The enchanted island of many faces
THERE'S something magical about Easter Island. Something that, long after leaving, still has my mind drifting back there on a regular basis.
From the moment you step off the plane, life becomes idyllic. The weather is balmy, the air fresh and Pacific Island-sweet and the atmosphere grabs you immediately.
The island isn't big, it isn't sophisticated. But is has that special something I have always looked for in a destination.
About five hours by plane from Santiago, it is the one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. Though it's part of Chile, it is Polynesian in culture and we were reminded of this on our arrival. Our group was greeted in typical Polynesian fashion, with leis and a warm smile.
We piled into a van and drove for about 20 minutes to our accommodation.
The roads are dirt and the ride was bumpy, but none of us gave it a second thought when we started to see the real Easter Island - lush greens and endless blue sky against the backdrop of the mighty Pacific.
The colours are vivid and the island looks untouched in places; rugged farmland and ocean are divided only by sheer cliff faces that drop down into crashing surf.
We arrived at Explora's lodge on the island, Posada de Mike Rapu, perched on a hill in the centre of the island with expansive views of the ocean from every room.
The Explora philosophy is based on in-depth exploration of remote locations in South America, teamed with "essential" luxury.
Each lodge offers a number of "explorations", either half or full-day, enabling guests to get out and see the absolute best of their surroundings.
They encourage you to leave your life behind, embrace the unknown and seize opportunities in a bid to enhance your experience - and it's not hard to get into that frame of mind on Easter Island.
The lodge is named after Mike Rapu. Born and raised on the island, Rapu is a record-holding free diver.
After a quick tour of the lodge and a presentation about the island, we were off with our guides and Rapa Nui locals Beno and Maha for a taste of what the island is famous for - the moai.
Moai are human figures carved from rock between 1250 and 1500. There are just under 900 on Easter Island and each one is different from the next - though they all stare intensely - a reminder of generations past and a grand tribute to dead ancestors.
Our first stop was Ahu Akivi, home of the only sea-facing moai on the island.
I'm sure everyone has seen photographs of the stone head sculptures, but you have to see them up close to believe them.
The seven moai stretched out in a formidable row. As Beno explained their history - each one represents a long-dead person - the questions started rolling around in my head: How did the Rapa Nui make these stone masterpieces, how did they get them there, what do they mean?
Little did I know that the next day we would find out, and follow their journey from creation to their final resting place.
But first, there was a quick trip to the moai platform at the island's only town, Hanga Roa.
With a population of just under 4000, it is a quaint and idyllic place, and the sunset behind the moai on the edge of the town is an absolute must-see. A glass of Chilean champagne in hand, watching the sun dipping below the horizon, throwing off the most amazing colours was the perfect end to a breathtaking day.
The next morning we set off to follow the path of the moai.
We learned how the giant structures were carved at a quarry in the middle of the island and, once finished, were levered out of the rock face. There are various theories about how the Rapa Nui moved the moai from the quarry to where they now stand or lie. Some believe the islanders "walked" them, moving them from side to side; others say they fashioned palm tree trunks into a kind of conveyor belt and rolled them.
But most locals like to believe the real mover of the moai was mana - a spiritual force.
From the top of the quarry walkway you can see fallen moai dotted along the island to the coast. One thing is certain, once these rock men fall, they don't get up again.
We walked the trail and ventured into the reserve inside the quarry. Archaeologists were working in the area, excavating several massive moai as part of a conservation project.
It felt surreal to be following in the footsteps of the people who had made the moai, so long ago.
History lesson complete, we headed for a picnic lunch - in a cave overlooking the rocky coastline. Staff from the lodge were on hand with local beer and wine and fresh Polynesian-style food to sample. The ceviche, raw fish "cooked" in lime juice and coconut milk, was superb.
Full, refreshed and happy we headed to our next moai encounter - the 15 statues at Ahu Tongariki.
These moai face the quarry and have all been restored after being bowled over by a tsunami that hit the island in 1960.
Beno told us some visitors to the site feel a deep connection to the moai, and even cry at the strength of the emotions the 15 evoke. I could understand why. The more moai you see, the more you realise how different they are, that they all have their own character, that they all represent someone special.
The island's biggest moai weighs about 86 tonnes and stands in a sacred spot that is also the site of a rock important to the Rapa Nui - it is said to bestow mana on those who lay their hands on its smooth surface. With the sea crashing nearby, we placed our hands atop the rock, which seemed to pulsate and emanate heat.
Some in our party were sceptical; others had scientific theories on what caused the strange sensation, but no one could deny what we had felt.
After a day in the sun a swim was almost compulsory. Though it was May, the weather on the island was brilliant and the water at the main beach was around 24 degrees and crystal clear.
The rain came that night though, and the next day, as we headed up the side of Rano Kau, one of three craters on the island, the terrain was muddy.
The summit of Rano Kau is a rather steep 324m climb. But the walk was invigorating and we knew the views from the top would be worth the effort.
A storm began to build at sea and we watched the rain sweep its way towards us and close in like a foreboding grey curtain, but we were not put off - on we hiked.
Finally, after several hours we were almost at the top. Beno insisted we walk the last few metres with our heads down, eyes to the ground. When he said "now", we were treated to a magnificent view of the inner crater. It's serene and gorgeous and makes Mt Eden look miniscule. Standing on top of Rano Kau, on the very edge of it, you feel like you're perched on the top of the world. There's nothing but you, the vast expanse of an extinct volcano, and endless ocean.
And then, while we were enjoying the serenity - that sweeping rain cloud hit us.
The hard, fresh rain beat us, pushed us, and almost toppled some of us as we raced along the top of the crater.
A quick van ride later and we were at the ancient cliff-top village of Orongo. Original Rapa Nui homes, like stone caves in the cliff side, lined the landscape and we got a real sense of how life used to be on the island.
The village was the setting for the traditional tangata manu, or bird-man, competition.
The annual ritual saw Rapa Nui men climb down a treacherous cliff face, and swim to the tiny islet of Motu Nui to collect the first manu tara (sooty tern) egg of the season.
Once the egg was located, which could take many days, the winner had to swim back to the main island and climb back up the cliff - keeping the "prize" intact - to claim victory.
I really couldn't imagine how they did it. Surviving the climb down the cliff would be challenging enough.
The hikes Explora offers on the island are amazing. Experienced guides, most of them born and raised locally, made the explorations special and were endless sources of knowledge - leading a crew of journalists, they needed to be.
There are also a range of other activities available, including cycling trips and sea adventures. Unfortunately for our group, the sea was far too rough to get on the water, but our guides recommended the traditional-style fishing, and snorkelling - with visibility up to 50m.
However, what we didn't get to see of the sea, the island made up for in seafood. In just three days we were spoiled with swordfish, fresh tuna seared to perfection and the biggest prawns I have even seen. Tuna empanadas were a scrummy Polynesian take on a Chilean classic, and the country's national drink - pisco sour - went down a treat.
It was hard waking up on our last morning, knowing we had to say goodbye to paradise.
I've never been as taken with a place as I was with Easter Island. And staying at the luxurious Posada de Mike Rapu certainly added to the experience.