French Polynesia’s second largest island will simply leave you lost for words. Nuku Hiva in the distant Marquesas Islands is wildly beautiful beyond imagination, with a unique language, rich ancient history and a landscape fit for a Hollywood movie set. With this kind of beauty, do not expect to recharge your batteries in this island. Nuku Hiva is action packed with incredible hikes, scenic road trips, archeological sites and plenty more to tire you out. I spent 5 days in Nuku Hiva while backpacking across the South Pacific Islands. Here’s a sample 4 days in Nuku Hiva itinerary to help you plan the adventure of a lifetime!
Here’s a quick teaser of what expects those who make it all the way to Nuku Hiva!
Traveling to other islands in French Polynesia? Here are the best ones!
4 Days In Nuku Hiva Itinerary Map
Where To Stay?
You’ll no doubt base yourself in the main village of Taiohae, where you’ll find family-owned pensions and a couple of hotels. If you’re looking for something on the authentic side, I totally recommend Pension Koku’u. Hosts Alvane, Claudine and their family live in a simple home on a hill overlooking Taiohae Bay, just a 15-minute walk from the center of the village. As you’ll see in this Nuku Hiva sample itinerary, Alvane was one of the main reasons this island ranks way up on my list. Read a full review of Pension Koku’u in the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide.
Day 1: Scenic Drive & Exploring Taiohae
Your 3+ hour flight from Tahiti will arrive around noon, landing in the remote northwestern side of the island known as ‘desert land’. Your friendly pension hosts should be waiting for you with their 4X4 and off you go on the most scenic airport-to-town ride you’ll ever have.
A Scenic Drive From The Airport
The 75-minute ride from the airport to the main village of Taiohae will leave you speechless if you aren’t already lost for words from the view during landing. Your driver will stop along the sharp ridgeline for a great view of Nuku Hiva’s version of the ‘Grand Canyon’. Are you impressed by now?
Your 4X4 will then snake its way up the mountain, passing endless pine-covered forests reaching for the sky. Watch out for wild horses and cattle on the road, and waterfalls cascading from the surrounding mountains.
At last, you’ve reached the top of the Toovii Plateau. The view from up here will no doubt raise some doubts about whether you’ve actually landed on the right island. This fertile plateau is much cooler than the usual tropical heat, so green and so ‘Swiss-like’.
There’s only one way to go from up here, and that’s twisting and turning down to the plateau and descending from its southern end towards Taiohae.
A few more hair razing kilometers and this perfectly shaped bay finally comes into view. “Holy cow” is the first thing coming to mind, and yeap – that’s Taiohae down there, where you’ll be spending the next 4-5 nights!
Walking Around Taiohae
All unpacked in your pension, put on your walking shoes and walk to town. Taiohae is the capital of the Marquesas Islands, but it’s hardly a stressful place. With just a few streets and a whole lot of colorful tropical flowers, it’s the perfect place to base yourself.
Head to the beach, a perfectly crescent patch of black sand. With lush mountains wrapping around the back, and dozens of yachts waiting for the cyclone season to pass in the bay – this little village is as picturesque as they come.
Down by the main quay, stop at Cafe Vaeaki for a cold beer or something small to eat, and say hi to all the yachties passing the time thanks to the free wifi. Across from you, locals will probably be tossing their fishing lines with the (sure) hope of catching something for tonight.
A few steps away, peek inside the fruit & vegetable market if it’s still open and pop into the artisan market for some shopping. The Marquesas Islands are the best place in French Polynesia for anything fashioned from wood or rock. Local islanders are among the best carvers in the South Pacific, and this is a great opportunity to buy a few lasting memories from paradise (cash only).
Before heading back, stop by the Notre Dame Cathedral. Taiohae’s main church looks like something out of a fairytale, or at least an episode of Game Of Thrones. If you just happen to be in Nuku Hiva on Sunday, don’t forget to join the entire village at 8am (that’s right) for a memorable service and lots of food!
Dinner & Stars
Walk back to your pension and enjoy a delicious dinner. I bet some form of red tuna is on the menu! As for dessert, how about millions of stars in the night sky?
Day 2: Hakatea Bay & Hike To Vaipo Waterfall
Here’s a day you won’t want to miss. To see the highest waterfall in French Polynesia, get in touch with Thiery Tekuataoa (+689-87791969 Skype:tht1966) or with Tangy and Ana from Cannibal Art. Thierry offers straightforward day hikes into the valley while Tangy and Ana can also arrange multi-day camping trips.
