top of page

September, 2015

Passage Note #81 - Marquesas Islands: Nuku Hiva Island - Taiohae

“A pale phantasmagoria of cliffs and clouds”...........Robert Louis Stevenson, 1894


“A country that no description could fit the beauty"..........Herman  Melville, 1846

Nuku Hiva Island

One of the three northern Marquesas.  Capital of the Marquesas and Port of Entry.  Population of nearly 3,000.


Mighty and majestic, Nuku Hiva in the northern Marquesas has been called the “I’le mystique” - the Mystical Island.  It is the largest Marquesan island - 127 square miles - and second largest in French Polynesia after Tahiti. This choice cruising ground with its 8 magnificent harbors and the only coral reef in the archipelago is as varied as its inland landscapes of towering mountains, pine forests, dry plains, and high waterfalls.  There is much to explore by sea and by land.  We spent three months circumnavigating on Jacaranda and exploring on inland tours by car, hiking and horseback riding. Geographically and culturally Nuku Hiva feels as big and expansive as it is.


Nuku Hiva is also the most populated island (almost 3,000 people).   As the administrative center of the Marquesas,  the “capital” village of Taiohae is as cosmopolitan and urbane as it gets out here in this remote hinterland of the world. Taiohae Bay is a principal French Polynesian port of entry for visiting yachts, echoing its historical importance from the days of square riggers when it was, as Herman Melville wrote,  the “only one at which ships are in the habit of touching”.  It also remains a frequent stopover for today’s superyachts.


Its discovery in 1791 - a full 200 years after the discovery of the southern Marquesas -  was by an American, Joseph Ingraham.  Captain David Porter tried to own it for an uninterested U.S. in 1813.   He named it Washington Island, the main harbor Massachusetts Bay, and called the village Madisonville. In 1842 it was claimed for France.

Power of Imagination: the Past and the Future 


Perhaps no where else do visions of the Marquesas’ past collide most vividly with visions of its future.   As the primary colonial stopover for early eye-witnesses, artists, and storytellers, some of the strongest visual and written accounts of the almost extinct traditional life of the archipelago comes from Nuku Hiva.  Combine this with incredible restored archeological sites and two informative museums and the educated visitor’s imagination can virtually explode with fertile mental images of what life must have been like here before contact with Europeans changed everything. 

Naked houries---cannibal banquets---groves of coconut---coral reefs---tattooed chiefs--- and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit trees---carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters---savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols--- heathenish rites and human sacrifices......(Nuku Hiva) still continues to be tenanted by beings as strange and barbarous as ever------- Herman Melville, “Typee” (1846)

Step into Taipivai Valley after reading Herman Melville’s “Typee” (1846) (even with its many fictions and exaggerations), anchor in Anaho Bay with Robert Louis Stevenson’s chronicles aboard the Casco (1888), arrive with Jack London’s escapades on the Snark (1907),  peruse the journals of Captain David Porter and colonial French authorities while sitting among their early buildings near the original site of Fort Madison (later Fort Collette) in Taiohae, examine the old engravings and drawings made by artists accompanying early explorers, study archeological interpretations while walking through the sacred sites at the excavated Kamuihei-Tahakia-Teiipoka complex, amble among the many pae paes (stone foundations) at the extensive ancient community of Pua accompanied by today’s resident descendants of the queen, hike beautiful King’s Valley along the once inhabited royal road river trail to the Vaipo waterfall, or be in Taiohae when a tall ship just happens to glide in like a time warp.....and you can easily be captivated and transported back in time with an uncontainable sense of marvel and fascination for this vanished civilization and what can be pieced together of its soul.

But Nuku Hiva is also where leadership emerged in resurrecting the remnants of this ancestral culture and asking the big questions about the future of today’s survivors.   For what will become of the Marquesas Islands in the years to come?

Lucien Kimitete is a name to know in contemporary Marquesan history.  He was a Marquesan activist and politician who had a strong vision for protecting, restoring and promoting the civilization of his archipelago.  As mayor of Nuku Hiva for 11 years, advisor to the French Polynesia territorial assembly, co-founder of the cultural association of Motu Haka and a leader of the autonomist opposition political party Fetia Api, he was charismatic and beloved.  He preached a mode of independence:  "We must never forget that the Marquesas are spoils of war for France, which has, for convenience, integrated Polynesia. If we were once colonized by France, today, the colonizer is Tahiti.” he said.  He died in a mysterious plane accident when it disappeared over the Tuamotu Islands during the 2002 election campaign, essentially decapitating the Polynesian independence movement.  We had dinner with Debora Kimetete, his widow and highly respected mover and shaker, and got an insider’s perspective on the contemporary political and cultural landscape.   Perhaps tourism will be be one key to the future.



