One hundred eighteen islands and atolls comprise French Polynesia with five distinct archipelagoes: the Society, Tuamotu, Marquesas, Austral, and Gambier islands, so choices abound. Going off the beaten path a bit offers up profound beauty that’s wedded to the indelible Polynesian spirit. Coupled with resplendent snorkeling, scuba diving, and cultural experiences makes travel here unforgettable.
For travelers who’ve already experienced Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea, or for those seeking a deeper dive into the beauty, history, and mystery of French Polynesia’s most isolated archipelago, traveling to the Marquesas will leave an enduring mark on those fortunate enough to experience Henua Enana – The land of men.
Nearly 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti in the central South Pacific, the Marquesas were settled about 800 to 1,000 years ago and are comprised of 12 islands with only six inhabited by under 10,000 people. Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña gave the islands its name after his benefactor, the Marquis of Cañete. In 1879 France reasserted control over the islands and the Marquesas later became part of French Polynesia. The Marquesans are Francophones, and their native Polynesian dialect is not interchangeable with other regional dialects, though Marquesan has strong similarities to New Zealand’s Maori, Hawaiian, and Easter Island’s dialects.
Aranui – The Great Pathway
Given the isolation of the Marquesas, the best way to experience the islands is on Aranui 5, a combination passenger/freighter ship on its 11-night cruise sailing out of Papeete. The Aranui is neither a cargo nor a cruise ship, but a vessel lending itself to an authentic adventure while providing indispensable services to faraway communities. In early days it was a schooner bringing goods to the remote Marquesas. Then backpackers joined. Today curious cruisers voyage in comfort with good food and wines as they head towards these mythical islands. What makes it unique is the confluence of sea, land, people, commerce, and ship.
The Aranui holds a maximum of 295 passengers in 108 cabins with 106 crew and carries nearly 3,200 tons of cargo, 740 tons of diesel, and essential commodities such as food, medicine, and building supplies to the Marquesas. Then it returns with local goods, mainly fruits, vegetables, and handicrafts, to be sold in Tahiti. On my voyage in early February, I was joined by 112 passengers, 31 of whom were English speaking from the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia, 25 Germans, and the balance French nationals. All daily briefings were held in each language and on excursions, small groups, usually four, were given a guide fluent in that language.
After a quick check-in, I was shown to my spacious stateroom containing about 250-square feet. Warmly appointed with Polynesian patterned pillows and a fantastically comfortable king-sized bed, I was taken aback by the beautiful floor-to-ceiling wood carved panel resembling a Marquesan tattoo pattern separating the sleeping area from sitting area that led to the balcony. There was a surprising abundance of drawers, storage, and counter space, a desk, and a vanity area with stool seating. Also, a safe, refrigerator, and 60-inch flat screen television with English language cable news, movie channel, and Marquesas documentaries. The good-sized bathroom had polished panel walls, ceramic tile floors, excellent water pressure, plenty of storage, and built-in hair dryer.
Deck 2 has a laundry room, small fitness center, spa, and a tattoo studio with an expert Marquesan tattoo artist, Moana Kohumoetini. Several guests, including yours truly, tested Moana’s incredible skills. More on that later.
Deck 3 housed the front desk, well-curated gift shop, and medical clinic. The restaurant was on Deck 4, while Deck 5 had a comfortable lounge, two conference rooms, and coffee/tea station. The Veranda Bar on Deck 6 kept guests pleased as punch during happy hours, while Deck 7 had another bar and swimming pool. Decks 8 and 9 have additional outdoor decks and Skybar lounge.
Two additional aspects of Aranui I found particularly pleasurable. The relaxation/deck areas, gym, and bars were available to both passengers and crew. And except for the French captain, physician, and nurse, and one Filipino engineer, all crew were either Marquesan or Tahitian. Working out with or enjoying a beer after hours with crew members permitted additional cultural exchanges and insights to this delightful experience.
