The Marquesas: Islands That Time Forgot

Have you ever wished you could have visited Hawaii just after cannibalism and before tourism? If you venture a bit farther out into the Pacific, you can do just that. A remote yet accessible cluster of pristine gems called the Marquesas is just waiting to be discovered. Almost nobody goes there, but with a little effort and an adventurous spirit, you can transport yourself to this unspoiled Bali Hai.

Galapagos Evolution
The Evolution takes travelers up-close to the animals in the Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Think of the evocative paintings of Gauguin, who in 1901 ventured there and remained until his death. Not much has changed since. These lush islands are matted by dense jungle snaking up steep volcanic outcrops and plunging into unexplored crevasses. Silvery beaches are vacant except for local children and fisherman. Very little has been done to accommodate tourists, but all are welcomed.

Poverty is nonexistent because the residents are citizens of France, which provides teachers and medical personnel to run the schools and clinics. Houses are simple but have electricity, satellite television and internet. Imported canned goods and frozen food are expensive. Fruit grows in abundance, and they have goats, cows, chickens and vegetable gardens.

Most visitors arrive by private boat. Some are awesome yachts, but the majority are sailboats with adventurous families aboard who sailed through the Panama Canal, provisioned in the Galapagos and then traversed 4,000 miles of the Pacific. We joined friends from France who invited us to explore the islands with them. Though there are no curated trips or fancy brochures, you can travel in the wake of Herman Melville and Thor Heyerdahl by following a few hints.

The head of the smiling Tiki found on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas symbolizes power and his eyes knowledge. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

The fastest option is to fly to Papeete, Tahiti, and then transfer to an Air Tahiti Beechcraft ATR headed toward Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa over 800 miles of open ocean. Travel light, because the weight limit is 50 pounds. Carrying more costs the same as buying another ticket on the plane due to the strict weight-and-balance requirements — which explains why a sold-out plane has empty seats.

Get a window seat for three hours of breathtaking views — from the doughnut-shaped atolls of the Tuamotus to the turquoise oasis of Bora-Bora alone in a cerulean sea. After landing on the narrow plateau, you will be greeted at the “airport” by locals bedecked with floral wreaths and leis. An informal taxi will take you to any accessible part of the island.

Other travelers arrive on cruise ships that stop for a few hours several times a year or on the Aranui 5, a freighter that makes the two-week trek from Tahiti 17 times a year. This modern ship carries passengers along with trucks, appliances and pallets of provisions before being reloaded with copra — dried coconut before the oil is extracted — fruit, fish, mail and people headed for other islands. You can’t stay more than a few hours unless you book accommodations until the freighter returns or depart by plane.

There are only two small hotels in the island chain: the Hanakee Pearl Lodge on Hiva Oa and the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge on Nuka Hiva. Both offer the security of restaurants, pools, air conditioning and organized excursions. Step out of your comfort zone by staying in one of Airbnb’s economical listings in villagers’ homes. A few yachties rent small cabins and offer the opportunity to swim in the tropical waters, snorkel with the manta rays, sail to other islands and visit settlements only accessible by sea.

Rent a car — with or without a driver — to explore the islands with peaks in the clouds and winding roads to deserted beaches. Or hire a horse and ride hidden trails with magnificent views at every turn. Channel your inner Indiana Jones and discover ancient petroglyphs, Tikis — with the supernatural powers of mana — and stone temples where human sacrifices were performed that are now guarded by massive banyan trees and voracious insects. (Insect repellant and soothing lotions are necessities!) Hike the ancient royal road and traverse shallow rivers into Nuku Hiva’s Edenlike valley, where Vaipo, the highest waterfall in Polynesia, cascades from basalt pinnacles.

Tattoos originated here, and the hallmark geometric designs that were prohibited by the missionaries adorn most of the men. The artists offer their services to visitors. There are a few markets as well as craftsmen who invite you to their homes, where you can purchase exquisite jewelry fashioned from bone or shell, handmade ukuleles, wooden bowls, paddles and carved Tikis.

Try to be there July 14 — French Independence Day — for the drumming and dance contests between the villages. For us, the highlight was the selection a “prom” king and queen, their bodies glistening with coconut oil and festooned with freshly woven leaves and flowers. Although you will be invited to join the feast, none of this is done for tourists; it’s part of an effort to preserve their traditions.

Bastille Day celebrations in the Marquesas include choosing the King and Queen of Ua Pou. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Once only available to the most stalwart of seamen, the Marquesas still hold the magical enchantment that lured early explorers. Through proud and vigilant guardianship, these islanders offer the intrepid traveler a peek at a primeval landscape, which continues one of the planet’s most idyllic cultural heritages.


Air Tahiti:

Aranui Freighter:

Pearl Lodges:

Marquesas video by Emmy-award winning Philip Courter: