers crossed vast distances across the South Pacific and found their way to this tiny, remote place. Eventually, the island was “discovered” by the Dutch on Easter Sunday in 1722 and after centuries of slavery and exploitation, it’s now a part of Chile and the native culture is finally returning. The population itself numbers under 4,500 and is roughly divided into two: native Rapa Nui and those who have left behind the big city lifestyle of places like Santiago and chosen a back-to-basics existence on this peaceful volcanic plateau. The only pocket of civilisation is a little town – the only town – called Hanga Roa. Here the locals go about their daily business at a very gentle pace, catching up on a little grocery shopping or perhaps making their weekly connection to the rest of the world in one of the few establishments with an internet outlet. In fact, most of the day-to-day activity you’ll see is geared in some way around the tourist industry, with many visitors either sauntering around the town, or gathering at the quaint harbour, waiting to soak up the breathtaking coastline from the sea, or even from underwater. Only during February does Rapa Nui feel a little full. This is the time of the Tapati Rapa Nui, a two-week long festival that includes a spectacular series of traditional music, dance, cultural and sports events around the island and is the most popular attraction in the annual tourist calendar. However, all that pales in comparison to an imminent event not long away. On July 11, Rapa Nui will be suddenly cloaked in darkness as the narrow path of a solar eclipse passes overhead. This hasn’t happened on the island since 591 AD - before the first moai statues appeared. A week-long “total solar eclipse festival of tribal and cosmic arts” called the Honu Festival is planned, plus a number of events and celebrations, not just limited to Hanga Roa, but all over the island. It will be spectacular, there’s no doubt about that, even hypnotic, as the celestial ballet we are such a small part of continues in the skies above our humble planet. However, the potential onslaught of cosmic crusaders will be somewhat restricted by the flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui: the little LAN Airbus A318-100 that lands at Isla de Pasqua airport only holds 120 passengers and only flies between four and seven times a week, depending on the season. Thus many thousands will be prevented from descending on the island as a result of simple seat availability. Granted the solar eclipse is an isolated incident, but the numbers visiting Rapa Nui each year are steadily increasing. Built to service this growing industry, the Explora hotel is currently the biggest on the island. Only completed a few years ago, it’s been constructed solely from local materials such as volcanic rock and black pine on a site that’s inappropriate for agriculture and has no archaeological remains, plus it proudly boasts a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council. It might not be the cheapest hotel you’ve stayed at, rates start for a three-day minimum at around AED 8,500 per person, but it will certainly be the most memorable. Not only is the interior design stunning, but every one of the 30 organic-themed bedrooms has a magnificent ocean view. Rates are also inclusive of all meals, all drinks, morning and afternoon organised excursions and airport transfers. The tours provided by the Explora are probably the best way to see the island, as this prevents any potential headache of trying to arrange something upon arrival. Added to which, you’ll be accompanied by a native Rapa Nui tour guide, armed with an infinite knowledge of the island and its history, able to answer any questions you care to ask. Comfortable walking shoes are essential as the tours consist of a series of day-long hikes around the spectacular sights of the island. The main tours include the Rano Kau crater - the largest of the three volcanoes that formed Rapa Nui. Almost a mile across with a fresh water lake at its centre, its grassy slopes are littered with hundreds of abandoned moai; the Ahu Tongariki - the largest of all the moai platforms, each called an Ahu, with 15 colossal statues restored after a tsunami back in 1960; and the Ahu Nau Nau on the picturesque Anakena beach – where four of the seven restored figures have what are called Pukao topknots or head-dresses, which were added to give an even greater sense of grandiose to the giant, stern-faced statues. A multitude of other activities are also on offer, aside form those organised by Explora. It is possible to hire a car or four-wheel drive, and some visitors do, but frankly it really isn’t necessary. The best of the island is only accessible by hiking and a small number of taxis roam the streets of Hanga Roa at night, providing a more-than-adequate service. Several diving centres provide trips out to select spots with beautiful coral reefs and all levels of experience are catered for, from beginner to those who might have their PADI certification. One of the more established is the Mike Rapu Diving Centre, the owner of which is something of a celebrity on the island. Not only is he one of the most successful and respected native Rapa Nui businessmen, but he also held the South American record for free diving for a number of years. The Explora won’t be the biggest hotel on the island for much longer however. It’s soon be dwarfed by another hotel being constructed on the cliff top overlooking both the town and a coastline spot where the waves crash spectacularly against the rocky cliffs. The Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa is, as it names suggests, more of a self-contained settlement, than a conventional hotel. Within the complex is a pool, museum, spa, boutique, movie theatre, restaurants and bars and 75 rooms. Not due for completion until the end of the year, this too will receive a LEED certification and the tourist board are keen to highlight much of the energy used will come from turbines and solar panels, all hotel cuisine will feature indigenous ingredients and the local population will make up the majority of the staff. The Rapa Nui are extremely passionate about their island and their heritage. Many put on evening performances at select venues to small groups of tourists, proudly demonstrating traditional rituals and culture over a customary dinner cooked using ancient methods. During a stay it’s imperative to take in at least one show. One of the best is called Te Ra’ai at the Restaurant Etnico Rapa Nui. Performances here are only three times a week, but a chance to watch the Hoko tribal war dance, which has an understandable similarity to its Maori equivalent, should not be missed. There are a number of places to eat in town should you fee the urge to explore and all the food is supplied locally. Fish features prominently on the menu as the island is home to more than 100 species. The big establishments will take credit cards, but that’s about it. The accepted local currency is US Dollars and Chilean Pesos and there’s a couple of ATMs in town. Don’t expect much in the way of nightlife as Hanga Roa falls asleep quite early. In addition, try to avoid a Sunday in your visit, this is the native population’s personal day; no tours will run on this day and nothing will be open. Getting there from the UAE is no mean feat, it is after all the most remote inhabited island on Earth and, with stopovers, you’re looking at potentially 30-plus hours of travelling. The principle place to aim for is the capital city Santiago in Chile, and there are a few different ways to get there. The quickest route will not be the cheapest, in fact quite the opposite. The most inexpensive way is to probably to go through Europe, typically Frankfurt, then Dallas Fort Worth, then onto Santiago. However, Emirates flies regular ultra-long haul flights from Dubai to São Paulo. From there you can transfer to Santiago and onto Rapa Nui itself. BOXOUT The moai are massive, monolithic human figures carved from volcanic rock between the years 1250 and 1500AD. They represent living faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and most still stand near Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry. However, many were transported - using means that are debated even today - and set on giant stone platforms called “ahu” around the island's perimeter. The statues still stood, safeguarding the lands of the particular clan that had erected them, when the first Europeans arrived on the island, but almost all would be later pulled down during conflicts between clans on the island.