Things To Do & Places To See In Nuku Hiva
Check out this 4 days in Nuku Hiva sample itinerary to see how to divide your days on the island
Ride From The Airport
The only suitable place for an airport in Nuku Hiva is well over an hour northwest of the main village of Taiohae, in an area so remote it is simply known as ‘desert land’. While in the past the only way to reach the airport was by boat, a sealed road now winds its way through the mountains and lush plateau. It’s the most scenic airport ride you’ll ever have, well worth the 3,000F price of admission.
The ride begins with a climb up the ridge and a quick stop to see the island’s version of ‘the Grand Canyon’. You’ll then descend through thick forests of incredibly tall pine trees, double checking if you’ve actually landed on the right island. Look out for cattle and wild horses along the way and just pray there’s no fog because if there is, you’re totally missing out!
Your 4X4 will then reach the top of the Toovii Plateau, a huge expanse of lush land that’s used these days for cattle grazing. The road somehow manages to snake down to the plateau before reaching the final ascent to Taiohae – the climax of your journey.
As you start to descend from the plateau, the weather changes once again. Nuku Hiva is so diverse, you’ll sometimes encounter the four seasons in one day! After a few sharp bends, Taiohae is revealed down below in all its glory. What a view!
The main village in Nuku Hiva and the capital of the Marquesas Islands, Taiohae is simply gorgeous. The village is tucked between a beautiful crescent bay and lush mountains. You cannot find a more picturesque spot for a village in the South Pacific. The natural harbor is very popular with yachts, especially those arriving from the Americas en route to Australia, or those just passing the cyclone season in the safe confines of the bay.
With charming colonial-style municipal buildings, Taiohae offers all the services you need (food, post office, ATM, etc.) but it also has a few highlights:
The Port: the most happening place in the village. During the day, there’s a small snack that’s popular with sailors who call in Nuku Hiva after the long Pacific crossing. In late afternoons, locals love to fish off this spot. On Saturday mornings, this place really comes to life with the fish market. It all ends just before 6 am so rise early for the authentic experience. Residents purchase large and small fish for the weekend feasts and sailors stock up on fresh fish for the next passage. The market is also open at this time. As fishermen clean their catch, unwanted parts are tossed to the water much to the content of praying sharks.
Artisan Market: the best place in the Marquesas Islands for local arts & crafts. The market is open every day but Sunday and it might only be cash.
Fruit & Vegetable Market: you can easily pick your own fruit pretty much anywhere in Nuku Hiva, but the covered market offers all the island’s produce under one small roof. It’s open on weekdays until 4 pm.
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.
Notre Dame Cathedral: Taiohae’s fairytale-looking church looks like it belongs somewhere in King’s Landing. Do not miss Sunday church service (starts at 8 am), where pretty much the entire village gathers in prayer. Post-service, the plaza outside the church comes to life with food stalls selling packed portions of Polynesian classic dishes.
Tohua Temehea: across the road from the cathedral is this ancient ceremonial site. It mixes original findings as well as the work of local sculptures honoring the traditional past.
Hakaui Valley & Vaipo Waterfall Hike
Do not miss the opportunity to embark on what will no doubt be one of the most memorable days of your visit to the South Pacific. Hakaui is a lush valley walled on one end by a blanket of jagged basalt peaks. This is the hallmark attraction in Nuku Hiva. At the end of the valley is Vaipo Waterfall, the highest waterfall in French Polynesia. In pre-missionary days, the valley was inhabited by a local tribe, and evidence of the ancient settlement is still present.
Hiking guides to Hakaui Valley: I strongly recommend booking your Hakaui Valley hike with Tangy and Ana from Cannibal Art. Tangy is a native of the valley and he has built a traditional Marquesan house with his own hands. Croatian-born, Ana had a dream of visiting Bora Bora so she decided to hitchhike from her home country. It took her several years but she did it. Upon returning home, she decided to write a book about her adventures and traveled once again to French Polynesia, this time going “the other way”. She completed writing her book in Nuku Hiva, where she met Tangy and the rest is history. The couple offers several ways of exploring the valley, from day hikes to mutli-day camping trips. You can also hike with them into the valley from Taiohae. Their Hakaui adventure includes a hike to the base of the waterfall followed by a traditional lunch in their home.
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.
