Last updated on March 9th, 2022
The Marquesas Islands have already grown on me after five memorable days in Nuku Hiva. But all good things must come to an end, so on the 11th and final island we’ll explore in French Polynesia, there will be absolutely no constraints. Anything is possible over the next five days. Hiva Oa is another Marquesan island that captivates you just from the sound of its name. With jungle covered peaks, bay after bay of hidden villages where time stands still and ancient statues the size of NBA superstars – Hiva Oa simply cannot be missed! So let’s cap off six months in the South Pacific Islands with a big bang. Shall we?
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Hiva Oa is the third biggest island in French Polynesia, right after its big sister to the north – Nuku Hiva. In an island so beautifully sculpted over millions of years by volcanic activity, there’s hardly anyone here. Only 3,000 people call this place home – and boy are they friendly! Some live in remote villages that are only accessible by boat or a treacherous mountain road. We’ll visit some of these folks so hang on to that thought.
Of the many foreign guests that were drawn to the magic of Hiva Oa, none are as famous as French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel. Once they arrived to the island, they just couldn’t leave…
I arrived in Hiva Oa on a quick flight from Nuku Hiva, thinking about what Alvane is up to today. My thoughts of Nuku Hiva were quickly replaced with excitement, as the plane made landfall over Hiva Oa. Is this place for real? I can’t wait to get down there!
We flew over endless cliffs and bays that looked like somewhere in Europe before humans arrived. The pilot then swung the plane straight over a deep valley… did he have too much to drink?
The small ATR then began its final descent over a jungle-covered plateau. This is the only flat piece of land on Hiva Oa, so there’s no choice but to build the runway here. It had to have been one of the most exciting landings I’ve ever experienced, definitely a candidate for the world’s scariest runways.
I was greeted at the airport by Tania, the owner of Pension Kanahau. The constant smile on her face and that contagious laugh light up every room she enters, even a small airport terminal. I’ll never forget this. Tania worked in the tourism industry on other islands, before realizing she could do it better than anyone else. We hopped into her a 4X4, the island’s prime necessity, and rode along the coastal cliffs to her pension – perched up on a hill.
Of all the lovely pensions I got to visit in French Polynesia, Tania’s place wins the top prize for panoramic views. The picturesque port, the lush mountains, and even the distant Tahuata island – all seem to be within arm’s reach.
Even with this gorgeous view, it’s time to check out Hiva Oa’s main village – Atuona. The village sits in a small stretch of flatland at the edge of a valley, squeezed between a black sand beach and a semicircle of cloud-covered peaks. You might be getting tricked into thinking you’re somewhere in the Swiss Alps, that is until you’re soaked in sweat after only a few minutes of walking.
Atuona is one of the prettiest and most tranquil villages in the South Pacific. The word ‘stress’ simply doesn’t exist in the local lexicon. Tropical flowers and fruits in season are just the norms along the main street. Just help yourself and grab a snack for later.
Though I’m by no means an art lover, I recalled seeing the exotic paintings of Paul Gauguin in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, so I just had to visit the legend’s museum. Gauguin settled in Hiva Oa in the 1890s after a stint in Tahiti, with the hopes of ‘getting lost’ and being able to focus on art. He depicted the daily life of Tahitians and Marquesans, contributing to the global fascination with this exotic distant land.
From one artist to another, I crossed the street and headed inside a hangar that houses Jacque Brel’s famous airplane – Jojo. The man responsible for so many romances, breakups and everything in between, came to Hiva Oa in search of a life as an ordinary man. He became a true part of the local landscape, even using Jojo for local medical evacuations.
To complete the celebrity pilgrimage, I headed up the hill to the Calvaire Cemetery. In Hiva Oa, even the deceased are rewarded with eternal panoramic views. The cemetery is the final resting spot for village locals, former missionaries and of course – Brel and Gauguin.
Much like Jim Morrison’s grave at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Brel’s is a mecca for fans. A very heavy smoker, he died at the age of 49 from cancer.
Friendly host? Check! Great view? Check! But what about the food? Turns out that Tania is quite the cook, hitting all the right taste buds. Tuna was usually on the menu – and that’s perfectly fine by me. In fact, Tania makes delicious poisson cru. I’ve been bragging a lot about French Polynesia’s national dish in just about every post, so Tania was awesome enough to share with us her secret recipes. Here’s your very own PDF copy to print and prepare! Tama’a maita’i (that means bon appetit in Tahitian).
Tania’s desserts were always delicious, but nature’s version cannot be beaten. From my balcony, I could see the Milky Way right over my head. I haven’t seen it since that magical week in Ofu Island in American Samoa. There were millions of stars over my head, and millions of mosquitoes and lizards trying to get into my room. The tropics aren’t a place for softies.
