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10 reasons to go to Easter Island

By Larry Bleiberg
Massive long-faced statues, called moais, are Easter Island's signature attraction.
Massive long-faced statues, called moais, are Easter Island's signature attraction.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new Explora ecolodge provides dedicated guides and a sweeping water view
  • A two-week celebration based on historic traditions runs through February 12
  • Residents are eager to explain the mystery and majesty of their island
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(Coastal Living) -- With a stunning new lodge and a once-in-a-millennium eclipse, Easter Island has never been more alluring -- or comfortable.

1) Incredible history: More than 1,000 years ago, a group of Polynesians loaded into canoes and found their way across the South Pacific to one of the most remote islands in the world. They began to create nearly 900 long-faced statues, called moais, which represented their ancestors. Many were hauled for miles across the island. The most impressive display stands on a beachfront called Tongariki, where 15 imposing figures stare in the distance as the surf pounds behind them.

Eventually the island was discovered by the Dutch (on an Easter Sunday). What followed were centuries of slavery, exploitation, and near extinction. Now the island's part of Chile, the native culture is returning, and new hotels are making it easier than ever to visit this storied place. It's simple to explore the tiny island. You can walk the trails where ancients once lugged 20-ton monoliths, ride horseback across open fields, and ponder those stone faces. Up close, they all look different. Some somber, some amused, and a few even friendly.

2) The weather: It's summer now in the Southern Hemisphere, and it feels perfect. Expect highs in the 70s, lows in the 60s, and little rain. But pack a fleece. It's always windy.

3) A total eclipse: What happens when a rare astronomical event occurs over a rare archaeological site? Something close to magic. On July 11, Easter Island will be suddenly cloaked in darkness as the narrow path of a solar eclipse passes overhead. It hasn't happened since 591 A.D., before the first Easter Island statues appeared. Trips from $7,990; travelquesttours.com.

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4) A new resort: You've come to see ancient statues. But you'll leave impressed by a new hotel. Explora, whose Chilean ecolodges are among the best in the world, recently opened on Easter Island. You'll find a stunning LEED-certified building made from volcanic rock and black pine, a dedicated corps of local guides, and an unforgettable location overlooking the sea. From $2,288 per person, double, for three nights, all meals and tours included. Explora.com. Budget option includes the basic Tauraa Hotel. From about $180, double, tauraahotel.cl

5) The language: Rapa Nui, the island's Polynesian language, is undergoing a renaissance. Hear it on the airwaves (Radio Manukena, 88.9 FM), in conversation, and even in Catholic Church services. (Spanish and English are widely spoken too).

6) Festival season: The two-week Tapati celebration brings the entire island out for parades, historic dramas, and wild competitions, like races sliding down a hill on a banana tree trunk. It's all based on historic traditions, and runs through February 12.

7) The people: Island residents call themselves Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island. Like the rest of the South Pacific, the island has a friendly vibe. Residents are eager to explain the mystery and majesty of their history. Perhaps nowhere is their warmth as obvious as in the dance shows that seem as much fun for the performers as the audience. Catch the Kari Kari Rapa Nui Ethnic Ballet, karikari.bizland.com.

8) Eco poster-child: Easter Island has become a cautionary environmental tale -- and a reason for hope. Over centuries, the natives deforested their home. Much of the timber, it's believed, went to constructing and transporting moai - the largest statue reached 70 feet tall. Eventually, the island, once thick with palms, was reduced to nothing but pasture. Civil war broke out, and every last moai was pushed to the ground. Only recently have about 40 been re-erected, and eucalyptus trees planted on hillsides. Now the island depends on farming, fishing, and tourism.

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9) The cuisine: It's not just beans and yams -- although you'll find plenty of those. Since it's out in the middle of the ocean, Easter Island's home to more than 100 fish species. Tuna ceviche is divine, as is hand-caught toremo served with island-grown guava. Just ask for the day's catch, and pair with a Chilean wine.

10) Avoid the crowds: Tourism has been climbing in the last two decades, and with new hotel projects on the books, it's about to take off. Go now before Hard Rock Easter Island opens its doors.

Good to know

Most visitors arrive on a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. There's also air service from Tahiti.

Island information: islandheritage.org.

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© Coastal Living, 2011