If Ana and Tangy aren’t available, try getting in touch with Thierry Tekuataoa (+689-87791969 Skype:tht1966) or Francois Mayol (+689-87260472, firstname.lastname@example.org). During my last visit, I heard that Thierry moved to France but he might have returned since. If all else fails, perhaps the Pearl Lodge will allow you to join one of their tours (which also might include lunch at Ana and Tangy’s). I highly recommend booking this excursion for the first full day in Nuku Hiva as tours might be: fully booked, under-booked, or canceled due to bad weather.
Pro tip: due to an incident of fallen rocks injuring a local or a visitor at the base of the waterfall, most excursions do not go all the way to the waterfall itself. To do so, they must equip guests with helmets. That said, some guides (including Tangy and Ana) have a waiver form that can be signed to continue the hike all the way to the waterfall.
Unless you hike into the valley, most excursions begin 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’ll seriously be lost for words: emerald waters meet a white sand beach that’s welcoming returning fishermen, and the signature basaltic cliffs of Nuku Hiva rise deep in the valley as if leading the way to Vaipo Waterfall. That’s exactly where you’re headed!
In Hakatea, your guides will take you along the rocky path to neighboring Hakaui Bay which sits at the mouth of Hakaui Valley. This beach is known to have nono (sandflies) so be sure to apply some monoi oil before arrival.
You’ll then begin to walk in the valley (~4km each way), crossing the river and walking along parts of the ancient royal road. The valley was once the home of thousands of islanders, and you can still see the stone platforms that are these days overrun by the magnificent roots of the mape trees. These platforms (tohua and pae pae) were used in ceremonies, the ground pits for storing fermented breadfruit for drought years, and the tiki statues to keep the bad spirits away. The royal road is miraculously flat despite the changing elevation, a testament to the ancient Marquesan ingenuity.
After stopping for lunch by a river crawling with giant eels, you’ll reach a clearing in the rainforest where it’s paramount to look up at the giant cliffs. If you look closely, you might even spot the canoe of an ancient chief that rests outside a cave at a cliff’s edge. Then, like some Hollywood special effect, the Vaipo Waterfall gently cascades from the cliffs. At 350 meters, it is the highest waterfall in French Polynesia. Below you can see what it looks like during the wet and dry seasons.
The set of cliffs where the burial caves are located also hides 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.
A further walk inside the creek will bring you to a freshwater pool at the base of the waterfall. Splash around before heading back to the boat and back to Taiohae, capping off a memorable day.
Logistics: your guides will advise on the boat departure time and its cost. Some guides might have their own boat but most do not so you’ll book with the provider that operated the route between the main village and Hakaui (Te Amoka Transport | 87-293002, 87-267543, 40-920688 | email@example.com). The price will depend on the number of passengers. If it’s a slow day, prepare to pay anywhere between $80-100 for the return trip (but it is absolutely worth it). The boat departs around 8:30 am and returns at 5 pm. The trip will be a bit bumpy and you might get slightly wet with sea spray so bring what you need to combat that. The 8-kilometer hike is relatively easy but it does involve crossing a stream so I advise wearing sandals. I also recommend wearing long sleeves to help combat the mosquitos, bring mosquito repellent, swimming gear for the waterfall, underwater camera, drone, and monoi oil (preferably lemon-scented) to prevent nono (sandfly) bites at the beach.
A visit to this incredible part of Nuku Hiva can be combined on a full-day road trip together with Hatiheu, Anaho Bay, and everything in between. Have a look at this 4 days in Nuku Hiva itinerary for more info. You can visit the valley with your own car or book a spot with Alvane from Pension Koku’u (highly recommended, you’ll later see why).
The valley is home to a sleepy village and a reconstructed ceremonial site used for the Marquesan Arts Festival. On one of the nearby hills, you’ll also find the Paeke archeological site – home to a few me’ae (Marquesan for marae or ancient temple) and tiki statues. In the wetter part of the year, you might even spot a few waterfalls in the far distance.
It’s also worth checking if the Tapivai Crafts Market is open. It hosts the work of 26 local artists and you’ll find here a great selection of Marquesan crafts at very reasonable prices.
The real highlight is actually the view. As you descend from the Toovii Plateau, you’ll be treated to panoramic vistas of Comptroller Bay. If it weren’t for the humidity, you might think you’re somewhere in the Norwegian Fiordland.
In 1842, whaler and later renowned American author Herman Melville (Moby Dick), jumped ship with a mate and spent three weeks in Taipivai. Based on his experience, he published Typee in 1846 with exotic accounts of Nuku Hiva. Seeing this view, I can absolutely understand why he would abandon the ship.
In the outskirts of Taipivai, look left and spot the distant waterfall. It should flow even in the dry season. How tempting is it to try hiking to it? It should be possible with a guide.
