Landing in the Marquesas; First Impressions of French Polynesia

Many of my sailing friends are excellent researchers. They read about their upcoming destinations and are forearmed with a knowledge of what they will encounter. My tendency is to have enough knowledge to be prepared for our trip but allow the next harbor to reveal its offerings upon arrival. This way I form my own impressions and I have the delight of a child on Christmas morning – I arrive to an “unknown” destination and have the pleasure of watching the new location unwrap its mysteries. Thus I didn’t have a clear impression of what the Marquesas would look like and offer.

In my mind, I often thought that sailing in the Sea of Cortez felt like we were sailing through a vast desert canyon that happened to have a large sea in the middle. We were surrounded by arid cliffs dotted with cacti and a few tenacious, scrubby plants. We anchored near appealing sandy beaches that offered little in the way of vegetation. How, I wondered, would The Marquesas compare?


Nuku Hiva arose abruptly from the depths of the Pacific Ocean

After more than 2,500 nm of ocean, Nuku Hiva erupted from the Pacific Ocean as a large, mountainous land mass. In contrast to Mexico, Nuku Hiva’s rocky cliffs were draped in an assortment of greenery; low lying ground cover carpeted the jagged heights and a variety of trees interrupted the undulating ground. Gone were the occasional succulent plants, replaced by foliage that clamored skyward with flowers and fruit dotting the branches.

Even the smell was different. The Sea of Cortez, especially in summer, had the smell of heat and dust, but in Nuku Hiva, the scent of plumeria and rich, damp soil wafted on the breeze to our boat. Our senses were assailed by the changes in our location.

Overlooking Taiohae Bay

The Marquesas are the youngest of the five Polynesian Archipelagoes and unlike the majority of the French Polynesian Islands, these islands do not have surrounding fringing reefs. We found the anchorages generally deep and open to the ocean, allowing weather and waves to influence the comfort of our stay. And often dictate the need to find a different bay.

Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva, where we first dropped anchor in the Marquesas, was littered with sailboats because this port is an official check-in point for French Polynesia.  Nuku Hiva is the capital of the Marquesas and in 2017 had a population of just fewer than 3,000.

.After cleaning TTR and clearing into the country, we strolled the main street that boarders the crescent shaped bay and we meandered into “magazins” to see what provisions and fresh foods were available.  Good fortune was with us as we learned that the supply ship carrying fresh vegetables would arrive the following day.  

After strolling the main street and finding our land legs, we met our friends Nan and Doug of s/v Paseo for lunch at the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge. The Lodge is situated on a rise at the northwestern side of the bay and offers a beautiful view of Taiohae Bay. We sat in the open air restaurant, scanning across the swimming pool, into the Bay where we could see Ticket to Ride happily resting on anchor. It was very fun to enjoy someone else’s cooking and swap stories about the crossing with friends who had recently sailed a similar route.

Our friends Bruce and Alene on s/v Migration were due to arrive from Mexico a day or two after us. We looked forward to welcoming them and talking about how closely we traveled, yet were unable to catch glimpses of each other.

Migration finding her dropping spot upon arrival in Nuku Hiva.

Erik, one of our crew, was scheduled to leave TTR soon, so after spending a couple of days checking in, catching up on internet, restocking our fresh food and enjoying sleep without night watches, we upped anchor and moved to Hakatea or Daniel’s Bay.

This soft, dark sandy beach was where we left our dinghy while we hiked.

Hakatea is best known for its hike to the Vaipo Waterfall, which we definitely wanted to make. The hike starts at a very pretty volcanic sand beach where a few local families live and harvest copra (dried coconut from which oil is made) to sell in Tahiti. The beginning of the hike passes the home of a local family who offers lunch to hikers. We had heard the lunch of local fare was excellent so we made our reservations to dine after our trek.

The walk to Vaipo Waterfall meandered along wide tracks and narrow trails.

Erik using a live tree limb to cross a stream.

Sometimes we hopped from rock to rock through dense ground cover and other times we balanced along a low lying tree limb to traverse a stream.

Frank picks his way across layers of of fallen debris.

Most of the time we were in the shade of crisscrossed leaves and vines but always we were angling upward toward the waterfall basin that was our destination.

Four and a half miles along, we walked through thigh high ground cover with a sheer rock face to our left and a glimpse of the waterfall in front of us. We rounded one last group of rocks and there before us was a beautiful pool surrounded by boulders, bright green foliage and a vertical mountainside rising 1,148 feet into the sky, per Wikipedia.

Our first view of the pool near the waterfall.

The pool was glassy calm where we approached it. The base of the waterfall was recessed into the rock wall behind some huge boulders. It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of this area, so look at the same image below with Amelia standing on the sentinel rock to get a better feeling for just how large this cliff is.

Amelia looks very small even though I have zoomed in a little on the camera.

We promptly discarded our shoes, then swam and climbed our way to the other side of the large boulders standing guard before the waterfall. Finally we monkeyed our way into the cavern behind the boulders where we could see and hear the water tumbling somewhere in the recesses of the high, huge cave. (Oops, no waterproof camera, so no photos.)

The fresh water pond was bracingly cool after fording the trail. We spent a long while playing in the darkened hideaway where the sounds of the water cascading into the pool and our voices echoed off of the rock walls. Small fish and 4 inch crawdads swam in the shallows, ready to nibble toes if we were still too long.

