If New Zealand and Fiji had a lovechild, he or she would surely have the stunning good looks of Norfolk Island. Long renowned as a Pacific Paradise for history buffs – after a vicious incarnation as a penal colony it was abandoned in 1855 and settled again a year later by Bounty Mutineers and their Tahitian partners – it is now aspiring to be a destination also known for its food and wine experience.
The economy has had its challenges, exacerbated by the GFC that left Air New Zealand as the lone airline to carry visitors to its shores. There are occasional cruise day-trippers but they need to be brought in by tender and that means it’s a captain’s call based on ocean conditions on the day of a ship’s arrival.
For a tiny population with a small tax base it takes a lot to administer and maintain this 3,455-hectare island.
Locals are responding entrepreneurially. Take Les Quintal, for example, who guided our extended family around in his capacity as marketing and tour manager for Baunti Escapes. As well as playing tour guide, Les has for the last few years organised an annual Christmas-in-Winter event at the late author Colleen McCulloch’s property, shipping in famous Australian and Kiwi entertainers and providing a counter cyclical attraction for more than 100 visitors.
Les’s family, it turned out, were descendants of Bounty mutineers who relocated from the Pitcairn Islands and resettled Norfolk Island in 1856. They have a road named after them and it was on a farm by that road where Les pointed out a man in his 90s swinging a hoe – his father. A combination of farm and island life has treated him well.
Norfolk is a volcanic island and locals make the most of what a fertile environment that attracted its first English inhabitants who established it as an agricultural settlement in 1788.
Today, as you drive around the island, you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables for hand-marked prices on bags in honesty boxes at many farm gates. The number of restaurants and stores serving the community and its guests is also testimony to the entrepreneurial spirit. A local accommodation guide lists 27 villa complexes, 17 restaurants and cafes and 18 attractions and adventure tours.
They include fishing tours, horse riding, golf, kayaking, a glass bottom boat, a coffee plantation, wine and cheese tours, a couple of galleries and even high tea at a cliff-top residence.
We stayed at Tintoela, built in the 1980s and refurbished in recent years, its three guesthouses are situated on tropical grounds and look out across undulating hillscape down to the ocean.
The island is mostly steep cliff shores which no doubt made coming or going a very daunting prospect for those convicted to provide hard labour on its shores in the early days of the island’s settlement.
Very occasionally a small vessel sailed or motored across our ocean vista but aside from the rhythm of ocean swell and associated whitecaps, the most action on the landscape took the form of free-range chicks and proprietorial cows who asserted as much right to island roads as any motorised vehicle.
There are a limited number of beaches but those that are available offer an exceptional array of almost private-beach experiences. The most popular for families is the well-protected Emily Bay, in front of the nine-hole golf course.
Next along is Slaughter Bay, in front of the historic heart of the island and its single wharf. It is a reef break offering plenty of action for divers and surfers in the right conditions. I had my board and during our stay the prevailing winds didn’t favour the reef so we drove further afield.
The first stop was Creswell Bay. It was a magic adventure reminiscent of surf trips I’d taken years ago. The Bay was accessed via a steep, gravel road which led to a secluded parking spot where we had to leave our vehicle and hot-foot it down a bush trail to a small, sandy beach of secluded beauty.
The wind, here too, was still onshore (blowing from the ocean to the land), and therefore not ideal, although there was some swell. That’s the beauty of island living or, what the clever copywriters behind the most recent tourism marketing campaign have labelled “360 degrees of Wonder”.
If the wind is onshore on one side of the island, it will be offshore on the other. And so my brother-in-law, nine-year-old son and I jumped back in the car for a 20-minute drive to the rugged and remote Anson Bay. This beach was even more remote. We descended on foot down a steep, one kilometre track. Toward the bottom we passed an abandoned hut with prefect purchase on the bay’s surf and stunning sandy beach. The break was quite close to a rocky cliff and the backwash from deep ocean swells made for an unpredictable surf experience.
I was happy to find two surfers already in the water – they were from northern NSW and had arrived via Brisbane – who guided me into a few waves in what felt to me like fairly treacherous conditions. My son and brother-in-law swam close to shore. It was an enlivening and memorable encounter with nature at one of the world’s more remote surf locations.
We visited Norfolk in a party of 11 extended family members spanning three generations. Golf was on the menu.
We decided to mostly cook and eat at home and one evening the entire family lay on blankets on the grass looking at the spectacular show put on by the clearest view imaginable of a starlit night sky, complete with satellite and meteor spotting.
Les Quintal’s day one tour oriented us for the next four days. We got a handle on the island from the summit of Mount Pitt from where you can look across the island from every direction and appreciate its place in the Pacific. On the way there, we drove past the most massive plantations of that most familiar of imports to Sydneysiders – Norfolk Pines. The pines had originally been tagged by Captain James Cook, the first known Westerner to set foot on the island in 1774, as timber for ship masts but were to subsequently prove more successful transplanted on to East Coast Australian beaches where they have proven majestic wind breaks.
There is a monument to Captain Cook at the most northerly point of the spectacular Norfolk Island National Park and Botanic Island, looking over cliffs into a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Much is made of the variety of fresh fish and, provided there’s been a catch, it’s with good reason: Sweet Lip (called Trumpeter locally), Kingfish and Wahoo provide the ocean’s variation on the island’s “paddock-to-plate” dining theme.
From nature to civilization, if you could have called it that, you can take some time to explore the small strip dubbed the Kingston Arthur’s Vale Historical Area. From 1788 until 1814, the Island was settled by seamen, settlers and convicts but closed due to a lack of harbour – and all inhabitants were removed. It opened again when its isolation was seen as a virtue and for 30 years from 1825 served as a penal colony for twice-convicted men from Australia.
The colony was abandoned, tarnished black by its cruel treatment of the convicts, including floggings and killings, and may have stayed that way but for Queen Victoria offering the again vacated Island to the community from the Pitcairn Islands.
One hundred and ninety four members of this community emigrated en-masse in 1856 – half of whom were under the age of 16. We now know the story of human occupation of Norfolk dates further back as various tools discovered on cleared lands have been dated as far back as 1150 to 1450, attributed to Polynesian seafarers.
The island’s history is brought to life via a number of in–situ tours, a “Cyclorama” landmark painting bringing life to the Bounty mutiny and even a cemetery tour.
Different members of our family ventured out in different ways. One party went for a horse ride – another took to long mountain and cliff top walks. Our octogenarians generally soaked up the tranquility with a few good books while our Gen Y’ers and below (and, I have to confess, one X’er) augmented the serenity with connectivity via acquired Island Wi-Fi access passes sold through the local post office.
There’s no doubt the Island’s tourism offering is maturing and, for luxury travellers, this is a necessity. The Island’s trick will be to walk the tightrope familiar to precious, unique destinations of creating sustainable world-class tourism experiences while protecting the experience that is, to some extent, a product of its isolation and lack of commercial infrastructure.