The island of Ua Pou, a wonder in the Northern Marquesas
Ah, the Marquesas Islands, the Land of Men, many people dream about it… We all have in mind these images of lost islands, far away, almost as if they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… For almost four years now, I have had the opportunity to discover this Polynesian archipelago, lost at 1600 km from the island of Tahiti. I already knew the islands of the Southern Marquesas, Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva, without having spent enough time on the last two to write dedicated articles. As I write these few lines, I finally had the opportunity to visit the north of the Marquesas archipelago. And what better way to start the exploration of this territory than to visit the beautiful island of Ua Pou. I then had the chance to discover the island of Nuku Hiva. Only the island of Ua Huka is still unknown to me!
Unless you live in French Polynesia, this little paradise on earth probably doesn’t ring a bell. And yet, I have heard a lot about this island, its famous airport runway going up the mountain and its famous phonolite pinnacles. I apologize in advance for this little geological digression, but it’s my geography/geology background that is catching up with me. Let’s be honest, very few tourists set foot on this lost island off the main island of Nuku Hiva, except for a few curious people on the Aranui cruise ship. This year, in 2019, the island will be renowned for hosting the Marquesas Islands Festival (in Marquesan, Matavaa o te Fenua Enata). Almost everything is already booked out in February, for the month of December. It looks promising.
Since writing about French Polynesia, I have received a lot of requests from people looking for advice and tips on their itinerary, budget, accommodations or simply things to do on certain islands. I don’t think I’ve ever had a person ask me what to do on the island of Ua Pou. To tell you the truth, hardly anyone ever goes. I recently had the opportunity to spend a week there, and what a pleasure. It must be said that you very rarely arrive in Ua Pou by coincidence. Indeed, tourists mostly go to Hiva Oa in particular to see the tomb of Jacques Brel and Paul Gauguin, or to Nuku Hiva because it is the main island, but in reality, very few dare to deviate from this “classic route”. I must say that the island must be earned.
This article will be a little different from the others which are more “travel guide” oriented. I will not be presenting a “top 10 things to do on the island of Ua Pou”, because in the end, it doesn’t seem very suitable to me. You come here to feel something, a particular atmosphere, the power of these Marquesan islands still (almost) cut off from the world. Ua Pou is in my eyes a very good reference for people looking for Polynesian authenticity, the one I love above all. Simple moments, sharing with the population, extraordinary landscapes, fruit/vegetables in abundance, the kind of island that you can clearly fall in love with if you are looking for a beautiful Polynesian experience. For those looking for things to really do, meaning boat trips, 4×4, various activities, restaurants and more, pass your way… So yes, of course, there are things to do and see on the island and I will tell you about them throughout this article which is more like a travelogue…
My first steps
Everybody had already told me about this famous airstrip, right in the middle of the mountains and too short to see the classic ATRs from the other Polynesian islands landing. It is with a mixture of apprehension and excitement that I was longing to see the plane that we were going to take. 3h30 of flight after a Papeete-Nuku Hiva flight, and I set foot on “Terre Déserte” (Desert-Land), the famous name given to the Nuku Hiva airport area. You can understand why. While exiting, I can already see a small plane on the tarmac, the one that will take us to Ua Pou. It is a small twin Otter of 15 seats maximum. We are 10 people to board.
First observation, it is really small and makes a hell of a noise at the start of the engines and even throughout the flight. I wouldn’t even get the chance (so to speak) to experience a crazy landing, the weather being perfectly calm. Twenty minutes later, I see the first steep basalt cliffs of the island of Ua Pou, magnificent. We land almost smoothly on a runway that climbs towards the mountain and turns almost at a right angle at the end of the airstrip. It’s quite funny to see. I then collect my luggage and meet Dora, the manager of the guesthouse where I’ll be staying and which had been recommended to me without hesitation in Tahiti.
First observation as soon as I leave the airport terminal, the island is very dry and most of the vegetation appears almost as burnt. Dora explains to me that it doesn’t rain much and that it’s been a while since they’ve seen a drop of water. We drive on a rough dirt road from the first few meters from the terminal, it puts you in the mood right away. Some switchbacks cut into the mountain allow you to observe magnificent views of the surroundings. The landscapes, even dry at first glance, leave you dreaming.
