Things To Do In & Around Atuona
Check out this 5 days in Hiva Oa sample itinerary to see how to divide your days on the island
The only ‘town’ in Hiva Oa and the capital of the southern group of the Marquesas Islands. Atuona does not seem to know the meaning of stress. Nestled at the mouth of a deep valley, the town is cradled by cloud covered peaks and fronted by a black sand beach that’s too rough for swimming.
It’s easy to understand why Gauguin and Brel feel in love with this place, but more on those two soon. Like Taiohae on Nuku Hiva and Fare in Huahine Island, there’s nothing and everything happening in Atuona at the same time. Tropically scented flowers provide the town’s aroma, and the trees explode with fruit – just pick whatever you want.
Here are a few of the town’s main highlights. For recommended food options, see the ‘places to eat’ section.
There are a couple of churches in town, but the Catholic church is the most charming. It looks different than any church I’ve seen in French Polynesia, reminding of something out of 19th century Mexico.
In the back of the church, there’s a pretty large school with two very impressive looking trees in its front garden. After school, children love to hang around the church’s steps, waiting for their parents to pick them up. What a life!
The main ‘town square’ was restored for one of the installments of the legendary Marquesas Arts Festival. The complex resembles an ancient ceremonial complex, lined with stone statues.
In the back of the Tohua Pepeu, a small arts and crafts market should be open every day but Sunday (it will definitely be open when the Aranui is in town). The Marquesas Islands are a unique place to buy authentic souvenirs that will last a lifetime. Specialties include: jewelry, wood & stone carvings, therapeutic oils and even exquisite tapa cloth. I personally found the prices here a bit on the steep side, and happy to have done my shopping in Nuku Hiva. Visit the ‘what to buy’ section for a secret tip!
Espace Culturel Paul Gauguin
Legendary post impressionist French painter Paul Gauguin arrived in Hiva Oa in the late 19th century. He had already spent considerable time in Tahiti and his paintings from an exotic land at the end of the world, would later create a fascination with the islands. Gauguin was looking to escape the stress of Western life. He embraced island life which allowed him to focus on art and somewhat aid with his constant depression. A visit to his museum in Atuona is a must for any art lover (open every day but Sunday, 600F per adult).
While there are no original paintings in the museum, visitors can learn in great detail the history of the man, including original letters he wrote to his family and fellow artists on the other side of the world. In the back of the museum, a replica of his simple home stands in the garden. Climb the steps and head inside for an all too real scaled statue of him in action!
Centre Jacques Brel
The island’s other famous resident is Belgian poet, singer and actor – Jacques Brel. Seeking to escape the pressures of celebrity life, he sailed around the world and simply stayed in Hiva Oa after arriving in 1976. Brel was adorned by the locals, who were unfamiliar with his celebrity status. An avid pilot, Brel would use his plane – ‘Jojo’, in medical evacuations to Tahiti when locals were in need. The plane has recently been restored, put on display in a hangar just behind the Gauguin museum (400F if there’s someone manning the booth). Circle the plane to the sounds of his greatest hits and if you can read French, learn about the legendary man.
The Gauguin & Brel pilgrimage wraps up with a short hike to the Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Hiva Oa’s version of the celebrity cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris. Like everything in Hiva Oa, even the deceased are rewarded with breathtaking views. The cemetery is not only the final resting stop for Brel & Gauguin, but also to local residents and former missionaries.
A further 15-minute hike towards the large cross will reward you with even finer vistas!
A ten minute drive from Atuona to the small hamlet of Taaoa will surely take more than double that. The paved road offers sweeping views of Atuona and the southern coastline of Hiva Oa. If you’re smelling something rotten, it might be a dead animal but it might also be sulphur, emerging from deep underground, as the bay actually fills a massive former volcano!
Taaoa itself makes for just a quick stop. The main draw is its wild beach (way too rough for swimming) and the Catholic church, which is one of the most photographed images in Hiva Oa.
From the beach, take the paved road that heads up the jungle covered valley to the Tohua Upeke archeological site. This large complex was excavated not that long ago but these days is not that well maintained – only further adding to the mystery of this place. The challenge here is pinpointing the large tiki, looking inconspicuous and hiding among the massive banyan trees.
Note that the only other major (and top) archaeological site in Hiva Oa is in Lipona, quite a long distance away. If you won’t be heading there on a memorable road trip (which I highly recommend), do not miss the Upeke site. Otherwise, don’t stress too much if you can’t easily make it here.