Marquesas Islands Travel Destinations

Isolated islands, proud and fascinating (and elaborately tattooed) people, a unique language, and 1,000-foot waterfalls – that’s what Marquesas Islands travel is all about. Located about three hours by air from French Polynesia’s main island of Tahiti and steeped in both history and adventure, the Marquesas is a lost-in-time island chain of dramatic volcanic cliffs shrouded in mystical clouds, and the final resting place of the South Pacific’s most famous artist.

While some of the 12 Marquesas Islands remain just as they were centuries ago during the era of European exploration, there are two primary tourism islands: Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa. Nuka Hiva is the largest island in the Marquesas and is visited for its incredible natural terrain. Its spire-like peaks, dramatic valleys and fjiord-like bays are a photographer’s dream, and there are even waterfalls that are so high much of the water evaporates as it descends. Activities here include archaeological safaris to visit the temples and a large tiki in the Taipivai Valley, and tours of the Kamuihei and Hikoku ruins known for their petroglyphs. Diving is also popular, as the waters are known for hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whales.

Hiva Oa is renowned for its giant stone tiki and for a small hilltop cemetery above Atuona that is the burial place of French painter Paul Gauguin, whose vibrant late-19th-century paintings of Tahitian life (especially its women) hang in major museums around the world. (Speaking of Gauguin, a cruise ship named in his honor, the m/s Paul Gauguin, sails throughout French Polynesia and makes visits several times a year to the Marquesas.) Other sites are a restored ceremonial complex located in the Taaoa Valley that offers insight in the Marquesan heritage; the Paul Gauguin Cultural Center, which exhibits reproductions of his works; and woodcarving studios, where the Marquesas’ master artists turn out bowls, plates and statues carved from rosewood and purplewood. And if you feel inspired by local artistry, you can always head home with a permanent souvenir of your journey: a traditional Marquesan tattoo.

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