Together with Hakaui Valley, Hatiheu Bay is not to be missed. The bay magically comes into view as the road emerges from the mountain pass just beyond the Taipivai Valley, offering breathtaking views of the rolling hills, sharp basaltic cliffs and the tiny village on the bay’s shore.
You’ll be seriously contemplating parking it up here for an hour or snaking your way down to check out the village. What a sight!
Hatiheu Village is as charming from level ground as it is gorgeous from up in the mountains. Its black sand beach is protected by tiki statues and capped on its western end by the shark-toothed cliffs. Somehow, islanders hoisted a statue of the Virgin Mary to the clifftops in 1872.
There’s a small grocery shop that’s open for the better part of the day, but if you’re wondering where the locals are – they’re either fishing out at sea or tending to their copra plantations. Spot the coconut drying ‘shack’, a contraption used to dry the flesh ahead of the extraction of oil.
No matter how small the village is, the local Catholic church is always something to marvel at. If it happens to be closed, ask one of the locals to lead you inside.
As you enter Hatiheu, instead of turning right and entering the village, head left and drive to A’akapa. Part of the road is not sealed but it safe to drive. The cliffs of A’akapa are another Nuku Hiva highlight. They are best viewed from the lookout right next to a religious memorial that’s hard to miss. If you have time, head down to the bay for more sensational views. Locals say the cliffs resemble a giant dinosaur and I certainly agree with that.
Nearly every French Polynesian island has at least one ancient marae complex, with some of the finest in Huahine and Raiatea. However, these pale in comparison to what you’ll see in Nuku Hiva (and neighboring Hiva Oa for that matter). Just before reaching Hatiheu Village, you’ll be passing by four of the finest archaeological sites in the South Pacific: Hikokua, Kamuihei, Tahakia, and Teiipoka.
Hikokua Archeological Site
This massive complex essentially consists of a central ‘square’ surrounded by stone platforms. I refer to this as a ‘square’ since it served for large gatherings and community ceremonies. Dating back to the 13th century, the site is believed to have been in use until the early 19th century.
Around the large grassy square, examine from up close the stone statues, some depicting polygamy and human sacrifice. Speaking of that, climb atop the human sacrifice stone and imagine the terrifying thought that passed through the minds of so as they were about to lose their head… If you need a little help with that, here’s Alvane showing us how it would have been done, with the help of one brave volunteer (that would be me). Have a look at the video.
As mentioned, this site was mainly used for community gatherings, where song and dance played a key part in Marquesan life. To show us what it would have looked like, Alvane performed a traditional haka dance that would have been used to welcome guests. Alvane is not only an excellent tour guide, but he also proudly displays Marquesan culture during the highly acclaimed Marquesan Arts Festival. If you’re nice enough, he’ll put on a show during your tour of the site.
Kamuihei, Tahakia and Teiipoka
These three complexes are further down the road from Hikokua and form the largest archeological site on the island. Take your time and stroll amongst the centuries-old giant banyan trees, tiki statues, petroglyphs, and sacrifice pits.
This place is so big, you might find yourself all alone at some point and it can feel incredibly strange. Locals say you can really feel the mana, spiritual energy, which radiates for eternity. This feeling is further amplified by the nonstop sounds of the crows (or some other bird that makes similar sounds). They congregate here in large numbers, terrifying the roosters, especially towards sunset.
This place is eerie, chilling and should not be missed!
Hike To Anaho Bay
Most organized tours will stop at Hatiheu before returning to Taiohae, but Alvane’s tour continues with a hike to Anaho Bay. This moderate hike offers yet additional sensational views and can be done without a guide in case you’re exploring Nuku Hiva at your own pace.
The trail begins at the edge of the village, where you’ll park the 4X4 and begin to climb through the mango-covered rainforest. If you’re in luck, it’s mango season. Simply pick a few good ones off the ground and save for later. After about 30 minutes, you’ll reach the mountain pass – one of the most scenic spots in Nuku Hiva.
From up here, Anaho Bay simply looks like paradise. Gently wrapped by sea cliffs and radiating with blue, the bay also has the only snorkeling spot in Nuku Hiva thanks to a tiny reef. Plan to stop here for a while because it’s simply gorgeous!
Another 30 minutes of hiking down from the pass bring you to Anaho Beach. Surprisingly, few families actually live out here. There’s no electricity and no running water, but there are plenty of coconuts for the production of copra. With the government subsidizing copra farmers, this is actually a pretty decent business, though extremely labor-intensive.
