Like most sailors navigating down from California or the Panama Canal, I made my first French Polynesian landfall in the Marquesas Islands, at the country's far northeastern edge. These hauntingly beautiful islands were really remote 3 decades ago. Air Tahiti made the 3 1/2-hour flight up here once every 2 weeks, and few cruise-ship passengers ever came close to the Marquesas.
A lot has changed since then. Air Tahiti now flies from Papeete every day to Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, the two main islands; the cruise ship Aranui 3 comes up here every 2 weeks; and the Tahitian Princess and Paul Gauguin occasionally ply these waters. To my mind, the Aranui 3 is the best way to explore more than one or two islands up here, including Ua Pou and Fatu Hiva, two of French Polynesia's most dramatically beautiful islands.
Some things haven't changed, for the Marquesas still seem a world apart from the rest of French Polynesia. They were the first to be settled by Polynesians, who came from Samoa around 150 B.C. and later went on to colonize Hawaii and Easter Island, the northern and eastern outposts of the great Polynesian Triangle. To this day, the Marquesan language is more like Samoan and Hawaiian than Tahitian. Instead of "Ia orana," up here you are as likely to be greeted with "Ka'oha" -- the origin of the Hawaiian "Aloha."
The Marquesans are proud of their ancient culture with its rich heritage of arts and crafts, especially stone sculpture, woodcarving, and tattooing. As in Samoa and Hawaii, their songs are more melodic and their dances are more graceful and not as suggestive as the hip-swinging versions in the Society Islands. Although more Marquesans now live on Tahiti than up here, those who remain are less stressed than their urbanized brethren.
The geography is different here, too. The islands lie between 7 1/2° and 11° south latitude, placing them much closer to the Equator than Tahiti. The South Equatorial Current brings cool water from South America, however, thus both tempering the climate (it's much drier up here than in the Society Islands) and impeding the growth of coral reefs. As a result, these rugged volcanic islands drop abruptly into the sea. Many of the bays up here have beaches (many infested with biting no-nos [sand flies], especially on Nuku Hiva), but with little coral to form lagoons or fringing coastal plains upon which to build round-island roads, getting to them -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- can be major obstacles in the Marquesas.
In other words, you will be sorely disappointed if you come to the Marquesas expecting a luxurious beach vacation. But adventurous souls who like to shop for exquisite handicrafts, go hiking on spectacular paths, ride the descendants of horses brought here from Chile in the 19th century, and see some phenomenally beautiful scenery will thoroughly enjoy these remote and fascinating islands.