The Mighty, Majestic and Magical Marquesas

I should warn you this blog post may come with rather a large dose of good old fashion South African gushing!

Grand, brooding and powerful, nature’s fingers have sculpted the Marquesas Islands into sharp silhouettes that jut up dramatically from the cobalt-blue ocean. Fen Enata or Henua Enana, ‘Land of Men’ in the Marquesan language is the most remote archipelago in French Polynesia. The melodic language, rhythmic hip jiggling dances and songs, dramatic and intricate tattoos and amazingly friendly people made us fall totally in love with this spectacular country. Everyone wears a flower behind their ear – both male and female – if you wear it on the side of your heart you are spoken for! People smile and greet you with a happy ‘Kaoha’. We felt incredibly welcome.

After almost three weeks of nothing but varying shades of blue, the sight of Fatu Hiva was mesmerising. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the dramatic lush mountainous land filled with colour and texture. The patterns were a stunning visual feast for our passage weary eyes and I just wanted to soak it all in. Everyone talks about the overwhelming smell of land after a long passage at sea but as we were motoring and cooking arrival brownies, all we could smell to start with was diesel and chocolate but as we pulled into the majestic anchorage of Baie des Vierges, the aroma of land took over and we had arrived! And what a very special place to make landfall in French Polynesia.

Baie des Vierges is one of the most visually striking bays we have ever visited; it’s dramatic, picturesque and has a fabulous story! The valley contains the tiny town of Hanavave which is surrounded by towering basaltic cones that turn purple at sunset. The truth is, these cones resemble giant phalluses protruding out of the ocean. This risqué natural tableau was originally (and aptly) named Baie des Verges in French (Bay of Penises). Outraged, the missionaries promptly added a redeeming ‘i’ to make the name Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins). As you can imagine the kids particularly took great joy from that story!

You can only get to Fatu Hiva by boat and the tiny settlement of Hanavave boasts a stunning setting deep in the valley. We spend our first day happily anchored, overjoyed not to be rolling from side to side! We swam and scrubbed Blue Zulu’s filthy topsides – there was a sludge mark all the way up both sides showing just how much we can been rocking and rolling! We enjoyed catching up with friends on Counting Stars who had arrived the day before us. But mostly I just soaked in the drama and majesty of our anchorage and marvelled that we had just sailed over 3000 miles into the incredible South Pacific and that is was totally worth it!

The next day we decided to test our ‘bambi’ legs and headed ashore for a much needed walk and in desperate search of fresh produce! We enjoyed a stunning walk to a nearby waterfall, picking up and enjoying mangoes along the way. But the real treat came in the form of our first pamplemousse – a local grapefruit the size of a small football. Ok we hadn’t had any fresh fruit for quite a while but this is honestly one of the most glorious discoveries – a wonderful juicy sweet and sharp delight that we all adore. Slightly overcome with the excitement of fresh produce, we happily traded half a bottle of rum for more pamplemousse, a stalk of bananas and some coconuts with a boat load of delighted local youths.

On day three we decided to try to book dinner with a local family in their home and Patrick went off to organise. With a minimum number of 14, we managed to organise some fellow cruisers to go along with us and looked forward to our dinner. Unfortunately due to a misunderstanding, it soon transpired that two families were expecting us for dinner and so we would need to eat 28 dinners and not the expected 14 – eek! Patrick then dinghied around the anchorage and valiantly saved the day by talking almost the entire fleet into eating onshore that night! Thank goodness we wouldn’t upset the lovely (and very big!) locals! Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas and as the evening approached the breeze picked up and the catabolic winds coming off the mountains grew to almost 40 knots and boats started dragging their anchors in the deep water.

Understandably sailors didn’t want to leave their boats in these conditions so the dinner numbers were again dramatically reduced. Kendall (from Counting Stars) and I took the kids ashore clutching tupplewares for ‘take aways’ for our skippers on anchor watch. Unfortunately we were in the minority and couldn’t quite do justice to the mounds of curried goat, poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk) and breadfruit chips, the local woman had prepared even though it was delicious.

The next day dawned calmer and brighter and we were happy to see cruisers head to shore to pay off their meal debt as we motored out the bay. Unfortunately our ‘three days without checking into the country’ window had passed and we needed to move on to an official port of entry on another island, Hiva Ova. However, we soon found out that as it was the weekend, the gendarmerie (customs) weren’t actually open so we decided to detour to the beautiful Hanamoenoa Bay on the neighbouring island of Tahuata.
Hanamoenoa Bay is a gorgeous little bay fringed by a ribbon of white sand, lapped by multihued waters and backed by lush hills. Just perfect – everyone was very excited to enjoy a beach again – so we took full advantage; snorkelling, swimming,enjoying sundowners, kid’s parties and dinghy raft ups – a lovely social fun time with cruiser friends. We also visited the picturesque town of Vaitahu to grab a few more fresh goodies before our overnight sail to Nuku Hiva to finally check in. We met a friendly local man carrying a long stick with a net on it so we asked him if we could get some fruit which was literally dripping off the trees of this lovely little town. He kindly stuffed two whole bags full of fruit for us and when we offered to pay him; he shrugged and said, “Don’t worry it’s not mine…” OOPS! The French Polynesians were proving to be a very friendly, kind and generous bunch.

