A Complete Guide to the Marquesas Islands
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Enjoy The Complete Guide you should know before traveling to the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
The Marquesas are one of the most remote island groups on Earth. Anchored in the Pacific, some 1,600 kilometers northeast of Tahiti, the very fact of the remote location of these islands is what has long captured the imagination of travelers. The idea of a typical South Seas getaway no doubt began with the novel "Typee," Herman Melville's best-selling 1846 memoir of his visit to the islands aboard an old whaler.
The islands had notable moments in the 20th century for famous residents escaping urban boredom. Today, despite their stunning landscapes and dreamy visitor experience, they only attract a small group of visitors, mainly intrepid adventurers from continental Europe.
The islands are located in the extreme northeast of French Polynesia, a semi-autonomous territory of France. Local time is GMT-9:30 am, half an hour earlier than Tahiti (which is the same time zone as Hawaii).
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; they 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 in other parts of French Polynesia, so a little basic French can be a plus, especially outside of hotels. Tour guides tend to speak English well, but French narrations are often more detailed.
Although Tahitian is widely spoken in Tahiti and the Society Islands, the language is mutually unintelligible with Marquesan. Since visitors who have spent a day or two in Tahiti or who have traveled to other parts of the territory quickly learn Tahitian words, it is not uncommon for them to speak the language when they arrive in the Marquesas; Local residents will kindly correct those who do, but it is good practice to learn a few basic phrases before your visit. Marquesan has two dialects: one to the north of the island group (around Nuku Hiva) and one to the south (around Hiva Oa).
Things to do
From diving in Tahuata to walking in a waterfall in Hakaui, here are the best things to do on the most popular islands in and around the Marquesas.
On Hiva Oa, a popular excursion is a day trip by boat to the neighboring island of Tahuata. As you explore the city of Vaitahu (which has an impressive stone church) and the village of Hapatoni (known for its wood carvings and local crafts), your guide will share aspects of Marquesan culture. Tours generally include a beach stop for lunch and snorkeling before returning to Hiva Oa.
Another popular excursion is a quick trip through the village of Atuona to see the sights of its two most famous inhabitants: the painter Paul Gauguin and the singer Jacques Brel, both buried in the island's small cemetery. The Paul Gauguin Cultural Center in Atuona is located on the site of the painter's house and includes an air-conditioned gallery of replicas of the artist's works. The site features a replica of his house (the original wooden entrance arch, sculpted by Gauguin himself, is in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris). A nearby hangar houses JoJo, Jacques Brel's private plane, along with historical displays (in French) from the singer's career.
In Nuku Hiva, excursions include trips to Hakaui, where you can hike to visit a waterfall, or to Taipivai, the "Typee" of Melville's writings. Taiohae is also a pleasant town to walk around, where a wayward horse is as likely to bite into the grass at the bus stop as a local resident stops at a local grocery store or pizzeria.
Near the pier, there is a craft center where local artisans sell their wares, focusing on the wood carvings of the Marquesas, a skill for which the island's master sculptors are famous throughout the Pacific. There are also product stands and a snack bar.
ATV tours are also popular on rugged Nuku Hiva, to various parts of the island to visit archaeological sites and enjoy panoramic views from many points on this mountainous island.
Each and every excursion is arranged through hotels or guest houses, and it is common to book them upon arrival at Nuku Hiva, as availability and conditions may vary.
Where to Stay
Pensions, or pensions in Tahiti, are available on both islands. Generally operated in or near private houses, pensions usually offer rooms or bungalows with private or shared bathrooms. Accommodation standards can vary, but they offer a distinctly local vibe and are generally cheaper than the single-resort hotels in Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa, of which there are two.
Nuka Hiva Pearl Lodge
In Nuku Hiva, the Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge, a member of Relais & Chateaux, is situated on a hill overlooking Tai-O-Hae, the island's main community and administrative center for the entire island group. The semi-detached bungalows go down a hillside to a black sand beach; each is equipped with full baths with standard hotel amenities. The main chalet has a small pool and the only sophisticated restaurant on the island, a great place to watch the moon rise over the collection of sailboats that dot the bay.
On Hiva Oa, Hanakee Lodge sits on a hill overlooking Ta'aoa Bay, with its towering, weather-beaten mountain cliffs that look like a "King Kong" setting. The fully insulated bungalows form a semicircle around the small garden filled with bougainvillea, plumeria (locally called "frangipane" or "tipanier") and star-shaped theare, the fragrant emblem of French Polynesia.
Standard amenities can be found in the units, and the main accommodation has a small pool, excellent bar, and restaurant, as well as a small selection of gift items for sale, including wood carvings from the Marquesas Islands.
On the same grounds as the guest house is the Pensão Josephine, which offers bungalows for up to six people, with buffet breakfast and dinner at the table included in the rate.
Where to Eat
On both islands, excellent hotel restaurants can be found, offering French cuisine with a focus on seafood and local produce, plus some international options like pasta and pizza.
Many menus include goat, a typical Marquesano protein, and local plant products like coconut and breadfruit. The Marquesas are also known for the local honey, which is used in many restaurant desserts and hotel buffet breakfasts.
The "Snack" (short for snack bar, a term imported by American soldiers during WWII) is an affordable type of restaurant found throughout French Polynesia, generally offering a selection of sandwiches, pizzas, hamburgers or Chinese Food.
Tahiti is eight hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the two continental US gateways with direct service to Tahiti.
Air Tahiti, the national airline of French Polynesia, is the only airline serving the Marquesas, and only from Tahiti. Service aboard the 78-seat jet propeller plane is generally available once a day. Flights generally depart early in the morning and operate from Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa (the order alternates on specific days) before returning to Tahiti in the late afternoon. Non-stop flight time to and from Tahiti takes an average of three hours.
In Nuku Hiva, the airport is a 90-minute drive from Taiohae. On Hiva Oa, Autona Airport is a short drive from Atuona, the island's main town.
On either island, hotels usually offer transfers for a nominal fee. Many pensions will include transfers in the rate. In both cases, it is common to provide flight arrival and departure details at the time of booking.
Car or scooter rental is not particularly necessary on any of the islands, as shopping centers can generally be reached on foot and hotel guests can take advantage of the free shuttle service. There are practically no commercial or public facilities outside the villages. Since most of the popular sites on the island are remote, most visitors participate in tours by land or by sea.
The French Pacific Franc is the currency of French Polynesia.
Tipping is rare in French Polynesia. Tour guides seem to be an exception, although even they generally don't expect tips.
Credit and debit cards are less accepted in the Marquesas than in Tahiti. There are banks and ATMs in Taiohae and Atuona, but it is a good idea to bring some money from Tahiti (there is an ATM at Faa'a International Airport for those who make direct connections).
Negotiating the sale price of an item is not common in Marquesas.
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