A First-Timer’s Guide to the Marquesas Islands

Tourism is relatively new to the Marquesas Islands, making it an ideal place for thoughtful travelers to explore.

A First-Timer’s Guide to the Marquesas Islands

There are 12 islands in the largely off-the-traveler-radar Marquesas archipelago.

Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Nearly 900 miles west of mainland Tahiti is an archipelago relatively unknown to Western tourists, at least so far as South Pacific island destinations go. It’s the Marquesas archipelago—one of five island groups in French Polynesia—and includes 12 islands, only 6 of which are permanently inhabited. All 12 are dramatic, with jagged mountains covered in jungle rising from the water.

The Marquesan people have lived on these islands likely since around 100 C.E., arriving from Hawai‘i or other Polynesian islands, although historical records are few. Because the islands are so far from other archipelagoes and outrigger canoe was the only means of travel, there was very little interaction between Marquesans and other islanders.

The result is a culture more than 2,000 years old, based on but distinct from the rest of Polynesia. Tourism is relatively new to the islands, and most of the main draws are cultural activities like archeological sites and handicraft markets or outdoor adventures, such as jungle hikes and exploring hidden beaches. If you’ve never visited, use this guide to plan a trip to the Marquesas Islands.

Lodging in the Marquesas

There are only two established resorts in the Marquesas: the bungalows at the cliffside Le Nuku Hiva and the Hanakee Lodge on Hiva Oa. There are also a few pensions (casual guesthouses) on the inhabited islands. The best way to find one is to search on Google Maps, then message the owner on Facebook to make a reservation. Most pensions do not have websites.

Book Le Nuku Hiva now: From $299 per night, expedia.com

Book Hanakee Lodge now: hotelhanakee.com

Things to do in the Marquesas

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Discover a lesser-known side to French Polynesia on on Nuku Hiva (left) and Hiva Oa (right).

Photo by Grégoire Le Bacon/Tahiti Tourisme

Explore Fatu Hiva on foot

Active travelers can take the 11-mile, 3,000-foot-gain trek across Fatu Hiva to a lookout point with views of Hanavave Bay. The point-to-point hike passes volcanic basalt formations, cliffside fields of purple wheat, and into dense jungle on the way to the terminus in Hanavave village. If you aren’t with the Aranui boat (see below), you’ll need to arrange transportation back to the starting point in Omoa.

Learn about the Marquesas and Gauguin on Hiva Oa

While Gauguin’s colorful, avant-garde paintings thrilled the art world, his impact on the island was more controversial, at best. He was accused of several unsavory relationships with underage girls and lived out many of the hedonistic “sauvage” scenes in his art.

The Paul Gauguin Cultural Center pays homage to the fauvist (which loosely translates to “wild men”) artist and sheds light on his impact on Hiva Oa. (It doesn’t address his controversial legacy as other, more recent exhibits have done.) Displays are in both French and English. Gauguin eventually died on Hiva Oa and is buried next to French crooner Jacques Brel in the Calvary Cemetery, an easy 15-minute walk from the museum. Take note that all paintings are recreations by Tahitians; the tropical weather would quickly damage the original works.

Watch a traditional “pig dance” on Nuku Hiva

Dance is a meaningful part of Marquesan culture. Many traditional dances were nearly lost to time with the arrival of Christianity because European missionaries banned nearly all non-Christian traditions relating to dance, religion, and art. Today, dance isn’t just a show for tourists—it’s a way for Marquesan youth to regain agency over a tradition nearly eliminated by foreign influence.

See the traditional prehunt pig dance at the Tohua Kamuihei Archeological Site on Nuku Hiva. Visit the site with a guide to learn how it was used to preserve mana (spiritual energy) and see the banyan trees used to trap enemy warriors.

Learn to make tapa cloth on Fatu Hiva

Aside from tattoos, tapa cloth is perhaps the form of art most associated with the Marquesan archipelago by international travelers. Marquesans make it by hand, putting fresh bark through several cycles of mashing, soaking, and stretching to form the “cloth.” Historically, Marquesans used it for fabric to create capes, blankets, and jackets—creating tapa is labor (and time) intensive, so the larger the piece of cloth, the more wealthy and powerful the wearer. When the traditional practice of tatau (from which we get the word “tattoo”) was banned in the 1800s, islanders began to record family symbols on tapa, rather than skin. Today, tapa is primarily a form of art, rather than an everyday material.

Most art markets will sell tapa, but visit the open-air Omoa Village handicraft center on Fatu Hiva to see how it’s made.

