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The Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific

There is a legend among the Polynesians that the gods created the Marquesas Islands to be the roof

of French Polynesia. Few people get to this part of the South Pacific because it is almost 1,000 miles from the Island of Tahiti and the most remote island chain in the world.


If you do plan to visit the Marquesas Islands, which consists of 12 islands with only of them six inhabited, the best way to do it is by sea. 



A voyage on the combined freighter/passenger ship Aranui 5 ( is one of the best ways to see the Marquesas Islands, and one of the most authentic. For 50 years, food and essentials have been delivered to the Marquesas by an Aranui ship, and for the past 30 years, passengers too. 


Along the journey, the freighter is unloading supplies from the front of the ship at various islands. On my first trip aboard, the boat was unloading a casket for a chief who didn’t end up dying, as well as quite a few cars, electronics, foods and other provisions. 


The passenger’s area and the staterooms in the back of the ship include amenities such as a small gym, pool and gift shop.


While there are passengers onboard for the entire journey, you will also find passengers who are island hopping. These guests sleep in the ship’s dorm area or even on the deck. 


The guides who take passengers on tours are knowledgeable, and you can expect to see plenty of churches, small villages, ceremonial sites and even old tikis and rock carvings. Excursions range from hiking to fishing, to learning about local village life or trying the local food.


The route of the Aranui 5 includes a stop on the island of Fakarava, which is not part of the Marquesas Archipelago, but a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the second largest atoll in French Polynesia. You can discover the small village of Rotoava where there is a church built of coral. Here you will also find good swimming and snorkeling in a translucent lagoon.



When the ship reaches the Marquesas, you will visit the island of Nuku Hiva where you can take day-long excursions in 4×4’s to the archaeological site Mea’e Kamuihei, featuring an abundance of petroglyphs. From there you might want to hike to nearby Paeke to see what are called paepae; immense stone platforms. 


On many occasions the locals perform the traditional Marquesan Pig Dance and a meal here might include the use of an “Umu,” an underground oven where food is cooked for hours. 


The village of Hatiheu also offers a look at copies of local petroglyphs from areas of the islands that are mostly unexplored.


On the island is Taiohae, with a scenic bay and a giant volcanic amphitheater towered over by cliffs streaked with waterfalls at every turn. This bay is also where the 23-year-old Melville, a then sailor, boarded a whaling ship in 1842. 


On the island of Ua Pou, your first glimpse from the ship’s approach will be large mountain spires. The village of Hakahau is home to a church featuring a hand-carved wooden dais. You can opt to hike up the hill to the cross for a panoramic view of the mountains and the valleys. 


The Bird Dance is a traditional dance on this island, and the locals love to share it with guests A meal will feature breadfruit, a Marquesan staple; curried goat, a Marquesan special; poisson cru, which is raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, taro and sweet red bananas.


On the island of Hiva Oa, you will find Atuona, the second largest village in Marquesas. This is where Gauguin lived and painted some of his most popular work. Here you can visit a colonial store and a replica of his infamous “House of Pleasure” and the adjoining museum. There is also a cemetery at the top of the hill with great views of the harbor. If you look you will find Gauguin’s grave under a frangipani tree where the tombstone simply reads, “Paul Gauguin 1903.” 


On the return trip, you will stop in Hiva Oa a second time and discover Puamau, traveling by 4WD to the most incredible archaeological site for “tikis” located outside Easter Island. You will hear stories of ancient times, but even today these haunting statues will make you feel what the Polynesians call “mana” or spiritual power. 


You won’t want to miss when the freighter anchors off the small island of Tahuata, a leaf-shaped island where the air is fresh with whiffs of tiare and frangipani. Centuries ago, Spanish explorers landed in the village of Vaitahu and opened fire on a crowd of curious islanders here, killing about 200 in 1595. The French also had a settlement here, the first in the Marquesas in 1842. The church you will visit was built by the Vatican with Marquesan carvings and a stained-glass window.


Lush by any standard, the island of Fatu Hiva’s main village is Omoa where you will find women pounding mulberry, banyan or breadfruit tree bark on logs. The bark is dried and used as a canvas where locals paint ancient Marquesan designs. There are also hand-painted pareos (sarongs) and monoi, coconut oil infused with “Tiare Tahiti” blossoms, vanilla or sandalwood. On this island is the stunning Hanavave Bay, also called the Bay of Virgins. 


Ua Huka island offers a stunning arrival in a small bay. There is a small museum with replicas of Marquesan art and you might also visit the arboretum and botanical garden there.


On the Marquesas Archipelago you will learn about the culture in this area of the world, see the fierce independence and friendliness of a group of people happy to share their part of the world.

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