The island’s grandeur is reinforced when you enter the huge horseshoe Bay of Taiohae and anchor facing the immense ridge of mountains that encircles your vista.  The main village of Taiohae, dwarfed by its setting, follows around the curving shoreline defined by its black sand beach and modern protective sea wall where, at high tide with big swells, the waves pound violently with a kaboom!  and shoot forcefully into the air.  A green parklike walkway edges the one main road,  shaded by trees and dotted with occasional tiki sculptures.   

There is much of architectural significance here.  Temehea, a restored waterfront tohua (ceremonial site) is an impressive sculpture garden with many new tiki statues by the most prominent contemporary stone masters.  European buildings remaining from the French “ghetto” of the early colonial period dominate a corner of the Bay and scream “government authority”, especially the two-story porticoed administrative office and stone jail with its four cells (at the time there were two prisoners who wore orange pants and could let themselves in and out of their cells as long as they stayed on the property).  There are remains of a hillside oven used for brickmaking when Fort Colette was built on the promontory overlooking the east side of the harbor (empty land given to the French on their arrival by the chief of the valley because it had no water). Notre-Dame Cathedral of the Marquesas Islands is made of stones from all six inhabited islands;  and the lovely stone buildings of the city hall, artisan and food market cluster together with a clean, pleasing design. 

We enjoyed strolling past the artisan center and the tourist office with friendly hellos from familiar smiling faces - past the spectacular archeological site of Tohua Peke, the homes of expert carvers like Damas Taupotini, the canoe club where the paddlers emerge with their outriggers each afternoon at 4 pm to row by Jacaranda, past Herman Melville’s monument (the only monument to a deserter) and the old cannon and anchor in the Monument to the Dead,  ending on the opposite side of the Bay to visit Rose Corser.  Rose is an institution among decades of yachties, arriving by sailboat with her husband 30 years ago and staying to open a pension, restaurant, and Enana Museum.  Along the way is the easy accessibility of services like a few well-stocked grocery stores (Larson’s was a favorite), a fruit and vegetable market, ATM, Air Tahiti office, and a hardware store.

The quay is the main social hub for cruisers with its triumvirate of businesses:  Nuku Hiva Yacht Services, Centre Plongee and Snack Vaeaki.  The latter, a cafe with good food, free internet, and some spoken english was where everyone congregated.  Henri, the most warm-hearted and affable Marquesan owner, was a heavyweight in Taiohae although you’d never to know it to look at him. 

Megayachts stray in and out of the Bay.  One day, a 100 foot Swan (sailboat) named Virago arrived with friend Michelle Gilardi aboard as professional chef.  We hadn’t seen each other in five years and spent two days catching up before she left for a passage to the Caribbean!  An elegant cherry red 150’ luxury motoryacht called “Qing” arrived from the Galapagos; Chuck befriended the first mate and shared some navigation programs.  When the American owner and Chinese wife arrived, they surprised us with an invitation to dinner. The interior reflected the red Asian exterior and felt like the lobby of an upscale hotel in Hong Kong.  We had a five star meal served by chic crew wearing silk chinese dresses, hair in buns with carved hairsticks, and white gloves.  Oh la la!! 

Two cultural events stand out.  The first was the French Polynesia Film Festival. Tahitian organizers were convinced to bring the films to the Marquesas and they were shown over three nights outside in a makeshift theater on the school’s basketball court.  Favorite films included a documentary about the imprisonment of Easter Islanders for 60 years in an island camp, today’s aftermath of French nuclear tests in Moruroa Atoll (Tuamotus) and the expected collapse that would obliterate neighboring Tureia by a resulting tsunami, and  how a community in Australia is combatting “big business” mortuaries by conducting their own funerals and burials.

The second was a special performance and dinner by a dance troupe who had just returned from a Polynesian Dance Festival in San Diego to great acclaim.  I went to City Hall and purchased $25 tickets from Cecilia who worked in the Mayor’s office and was also a dancer in the troupe.   I was struck by her beauty as she wore a purple dress with a large purple flower in her hair and elegant tattoos on her arms.  

The night of the dinner/dance we arrived at the community hall with our friends on Kalliope to be greeted by Cecile with traditional flower leis of fragrant tiare flowers for the four of us - the only people in the audience to be so gifted.    The dancing was incredible - the best we had seen to date in the Marquesas and the food was delicious.

It was in Taiohae that I decided to get my Marquesan tattoo from a young artist named Moana.  A Marquesan - both men and women - over the age of 18 without a tattoo is a rarity here and the aesthetic context is alluring.  The art of tattooing almost disappeared with the arrival of the missionaries in the 1800's but is now experiencing a renaissance.  The Marquesas are famous in today's French Polynesia for having the best tattoo artists and many of them have migrated to Tahiti where the demand is higher.  But the Marquesan tattoo goes beyond body decoration - the designs have traditional meanings of protection from evil and tell a personal story of the individual's history, values, and ancestoral heritage.

The next Passage Note #82 covers other places and adventures in Nuku Hiva.

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #81

bottom of page