For those coming to spend a few days on the island, I really recommend stopping and taking the time to visit the small village of Hakahau, the main town of the island. If you are lucky enough to come on beautiful sunny days, you’ll be able to spot the famous pillars just about anywhere in the village. Take the time to stroll through the narrow streets of the village and let your mind wander as you gaze at the magnificent scenery. For photographers, I really recommend coming early in the morning (7am) or late afternoon (5pm), to come and capture the best smooth and soft lights on the pillars. Leave room to your imagination for your pictures because you’ll have your hands full, and you can see the pillars almost everywhere if the weather is clear…
There is nothing very special to do in the village itself. You can feel the calm of the remote islands: almost no noise, no music. We are far away from the island of Tahiti, and it is really nice. In the village, you can go and see the beautiful church in the center as well as the cemetery just next to it. Once again, the view on the pillars in the distance remains splendid. Note the very nice bell tower and the different frescoes that decorate the walls of the church. A quick glance at the town hall is worth it, always with beautiful paintings and sculptures.
You can then continue your little walk in direction of the quay, passing by the small beach of the village, very nice for swimming. On the quay, and in good weather, you have a beautiful panorama once again on the pillars towards the mountains. Inside the valley, at the end of the village, don’t hesitate to gain some height on the dirt roads to admire the magnificent views. I had the opportunity to access some superb places offering wonderful views of the surrounding mountains, and the island of Nuku Hiva in the background (when the weather is nice).
For those who like to walk and get some height, I recommend climbing up to the crucifix located high up in the village. You will see it from the village, not far from the antennas, on your right when you are facing the sea. From the beach, an asphalt road goes up the mountain. You go past a guesthouse and continue on a dirt road. Don’t hesitate to turn around to take a look at the views on the mountain side. You finally arrive at a junction. Take the path on your right to climb up to the crucifix. The effort is worth the reward because the view from above is just sublime. In front of you, a 360° view (or almost) of the pillars and the entire village below. For pictures of the pillars, prefer the early morning compared to the afternoon when you have the sun in your face!
Then go back down to the left junction and go down towards the bay of Anahoa below. A beautiful beach of light fine sand awaits you, the whole surrounded by beautiful basalt cliffs. Beware, the beach is famous for its nonos, kinds of small mosquitoes whose bites are sometimes hardly felt, but which we remember the next day. No worries for me when I went there, but I experienced this once in Hiva Oa, where I was literally covered with more than a hundred bites… Some people advise applying Monoï to avoid bites.
For the end of the afternoon, the most courageous can decide to go up by car in direction of the airport to the “plateau des ânes”. Difficult to explain the place in detail, but you have to go up all the switchbacks which dominate the village, and drive about 10 to 15 minutes as if you were coming back to the plane. You arrive at one point on a kind of natural plateau, rather flat. On your left, you have 3 electric poles, you can park yourself here. Below, you can see the end of the airstrip of the airport. Around 5.30pm / 6pm, the magical evening lights come to illuminate the pillars. I was really lucky to see them so unobstructed the night I passed by. The views on the mountain side and on the sea side are sublime at this hour.
Stroll on the East Coast
In any case, if you come visit the island of Ua Pou, I recommend you to stay at least 3 to 4 days and rent a car (see practical details below). Plan a full day to explore the east coast of the island. I would advise starting with the village furthest along this coast, Hakatao. It is actually on the southwest coast of the island, but only accessible from the east. Enjoy the magnificent viewpoints all along the road. Ideally, bring fruit and water for the day as you will find almost nothing on the road.
The village of Hakatao has the charm of a small flowered village whose calm leaves you dreaming. There is nothing special to do in the village (as in all the others by the way). You have two very nice walks to do on each side of the village. I went up, behind the new church by a small path that goes up on the ridge and on the rocks, which can be seen from below. You can ask the locals for directions. The view of the surroundings is sublime and you can enjoy a break up on the rocks. On the other side of the village, I did not go there, but you can access the crucifix visible from below. You can even climb a little higher to get to the ridge… The view should be just as beautiful I think.
On the way back, you must absolutely stop at the famous beach of Hohoi, known particularly for its famous flowered pebbles that can be found by the sea. It is especially there (and in the mountains too) that the island’s sculptors get their supplies. You can find their work in the handicraft center, right next to the town hall of Hakahau. The collecting is frankly far from easy and the ideal would be to take off your shoes to search among the pebbles wet by the waves. Dry, you won’t see anything. I managed to find a few small ones. Take advantage of this beautiful beach to eat the fruit brought and take your lunch break. The beach is perfect for swimming if the sea is not too rough.
