The Seldom-Seen Side of the South Pacific

Nuku Hiva
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Nuku Hiva, Tahiti hiking jungle exploration
UNSEEN PEAKS: The forested coast and ridgelines of Nuku Hiva (courtesy,

Located about 930 miles northeast of Tahiti in the Marquesas Archipelago, Nuku Hiva is so far off the beaten path that if you put all of the tourists who come here in one town it'd barely warrant a zip code. The entirety of French Polynesia only receives about 220,000 people each year—roughly what Hawaii gets in a week. Nuku Hiva's share? Less than 7,000.

It takes about 3.5 hours in a puddle jumper from Tahiti to reach the island, and from the plane, Nuku Hiva doesn't look like much at first—a sun-baked slab of Caribbean pine trees, rolling ravines, and a few beaches. The road to the airport, more of a landing strip really, is still largely unpaved.

But Paul Gauguin and Herman Melville both spent time in the Marquesas to paint and write—and with good reason. That's because its islands, especially Nuku Hiva, have towering cliffs etched with waterfalls that spill silver braids down purple rock. Thin dirt trails run past rosewood trees and deep into jungles where crisp pools are home to freshwater eels. Archeological sites numbering close to 100 sit right off the roads, where you can scamper around the black-rock ruins of ancient Polynesians who landed here around 200 BC. In fact, the United Nations is considering naming the entire archipelago a UNESCO World Heritage Site for that very reason.

The best place to base your adventures is on the southern side of Nuku Hiva in Taiohae, a sleepy town with a sausage tree and a pleasant harbor pinched by steep mountains often ringed in mist. On the western arm of the cove and perched on an overlook you'll find the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, where 20 wood-and-glass bungalows offer sweeping views of the bay. Grab a seat on the outdoor patio and feast on poisson cru—a raw fish dish marinated in coconut—while contemplating your future trips around the island.

Rest assured, there are plenty of options—but be sure to dedicate one day for a guided trip out to Hakatea Bay, about a 20-minute boat ride west of town, to hike to Vaipo Waterfall. It's about a four-mile walk past papaya trees, hibiscus, and Polynesian chestnuts along a trail littered with the fragrant seeds of soap trees to reach the waterfall, which screams down the sheer cliffs for 1,000 feet. Dive into a pool at the base and swim in the black water, then climb over boulders to reach a moist grotto and snooze in the warm sun after a lunch on the warm rocks. The dry season here runs from October to March—the exact opposite of Bora Bora. During the wet season, I'm told the waterfall gets so powerful it's impossible to swim.

Also be certain to give yourself as much time as you like to explore the northern end of the island, which holds one of the island's best beaches, Hatiheu. It's a rugged ride in a four-wheel drive to get there, but stops at archeological sites like Kamuihe and Hikokua to climb on paepae, or stone terraces that held homes in the early 15th century, offer distraction-filled respite from the bumpy roads. The beach in Hatiheu, a town of perhaps 100 people, stretches for a quarter mile. The craggy fins of Tua Tua and Maria just west of the bay erupt for a couple of thousand feet from the glassy water.

Just behind the bay sits a small restaurant called Chez Yvonne, where Yvonne Katupa slings cold bottles of Hinano beer and heaping portions of poisson cru. The best place—and the best way—to revel in all that you did earlier that day.

Access and Resources

Keikahanui Pearl Lounge (; +689.920.710)
Chez Yvonne (; +-689.920.297)

Published: 10 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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