When you think of Pacific island holidays you probably think of Fiji, or maybe Vanuatu, Tahiti or New Caledonia. But Australia has its own sub-tropical island escape in Norfolk Island.
Discovered by Captain Cook in 1774 after first being settled by Polynesians, Norfolk Island is a small island located in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand. It has a sub-tropical climate with temperatures rarely over 28 degrees or under 10 degrees. From the air, it looks much like Fiji but covers just 8 by 5 kilometres. New Caledonia, 770 kilometres away, is the nearest neighbouring island.
Many of the islanders are direct descendents of mutineers from The Bounty in 1789, when Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against the ship’s captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. Many of the mutineers later settled on Pitcairn Island and their descendents moved to Norfolk Island in the 1850s – long after it had ceased to be a brutal penal colony. Common local names include those of mutineers Christian, Quintal and Buffett. And yes, the Buffetts are distant relations of both financier Warren Buffett and singer Jimmy Buffett, who once performed here.
Many of the locals speak Norf’k, a mixture of Tahitian and old English that is one of the rarest languages in the world, and the mood is laidback. Cows have right of way on the roads and feral chickens roam everywhere.
Norfolk Island is just a 2.5 hour flight from Sydney and Brisbane – and just 1.5 hours from Auckland. It is part of the Commonwealth of Australia but it enjoys a large degree of self-governance. It has between 1,800 and 2,800 residents, depending on the season. There are no chain hotels, fast-food restaurants, public transport or traffic lights – and only one roundabout. When you drop off your hire car you simply leave the keys in the ignition or under the drivers’ seat carpet and everything is taken care of for you.
Because it is never cold here, tropical fruits like bananas and guavas thrive. There are tiny farmers’ markets selling fresh local produce, several very good restaurants with a local focus, a winery – and even a local liqueur producer. The markets are held on Saturday mornings next to the Visitor Information Centre – with just half a dozen stalls with fresh fruits, vegetables and dishes made using local Norfolk Island Blue beef. On Sundays there is an arts and crafts market – the ideal place to pick up a local memento or two.
The best restaurants include casual Dino’s (where the pizzas are excellent), Norfolk Island Blue, where the focus is on beef grown on the owners’ farm, and the excellent Hilli Restaurant and Wine Bar, where you can eat indoors or al fresco. The Rock is a very good steak and seafood restaurant, while La Perouse serves French-accented cuisine and Bailey’s features terrific lunch specials. Good local lunch spots include The Olive Cafe, the bustling Golden Orb (which is also a bookshop and is set in a sub-tropical garden) and Sublime Cafe.
The Tin Sheds, three five-star villas that each come with their own colour-coded Fiat Uno, offer the most upmarket accommodation and are within walking distance of several eateries and shops. Other good options include the recently refurbished penthouses at the South Pacific Resort and the Governors Lodge Resort.
To learn about the history of the island, from convicts to Pitcairn islanders, visit Fletchers Cyclorama 360 – a fascinating artwork that tells the story of the island from its earliest days – and the World of Norfolk photographic exhibition, which is far more interesting than it sounds. There are several fascinating museums, including The Pier Store, which has several artefacts dating back to the mutiny on The Bounty, life on Pitcairn Island and the resettlement of the islanders on Norfolk Island in 1856. The HMS Sirius Museum looks at Australia’s most important shipwreck, which happened off the island in 1790.
Other spots worthy of a visit include the convict cemetery adjacent to the golf course, where you’ll find headstones of executed convicts; beautiful beaches at Emily and Slaughter bays (take a trip in a glass-bottomed boat), the Captain Cook monument and lookout, and the panoramic views from the top of Mount Pitt.
Foodies are also well catered for with the Norfolk Island Blue beef, boutique cheeses from the Christian Brothers and a cooking school at Mastering Taste Chef School and Garden Tour, where students can pick many of the ingredients from the potager.
Rodrick McAlpine at Two Chimneys Winery is about to release his first wines made using local grapes; until his vines became mature he has been using fruit from the mainland. Two Chimneys offers tastings and serves excellent local platters. Also check out the tasting rooms at Norfolk Island Liqueurs, where local fruits are used in products made in a German still; including macadamia nut, guava and banana liqueurs, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. Make time to visit the Anson Bay coffee plantation of Fred Wong too, who also offers tastings and tours.
For such a small place there is a surprising amount to do – there is even a day spa and several massage options in Burnt Pine Township, the main settlement; while Norfolk Island National Park is popular with bushwalkers and bird watchers and celebrity residents including Colleen McCullough, Helen Reddy and Sorrel Wilby.
There’s a nine-hole golf course that’s one of the oldest in Australia – and outside Scotland, too, while snorkelling in the clear blue water is lovely too. Fishing is a popular pastime and locals joke that it is easier to catch a fish than it is to go home empty handed; trumpeter, snapper, yellow fin tuna, kingfish and wahoo abound.
Norfolk Island was once regarded as “a place of ultimate punishment” but I can’t think of many better destinations at which to hit a few balls, throw in a line or to simply lay back and relax for a few days.
Words: Winsor Dobbin