Sign up to our newsletter
Remote paradise

Volcanic peaks, haka dances & turquoise lagoons: Sailing the Marquesas Islands first-hand

The Marquesas Islands, north of Tahiti, make for a fascinating French Polynesian trip of a lifetime to the remotest archipelagos in the world – our review checks them out in the flesh.

Words by Meera Dattani

“The missionaries, they banned everything. Music, dancing, tattooing, the Marquesan way of life.” These are the words of our guide, Steven, but the sentiment is often heard on these islands. Theirs is a culture that was almost obliterated, but drumming, haka dances and tattoo masters are back, with verve rather than vengeance.

Some 800 miles northeast of Papeete, the Tahitian capital, and home to the only international airport in this French & overseas territory, the Marquesas are the world’s most remote archipelago.

Flights serve four of the six inhabited islands although prices, routes and lack of inter-island boats make exploring tricky. But the Aranui freighter, serving the Marquesas since 1959 and carrying passengers since 1984, offers a taste of the isles which attracted artist Paul Gauguin and inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, In The South Seas, after his 1888 visit.

Nature has produced a work of art in the Marquesas with soaring volcanic peaks, crashing waterfalls and tiny bays below in wave-battered cliffs. This isn’t brochure Polynesia of blue lagoons and overwater bungalows, but one of lush wilderness, hiking trails and archaeological treats.

The archipelago is home to about 10,000 people. “In the late 1700s, it’s estimated there were around 10,000 inhabitants,” said Didier Benatar, guide and resident, “But disease, such as TB, syphilis and especially smallpox, brought by early navigators, killed many.” By the 1850s, 20,000 islanders remained, dropping to 2,000 by 1920, taking traditions with them.

The 19th century also witnessed the most extreme prohibitions of local customs by missionaries and officials who found society liberal and primitive.

“These were, and are, skilled people,” said Didier. “Masters of fishing, talented tattoo artists, canoe builders, woodcarvers and warriors.

As Marquesan culture regrouped, nuclear testing between 1966 and 1996 was another hitch, resulting in significant compensation from the French. More optimistically, the 1940s to 1970s witnessed a baby boom.

“My father is one of 24, my mother one of 16,” cruise director Mila told us. The year 1987 saw the first Marquesas Arts Festival, a four-yearly event. Islanders may have Facebook, but they’re getting tattooed and playing ukulele, too.

Island life

Our first taste of Marquesan life was Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, archipelago headquarters. We watched crew shift crates of limes and bananas, sacks of copra and dried coconut, while locals queued outside a container-turned-post-office for mail and the crane lifted a boat onto the deck.

As Aranui passengers, visiting time is dictated by cargo needs. We traveled by four-wheel drive to the Kamuihei, Tahakia and Telipoka sites, excavated by Pierre Ottino in 1998, where a 600-year-old banyan tree, whose roots fall like tentacles to the ground, towers over paepae house platforms, tohua meeting areas, sacred me’ae spots and ua ma, breadfruit fermentation pits.

Higher up, two rocks feature petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings of fish and turtles. Nearby Hikokua is another excellent site, uncovered by archaeologist Robert Suggs in the 1950s, while the Taipivai valley, the setting for Moby Dick author Herman Melville’s novel Typee after his 1842 stint as a captive, is full of stone tiki, petroglyphs and paepae.

Our first traditional meal waited for us in Hatiheu village at Chez Yvonne, run by the village’s ex-mayor. Staff peeled back layers of coconut fronds on the ground to reveal a smoking earth oven and three suckling pigs slow-cooking alongside root vegetable taro.

Other dishes included poison cru, raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk; goat meat; and baked breadfruit. For dessert, mashed red bananas in coconut milk divided passengers in a way only Marmite can.

Spicy peaks

At Hakahau village in Ua Pou, a smorgasbord of traditions lay ahead. We tucked fresh tiare flowers behind one ear – even the burliest Aranui cargo-checker wore one – and bought garland crowns and umu hei, aphrodisiac flower bouquets. “You’ll find your man,” Hina, my flower-maker said. Perhaps mine was faulty.

The scent of aromatic blooms filled the air, a bright red flame tree captured many an eye and locals performed the haka warrior and graceful bird dances at Hakahau’s Te Ava Tuu paepae platform. As we re-boarded the Aranui, clouds shifted to reveal Ua Pou’s 12 spiky peaks in full glory.

An exuberant Sunday mass – the missionaries did find some success in the Marquesas – was the highlight of Hane village on Ua Huka, a beautiful island of three villages, 700 inhabitants and more goats than people.

In Vaipaee village, an excellent museum curated by Ua Huka’s most talented woodcarver, Joses Vaatete, showcases Marquesan traditions. “It’s been my passion to create this museum,” he told us, having relentlessly sourced old photographs and carved skilful reproductions of tikis, swords and outrigger canoes.

Ua Huka handicrafts are particularly reasonable – wood-carver tikis, tapa cloth prints made from pounder strips of tree bark, monoi, tiare flower and coconut oil, and beaded and bone jeweller, no pressure, no haggling. At the botanical gardens, locals, and passengers, can pick juicy mangos, lychee-like quennettes and chillies for free.

Docking in Hiva Oa, the largest of the southern islands, it’s easy to see what drew artist Paul Gauguin in 1901 and Belgiansinger Jacques Brel in the 1970s. Both rest in Atuona’s cemetery and two cultural centres celebrate their work.

Jungles, villages and bays hold great appeal but so does Tipona, home to the Marquesas’ most important tikis, second only to those of Easter Island. Restored in 1991, the tallest of these five stone ancestor god representations is the 2.67-metre-high Taka’f’i, a warlord renowned for his strength.

From Hiva Oa, the Aranui docks twice at tiny Tahuata, where Europeans first met locals when Spanish navigator Mendana landed in 1595, visiting Vaitahu village and, with many bays only accessible by sea, enjoying a private beach at Kok’uu.

For many, Fatu Hiva’s mythological appearance casts the greatest spell. The most remote isle, with more hues of green than an artist’s palette, it once had 10,000 inhabitants. Now 600 reside in two villages, Omoa and Hanavave, linked by a 10-mile trail through an unspoilt interior.

“There’s no airport, no doctor and it’s four hours by sea to Hiva Oa,” said Didier. At sunset, Hanavave’s Bay of Virgins lights up, its rocky peak sparkling against a backdrop of soft, velvety greens.

Traditioanal dance

Sipping cold Hinano beers with fellow passengers was no chore. Mainly French, German and American, and a smattering of Canadians and other Europeans, from couples to aunts-and-nieces, solo travelers to small groups, a sense of adventure and curiosity was our biggest bond.

After his Q&A, head of cargo Tino confessed, “I didn’t know people found freight so interesting.” A similar crowd attended ship engineer Gheorghe Nemesu’s talk about the Aranui 3’s construction and Aranui 5’s luxury cabins, extra dormitories and a spa.

Meals were delicious, three-course yet informal and the crew friendly without fawning. Polynesian-style entertainment, led by the ever-energetic Manaari, included transforming a pareo/sarong into various outfits, and, for brave menfolk, loincloths, plus traditional dance, singing and ukulele lessons, performed with enthusiasm and varying degrees of skill during the cruise’s only themed evening, Polynesian Night and the final dinner.

Sometimes, the Aranui Band performed, perhaps with chief engineer Jean-Maurice drumming, Steven on bucket bass or cruise director Mila playing ukulele, while crew members whirled us around.

Exploring the ship proved fun, and on a quieter day at sea, Tino, an Aranui faithful for 30 years, let me onto the freight deck where the smell of copra, colossal containers and front-of-ship views remain a memorable image. En route, stops in Takapoto and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu archipelago and Bora Bora were an opportunity to experience the turquoise lagoons of these low-lying atolls.

This voyage is often called iconic, even unique. And it is. After 13 nights, it’s hard not to feel attached to the ship and companions. With some, you hope it’s au revoir, not goodbye.

Back in rainy Papeete, after dinner at the roulotte food trucks, it emerged my taxi driver Justin hailed from Ua Pou. “If you weren’t leaving, I’d invite you home for a Marquesan family feast,” he said, beaming. I’m not one for fate, but it felt serendipitous to end the trip with another proud Marquesan.

Set Sail

Discover the Marquesas with Aranui

Duration: 11 nights

Where: Papeete | Fakarava | Nuku Hiva | Ua Pou | Ua Huka | Hiva Oa | Tahuata | Fatu Hiva | Rangiroa | Tahiti

Ship: Aranui 5

Price: From €3,021 pp

Find out more
Book Cruise
Published 07.08.22