A Complete Guide to the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

Nuku Hiva

Tahiti Tourisme

The Marquesas are one of the most remote island groups on Earth. Anchored in the Pacific nearly 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti, the very fact of these islands’ remote location is what has long captured travelers' imaginations. The idea of the typical South Seas escape arguably began with the novel Typee, Herman Melville’s heavily embellished 1846 blockbuster memoir of his visit to the islands onboard an erstwhile whaler. 

The islands had banner moments in the 20th Century for famous residents fleeing urban ennui. Today, in spite of their breathtaking scenery and dream-like visitor experience, they attract only a trickle of visitors, primarily intrepid adventurers from mainland Europe. 

Geography

The islands are in the extreme northeast corner of French Polynesia, a semi-autonomous territory of France. The local time is GMT-9:30, a half hour ahead of Tahiti (which is the same time zone as Hawai‘i). 

Although there are 15 islands in the group, tourism is concentrated on the two islands with regular air service: Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. The islands are called "Fenua Enata" in the south and "Henua Enana" in the north—both mean “The Land of Men”. 

Language and Culture

French is the official language of French Polynesia. English-speaking visitors are less common in the Marquesas than other parts of French Polynesia, so some basic French can be an asset, particularly away from the hotels. Tour guides generally speak good English, but French narrations are often more detailed. 

While Tahitian is widely spoken on Tahiti and in the Society Islands, the language is mutually unintelligible with Marquesan. As visitors who have spent even a day or two on Tahiti or have traveled elsewhere in the territory quickly pick up on Tahitian words, it is not uncommon for them to speak the language upon arrival in the Marquesas; local residents will kindly correct those who do, but it is good practice to learn some basic phrases before your visit. Marquesan has two dialects—one for the north of the island group (around Nuku Hiva) and one of the south (around Hiva Oa).

Hakaui, Nuku Hiva

Scott Laird / TripSavvy

Things to Do

From snorkeling in Tahuata to hiking to a waterfall in Hakaui, here are the top things to do in and around the most popular islands in the Marquesas.

Hiva Oa

On Hiva Oa, a popular excursion is a day trip by boat to the neighboring island of Tahuata. As you explore the town of Vaitahu (which features an impressive stone church) and the hamlet of Hapatoni (renowned for its wood carvers and local crafts), your guide will share aspects of Marquesan culture. The tours typically include a stop at a beach for lunch and snorkeling before returning to Hiva Oa. 

Another popular excursion is a quick trip through the village of Atuona to see sights pertaining to its two most famous denizens: the painter Paul Gauguin and singer Jacques Brel, both of whom are buried in the island’s small cemetery. The Paul Gauguin Cultural Center in Atuona sits on the site of the painter’s house, and includes an air-conditioned gallery of replica works by the artist. The grounds feature a replica of his house (the original wood entrance arch—carved by Gauguin himself—is at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris). A nearby hangar houses JoJo, the private aircraft of Jacques Brel, alongside historic displays (in French) of the singer’s career. 

Nuku Hiva

On Nuku Hiva, excursions include trips to Hakaui, where a hike can be undertaken to visit a waterfall, or to Taipivai, the “Typee” of Melville’s writings. Taiohae is also a pleasant village for strolling, where one is just as likely to encounter a wayward horse nibbling grass at the bus stop as a local resident stopping into a local shop or pizza joint. 

Near the pier, there’s an artisanal center where local crafters sell their wares, with a focus on Marquesan wood carvings—a skill for which the islands’ master carvers are renowned throughout the Pacific. There are also produce stalls and a snack bar. 

Four-wheel drive excursions are also popular on rugged Nuku Hiva, to various points on the island to visit archaeological sites and enjoy the vistas from scenic overlooks at many points on this mountainous island. 

Any and all excursions are arranged through hotels or pensions, and it’s customary to book them upon arrival in Nuku Hiva as availability and conditions can vary.

Hotel Hanakee, Hiva Oa

Scott Laird / TripSavvy

Where to Stay

Pensions, or Tahitian guesthouses, are available on both islands. Generally operated within or adjacent to private homes, pensions typically offer rooms or bungalows with private or shared baths. Accommodation standards can vary, but they offer a distinctly local atmosphere and are generally less expensive than the single resort hotels on Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa, of which there are two.

Nuka Hiva Pearl Lodge

On Nuku Hiva, the Relais & Chateaux member Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge is situated on a hillside overlooking Tai-O-Hae, the principal community of the island and administrative center for the entire island group. Semi-detached bungalows snake down a hillside to a black sand beach—each is equipped with full baths with standard hotel amenities. The main lodge has a small pool and the island’s only fine dining restaurant—a fine place to watch the moon rise over the collection of sailboats dotting the bay. 

Hanakee Lodge

On Hiva Oa, the Hanakee Lodge sits on a hill overlooking Ta’aoa Bay with its imposing weather-beaten sheer mountain cliffs looking like a King Kong set. Fully detached bungalows stand in a semi-circle around the small garden overflowing with bougainvillea, plumeria (called "frangipane" or "tipanier" locally), and starburst-shaped tiare, the fragrant emblem of French Polynesia.

Standard amenities can be found in the units, and the main lodge has a small pool, bar, and fine-dining restaurant, plus a small selection of gift items for sale, including Marquesan wood carvings. 

On the same grounds as the lodge is the Pension Josephine, which offers bungalows sleeping up to six, with buffet breakfast and tabe d’hote dinners included in the rate.

Where to Eat

On both islands, fine dining restaurants can be found in the hotels, offering French-style cuisine with focus on local seafood and produce, plus some international options such as pastas and pizzas. 

Many menus include goat, a typical Marquesan protein, and local vegetable products such as coconut and breadfruit. The Marquesas are also known for their local honey, which finds its way into many restaurant desserts and hotel breakfast buffets. 

The “Snack” (short for snack bar, a term imported by American GIs during WWII) is an affordable type of restaurant found all over French Polynesia, typically offering a selection of sandwiches, pizzas, burgers, or Chinese. 

Getting There

Tahiti is eight hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the two U.S. mainland gateways with nonstop service to Tahiti.

Air Tahiti, the domestic airline of French Polynesia, is the only airline offering service to the Marquesas—and only from Tahiti. Service onboard the company’s 78 seat jet-powered propeller aircraft is generally available once daily. Flights typically leave in the early morning and service both Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa (the order alternates on specific days) before returning to Tahiti in the late afternoon. Nonstop flight time to and from Tahiti averages three hours. 

Getting Around

On Nuku Hiva, the airport is a 90-minute drive from Taiohae. On Hiva Oa, the airport Autona is just a short drive from Atuona, the island’s principle village.

On either island, the hotels will typically offer transfers for a nominal fee. Many pensions will include transfers in the rate. In either case, it’s customary to provide flight arrival and departure details at the time of booking. 

Car or scooter rentals aren’t particularly necessary on either island, as the commercial centers are generally walkable and hotel guests can take advantage of free shuttles. There are virtually no commercial or public facilities outside the villages. Because most of the island’s popular sites are remote, most visitors join land or ocean-going tours. 

Money Matters

The French Pacific Franc is the currency of French Polynesia. 

Tipping is uncommon in French Polynesia. Tour guides seem to be an exception, although even they don’t generally expect gratuities. 

Credit and debit cards are less widely accepted in the Marquesas than on Tahiti. There are banks and ATMs in Taiohae and Atuona, but it’s a good idea to bring some cash from Tahiti (there’s an ATM at Faa’a International Airport for those making direct connections). 

Bargaining the sales price of an item is not customary in the Marquesas.

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