A glance at a globe or world map will show you that French Polynesia's Marquesas Islands are a long way from Tahiti and the other Society Islands—and a long way from anywhere else, for that matter. They lie about 875 mi/1,400 km northeast of Papeete.
The Marquesas are quite different from French Polynesia's busy tourist spots. The geography is more rugged—sharp peaks shooting up from the ocean with waves crashing into the cliffs. Culturally, the islands have their own native language (in addition to French), and Marquesan artisans continue to be the most accomplished at traditional practices such as tattooing, wood carving and making tapa cloth. The islands also preserve the past in several important archaeological sites, the most interesting ones in French Polynesia.
You don't have to be an adventurer to go to the Marquesas. There are comfortable hotels on Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, and several acceptable guesthouses. The scenery on Hiva Oa is lovely, but Nuku Hiva has more to offer the sightseer.
A visit to these islands is more about culture and history than recreation and relaxation (the tiny, biting flies called no-nos turn most beaches into places of misery). Visitors should also be prepared to make a long and expensive trip from Tahiti and to be immersed in the French language. Those who don't speak French can get by at the big hotels or on an escorted tour, but will struggle to communicate elsewhere.
Just south of Hiva Oa is the island of Tahuata. It has a small village and several historic sites. Tahuata was one of the first places in Polynesia visited by Europeans. Spaniards arrived in 1595 and promptly killed several hundred islanders.
Quite a distance off to the southeast is Fatu Hiva, which can only be reached by boat. It's renowned for its crafts and is one of the only places in French Polynesia where tapa (decorated cloth made from tree bark) is still produced.
If you have the time (about 14 days) and the money, we strongly recommend that you see the islands aboard the freighter Aranui 5. The ship departs from Tahiti and stops at six islands in the Marquesas along with two in the Tuamotus. It's a working ship that delivers goods to the islands, but it caters to tourists as well. There are a range of cabins, good food and organized shore trips. The boat departs about once every three weeks throughout the year. You'll need to book your passage well in advance, because this is a popular trip and space is limited. Phone 650-574-2575. Toll-free 800-972-7268. http://www.aranui.com.
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