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.
It’s nice sailing around the Marquesas because when you approach a new island you can see it from afar. The mountains arise straight up from the sea as if from nothing and it’s quite a sight to behold miles away from our sailboat.
The Marquesas offer mountains, hiking, and gorgeous views. We hiked in Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, and Fatu Hiva, and hope to get a lot more outdoor exercise in those mountains when we return in a few months.
The water is beautiful in The Marquesas, but a little bit colder and less clear than The Caribbean, based on our experience being here in winter (it’s winter right now). As I mentioned when we were in Tahuata, the lack of clarity is a good thing because of the manta rays!
Snorkeling, swimming, from the boat or in the water, the marine life is plentiful in The Marquesas. In addition to mantas, we’ve seen many pods of dolphins while cruising in The Marquesas. The water is mostly clean too, which is a refreshing change after Panama.
Most of the islands have a few choices of protected anchorages which affords us variety! We anchored in two different spots in Nuku Hiva, one each in Ua Pou and Hiva Oa, three in Tahuata, and two in Fatu Hiva, and there are plenty more to visit.
Anchorages in The Marquesas are often deep. While many anchorages in The Caribbean have depths in the 20 feet range, it’s more common to anchor in 40 feet in The Marquesas, in bays like Taiohae in Nuku Hiva.
Some anchorages are quite small and in these anchorages, sailors put out a stern anchor to keep their boat in place. Before arriving in Ua Poa, we read that sometimes a stern anchor is recommended but since there was only one other boat in the anchorage and plenty of room, we only equipped our standard bow anchor and all was fine. The next boat that arrived dropped two anchors, and because the anchorage is small, we had to follow suit. More boats arrived, with everyone using a stern anchor. If we hadn’t dropped the stern anchor, our boat would likely have swung into one of the other sailboats.
Fortunately, not every bay is known for stern anchoring. The other place in Marquesas where it is common is Hiva Oa, a small bay that fills up quickly. It reminded us a lot of Marigot Bay in Saint Lucia without the mooring balls.
Almost all the anchorages we’ve seen in The Marquesas are overseen by a cross on a hill overlooking the bay and a tiki at the dock, which means our boats are blessed from all the French Polynesian belief systems.
Marquesans are friendly people, waving, smiling and calling in greeeting, and we communicate in a mix of grade-school level French, English, and very basic Marquesan. We’ve learned a few key phrases, but the only one we consistently remember is Ka o Ha, hello!
The Marquesans we’ve met come from a wide mix of heritages and experiences. Many French people have emigrated to French Polynesia, as well as Italians, Germans, and more, recently and generations ago. Most locals speak several languages, including French, Tahitian, Marquesan, English, German, and Spanish. And all we’ve learned is how to say hello. We can do better!
The currency in The Marquesas, and all of French Polynesia, is CFP, or Pacific Franc. A $10,000 CFP is about $88 USD. The smallest bill is a $500 and then below that it’s all coins. So don’t throw out your coins in French Polynesia! They have toonies here (Canadian reference).
Cruising in the Marquesas isn’t different from everywhere else we’ve been on the boat: we’re always looking for good food. Before coming to The Marquesas, our worst experience provisioning, even worse than during a pandemic, was in The Bahamas. Shopping here means easy access to French food, baguettes, and fruit, but limited veggies. We’ve always got canned and frozen though!
It took us a little while to learn and adjust to island time in The Marquesas. First, the day starts early! Maybe because sunrise is at 530am and sunset at 530pm, everyone is up and about early here. Which means stores and restaurants are open early. And things sell out early, like baguettes in Nuku Hiva which were often gone before 9am.
Also, we’ve had to adjust to the fact that we are in France. Which means that most if not all of the stores and services close for lunch, and a long lunch! Meaning, stores may open at 7am (or earlier), but they close from 11:30am or 12noon until 2 or sometimes 3pm. Some places don’t reopen in the afternoon, either, which is the case with the gendarmerie who checked us into the country. You’ve got to be early in The Marquesas, which is understandable, because in the daylight hours, on shore, it gets hot even in winter.
When the sun sets it is dark very soon after, so before 7pm it feels like midnight. Cruisers’ midnight is early everywhere, but it feels even earlier here.
There are restaurants in The Marquesas, but there aren’t bars. It isn’t a bar culture, and the very few bars we’ve seen are attached to hotels catering to tourists. Some restaurants serve beer or wine, but many send us to the grocery store if we want to have any beverage other than a soft drink with lunch or dinner.
One of the best things about cruising in The Marquesas is the restaurants. We have eaten very well here.
The local cuisine is a mix of seafood and French. Steak frites and hamburger frites are common on menus, as is poisson cru and grilled fish. We’ve also seen a Chinese influence in many dishes, with offerings of chow mein and stir fries.
Keep in mind that most portions are huge! When we forget to order one plate to share, we often have leftovers for days. And they are happy to give you food to go.
The Holy Grail: Propane
I’ve already mentioned that filling our propane, or cooking gas, is an ongoing and unsuccessful endeavor in The Marquesas. Propane and gasoline come on a supply boat that visits each island approximately every 2 weeks.
When we arrived in Nuku Hiva, the supply boat didn’t come because of some mishap, so we just had bad timing. We didn’t want to wait in Nuku Hiva another 2 weeks for the next boat, not realizing propane fills are only available on two islands, and when we got to Hiva Oa, we had just missed the supply boat.
I think in a normal year when cruisers can check in anywhere, the propane shortage is probably not as bad. We arrived in The Marquesas when only one port was open, at the peak of the season, and paid the price. We have a lot of reserve propane and we like the restaurants and baguettes, so we’re fine.
Internet is available about half the time in The Marquesas. If you need internet, head to the post office, which is the yellow building. At the post office they sell SIM cards, $20 for 10 gigs of data. Often the post office hosts a Hotspot for which they also sell cards, giving you an hour or more of internet time depending on the plan you buy.
Wifi is very rare and usually only at select hotels and restaurants, sometimes free with meal, sometimes for an additional price.
We get very excited when an anchorage or town has internet. LTE is the best, E is worse. We thought E meant Emergency but it’s actually the old school Edge 2G internet, which we’d forgotten about but is common in The Marquesas. If we’re on Edge, we sometimes get notifications but can rarely do anything about them. It’s a tease!
Hiva Oa, Ua Poa, and Nuku Hiva all have good internet in the main anchorages. It varied in each anchorage in Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva’s good internet was only in the rolly anchorage. After 30 days disconnected, we are better at going without. I guess we’ve been weaned.
There’s lots to do in The Marquesas besides searching for veggies and propane. Singing, dancing, and drumming are big parts of the culture. The big Marquesan cultural festival is in July in Fatu Hiva, where people from every island show off their talents. Since we arrived in early May, we witnessed a lot of rehearsals for the big event. Plus we spent the cultural day in Ua Poa and enjoyed Jimmy’s music jams at Chez Jimmy’s. Each song and dance, in addition to being beautiful, tells a story.
Thanks for reading this long post about cruising in The Marquesas. Now we’re in the Tuamotus, likely heading to Tahiti for a bit, but we do plan to return to The Marquesas for cyclone season.
Have questions about cruising in The Marquesas which I haven’t answered? Please share in the comments!