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Les Isles Marquises
The Marquesas Islands

by Chrissi

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These islands are absolutely spectacular. We are finding it very difficult to move on and head west, because the next beautiful bay is just around the corner with promises of new encounters and adventures. We have been here six weeks now, our visas for French Polynesia are only valid for 3 months, not nearly enough time to see and do everything we would many islands, so little time!
Let me try and describe the Isles Marquises that we have visited so far.

After 25 days at sea we were rewarded with the sight of Ua Huka towering up from the seabed into a near perfect cone, majestic and resplendent in the morning light.

Ua Huka

We sailed along the south coast, hoping to anchor in one of the three possible bays, but the swell was big and none of the anchorages looked very safe. The eastern part of the island was tall and mountainous, but the western half had the look of rolling hills and pastures. About the center of the southern coast is a deep bay with a village at the head, but the entrance seemed very narrow and appeared threatening to us after nearly a month of open ocean. Reluctantly we moved on without stopping.

Later that day we arrived in Nuku Hiva, another towering masterpiece jutting up from the ocean floor. These islands are all volcanic, pushed up from the watery depths millions of years ago, polished by wind and weather like precious stones in a jewelers tumbler. There are impossibly shear cliffs all along the windward coast of Nuku Hiva, and deep bays with lush valleys all along the south coast. Hypnotized and mesmerized by the islands beauty, I was knocked out of my stupor by the fishing line bungee stretching out across the cockpit and the alarm bell jangling madly- we had hooked something really big on our trawl line. It turned out to be a mahi-mahi nearly as big as me.

We sailed into Taiohae Bay and anchored beneath the towering mountain peaks. Every direction was something to ooh and aah about- silvery waterfalls, endless green stuff growing, hillsides covered in coconut palms, tattoo’d men with gorgeous long hair paddling past in their outrigger canoes, a peaceful looking quay and numerous flowers spotting the mountains with splashes of color. What the flowers did for the air is nearly indescribable- it was as if every other breath, you were nuzzling the neck of a perfumed goddess.

Taiohae from above

Once ashore we were astounded by the abundance of fruit, it was just dripping like mad from every tree, shrub and bush. I”ve never seen such heavily laden fruit trees in my life! There were limes all over the place, bananas in mass profusion and enormous grapefruit. There were papayas, oranges, breadfruit, pomme cythere, guavas, and lets not forget...coconuts!

just another Papaya tree

There are numerous gardens that grow vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes, green beans and cabbage, and there are root veggies like carrots, radishes, taro and cassava. Great big patches of pumpkin and zucchini can be found along some of the roadsides, and out of season but still in evidence are the sugar apples, mangos, tamarind, and who knows what else. Pigs, goats and chickens are raised locally, even a few cows. We were able to observe the bounty of the surrounding ocean when the fishing boats tied up to the quay to unload their catches. 150 pound groupers were common, eyes all bugged out from a quick accent to the surface. The red snappers were even bigger than the ones we saw in Cuba. There seem to be plenty of a conch-like mollusks with beautiful spiked shells that are harvested from the rocks. The island is like a great big Garden of Eden, without the snakes. Well, there’s no snakes on land anyway. The sea is another story.

Merou - giant groupers

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, these islands were first inhabited by Polynesians sailing from Samoa in 300 or 400 A.D. Back in the 18th century, the Marquesas are said to have supported a population of 60,000 people, according to our cruising guide. Its not hard to imagine so many people living here, it so obviously has ample resources and an infinite supply of fresh water bursting from the mountains and replenished by the frequent rainfall. Now the population is something around 6800. Traces of the earlier Marquesans can be found everywhere. Ancient stone platforms built of massive boulders are widespread throughout the jungle, along rivers, near the waterfalls and in all the valleys. These platforms were once the bases of the dwellings.

marrae - stone platform

Other archeological remains that we saw were some very impressive stone, wood and bone carvings that dated back many centuries (now in the museum) but we also saw many stone tikis in front of buildings and in some of the parks. A tiki is a carved deity, usually wearing a grim or fierce expression, although we saw a smiling tiki along one of the jungle trails we followed. For my birthday, Jack gave me a beautiful bone tiki to wear on my neck.

stone tiki

The Polynesian people are a seafaring people, and are famous for their navigation as well as unique boat designs. The double canoe, or catamaran, is a Polynesian invention. Ancient Polynesians built them 100 to 150 feet long, capable of carrying hundreds of people from one island group to the next, and making month-long journeys.