Once you’ve greeted the locals, find a spot along the beach and enjoy paradise. I suggest applying a thick layer of monoi oil to prevent the nasty nono from biting (sandflies). As for the swimming, you have the small reef on one end and crashing waves on the other. In any case, take it easy when swimming as there’s no protective lagoon. It’s also possible to hike for another 30 minutes to the neighboring Haatuatua Bay. See below for more information.
Logistics: the trail is clearly marked so you can definitely hike this on your own from Hatiheu. It’s a moderate 90-minute hike (return) but add plenty of time for the view from the pass and for chilling on the beach. Bring everything you need including plenty of water (more water than you think you’ll need), monoi oil, food, beach gear, walking sandals, and a change of clothes.
Hike from Anaho Bay to Ha’atuatua Bay
From the far end of Anaho Bay, a clear trail heads to the neighboring bay. Ha’atuatua Bay and its beach are as beautiful as they come. Soft golden sand, coconut palms, jagged onlooking cliffs, and not a soul around. However, hundreds of tiny blue jellyfish and invisible nono (sandflies) by the thousands make the trip out here memorable in all possible ways. It’s strongly advised to either apply a generous layer of monoi oil before heading here or to admire the bay from a distance (there’s a good spot for it halfway along the trail).
Colette Bay Hike
Toovi Plateau Hike
Hunting In Nuku Hiva
Want to really get a full Marquesas experience? There’s one word that really fires up every man on the island: chasse. This means hunting, and no islander will refuse the chance to take you on a hunting trip. Hunting is a way of life on the islands, with the animals caught used for feeding a family for a month or even longer. Despite the infamous story of the German tourist who was ‘killed by a cannibal’ during a hunting trip, I was intrigued to do something totally off the beaten track.
Lucky for me, I stayed at Pension Koku’u, where Alvane was totally up for a 48-hour hunting trip. Have a look at the ‘hiking and excursions’ section for more guides that can take you hunting in Nuku Hiva.
Alvane took me to his family’s valley (that’s right, they have their own valley), where we camped for the night in a shack that used to be his home before he married Claudine and became a decent man. We brought all the supplies with us, chilled during the day on the empty beach, and watched the stars at night.
During dusk and dawn, we would venture out into the riverbed to try and stock goats. Our particular hunting expedition yielded no results, which I was perfectly happy with. The time I spent in the middle of nowhere with Alvane is something I’ll never forget, and you can read more about it in this blog post I published from Nuku Hiva.
Logistics: the price will really depend on your hunting buddy and you’ll negotiate this at the time of booking. Plan for an overnight stay, though you can totally squeeze this into a full day or even stretch it out longer. Bring rain gear, comfortable and waterproof shoes, long pants, and a flashlight. Be prepared for A LOT of mosquitos during the wetter days. Hunting isn’t for everyone, so come with a sense of adventure and lots of mental toughness.
Horseback Riding & Whale Watching
I personally went horseback riding in Hiva Oa, but it’s totally recommended to join a tour in Nuku Hiva as well. For whale watching, inquire locally about the opportunity to watch hundreds of melon-headed whales gathering off the coast of the island.
Places To Eat & Drink In Nuku Hiva
If you’re staying at a good family pension, chances are you’ll be treated to basic breakfasts and wonderful dinners as part of your half-board stay. Nonetheless, here are a few other options I’ve tested out:
The Market Snack: possibly also know as Snack Tuhiva, you’ll find this where else but inside the market. I found it to be the ‘liveliest’ joint in Taiohae, a good place to grab a cold Hinano beer, lunch, or dinner. Traditional dishes of poisson cru, tuna and seafood are always on the menu, with prices starting as low as 600F. If you are extra lucky, there might also be some live music playing until the wee hours of the night (11 pm that is). If this happens when you’re there, can you please ask the band to play my absolute favorite song from French Polynesia?
Snack Vaeaki: a favorite spot with yachties, right on the main quay. Come here for breakfast, lunch, sandwiches and free wifi! Before sunset, you can even watch the local fishermen cleaning the day’s catch with an ice-cold Hinano beer in your hand!
Snack Tematapuaua: also located at the pier.
Moana Nui: a pension that also triples as a car rental agency and restaurant. Mains are between 1200-2000F and range from grilled chicken to seafood.
I hope you’ve found this Nuku Hiva Travel Guide useful. For more information about the Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia, check out these travel guides. To see how to split your time in Nuku Hiva, have a look at this four-day itinerary where you can pick and choose the days you wish to include in your own adventure.