The next morning, I headed down to the port, where I met Pifa O’connor – my guide for the day. Pifa also doubles as a fireman and speaks excellent English after studying in Hawaii. But what’s the deal with that last name? O’Connor ain’t exactly Polynesian… It turns out that his great-great-grandfather escaped the Great Famine in Ireland and somehow made it here.
Pifa arranged for a fishing boat to take a bunch of us across the 4-kilometer channel to neighboring Tahuata Island. We were escorted out of the port by a family of manta rays; haven’t seen those since Maupiti Island. We then crossed Ta’a Oa Bay, which is actually the ocean-filled crater of an extinct volcano. Without the protection of a coral reef around us, even a calm day at sea was pretty rough. The views were totally worth it though!
The scenery around us of sea cliffs pounded hard by the ocean, made it all look like we’re somewhere in England or Ireland. Such are the Marquesas Islands; every island is like a package of totally diverse nature from the four corners of the globe.
After a 40-minute boat ride, we entered the tiny harbor of Hapatoni Village. About 100 people live in this picturesque village, mainly living off fishing, copra production and hunting. There are no shops, no internet but they do have a payphone…
We marched along ‘main street’, saying hello to the resident piglet and listening to Pifa, as he enlightened us with knowledge about all that’s growing around us. There was of course the tiare flower – used for fragrance and monoi oil, wild hibiscus – which believe it or not can be used as antiseptic if no dentist is around, noni – with its disgusting smell (like blue cheese) but miraculous ability to cure illness, corosol – a spiky yet perfect fruit for jams, and last but not least the tamanu – whose oil is perfect for massages and insect bites.
Under the shade of one of the 200-year-old tamanu trees, a local artist was busy carving a traditional paddle made from rosewood. It will take him two full days to complete, after which it will be put up for sale in the local market or shipped off to Tahiti. Marquesans are among the best carvers in the country. We popped next door to the artisan market to see some more things we all wanted to buy. There were weapons fashioned from bones (not human), jewelry and sandalwood figurines – a very rare tree that’s practically been eradicated on other islands.
Our village tour finished off with a visit to the local church. It’s been around since 1877 and is barely large enough to fit all the villagers. As we waited for the boat to come to pick us up, Pifa played a few tunes on the ukulele as we treated ourselves to some freshly picked grapefruit. He’s got a great voice for a fireman…
Back on the boat, we sailed for another twenty minutes before seeing a break of white sand among all the rocky cliffs. Could this be our lunch stop? The boat slowed down as it entered the calm bay. As we neared the beach, a tiny rowboat headed towards us. Is this our ride? Oh God! We all somehow made it into that tiny boat. Welcome to Hanamoenoa Bay, time for lunch!
As Pifa and the guys prepped the BBQ lunch, we had the chance to explore the surroundings and go for a dip. There’s nothing exciting to report in terms of snorkeling, but it’s such a beautiful spot.
Lunch was served in classic Polynesian picnic fashion, complete with: tuna steaks, coconut rice, and the quintessential poisson cru (in case you missed it earlier, here’s the recipe for the Tahitian ‘national dish’). It always amazes me just how good the locals are when it comes to picnics in the middle of nowhere.
Dessert included freshly baked brownies and more ukelele tunes by Pifa, as we all snoozed a bit before getting back on that tiny rowboat. Back at the port, locals were fishing off the pier – using special rods with multiple hooks. With a bit of luck, they would pull six small mackerels that would be sold to the yachties as bait for when they’re fishing at sea for the big stuff. Not a bad business.
The next morning saw the arrival of the famous Aranui – a cargo ship that also doubles as a luxury liner. It was a busy morning down at the port, with passengers disembarking for a few hours on land and freight offloaded. I watched all this commotion from the comforts of my balcony, with a pot of fresh morning coffee.
I then went to meet Paco at his ranch just outside the village. Paco is one of the most respected horsemen in French Polynesia. The plan? Explore the island on horseback – one of the top things to do in Hiva Oa. The problem? Heavy rain! As a French couple decided to call it quits, an experienced Belgian rider and I decided to take our chances. Weather is so unpredictable over here, and it can go both ways.
Our gamble worked! The skies quickly cleared up and it turned out to be a beautiful day. Never give up! Paco paired me with Ottawan, a horse named after the Canadian capital city. Off we went into the forest, always accompanied by Paco’s hunting dogs.
Our first stop offered beautiful panoramic views of Atuona and its bay. We then continued along the ridge deeper over the valley, just as the Air Tahiti flight was approaching the nearby runway with more fresh faces getting ‘wowed’ onboard.