When I passed by, a farmer/fisherman couple was present on the beach. They were drying octopus and fish which they will then freeze and take out when they want. I tasted the salted fish, it was really good…
For the end of the afternoon, I advise you to go down with a few cold beers and chips (why not?) on the bay of Hakamoui. There is a “Hakamoui Beach” sign on the side of the road. Go down to the beach and enjoy a beautiful sunset, in the distance, behind the pillars. On site, a nice little beach of light sand with a few coconut trees where oxen have taken refuge. I find that the setting is a bit like being at the end of the world. You can swim in small natural pools on the left side of the beach, about a 5-minute walk along the cliffs. A last little effort to climb the ridge above gives you a nice view of the bay and a small isolated beach to the west. In short, spending a late afternoon there is a really nice atmosphere.
And why not the other side too?
Another full day should be entirely spent exploring the west coast, starting from the village of Hakahau to the small village of Hakamaii. On the agenda for the day? Three small villages, a beautiful white sand beach, superb panoramas and a chocolate tasting, does that sound good to you?
I would definitely advise you to leave the main village early enough and go up to the airport area. Past the airstrip, you can observe very beautiful viewpoints on the rocky coast of the island. Very quickly, you will discover in front of you the famous shark bay, paradise. Stop on the heights by the roadside to appreciate the beauty of the place: a beautiful beach nestled between two cliffs, splendid turquoise water and sharks that can be seen lingering along the beach, the water being so clear. In the distance, no visible reef, I see a pirogue passing by, probably fishing… great atmosphere.
You can either take the time to stop there now for a swim in a real postcard setting, without anyone around, or do it on your way back at the end of the afternoon. A very good moment in a magical setting in my eyes.
The rest of the day brings you to explore three villages lost in the deep valleys of the island, in order of passage: Hakahetau, Haakuti and Hakamaii. Here, there is nothing special to do except enjoy the scenery, walk through the small villages and talk with the local population. You will notice that several sailboats are often at anchor in some bays, coming to protect themselves from the swell and also enjoy this beautiful mountainous island. The village of Haakuti entirely built on a slope is my preference! I was personally lucky to have good weather on this coast…
On the way back, in the village of Haaketau, ask the locals to show you Monfred’s house. This German, married to a Marquesan, is very well known locally for the production of his own chocolate that you can buy locally. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to meet him during my visit, but his wife made us feel very welcome and showed us around. This couple lives in total autonomy in a small piece of paradise in the middle of a luxuriant vegetation with hens, ducks, cats, roosters, etc… The place is really nice and worth the detour. As a bonus, you can buy some really good dark chocolate bars. A delight.
How about we take a closer look at these pillars?
You may be wondering if it’s possible to get closer to the pillars? And yes, to my knowledge, there are at least two practicable paths to access the interior of the island.
The first one, the famous “traversière”, is a trail that starts from the village of Hakahau and joins the village of Hakahetau. I had the opportunity to do half of this hike up to the pass. I voluntarily did not make the descent to the other village because I was told that the interest was limited, the main thing being to climb to the top to admire the view of the pillars. As usual now, I remind you that you can download the GPS track of this hike on the Wikilocs website. Please note that you are in no way forced to start the walk from the village. The ideal would be to ask your guesthouse to drop you off at the beginning of the hike. For those who do not want to go alone, there is a guide, Jérôme (Pension Pukuee), who can accompany you for the trip. Given the little difficulty along the route (apart from the heat and the climb), I would actually recommend that you go alone. Be careful though, the treks cross private lands belonging to owners of the island. Ask your guesthouse, but overall, it shouldn’t be a problem from what I’ve been told (as long as you remain responsible and respectful of the place).
Depending on your hiking level, the ascent will take between 45 minutes and 1 hour overall. Be careful, there are portions that are really steep, especially towards the end. The path is well marked and impossible to get lost, you follow the tracks (or the downloaded GPS track). You mainly meander through a forest of pandanus, banana and some coffee trees. The view at the top on the rocky peaks is really splendid and you are really rewarded. For those who are interested, you can continue the decent towards the village of Hakahetau. You will fall back on the track that leads to Monfred’s house. Note the small archeological site on the side of the road. On the other hand, you will have to manage getting back to the village (hitch-hike) or ask someone to come and pick you up (for example if someone dropped you off for the hike).
I didn’t have time to do the second hike starting from behind Manfred’s place. By asking him for permission and again following the GPS track on Wikilocs, you arrive at the base of the famous Pumaka pillar. It is apparently very beautiful and the view is worth the effort. It will be for next time.
For the return to Nuku Hiva, you can enjoy the superb views upon arrival on the desert land. I admit that the takeoff from Ua Pou on this tiny runway that descends had my heart turned around for a few seconds! 16 minutes later, you are already on Nuku Hiva!
Ua Pou - Practical information
To end this article, here is the information you need to know to visit the island of Ua Pou.
How to get there?
