We were lucky to spend a year in French Polynesia, a beautiful and widespread collection of islands and atolls. While we didn’t improve our French language skills, we loved the excellent diving, hiking, and culture. From the Marquesas to the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, these are our best of French Polynesia.
About French Polynesia
French Polynesia has several island groups, but many visitors only go to the Society Islands. You’ve probably heard of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. If you can, I recommend exploring the ones you haven’t heard about. The more remote archipelagos of the Marquesas and the Tuamotus are unforgettable. These island chains couldn’t be more different: the Marquesas are lush, mountainous, and full of vegetation. Conversely, the Tuamotus are arid atolls with limited land life and clear waters. We didn’t even make it to other parts of French Polynesia like The Gambiers and Australs. Read on for which locales we think offer the best of French Polynesia.
Two islands in French Polynesia are our favorites for hiking. If you want to go hiking, visit Ua Pou or Moorea. Nuku Hiva also offers a good variety of hikes.
Some islands are just bad for hiking, full of private land and no paths for independent hikers, or they’re flat and featureless. In good news, most of The Marquesas islands have at least one or two hikes that are worth doing.
Ua Pou is good for hiking independantly, but for the big hike, hire a guide. All the hikes involve altitude, and everyone we know who did the cross-island hike alone got lost. The hills are high and the views are stunning, but there’s not much civilization so packing lots of water is a must for any of these treks.
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.
The Marquesas are beautiful and fun to explore. Located in one of the most remote regions on earth, tourists are uncommon and supplies are thin. In contrast, the land and seascapes are stunning! Read about cruising in the Marquesas, with some tips for first-timers.
About The Marquesas
The Marquesas archipelago is in the northeasternmost part of French Polynesia. This location makes it a common first stop for sailors crossing the Pacific. Other than sailors, not a lot of tourists visit this part of the world. Which means a lot of unspoiled beauty and some difficulty accessing basic goods.
The Marquesas consists of six occupied islands and we have been to five. Mountainous and green, the land provides ample fruit for its residents and visitors. So much fruit that Marquesan citrus is exported to Tahiti and beyond. The hard part of cruising in the Marquesas is finding internet, fresh veggies, and propane, and if you can get that all in one anchorage with clear water, don’t ever leave!
Sailing in The Marquesas
Sailing between islands in The Marquesas is good in that distances usually allow for daytime trips from one island to another. Here’s an idea of distances between islands (obviously differs depending on departure and arrival bay), from northeast to southwest (our route):
Nuku Hiva to Ua Pou: approximately 22nm
Ua Pou to Tahuata: approximately 60nm
Tahuata to Hiva Oa: around 20nm
Hiva Oa to Fatu Hiva: about 45nm
The island we didn’t visit – yet – is Ua Huka, 30 miles from Nuku Hiva, so would take 6 hours.
It’s nice to have the luxury of jumping between islands without overnight trips, and each island is unique and worth visiting! Sometimes we have to motor sail, or just motor, especially when travelling between Tahuata and Hiva Oa.