The “normal” day trip begins with a scenic 40-minute boat ride to Hakatea Bay. Out at sea, you’ll be treated to sublime views of Taiohae Bay and the exposed sea cliffs – clearly showing layer upon layer of ancient volcanic history.
Hakatea Bay & Hakaui Valley
As you enter Hakatea Bay, you might find yourself lost for words. The bay hides a beautiful white sand beach, welcoming local fishermen returning from a night at sea. Out in the Hakaui Valley, the signature basaltic cliffs of Nuku Hiva run deep, hiding the waterfall somewhere in there. That’s for you to find, so let’s go!
You’ll enter the thick rainforest and walk the length of the valley along the ancient royal road, crossing a number of rivers. The valley was once home to thousands of islanders, with only stone platforms left centuries after their departure, now overrun by magnificent mape trees.
A few kilometers later, a clearing in the forest will finally reveal the 350-meter high Vaipo Waterfall – a marvelous sighting, totally worth the endless battles with the mosquitos.
You’ll continue walking inside the creek until reaching a swimming pool at the base of the waterfall. From here, it’s back to the beach and back on the boat to cap off a memorable day. Have a look at the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide for full logistical information. I highly recommend booking this for your first full day in Nuku Hiva as tours might be: fully booked, underbooked or canceled due to bad weather.
Drinks & Live Music
And how shall you celebrate such a fine day? Head to the ‘market snack’ for some drinks and great food. If you’re lucky, there might even be a live band playing traditional tunes. Can you please ask them to play my absolute favorite song from French Polynesia?
Day 3: Taiohae To Anaho Road Trip & Hike
Yet another busy day in Nuku Hiva but hey, you don’t come all the way out here to relax on the beach (the sand flies will kill you anyway). If you’re staying at Pension Koku’u like I was, Alvane will take you to explore the eastern side of Nuku Hiva, probably the prettiest part of the island.
Hop into the 4X4 and off you go on yet another scenic drive in Nuku Hiva (hint: they all are). As you descend from the Toovii Plateau to the eastern side of the island, you’ll feel once again teleported to distant Europe, this time perhaps the Norwegian Fiordland. In front of you is Comptroller Bay and behind you, the Taipivai Valley.
It can’t get any better than this, can it? Wait and see.
Drive down to the valley and check out the huge complex where the legendary Marquesas Arts Festival is held once every five years. Showcasing the rich history of the islands, this complex is inspired by ‘the good old days’, with rocky platforms and intricate sculptures made by the island’s finest. You can even head up the hill to check out the Paeke archeological site, but we’ll be seeing more impressive sites in that department later in the day.
Hatiheu Bay & Village
From the valley, break through the mountain pass and tumble down to Hatiheu Bay. I think it’s safe to say the panoramic views from up here top those we just saw a few kilometers earlier. What do you think?
Snake your way down to Hatiheu Village and stroll through ‘main street’, home to more tiki statues than residents. Nothing much happens here aside from copra production and the Catholic church, which you should totally step inside to check out.
The village does have one trick up its sleeve. Its black sand beach backed by the basaltic cliffs we just admired from atop, is one of the most iconic Nuku Hiva shots you can take. Here’s a little hint for you: it’s at its full glory during low tide. Funny enough, locals somehow hoisted a statue of the Virgin Mary to the top of the cliffs back in 1872. Must have been one sweaty task!
Hike To Anaho Bay
Most island tours finish off at Hatiheu, but if you were smart enough to go with Alvane, the fun is just beginning. Not too far from the center of the village, you’ll hit the trailhead to Anaho Bay. You can hike this on your own if you’re exploring Nuku Hiva with a set of wheels (check out the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide for more info on that).
The hike begins with a climb to the mountain pass, where you’ll catch your first glimpse of this magical bay. I told you, the views just keep getting better and better.
When you’ve gathered enough strength to leave this beautiful spot, begin your descent to the beach. Surprisingly, a small number of families actually live out here in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t any startups or factories in Anaho, just making copra from the bazillion coconut trees that wildly grow here.