The itinerary – First The North
Given the long distance between Tahiti and the Marquesas, the first day after embark, and the last day before disembark, day stops were made in the Tuamotu Archipelago. On the outbound, we stopped at the rectangular shaped Fakarava, the second largest atoll after Rangiroa, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. On this sleepy slice of paradise, with literally a thousand shades of blue that inspired Henri Matisse, we snorkeled in bathtub warm waters amid healthy corals and marine life, drank coconut water, and strolled the atoll where the shortest part is only 100 feet across!
After an easygoing sea day getting acquainted with crew and passengers, we arrived in the northern part of the Marquesas to Nuku Hiva, the Marquesas’ administrative capital and largest island that’s 18 miles long and 9.3 miles wide. Mountains appear like razor-cut jagged edges in dramatic fashion with Mount Tekao at 4,000 feet, rising in glory like a verdant Phoenix. Docking in Taioha’e, its largest town, population 1,687, we disembarked for our first excursion, but all stopped to watch the carnival-like atmosphere of cargo being unloaded by cranes and crew as recipients either happily waited or claimed their goods from open containers and clipboard wielding crew. It was like Amazon of the South Pacific, Aranui style! This joyful scene would replay at every stop.
After visiting the Catholic church with several intricate wood carvings – each village has one in keeping with Catholicism’s longstanding role in island life – we headed to the architectural site of Tohua of Kamuihei with its large ceremonial plaza where local dancers deftly performed. Across from a beautiful beach in Hatiheu, we dined at Chez Yvonne’s, eating raw fish bathed in coconut milk and pig from the traditional underground oven. It was here in the mid-1800s that Herman Melville fell in love and wrote Typee: A romance in the South Seas.
On 10-mile long and 6-mile wide Ua Pou, population 2,300, we took an early morning hike to a beautiful bay then jumped in the water. We did several hikes during the cruise in preparation for an arduous 10-mile hike at the trip’s end. Fortunately, right next to the pier where Aranui docked was the lovely Anahoa Beach. As the sun began to set, a riot of color splashed the horizon just as Aranui’s crew prepared a delicious Polynesian feast on an outside deck. Later as we gorged on French cheeses and macaroons for dessert, a star-filled canopy lit up the night sky.
Arriving to Vaipae’e Bay on Ua Huka, population 705, was an incredibly unique experience. The passage is extremely narrow, and it seemed as though the Aranui was mere inches away from massive, jagged-edged rocks. Hardhat donning seamen exited onto flat barges to tie the ship on lonely pilasters on either side of the bay. In rough waters, these talented seamen used only their legs for balance and security. Passenger landing from ship to barge was quite spirited, requiring nearly a philharmonic-style exit resembling an E-ticket of yore Disneyland ride. One thing was certain, these seamen had saltwater running through their veins, and I would trust them blindly anytime and under any conditions.
At the harbor, we were greeted by a charming bio-security dog employed to ensure rats remain absent. Trained in New Zealand in English, these pooches arrive here then become tri-lingual in their rodential pursuits. Known as the ‘island of horses,’ equestrian lovers will rejoice as horses are completely free range, even noshing on the grounds of Vaipae’e Church.
After visiting a botanical garden and museum with outrigger replicas, watching some master carvers, and listening to an impromptu concert in Hokatu, our marvelous guide Toa took four of us up a stone road where we hiked up a valley zigzagging through a dense palm grove and finally up some stairs to the ancient temple of Meiaiaute – place of calm. Here on a low alter, four stone Tiki, present since around 300-400BC, including one that’s believed to be remnants of a Tiki of the Butterfly Priestess, the wife of famed Na’iki stone sculptor Manuiota’a, who died in childbirth. As if on cue, vini birds fluttered about.
We then stopped at the infirmary, not because anyone needed the nurse, but because one passenger in our jeep happened to be the boat inspector from Nuku Hiva. Clipboard in hand, he surveilled the craft, and caught up on gossip by the exceedingly trustworthy coconut wireless; on islands, words fly far faster than a freewheeling, fatalistic falcon. Finally, I coaxed him away with promises of cold beer from the nearby general store. Back at the dock, after a priceless day, with ice-cold Hinano in hand, and two pecks on the cheek, we bid kind Toa adieu.