We then ventured deep into the rainforest, slippery and muddy from all the recent rain. Though Paco said it was nothing for them, I felt Ottawan struggling a bit – but that’s because I’m such a terrible rider. There were steep climbs, slippery descents and lots of fallen branches to watch out for. I tell you, riding a horse is not as easy as it looks. I really can’t understand how Clint Eastwood could ride one as if it were a motorcycle. I was kind of glad when we made it back to the ranch. Farewell Ottawan – my back and a$$ are killing me!
The fun wasn’t over with such clear skies. Before a father/daughter team had to catch their flight, Tania packed us into her car and took us to Taaoa Bay. The short ride from town is a scenic one, driving along the cliffs and looking back towards the village and the hills. At some point, it smelled like rotten eggs. Tania explained that it’s sulfur we’re smelling, caused by an underwater volcano that lies somewhere in the ocean between Hiva Oa and the island of Fatu Hiva – some 90 km’s away. In a few million years, a brand new island will rise to the surface!
Taaoa Village marks the end of the paved road. There’s a beautiful church (of course) that’s actually one of the most photographed in French Polynesia. We met Tania’s friends who had just finished peeling a few Hinano leaves. Hinano is not just the name of the national beer, but also of a plant that gives off a long-lasting fragrance. It’s used by locals to keep clothes smelling fresh in the closet. Polynesians have a natural solution for everything.
We then dropped the guests off at the airport and Tania dropped me off at the village of Hanaiapa for the start of the hike down to Hanatekuua Bay. Tania showed me the hidden trailhead, and off I went on one of the best hikes in the South Pacific.
Wildflowers and wild goats greeted me right from the start. This is a prime hunting spot for locals, and the goats know this all too well. After a quick ascent up a hill, I could appreciate the beauty of Hanaiapa Bay – so deep and encircled by impenetrable mountains.
As I continued along, I spotted a waterfall cascading straight into the ocean. I haven’t seen something like this since Mcway Waterfall in Big Sur, California. I grabbed a seat on some rock and enjoyed the view along with a grapefruit that Tania packed in my bag. It’s so pretty and there’s nobody here.
A few kilometers later, I could swear I saw a mirage – a dreamlike bay of the brightest of blue wrapped by cliffs that keep it a secret. I can see a few people down on the white sand beach as if stranded there for years. Could this be Hanatekuua Bay? Let’s get down there and have a look for ourselves.
Down at the beach, my feet were sinking into the soft sand with every step. The scene was taken straight out of a movie – exotic carefree locals catching tiny crabs washed ashore with every breaking wave. The crabs would then be gently placed in a small basket woven from palm leaves – a local delicacy, to be only sprinkled with lime and eaten raw.
After getting crushed by the waves, I went to have a chat with the locals. I must say my French has greatly improved in the last three months in French Polynesia. There was grandma, her daughter, her son, his cousin and their girlfriends. Turns out the palm trees just behind the beach is their copra plantation.
They spend a few nights a week living and working out here. It’s mighty hard work: picking up the coconuts, chopping them open, carving out the flesh, drying it up in the sun and finally packing in 50kg bags (worth about $12 each). Those bags need to be transported by boat back to the village, or on horseback when the sea is rough. Each person must go through 50-100 coconuts a day in order to produce a few tons a month – enough income for the family.
Did I already mention that it’s hard work? I got a quick lesson on how it’s done and then I was off to try on my own. It looks super easy but it’s totally not. The family doesn’t complain though; they like being out here, in nature and without the stress of city life. Who can blame them? Just look at this place.
The family offered me a ride back to the village on their boat. Apparently, this was my lucky day – first the good weather on horseback, then this gorgeous hike and now this. Not that I minded hiking back, but this way I could spend more time on the beach and chat with the guys about their life and mine.
At around 4 pm, we pushed the small boat back into the water and headed back. En route, I got to see from sea level what I saw from above. We even spotted a manta ray swimming alongside the boat. The family was happy, finishing another workweek in their little paradise.
Back in the village, the lighting was just perfect to witness another local spectacle. In the bay, a small cliff rises out of the water, reminiscent of James Bond Island from The Man With The Golden Gun. If you look closely, you can spot the head of an African man on one side and a woman’s head on the other. To add to the fun, there’s an even bigger cliff to the left – looking like a huge moray eel. How about the manta ray cliff? As with the Buddha head and the reclining pregnant woman in Huahine, I came to realize that pacific islanders have a lot of time on their hands to figure these rocky wonders out. A few minutes later, Tania arrived to pick me up with that beautiful smile of hers. I’ll never forget this day!
