There was something familiar in the air. Were these green mountains plunging into the Pacific Ocean the only reason I fell for the Marquesas Islands? It could be the Mana Polynesian people often refer to when explaining the strong connection they have with their islands. It translates to force or spirit. Whatever its true nature, the Mana of the Marquesas Islands gave me a reason to come back to French Polynesia and especially Hiva Oa one day.
Their name comes from the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña in 1595, whose patron was the Marquis of Cañete. However, their original name, Te Fenua ʻEnata in Marquesan, means the Land of the men. Fenua means earth, but its meaning goes well beyond the land: it is where you belong, where your roots are, and what makes your heart feel the Mana. Today, the Marquesas Islands are a part of French Polynesia which is an autonomous overseas territory of France.
I stayed there for only 3 days. I wished I had stayed longer. But as you visit French Polynesia, especially for the first time, you have to make choices. You will find below the best things I did as a scuba diver visiting the Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia for the first time.
- Admiring the Grand Canyon of Nuku Hiva
- Strolling around Atuona on Hiva Oa
- Scuba diving in the channel between Hiva Oa & Tahuata
- Exploring Hiva Oa archaeological sites
- Swimming at Haahopu Bay on Nuku Hiva
1 – Admiring the Grand Canyon of Nuku Hiva
The thing that surprised me the most approaching Nuku Hiva Airport was how dry the island looked, which was the total opposite of how I was initially picturing the Marquesas Islands. Actually, Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, peaks at 1,224 m, separating the island in a northwestern dry side and a lush green one in the southeast where the clouds are blocked by Mount Tekao on rainy days.
At my arrival at Nuku Hiva Airport, the small 19 seat Twin Otter plane was already waiting for us to take off an hour and a half later. Be careful, there is a 30-minute time difference with Tahiti which is tricky. Add 30 minutes to your watch as soon as you arrive, or better, in the plane; otherwise, you would risk missing your connecting flight if like me you are heading to Hiva Oa.
I met up with Aniata of Nuku Hiva Aventures who organised for me express sightseeing tours of Nuku Hiva on my two stopovers between Hiva Oa and Tahiti. During the time of the stopover, we reached the highest point of the island in about 30 minutes. It was impressive how quickly the environment changed with the altitude. I left dry fields with a temperature of about 30°C, then the landscape turned into coconut groves and then changed again to pines trees and grass fields with a temperature below 20°C (don’t forget to take a hoodie).
Even if I didn’t have the time to go to Taiohae, the capital of the Marquesas Islands, the view from the top of Mount Tekao of all the green fields of Toovii Plateau and Ua Pou Island in the background made up for it. However, the highlight of this tour was undoubtedly the viewpoint of the Grand Canyon of Nuku Hiva. I think my pictures speak for themselves about how impressive this narrow creek zigzagging between cliffs is.
The other natural highlight of Nuku Hiva is the Vaipo Waterfalls, but to reach them you need first to go to Taiohae Village, take a boat for 40 minutes and then hike in the valley for a couple of hours.
2 – Strolling around the village of Atuona on Hiva Oa
When I arrived in Hiva Oa, every detail in its surrounding nature was capturing of my attention: its mountains, its lush forest, its scent. The last time I felt a connection like this was in the heart of the Highlands in Scotland. What if I was visiting a tropical version of Scotland with dramatic wilderness and lively local culture? The water temperature (29°C) reminded me I was just a bit south of the Equator.
It wasn’t hard to understand why Atuona, the main village of Hiva Oa, became a favourite among artists such as the French painter Paul Gauguin, the Belgian singer Jacques Brel, and the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Gauguin and Brel are even now resting in peace in the prettiest cemetery I have ever seen, below frangipane trees and overlooking Ta’aoa Bay.
Fans of the two artists, after paying their respect, can decide to either visit the Paul Gauguin Museum (be aware that the museum is a collection of copies only of his masterpieces) or the Jacques Brel museum, or both.
The village isn’t big; it has one grocery store, one bakery, a post office, a tattoo artist, but many churches! The highlight of the village is the main square decorated with traditional Marquesan statues carved in wood or stone. This is where all the cultural events of the island happen. If you are interested in buying local art craft, there is a Fae (hut) next to it with a small market inside. At the end of your walk, head to the black sand beach of Atuona and its benches, each one more creative than the last.
Atuona Harbour was the starting point of my underwater adventures as this is the home base of Marquises Diving.
3 – Scuba diving in the channel between Hiva Oa & Tahuata
Scuba diving in the Marquesas Islands might be the ultimate off-the-beaten-track experience considering how remote the islands are. If you love unique adventures, you will discover a staggering marine ecosystem and a real manta ray highway.
On the first morning I woke up in the Marquesas Islands, the staff of Marquises Diving, the only dive centre of the Marquesas Islands, came to pick me up at my hotel, and we headed down to the harbour where their large aluminium boat was waiting for two other divers and I. As I am used to scuba dive from RIBs in most places in France, it came as an excellent surprise to have so much space on board including a tray for underwater photography gear. While the boat is a catamaran and hence stable, the sea conditions can be rough so a seasickness pill can be a good idea if you are sensitive to swell.
The visibility is usually low from 5 to 15 m, so be prepared for something completely different from what you could expect from diving in the South Pacific. What can sound like a disadvantage is actually a strength from a pelagic species encounter point of view.
The islands are rather young volcanic islands (2 million years old) and have the unique feature in Polynesia to have no coral reef and hence no lagoon. This directly impacts the concentration in plankton which attracts close to the shores of the Marquesas Islands pelagic species such as manta rays and hammerhead sharks in number.
