New sailing options from Tahiti will finally offer travelers a way to experience the remote island, a newly designated astronomical reserve.
We waited until after midnight—long past the typical bedtime in Pitcairn—for the moon to set below the waves, then we puttered up the hill on our quad bikes and laid towels down on the ground to avoid the itch of the crabgrass.
“21.4 . . . 22.5 . . . 24.1 . . .”: Dr. John Hearnshaw was spouting off readings from a strange little contraption aimed toward the stars. A retired astronomy professor from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Hearnshaw had traveled to the island of Pitcairn, a British Overseas Territory in the South Pacific, to collect light measurements of the night sky and confirm his theory—that the far-flung island was one of the best places on the planet for stargazing.
After Hearnshaw’s trip in early 2018, his findings were sent to the International Dark-Sky Association in Arizona, and on April 4, 2019, Pitcairn officially became the eighth location in the world earn the status of Dark Sky Sanctuary (others include the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah and Gabriela Mistral in Chile’s Elqui Valley). It’s the highest possible accreditation for an astronomical reserve, and a timely award considering the Pitcairn archipelago will also be one of the most ideal places on the planet to glimpse this year’s total solar eclipse on July 2, where onlookers will see a complete blotting out of the sun for almost three minutes.
On the trip over, Hearnshaw and I shared a cabin—two wood-planked berths in a veritable cedar closet below deck—aboard the MV Claymore II, a rusting hulk of a freighter that plied the Pacific waters just four times a year. Any MV Claymore II bunks not booked by locals are open to travelers, and historically, it was the only way for visitors to get there. The flat hillock on which we were stargazing was, in theory, broad enough to support a small runway, but the island is so isolated (it’s over 1,400 miles from Faaa International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti; the closest airport is Mangareva, 330 miles away in the Gambier islands) that only a massive airliner could carry the fuel needed to make the journey.
Enric Sala, explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, famously lamented that it takes longer to reach Pitcairn—one of the most remotely inhabited places in the world—than it does to get to the moon.
Despite its location, Pitcairn has captured the imagination of many, and for reasons wholly unrelated to planets and meteor showers. In January of 1790, Fletcher Christian and his cohorts spotted the scrubby rock after months of evading British naval authorities. They were the notorious mutineers of the HMAV Bounty who had seized their ship, tossed their crewmates and captain in a rowboat, and escaped with a group of Polynesian women. Upon reaching Pitcairn—an island with a mythic reputation until Christian confirmed its location—they burned the Bounty in the harbor to avoid detection and used its salvageable timbers to build a small community of houses on the land.
The story of the Bounty’s mutineers has since inspired best-selling novels, chart-topping songs, and three separate Hollywood motion pictures about the events that unfurled some 200 years ago.
Today, the two-square-mile island (around the size of New York’s Central Park) has a representative democracy and is the smallest country in the world. Most of its 50 inhabitants are the direct seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-generation descendants of the Bounty’s mutineers and their Tahitian wives. With no restaurants or hotels, Pitcairn’s services remain limited to a grocery store open only six hours a week; any visitors are provided with homestay room and board at a local’s home, which can be booked through the tourism board’s website.
The locals are excited about repositioning Pitcairn as a haven for astrotourism to attract new kinds of visitors—and of course, their spending potential. In anticipation of more travelers, residents successfully petitioned the British government to replace the MV Claymore II with a more modern vessel—the MV Bravo Supporter—for the two-day, two-night journey. The new freighter service (with upgraded sleeping options and better food) started at the beginning of the year, promising 21 voyages in 2019 departing for Pitcairn from the French Polynesian island of Mangareva, a part of the Gambier archipelago that’s accessible from Tahiti by plane.
A series of charter cruises have also been planned, so travelers can explore the Pitcairn Islands with greater ease and comfort. The first, an eight-day itinerary coinciding with the July 2 eclipse, is already sold out. But the 18-night Explorers Voyage in October still has eight spots available on what will be the first-ever public sailing to not just the main island of Pitcairn, but also its three uninhabited cousins nearby—Oeno, Ducie, and Henderson islands. The voyage will be depart from Tahiti and includes four nights there, 11 days of sailing, and four nights on Pitcairn, staying with the descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Prices from NZ$12,995 (US$8,780) per person; visitpitcairn.pn.