The island requires taking two planes from the island of Tahiti. So you have no other choice than to travel to the main island of French Polynesia, unless you arrive by boat by your own means. For the majority of you who will read these few lines, you will have to consider taking a flight from where you live. For cheap international flights from where you live to Papeete, you can click on this link. The classic airlines Air France, Air Tahiti Nui and United serve the Fenua, as French Polynesia is called here. Recently, low cost airline companies have been offering cheaper flights to Tahiti, the price of the ticket has dropped significantly since their arrival.
Once there, you have several possibilities. Either you plan a trip to the Marquesas Islands and visit several islands. In this case, it may be interesting to take a Marquesas Pass (see the detailed article on Air Tahiti Passes). Either you decide to visit Ua Pou only and you must in this case make a stopover in Hiva Oa or Nuku Hiva from Tahiti (direct flights from these 2 islands). For now, although an ATR 40 could land on the island, only about 15 seats are available on the plane to get to this small island territory. Count 80,000 cfp (about 650 €).
If you are a group of several people in Nuku Hiva and there is no more room on the plane, you may consider renting a boat to make the crossing, to be shared by the number of people. You can also consider booking through a local travel agency to organize your trip to French Polynesia. I present to you my point of view on the matter.S
Where to sleep in Ua Pou?
Not knowing the island, I had asked people around me in Tahiti for advice on the best place to stay. On several occasions the name “Pension Chez Dora” was given to me. So I did not hesitate. And it is for me the ideal place if you are looking for authenticity, simplicity and good food. François and Dora welcome you as if you were at home and you immediately feel at ease with them. They have 2 large bungalows in the garden and a few rooms in the house. When I was there, I was alone! Dora confirmed to me that very few people pass by and that a majority of her guests come for work.
I really have no complaints on the week spent with them: super large and clean bungalow, cleaning done every day, very generous meals served every evening with them and the same for breakfast, which is expected from a real family pension (as we call guesthouses here). You have free fruit, coffee and water at your disposal, which is very much appreciated and is rarely the case at all guesthouses. I was lucky enough to be spoiled every evening with raw fish, barbecued Uru (fruit of the breadfruit tree), lobsters, etc. The guesthouse is about a 10 to 15-minute walk from the center, nothing too crazy.
Note that there are other guesthouses, two in the village: Pukuee and Chez Claire. Finally, another one in the Bay of Hakamoui, but you are more isolated. In my opinion, even if I don’t know the others, Dora remains a safe choice. Count 9000 cfp (65€) for half board for a single person in a bungalow.
Eating in Ua Pou
There is a good chance that if you come to Ua Pou, you will be in a guesthouse. Very often, the majority of tourists or people coming to work here choose to take half board, because it is finally easier.
For those who are not on half board and to snack at lunchtime, you have several stores in the village that sell all the essentials, a few small snacks to eat on site and/or to take away.
Be careful when you go to the valleys because the options for eating will be more than limited in the small stores in the villages, when they are open…
Given the state of the roads, almost everyone drives a 4×4. If you are spending a few days on the island, I really recommend renting a car because otherwise, you will get stuck very quickly and will be dependent on your guesthouse which of course will charge you for the transfers around the island.
I personally rented from Vanessa and Roby from Ua Pou Location. The friendly couple initiated car rentals on the island and I have no complaints! Rentals are quite expensive as anywhere else in the remote islands, but not too much choice. Count 13,000 cfp (110€) per day.
Considering the size of the island, I wouldn’t really recommend going by bike, admitting that the guesthouses already rent them.
What to bring back from Ua Pou?
For those who wish to bring back a small souvenir of the island, you can find what you are looking for at the handicraft center next to the town hall. On the agenda: sculptures on flowered stone or wood, tiki statues of all kinds, pearl necklaces, pearls or seeds. If you are into stones, you’ll find some really beautiful things made on the famous flowered stones of Ho Hoi. You can also seize the opportunity to bring back a good pot of honey from the island. You can buy it directly from Vanessa and Roby’s store, they also make their own honey!
After your short stay in the Marquesas Islands, why not take the opportunity to relax on the beautiful beaches of the Tuamotu atolls, the lagoon of Moorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora or Maupiti? Between you and me, the Marquesas Islands remain, along with the Gambier archipelago, the most beautiful and authentic I’ve seen in French Polynesia.
There, I’ve come to the end of the article. I sincerely hope you enjoyed the ride. Ua Pou really is a very beautiful island, still authentic. For those who are looking for calm, local encounters and beautiful landscapes, this is an idyllic island. So, did I make you want to go visit?
See you soon