Therefore, the reef is mostly made of rocks, interesting yellow sponge formations and some whip coral here and there. About half of the marine life is surprisingly closer to what you can see in colder waters, like scorpionfish or cushion sea star.
I went drift diving twice with Marquises Diving along the channel between Hiva Oa and Tahuata. However, these sites remain closer to Hiva Oa shores.
- Kui Point was my first dive at the entry of the channel. In only 5 seconds after my giant step entry, I noticed two things: visibility is incredibly low and “wait, is that a manta ray coming directly in my direction?” They were so many manta rays swimming around us and due to the visibility we would only see them at the last moment, it was difficult to count how many we saw. After this underwater parade of manta rays, I felt something was coming on my left side, as I kept the rocky reef on my right side. I turned my head, and it was a big hammerhead shark which just came to check us out and returned where it came from.
- After a 1-hour long surface interval in a sheltered creek, eating delicious dried bananas and fresh mango and grapefruit, we went diving in a site called Le Rabot. In the first part of the dive, as our dive guide explained during the briefing, we saw ancient stone anchors giving the site an archaeological value. We were also told during the briefing that we might hear dolphins, but what I heard finally underwater wasn’t a dolphin. I had the confirmation after coming back to the surface: I just heard my first whale song underwater! And like it wasn’t enough for one dive, we visited a small cave full of giant spiny lobsters and had a look at a cavern where a hot spring is flowing creating a halocline inside.
My dive parameters:
- Dive #1: maximum depth 25 m, total dive time 55 minutes, water temperature 29°C
- Dive #2: maximum depth 25 m, total dive time 58 minutes, water temperature 28°C
4 – Exploring Hiva Oa archaeological sites
Hiva Oa is also the home of invaluable archaeological sites of the Polynesian heritage. The hotel where I was staying was organising tours every morning to one of the 3 main sites adding to it a traditional lunch and some cultural activities like dancing to get acquainted with the Marquesan traditions.
The 3 main sites are:
- Puamau, the largest, over 2 ha, is supposed to count more than a thousand tiki statues
- Hatiheu is famous for its petroglyphs
- Upeke is the home of the tallest tiki statue of French Polynesia, Takai’i 2.60m tall
5 – Relaxing at Haahopu Bay, Nuku Hiva
With so many adventures in only 3 days, I was happy to spend my second stopover in Nuku Hiva at the beach. While it looks close on the map from the airport, the road to Haahopu Bay is bumpy and requires 40 minutes in a 4-wheel drive through the most desertic part of the island.
Popular camping spot for the locals during the weekends, during the week you can have it all to yourself as I did. If you walk further, you will see a pier that is used by cargo ships to resupply the island. From there is a good vantage point for whale watching from the shore in the season, Aniata of Nuku Hiva Aventures told me she saw a pod of orcas once in December!
When to go to the Marquesas Islands?
The archipelago of the Marquesas is much closer to the Equator than the rest of French Polynesia; hence its climate slightly differs from Tahiti and the other islands, it tends to be hotter. Generally speaking, the northern Marquesas Islands (including Nuku Hiva) are drier, and the southern Marquesas Islands (Hiva Oa & Tahuata) are wetter.
The rainy season is from January to the beginning of March, is also when the temperatures are at the hottest with an average 28°C. The common recommendation is to visit the Marquesas Islands between September and December.
In my case, at the end of September:
- in Hiva Oa, I had one full day of rain for two with an average temperature of 25 C.
- In Nuku Hiva, I only saw the sun, but due to the altitude, the temperature varied from 30°C at the sea level to 18°C at 1,200 m.
Water temperatures remain stable between 27 and 29°C all year long. From a marine life point of view, you might want to consider these migratory seasons:
- From July to September, it is the hammerhead shark season. Indeed, I saw one at Kui Point.
- From October to December, it is the humpback whale season. Indeed, I heard a male singing on my 2nd dive.
- From November to April, it is the melon-headed whale season. For this, I will need to come back!
Where to stay in the Marquesas Islands?
I felt incredibly lucky to be invited to stay at the Hanakee Pearl Lodge on Hiva Oa. My first impression was a series of unstoppable “Wow” due to the incredible location of the hotel on the top of a hill overlooking Ta’ahoa Bay and Tahuata Island in the background.
When I arrived at my bungalow, my very first thought was: “Ok, if I ever get married one day (still very unlikely) this is what my honeymoon place should be!”. I loved that the room style was from local inspiration and that the desk was facing the incredible view of Ta’ahoa Bay. I also had a large walk-in shower where I could rinse all my scuba diving gear.
My breakfasts and dinners at their restaurant were just fantastic. I discovered the Marquesas Islands produce a great variety of fruits and vegetables. The menu is a great selection of local recipes with a touch of French cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients such as fish, seafood, breadfruit, mango, papaya and even honey!
How to go to the Marquesas Islands?
To reach the Marquesas Islands, whatever way you choose, you need to fly first to Tahiti. I came from Paris with Air Tahiti Nui with a stopover in Los Angeles. You can also fly direct to Tahiti from Tokyo and Auckland with them.
There is a 12-day slow travel option with the famous Aranui 5, half cargo – half passenger ship, but it doesn’t fit well the schedule of scuba divers. For those who want to go a bit faster, you can fly direct to Hiva Oa, the only island of the Marquesas Archipelago with a dive centre, from Tahiti in 3h20.
Or like me, you can make the most of your trip by flying from Fakarava with a stopover to Nuku Hiva to finally board a 19-seat Twin Otter plane to reach the Jacques Brel-Atuona Airport on Hiva Oa in about 5 hours.
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
Photo credits Hiva Oa archaeological sites: Tahiti Tourisme
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