Once legally checked into French Polynesia, we could explore the very spread out town of Taiohae in Nuku Hiva. We discovered three exciting supermarkets to gorge ourselves on french food and baguettes, and we went to see some excellent documentary films at the annual FIFO film festival which was visiting the tiny local cinema of Nuku Hiva for the weekend but by far the most exciting activity was the local dance class. The kids completely nailed their class with Stella showing an impressive ability to shake her hips. Unfortunately the small group of brave boat moms weren’t quite as flexible and rather hilariously found ourselves at the ‘professional’ class instead of ‘beginners’. It was an exhausting but hugely enjoyable blur of movement and music and was much enjoyed by us all – we now all have huge respect for the dancers who seem to be born with this innate ability to move gracefully and shaking everything effortlessly! It’s bladdy hard work!!

Our friends on SY Bonaire had spent five months during the hurricane season in Nuku Hiva so had recommended a few anchorages and we were keen to explore. After a horrible motor-sail into the wind and waves, we reached the beautiful Anaho Bay at the northern corner of the island and were greeted with another of the most stunning bays we’ve had the good fortune of visiting – the Marquesas were spoiling us.

We explored Anaho bay and tried surfing over the hill off a vast deserted beach but were unfortunately chased away by the resident blue-bottle jelly fish. We hiked to the west over another hill to the nearby village for lunch and ice-creams with the crews of Anila (USA) and Panacea (Finland), stuffing ourselves with mangoes the whole way but most importantly we celebrated Patrick’s birthday with a happy, fun bbq on the beach. We loved our relaxed time in Anaho and reluctantly moved on to the next anchorage. On the way back around the North East corner of the island, we again had very uncomfortable and confused seas but were rewarded with our first sighting of melon headed whales and also a tuna on our fishing line for supper – hooray!

We needn’t have worried about leaving Anaho (as seems to be the way in the Marquesas) our next stop Hakatea on the south-east coast (aka Daniel’s Bay) was again truly spectacular. The bay is surrounded by stark steep cliffs that turn purple at sunset, but once on land you find yourself in the most surprising sumptuous Garden of Eden. We had been advised by our friends to have dinner at the house near the telephone box so we were delighted when we went to buy some fruit from a local couple and quite by chance found ourselves in exactly the right spot for a delicious meal of goat, taro and papaya salad. Their house was surrounded by everything needed for our meal – trees groaning with mangoes, pamplemousse, coconuts, bananas, starfruit, papaya, herbs as well as goats nearby, and freshwater prawns in the river. The next day we joined the Anila crew for a stunning walk to a nearby waterfall – the kids described the scenery as like being stuck in the film, Avatar – rich dense jungle, souring mountains, hidden tikis and a waterfall ravine which although empty was very atmospheric with the sound of soaring tropic birds high above. We were also fortunate enough to get a traditional coconut husking and grating lesson from a local Polynesian called Patrick. The trick is to have the right tools – an iron wood spike for dehusking (which he could do in seconds) and a wooden seat with a sharpened bit of metal for grating – of course he made it look so easy but don’t try this at home!

Reluctantly we knew we had to keep moving, as we wanted to meet up with our friend’s on Bonaire who were already in the next island group called the Tuamotus so we sailed on to visit our final island Ua Pou, the most populated of the Marquesan Islands. Ua Pou also has the tallest, most vertical mountain which is quite a claim in this archipelago of stunning towering peaks. Unfortunately ‘one of the Marquesas’ most photographed scenes’ was completely shrouded by clouds and mist during our stay and the small rolly anchorage was very tightly packed so we had a quick explore, bought some provisions, had a pizza ashore with friends and when the Anarui (part cargo ship, part cruiser liner) arrived and almost took out our friends on Anila, we decided to go on our way. We were keen to explore the western coast of the island where we had been told there was a manta ray cleaning station. We sailed past the island’s rather terrifying airport – a steep runway that starts in the sea and makes it way uphill until it meets the sheer cliff – eek! We found yet another gorgeous anchorage and this time we had the place all to ourselves – a rare treat at this busy time of year. We dinghied quite far from the anchorage over to the reported cleaning station which was just a tiny island a mile off the main island with a steep drop off. We struggled to anchor the dingy in the deep water and feeling rather sceptical jumped off in search of manta rays. Our adventurous spirit was rewarded, when from out of the depths, illuminated in a ray of sunlight, we saw our first manta ray and what an incredible sight it was. We watched in awe as these stunning graceful creatures flew under us, the sunlight glinting off their curled silver horns. It was instant love for us all and a breathtaking experience. Grateful and full of amazing memories of the Marquesas we pulled up anchor to set sail for the next archipelago in French Polynesia, the Tuamotus. We had a glorious three-day sail with calm seas and steady wind – all was good onboard and our feelings of being blessed continued.

You can probably tell we rather fell in love with the gorgeous Marquesas and it wasn’t just because it was our first landfall after 19 days (although of course that helped…) but rather because the islands are stunning, the culture rich and the people warm and proud.

How very fortunate we are to have caught a wonderful glimpse of it.

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