replica Polynesian catamaran in Nuku Hiva

Their boat designs haven’t changed much over the centuries, except the materials used for hull construction, and perhaps to add an outboard motor to some of the fishing boats. Rain or shine, you can see both men and boys out in the bays in their outrigger canoes, either fishing from the larger more heavy boats or racing each other over the water in sleek and lightweight speed machines.

sport version of outrigger canoes

We were entertained repeatedly by local musicians playing Polynesian music, and on several occasions we were able to watch traditional Marquesan dances, including the “Marquesan pig dance” performed by young men wearing nothing but palm fronds and wielding wooden spears and clubs.

doing the pig dance

We spent more than a month sampling the various treats of Nuku Hiva, including picturesque Anaho Bay and Hatiheu Bay on the north shore, and Daniel’s Bay on the south coast with its magnificent 300 meter waterfall that pours down into the valley.

300m waterfall above Hakatea bay

Ua Pou is approximately 25 miles to the south of Nuku Hiva, we had a quick trip across and anchored in Hakahetau. There is a small village here where we were greeted by laughing children climbing in a pistache tree, tossing down the fruit to their comrades below. Flowers and fruit trees dominate the streets and homesteads, and towering over the town are the gigantic peaks that dominate the Ua Pou skyline.

Ua Pou peaks seen from Hakahetau Bay

A leisurely stroll along muddy roads and trails brought us to one of the highlights of the island,
a beautiful waterfall with a deep pool. The water was very cold, but so magical and inviting that even had it been covered with ice, we still would have gone in for a swim.

Ua Pou waterfall

We had planned a quick stop here in Hakahetau, perhaps two or three days, then sail on to the Tuomotus some 500 miles southwest, but the weather held us up. No great loss, we just took advantage of the delay and explored a little more of Ua Pou.

On the west coast is an uninhabited valley called Hakaotu. The bay is very small with a poor anchoring bottom, but we were well protected from all winds except a westerly, which is uncommon. Here we pilfered the fruits of the abandoned lime trees that grow in mass profusion, some pomme cithere for our breakfast bowls, and a few hot peppers. We found numerous stone platforms overgrown with jungle, some of the platforms had massive trees growing up through the centers, the stones were being swallowed by the tree roots.

Further south is Hakamaii Bay, with a charming village in the valley. we were able to view it from the kayak, but were unable to land due to the heavy swell and surf breaking on the rocky beach.

We sailed to Hakahau on the northeast corner of Ua Pou, and anchored behind the breakwater along with a hand-full of other sailboats. This is the largest town on the island with shops and a bank and all that other civilized stuff. The dual-purpose supply ship that serves these islands paid a visit while we were here. Along with carrying cargo to and fro, it carries passengers as well. Sailing between the Society Islands and the Marquesas, I imagine it’s a very pleasant cruise.

supply and cruise ship

July is a month-long party in French Polynesia. Along with celebrating Bastille Day, the Marquesans have their own July festivities. In all the village or town centers, temporary buildings are set up and elaborately decorated with palm, bamboo, and flowers. In many places the musicians and dancers have been practicing for months to get ready for the parties. We went to the village fetes in both Hakahetau and Hakahau, where there was both traditional and modern music and dancing, and plenty of fun, food and drink.

Best of all that we have seen and done here were the encounters with friendly, beautiful, generous and interesting people, both on Nuku Hiva and on Ua Pou. We made lots of new friends among the sailors, as well as meeting up with some of our friends from previous encounters. There were the women in Ua Pou who helped me gather flowers and make lei’s, young rowdy men intent on drinking themselves silly and forcing beer after beer on Jack, a talented stone carver, generous farmers and land holders, the people on the roads who gave us rides up and down the steep mountains, the doctor in Taiohai and the teacher in Hakahatu who let us raid their fruit trees, the single-handing sailor girl who gave me purple sea urchin spines and the secret to her banana bread recipe, and so many other people that have made our visit here really spectacular.

Never mind that right now the rain is coming down like cats and dogs as we wait for a clear sky and some wind to go sailing. It has given me time to write all this stuff. The clothes I washed yesterday still aren’t dry, but who needs clothes anyway? The numerous gigantic sharks keep us from going snorkeling, that’s a bummer, and after all the hiking along muddy trails, my jeans and sneakers will never be clean again, but so what, we are overdosing on bananas.

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Sailing Traveling in the Marquesas of French Polynesia