The fresh water was refreshing and a fun change from salt water, but in the shaded depths we soon grew chilly, so we made our way back to shore to begin our return hike.

Amelia has a lot of plant knowledge and as we clambered along she taught us about several of the plants we passed.  Some were edible. Others were medicinal. Most were pretty to look at, but a few needed to be avoided. Learning about the plants distracted us from our rumbling stomachs. We were all anxious to try the local fare that waited at the end of our walk.

Frank, MaryGrace and Amelia returning from Vaipo Waterfall – Intent on reaching lunch, Erik was ahead of us.

Simeon and René (I think I have their names correct) served grilled tuna caught that morning, fried ulu (breadfruit), plantains and a bit of cucumber salad, along with passion fruit juice. It was an interesting experience eating at the rustic picnic tables, with smoke from the grill enshrouding our table between breezes, watching several cats scavenge leftovers from the table top next to us as we constantly waved flies off of our food and ourselves. Certainly these were not the health standards found back home, but the food was delicious and it is pretty awesome to know that everything we ate was grown on site or caught just outside the anchorage. One of the original ‘farm to table’ dining experiences. (I have NO idea why I didn’t take pictures of lunch – it was worth photo recording)

The following morning we upped anchor again and continued south and west along Nuku Hiva to a small inlet called Marquisienne Bay (Anse Eua). This small inlet can manage only two boats and we had it to ourselves. The weather was settled so we were able to do some snorkeling, free diving and scuba diving.

The water in the Marquesas is not the gin clear variety you see pictured in Tahiti. Instead the water is teaming with plankton and alive with fish, manta rays, sharks and even some jellyfish and unidentified squiggly things.

We had a couple of really nice experiences in Marquisienne Bay including seeing a “manta train” of about 8 mantas cruising back and forth along a point. We also spied an octopus, which always makes my day.

Interestingly, the Marquesas Islands have a variety of climates on each island. Taiohae Bay, where we made groundfall, is on the southern, rainy, lush side of the island, but it was obvious in Marquisienne Bay that we were getting close to the more western side of the island which garners less rain and is actually a desertlike environment. We would get a much better feeling for the variable climate of Nuku Hiva during our drive to take Erik to the airport.

Marquisienne Bay is less verdant than Taiohae Bay.

Erik’s was scheduled to fly out, so we headed back to Taiohae Bay. We rented a car and drove Erik to the airport on the NW side of Nuku Hiva, Although small, the airport was clean and comfortable with nice people working tiny shops that were only open when airplanes were arriving and departing.

Nuku Hiva airport.

After waving goodbye to Erik, we put the rental car to good use and explored Nuku Hiva. Crisscrossing the island we drove through lush landscape and encountered some dry, parched conditions.

In between, we saw prairie like areas of tall grass where cows and horses grazed, and in the highest altitudes of 4,000 feet, we encountered pines forests!

It was interesting to see the vast difference in climates interspersed with gorgeous views of the ocean, especially when covering an island only 18.6 miles long and 9 miles wide.

Church in Hatiheu Bay.

One thing that we have had to adjust to is the hours of operation for stores and restaurants in French Polynesia. Nuku Hiva was our first island and we had not adjusted to strictness of hours. Unlike the U.S., breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at very specific hours and we missed the lunch window. We had hoped to eat at Chez Yvonne since we had heard it was excellent. Instead we bought soft drinks and a snack which we ate sitting while on the edge of the water, across from the church. No baguettes were available, so we ate peanuts and crackers while looking out over the Hatiheu Bay; because we don’t get ocean views very often! : )

When we arrived in Nuku Hiva, the fuel supplies were depleted but the ship with diesel and gasoline arrived and we wanted to top up the fuel tanks on Ticket to Ride. The fuel dock in Taiohae Bay lacks any protection and we weren’t willing to risk damaging or scratching TTR by tying up to the dock, so instead we rented jerry cans from Fakarava Yacht Services to transport fuel. We made trips between the fuel dock and TTR in the dinghy, filling the jerry cans, then transferring the diesel into our boat tanks. Luckily we hadn’t used much fuel since leaving Mexico and we only needed 75 gallons of diesel which we were able to acquire in just two trips!

Although we were all anxious to move on to our next island, I was very interested in seeing the tattooing event scheduled in Taiohae Bay. The event included tables where traditional Polynesian tattooing was done, Polynesian dance demonstrations were performed and some traditional foods were available for purchase.

Men dancing at the Nuku Hiva Festival.
Polynesian men dancing while women play instruments.

After the festival, Amelia, Frank and I made a final provisioning run to stock up on fresh food before heading to less populated islands of the Marquesas.

One fun fact for those of us who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island, per Wikipedia, “In the Gilligan’s Island episode X Marks the Spot, the Professor gives coordinates for the castaways’ imaginary island that would put it in the outer fringes of the Marquesas group.” 

We may be overlapping with some Gilligan’s Island trivia, but we have NO desire to offer three hour tours much less end up stranded on some remote island. Visit remote islands? Absolutely! We are so lucky to do so. But get stranded on one? Nah, we prefer to skip that!!

Thanks so much for reading our blog. We would love to hear your thoughts through the comment section. Wishing you good health and fun adventures.

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