Go scuba diving on Hiva Oa

The dramatic terrain isn’t just on land. If you’re a certified scuba diver, you can dive in Hiva Oa, an undeniably remote bucket-list site for intrepid divers. Marquises Diving is the only operator. Steep rock walls drop to small reefs around 70 feet deep, attracting deeper water species like tiger sharks and giant marble rays. Expect strong swells and limited visibility; diving here is an adventure.

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The best way to reach the islands is the cruise ship “Aranui 5”.

Photo by Lionel Gouverneur/Tahiti Tourisme

How to get to the Marquesas Islands

The vast majority of travelers to the Marquesas come via the Aranui 5, a half-cargo, half-cruise ship that makes roughly 15 trips per year to the islands from Tahiti. The unique vessel is divided into two sections, with the front dedicated to cargo storage for everything from horses to cars to cases of frozen chicken (supposedly the most-requested item on the islands). The stern carries up to 220 guests in accommodations ranging from shared bunks to luxurious suites with private balconies. Throughout the 13-day voyage, guests are encouraged to connect with the staff; about 90 percent of them are Tahitian, most Marquesan.

“I enjoy talking with [guests] about our traditions and customs. I like to share with them the stories of my time, compared to today’s life, which is different from them. I am native of the island of Ua Pou in the Marquesas, it is my land, my roots, and I’m very attached to that. Working on board the Aranui makes it possible for me to always keep contact with my land, my family, and my ancestors,” says Micheline Kohumoetini, head of housekeeping and a Marquesan from Ua Pou.

Aranui arrival day is akin to a local holiday on each island as it brings the islands’ near-only tourists and supplies that locals ordered likely months earlier. It also exports copra (coconut) farmed by the locals, the primary income source for Marquesans. The government is contractually obligated to buy as much copra as can be produced, and Marquesans can even pay for their orders and transport fees in copra. The Aranui receives a small fee for transporting it back to Tahiti, where it’s then shipped to oil, food, and perfume facilities in France.

Without a ship like the Aranui, Marquesan Islanders would have virtually no tourists or methods for shipping copra at scale, which would likely result in swaths of the population permanently moving to seek work on more populated islands. This makes the Aranui—and the tourists who fund it—essential to preserving the Marquesan culture.

Getting around the Marquesas

Options for interisland travel are limited unless you’re onboard the Aranui. There are airports on Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, and Hiva Oa. Air Tahiti is the only airline that services them and offers a few flights a week to each, though they’re prone to weather cancellations. The only air connection between islands is between Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, offered a few times each month. Service to Ua Huka varies but can be very infrequent.

On the islands, almost all travel is via open-air 4x4 vehicles. Many Marquesans offer guiding services, which are advisable as roads can be steep, rocky, and unmarked. It’s best to have your hotel organize airport pickups and drivers. You may be able to rent a car on the islands of Hiva Oa, Nuku Hiva, or Ua Poa.

Tips for visiting French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands

Be flexible

Planning from afar can be difficult due to a lack of reliable internet access and the overall nascency of tourism on the islands. Interisland flights are often delayed by weather or lack of passengers, most restaurants and businesses have no set hours, and travel by sea is slow and choppy. There are no regular interisland ferries.

Plan a long trip

Reaching the Marquesas is a multistep trip, whether you travel with the Aranui or not. Depending on flight schedules, you may have to wait a few days to get to the islands once arriving on Tahiti, and it may be quicker to sail back to Tahiti rather than waiting for one of the few interisland flights to depart. If the Aranui 5’s interisland travel schedule coincides with your trip, you may be able to book an overnight bunk as a method for connecting between islands. It’s used primarily by locals to move between islands, but it’s open to anyone. Contact the Aranui for details.

Rent a Tahiti Wi-Fi pass

If you need to stay connected on vacation, rent a Tahiti Wi-Fi pass, which works on most Marquesan islands (but not at sea). Aside from the higher-end resorts, most businesses do not have public Wi-Fi, and those that do will have relatively slow speeds.

Take advantage of your hotel’s expertise

There’s no public transportation or formal tour companies in the Marquesas. If you can’t walk wherever you want to go, ask your hotel to arrange a driver or tour guide. You won’t find phone numbers or websites for most restaurants or tour guides online.

Tours and guides

There are not enough non-Aranui visitors to the islands to warrant formal tour companies or regularly scheduled tour offerings. If you’re traveling on your own, you’ll likely need to have your hotel or lodge arrange a tour guide. Most guides are individuals familiar with the islands rather than official guiding companies. There are a few operators you can contact in advance online; speaking French may help with some.

Carry cash

Nearly all businesses are cash only. There are ATMs on Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. Bartering at markets is not customary.

>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to French Polynesia

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