Itinerary – Then The South
The oblong shaped Hiva Oa with 2,438 inhabitants, was the perfect spot for a 3-mile hike which ended conveniently at the final resting place of Paul Gauguin and Belgian musician Jacques Brel. Nearby museums honored both men on well-manicured grounds with large Tikis. Even though the Gauguin canvasses were reproductions, it was enlightening as the collection contained several detailed letters from Gauguin to his wife Mette, Van Gogh, and others.
Later we rented a car for the afternoon and drove west to a secluded beach in Ta’aoa, then northeast through the island’s lush, verdant center toward Hanaiapa. En route we hiked in search of the Tiki Souriant – smiling Tiki. Amid fallen mangoes, avocados, and breadfruit, hanging bananas and papaya trees and mysteriously, a lone resting cow, we found a narrow two-foot trail, then inexplicably, a burned-out military tank. We then also found the Tiki with its eerily, goofy smile.
We sailed the next day to Puamao on Hiva Oa’s northeast side to the most important archeological site in the Marquesas, Te I’i Pona. Here rests chief and great warrior Taka’i’i, the largest Tiki in French Polynesia standing nearly eight feet. Also, here lying supine is the complete Butterfly Princess carved by Manuiota’a in her memory after she was deified following her death. Today pregnant Marquesan women come here and pay respects.
Three miles across the Bordelaise Channel is Tahuata, at 23 square miles, the smallest Marquesas Island, with 600 inhabitants, known for intricate bone carvings. Hiking past a rum distillery to a secluded beach for a swim, we later entered a stone church with a marvelously detailed carved wood dais, sacristy, and Marquesan Madonna.
Arriving at Fatu Hiva, the southernmost and most isolated of the Marquesas with 633 residents, we rose early to start our 10-mile hike from Omoa. The 20-percent incline for the first five miles was bearable since we had some cloud cover. At mile five Aranui crew had set up a sandwich station with fresh baguettes, brownies and mango juice; a South Seas-style Subway franchise with forever views.
Heading down the mountain towards Hanavave, a hundred shades of verdant jade complemented the massive baroque basalt mountains. These bore deep depressions giving the appearance of elongated Tiki faces carved within, while the highest points thrust pointedly towards the heavens. Amid palms and acacias, mango, lemon, papaya and grapefruit trees surrounded us in this fruitage Eden.
Following a relaxing sea day, then a day snorkeling the pristine blue azure waters of Rangiroa, as we headed back to Tahiti, it was time to visit Moana. Historically, tattoos have played an outsized role in Marquesan culture – indeed the word tattoo is Polynesian – and body décor was seen and remains, a degree of prestige. After providing him with a photo of a small map of Hawaii, he took 10 minutes to draw it on my inner arm, and another 45 minutes to tattoo, adding some intricate Marquesan motifs to its interior. It was virtually painless and beautiful.
Thinking about the entirety of this incredible experience as I packed, two things became clear: the dramatic natural beauty of the Marquesas along with the many smiles and kindnesses of its people, including the Aranui crew, would hold me hostage long after this South Seas sojourn was but a distant, sweet memory. Second, I’m fairly certain I’d already become severely afflicted with the Marquesan Virus: a fascination with all things Marquesan and a burning desire to return as often as possible. ‘Ka’oha i te henua.’ Happy travels!
If you go: International flights to Papeete generally arrive late at night, so travelers will need to arrive a day or two before sailing and to explore Tahiti’s offerings, including the Notre Dame, Central Market, and beaches. On a secluded black sand beach, yet only 20-minutes from downtown Papeete is Le Tahiti by Pearl Resorts on Matavai Bay. Polynesian hospitality prevails in a picture perfect setting, with an enormous seafront pool, restaurant, fitness center and spa.