French Polynesia is a vast area, with five major island groups: The Marquesas, Tuamotus, Gambier, Austral, and Society Islands. We are traveling west with the winds after crossing from Panama and landing in the magical Marquesas islands. After a few weeks or months in The Marquesas, the next island group is usually the Tuamotus. Cruising the Tuamotus is like nothing we’ve experienced, and a great reason to get the long stay visa. We can’t believe we almost raced through all of these islands, a necessity with the standard French Polynesian three month visa.
Introduction to The Tuamotus
Motu in Tahitian means a small islet of coral reef, an atoll. The Tuamotus is a chain of 70+ of these small islets, many sparsely inhabited.
To sail from The Marquesas to anywhere in The Tuamotus takes 3-4 days, depending on departure and arrival points, and, of course, the wind. Once you’re in the chain, you can do short day or overnight hops to get from one motu to the next.
The archipelagos’ total population is only about 15,000 people. That’s right, across almost 80 islands. The main industries include pearl farming, copra cultivation (coconut oil), and a small amount of tourism in a few places.
Since arriving in The Marquesas nine months ago, Brian and I discussed getting the best possible souvenir here: a Marquesan tattoo. It took us a return trip to Nuku Hiva, plus the encouragement of our friends on Pelican, who beat us to it, but we did it! What it like to get tattooed in Marquesas?
Tattoos are an important part of Polynesian culture, and Marquesans are known for their tattoo artistry. When we arrived on our first island in the archipelago, and every one after, we noticed the tattoos.
I don’t know if it’s mandatory to have a tattoo here, but it is customary. Every adult has a tattoo somewhere, and some are covered with ink. Tattoos are tradition in French Polynesia. It’s part of the culture, marking milestones like adulthood and other important life moments.
We like Marquesan tattoos because while they look simple, most using only black ink, they are complex and symbolic.
We sailed back to The Marquesas over Christmas, skipping holiday celebrations for a rough five day upwind sail from the Tuamotus. Don’t worry! We had a huge late celebration at a traditional Marquesan oven with cruisers in Hapatoni. I’m not talking about eating with a group of cruisers. This goes well beyond that. Participating in a Marquesan oven is immersive, something people back home would pay big money to experience. Preparing for the meal, eating the food, listening to music, and enjoying it all with a huge group of cruisers and Marquesans was better than Christmas!
what is a marquesan oven?
The Marquesan oven in Tahuata made one of the best meals we’ve eaten in a while. They’re also called Polynesian ovens, or earth ovens, because they are dug into the ground. Once deep enough, the pit is filled with coals and lit on fire. The fire burns for several hours, and when the temperature is optimal, banana tree branches, palm leaves, and baskets of wrapped food are placed into the underground oven. Layers of palm leaves, then tarp, and then dirt, are piled on top, enclosing the oven, and infusing the food with smokey flavor, for more hours, usually overnight.
I learned recently through a podcast that Antarctica gets four times the number of visitors as The Marquesas Islands. The Marquesas are among the least visited places in the world, and we are so happy to be among the lucky few. It’s remote and difficult to get to: it took us a month, but intrepid visitors to this archipelago are in for a treat. We recently spent a week in Hiva Oa, the second biggest island in the Marquesas. With our friends on Pelican, we rented a car and spent some time touring around Hiva Oa.
The main anchorage is in a snug harbor with a dock full of fishing boats and dark muddy water. Called Atuona after the nearby town, this anchorage is great for provisioning and as a base for touring Hiva Oa.
Before coming to French Polynesia, we hoped to see big mantas and Pacific fish, all the marine life we couldn’t find in the Caribbean. In addition to seeing all that, we are learning what else makes diving in Fakarava so excellent.
One of the World’s Best Dive Destinations
We are very lucky scuba divers, diving in amazing places like Bonaire, Utila and The Galapagos. Our boat is equipped with all dive gear minus a compressor to fill our four tanks. We haven’t found room for one! This experience gives us the perspective to realize how incredible Fakarava diving is. We’ve been on some of our best dives ever in Fakarava.
Fakarava: A Protected Place for Diving
The Fakarava Biosphere Reserve includes seven atolls, including Fakarava. Registered with UNESCO, the reserve is a special place where biodiversity and conservation are promoted. In addition, French Polynesia has been a shark sanctuary since 2012, meaning no fishing for sharks or their fins anywhere in FP. These designations combine to make Fakarava one of the best places in the world to dive with sharks. The sheer number and diversity of sharks draws divers to Fakarava.