The beach is great for swimming, with one end having the only reef in Nuku Hiva and the other end perfect for those who like to ride waves (be careful though). It’s the perfect spot for a picnic lunch (which you must bring with you) and for layering on the monoi oil to keep those nasty nono away (sand flies).
Before the inevitable rain moves in, head back to the carpark and begin the slow ride back to Taiohae. The fun isn’t over yet, I told this would be a busy day.
Hikokua Archeological Site
As you exit Hatiheu, you’ll stop at four archaeological sites. They are among the most impressive sites in all of French Polynesia, matched only by those of neighboring Hiva Oa and easily eclipsing those of Raiatea, Huahine and the likes.
The first complex is the Hikokua site. Dating back to the 13th century, this was essentially a large ‘town square’ where the valley’s former residents (estimated in the thousands) used to gather for large ceremonies.
Have a stroll around the complex and inspect the ancient statues from up close. Can you imagine who carved these out? Some depict polygamy and some even depict human sacrifice. Speaking of that, don’t miss the ancient human sacrifice stone. If you’re not sure how it was used, Alvane will show you how, with the help of a brave volunteer (me in this case).
When he’s done simulating your sacrifice, he’ll welcome you to Nuku Hiva with a traditional haka dance. Alvane is not only a great tour guide, but he also dances in the Marquesas Arts Festival.
You could theoretically come here on your own, but isn’t it worth going with Alvane just for the dance?
Kamuihei, Tahakia and Teiipoka
Before heading back home, stop at the next three complexes which are pretty much joined together. Kamuihei, Tahakia and Teiipoka are totally eerie sites, especially just before sunset. Stroll amongst the giant banyan trees (at least 600 years old), petroglyphs and ancient tiki statues.
Logistics for this long day: you’ll leave at around 9am and return before 6pm, just in time for dinner. The hike to Anaho Beach takes about 90 minutes return. Bring with you: a packed lunch, lots of water, monoi oil, hat, swimwear, waterproof sandals and a change of clothes. Lots more info in the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide.
Day 4: Hunting, Hiking Or Horseback Riding
On the last day of this 4 days in Nuku Hiva itinerary, you’re faced with a few options. Those with sore feet can go horseback riding in the Toovii plateau, only to return with a sore back. Horseback riding is super popular in the Marquesas but keep in mind that you can also do this in Hiva Oa (like I did).
Hikers can head to Colette Bay on a do-it-yourself hike in the next bay over from Taiohae, or hire a guide and try the arduous Big Z. See the ‘hiking and excursions’ section for more info.
Those really looking to get off the beaten track (not that anything in the Marquesas is ‘on’ the beaten track), can do what every Marquesan man dreams of doing every day – chasse. That means hunting!
Hunting In The Marquesas Islands
Despite the infamous case of one unlucky German tourist murdered while on a hunting trip in Nuku Hiva, you can trust that islanders will take excellent care of you. If in doubt, go with Alvane! Totally resembling Hugo Chavez, Alvane simply loves taking adventurous tourists to his family’s valley (that’s right), way out in the northern part of the island not too far from the airport.
Hunting is a way of life in the Marquesas, and the animals killed will feed family and guests for months. The most interesting (and difficult) catch is the goat, which we were on the hunt for. After having some goat in coconut milk for dinner at the pension, I could totally see why hunters spend sometimes a full week in the middle of nowhere in search of one or two catches.
Alvane and I actually went on a memorable overnight hunting trip, spending the night in a rustic shack by the beach. You can read more about it in this post I published from Nuku Hiva, but feel free to just go for the day.
Logistics: hunting isn’t for everybody and you really need to like the outdoors to enjoy this (and have no issues with killing animals, of course). Your host will tell you what to bring, but nonetheless, I strongly suggest bringing: waterproof hiking shoes, long pants, light rain gear and plenty of strong mosquito repellent.
Lots More Information Awaits You
This sample 4 days in Nuku Hiva itinerary is action-packed, but honestly – Nuku Hiva seems to tap into those extra energy reserves we all have.
For more information, tips and tricks about Nuku Hiva – check out the complete Nuku Hiva Travel Guide. Traveling to other islands in French Polynesia? Start your reading with French Polynesia Travel Guide, where you’ll also find similar travel guides to 11 islands in French Polynesia!
Found this itinerary useful? Have any questions? Leave a comment and feel free to share your own tips!