Saturday would unofficially be the last day of this six-month trip. Tomorrow it’s back to Tahiti for a couple of days and then back home. I simply cannot believe how fast time flew by. To finish off the trip with a big bang, I rented a tiny Suzuki Jimny 4X4 and headed out on a road trip to Hiva Oa’s prettiest coast. With no radio reception, I found a leftover reggae CD in the car. Not exactly local music, but it’ll do.
The first stop was the ‘smiling tiki’. Yes, that’s right. In the middle of the forest just off the main road, there’s an old tiki statue that seems to be smiling. Nobody’s exactly sure why.
Past Paco’s horse ranch (hi Ottawan), the paved road turned into dirt. I would drive less than 100 km’s on this day, but hardly going over 30! Obstacles would include gigantic potholes, fallen rocks, scary-looking bends and wild horses from time to time… I just love Hiva Oa!
The airport road ended where the plateau began, and for the next 30 minutes, I was literally driving at the very top of the island. The views from up here were breathtaking – but they’re nothing compared to what’s coming up on the other side of the plateau.
As the Jimny made it down to the other side, Hiva Oa’s wild northeast coast revealed itself with all its glory. Rugged cliffs pounded by the ocean waves open up to bay after bay hiding remote villages. Atop those cliffs, a narrow one-lane road snakes its way along the coastline, often visited by families of wild goats. It is simply stunning out here!
The road would now take me up a series of hills and down to beautiful bays. Each bay is home to a handful of families that live in the valley. There’s nothing out here but palm trees, the mountains and extreme heat on a hot day. I stopped to ask for directions, as a family was actually hosing down their tin roof just to keep them from boiling up inside the house. Forget about air conditioning out here.
Of all the pretty sights I saw on this special last day, none were as beautiful as Eiaone Bay. It marked the end of the coastal ‘road’ and really felt like the end of the line. It took me over two hours to drive 59 km out here. Such is the driving in Hiva Oa, slow going and frequented by stops to suck in the views of a lifetime.
I could have stayed up here for hours, but there’s a special surprise somewhere in the valley down below. I put the Jimny into first gear and went to check out the village. It was a very sleepy Saturday afternoon. The few families that live all the way out here were either hanging out at the beach or firing up a BBQ at home. It all seemed so peaceful, that is until you reach the beach. Waves break so close to the protective wall, and this was on a calm day. Nonetheless, the sound of the breaking water mixing with the palm trees swaying in the wind and the mountains around you – is just out of this world.
The real reason for driving all the way out here is the Lipona archaeological site. It is one of the best ancient sites in the South Pacific, and the clouds slowly moving in certainly set the stage for an eerie visit to an already eerie place. Forget about marae Taputapuatea in Raiatea, the consecutive ancient temples of Huahine and even the ones in Nuku Hiva – Lipona is on a whole other level.
Scattered around two platforms are mysterious-looking tiki statues. These statues depict ancient Gods and scenes from the past. There was a tiki with six fingers! That’s right six! It seems straight out of an episode of Ancient Aliens. Just behind him, was a statue rising 2.67m off the ground. That’s only 5 centimeters less than the tallest man ever, yet this tiki was somehow carved out of volcanic rock centuries ago. How the heck did they make this?
Were these ancient statues fashioned from religious belief? Pure imagination? or maybe inspired by visitors from outer space? … What do you think?
Considering I was all alone at the Lipona site, I could really feel the ancient supernatural powers present. The Polynesians even have a word for it – mana. And man… did I feel it.
I planned to stay here longer, but as if the spirits were telling me it’s time to go, loads of mosquitoes started to aggressively move in. Back inside the Jimny, I somehow need to make it all the way back to Atuona… fun, fun, fun! It took me the entire day to drive less than 100 km’s but boy did I enjoy every single one.
At the pension, Tania prepared a special last dinner for me, and we spent the rest of the evening eating, chatting and laughing away. Sadly packed and ready to go, the Sunday flight was delayed by three hours due to rain. That was OK though. I got to see for the last time the excitement that locals have, as they wait with their flower necklaces and crowns for loved ones arriving from Tahiti.
Ah…. Hiva Oa! I can totally see why Gauguin and Brel stuck around. The Marquesas Islands were really something from another world. So much beautiful nature, so many things to see, so much ancient history and such friendly people living in so much open space. What a fitting end to three memorable months in French Polynesia!
Well… it’s now time to head back home. I cannot believe six months of living on tropical islands in the South Pacific have come to an end. It will be weird not walking around with a camera everywhere… Next week, I’ll share with you my thoughts about visiting paradise. Was it worth quitting my job at Google for this? What’s next? All that + the ultimate top highlights from the trip, coming up!
Heading off to French Polynesia? In-depth island guides to all 5 archipelagos await you, including sample itineraries and essential travel tips & tricks.