Last updated on March 13th, 2022
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 and have since returned for a second visit. Here’s a sample 4 days in Nuku Hiva itinerary to help you plan the adventure of a lifetime!
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All places mentioned in this itinerary can be seen on this map. Click on the image to open in Google Maps:
Most accommodations in Nuku Hiva are centered in and around the main village of Taiohae, and most are “pensions” – family-owned and operated guesthouses that range from simple to “less simple” specifically in Nuku Hiva. Your pension stay will most likely be on a half-board basis (breakfast and dinner included) but, if this is not the case, dinner options are available in the village or at the Le Nuku Hiva. It’s best to book well in advance if you have your heart set on a particular spot.
For a luxury stay, Le Nuku Hiva (formerly Keikahanui Pearl Lodge) is currently the only option in Nuku Hiva. This high-end lodge operates tours around the island for its guests. Apart from the majestic views over Taiohae Bay, rooms are modern and there’s a restaurant on site. The lodge also hosts cultural shows on certain nights so inquire if planning to dine as outside guests. Le Nuku Hiva is located on the outskirts of Taiohae on a hill overlooking the bay.
For a pension stay, look no further than to 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. Accommodations consist of basic rooms, some large enough for a family. All units are ensuite, with a cold shower that shouldn’t be an issue with the kind of weather in Nuku Hiva. Wifi is free, with excellent reception throughout the pension, as is filtered water.
The real plus about Pension Koku’u is the warm Marquesan hospitality. Dinners are plentiful and always feature a local flavor, and Alvane and Claudine are great hosts. Alvane spends most of the time with the guests and he’s quite a character. He’s very knowledgeable about the local Marquesan culture and has even performed in several festivals. Alvane also leads the tours around the island and his itinerary is always more encompassing than what others offer. He even took me on an overnight hunting trip during my first visit.
If you stay here, be sure to give the couple a warm hug from Avi (from Israel), and ask Alvane to tell you the interesting story of how his family came to live in Nuku Hiva.
Other options include the Hee Tai Inn, Pension Moana Nui, and Pension Mave Mai. On my return visit, Pension Koku’u was fully booked so I stayed at Mave Mai. I don’t recommend staying here unless you have to as this place lacks a soul, though rooms are air-conditioned. You might also find a few options on Airbnb and Booking.com.
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.
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!
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 or Snack Tematapuaua 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).
Behind the market, a path leads to Tiki Tuhiva. This commanding spot is the former site of Fort Madison, built by the Americans in 1813. Nowadays, it’s a panoramic lookout and a picnic spot from where you’ll get the best views of the village.
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 8 am (that’s right) for a memorable service and lots of food!
Across the road from the cathedral, check out Tohua Temeheah. This ancient ceremonial site. It mixes original findings as well as the work of local sculptures honoring the traditional past.
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?
Here’s a day you won’t want to miss. Today, you’ll explore the enchanting Hakaui Valley and hike to the highest waterfall in French Polynesia. It’s a busy yet unforgettable day.
Book your Hakaui Valley hike with Tangy and Ana from Cannibal Art. Their Hakaui adventure includes a hike to the base of the waterfall followed by a traditional lunch in their home. See the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide for additional options.
Tangy is also a gifted artist and he’ll be happy to show you the basics of his trade. You can purchase exquisite art directly from their website or email Ana with a tailor-made request. Since they live off-the-grid in the valley, get in touch with them online and wait a few days for a response. Every week, the couple hikes to Taiohae to run their errands.
The day begins with a scenic 40-minute boat ride from Taiohae to Hakaui. This is a great chance to admire Taiohae from the bay and to get a close view of exposed cliffs clearly showing millennia of volcanic activity.
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. In the neighboring 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 several streams. 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. Here’s a view of the waterfall both during the wet and dry seasons.
From this lookout, check out the set of cliffs where the burial caves are located. They hide a “secret valley”. There’s a narrow entrance between the cliffs that opens to a hidden valley. Ana and Tangy can take you hiking there if you overnight at their place.
If your tour allows you to hike all the way to the waterfall (waiver required), 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, undercooked, or canceled due to bad weather.
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?