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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Niue – the forgotten Pacific island

Stepping ashore in Niue felt like stepping back in time; back to 1960s New Zealand when life was totally relaxed and completely informal.  On this island, which is utterly overlooked by tourism, everyone waves to each other and says hello; no one locks their cars or houses.  It’s all refreshingly different from anywhere else we’ve ever been.  People are genuinely friendly and the island itself is absolutely beautiful.  It has a wild and rugged coastline, astonishing limestone caves and the most amazing diving and snorkelling with stunning water clarity up to 80m visibility.  Oh and I did I mention the whales?


Our sail from Suwarrow was a mixed bag of not enough wind to too much as we slid through the pesky South Pacific Convergence Zone.  On arrival in Niue we picked up a mooring buoy and contacted authorities to announce our arrival.  Of course it was Tuesday – the day the Air New Zealand flight arrived from Auckland and everyone official was at the airport.  No one rushes here so it was a few hours before we got the call to go to the wharf.  That was no mean feat given the bay of Alofi is an open roadstead and exposed to the swell.  Dinghies are winched onto the wharf which can be hair raising and our first attempt was rather hilarious but we came through unscathed! 

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 A rickety old white van turned up and a couple of friendly chaps jumped out and introduced themselves as customs and immigration;  check in was done in the back of the van, casual as you like, and it set the scene for the rest of our stay on this wonderful island. The lack of stiff formality extended to the Matavai Resort where I spent an afternoon while David was diving. They happily let me use their pool and wifi without even buying a drink.  The Matavai is Niue's only resort and its wide decks were the perfect spot to whale watch.  I was treated to a wonderful show as two played outside the reef.  Niue offers fantastic walks through petrified coral forest to remote and spectacular coastlines.  Limestone rocks have produced some wonderful caves and we enjoyed exploring without the hassle of having to buy tickets or fight the crowds.  Refreshing stuff.


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Niue totally relies on aid from New Zealand – about $8m a year.  In recent years the population has plummeted to fewer than 1300 as many head to greener pastures in New Zealand, where 20,000 already live. That has caused anxiety especially amongst the elders and Niue is pockmarked with hundreds of abandoned houses; entire villages have been left.  Some were damaged in hurricanes but most have been simply shut up and left.  Hurricanes have destroyed factories and crops including coconut plantations and lime and passion fruit crops and sadly there seems little enthusiasm today when it comes to horticulture. The local market disappointingly only offered bananas and papaya.   We couldn’t help but feel it was a lost opportunity but NZ govt handouts obviously reduce incentive.



At the Lakepa Village Fair- a fantastic day out attended by the entire island - an elder took a crack at Air New Zealand for “taking all our people away.”  It’s a sad fact that after our government funded the airport extension to the tune of some $6m it only encouraged more people to leave the island.  Unfortunately outsiders aren’t able to buy land and so properties are just left.  It’s a shame as Niue would be a great winter bolthole for Kiwis and we certainly eyed up some cliff-top properties with huge potential.

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During our week in Niue we fell in love with the laid back lifestyle.   Where else would a rental car agent turn up barefoot waving away any paperwork or money – “do it later”, he said.  There isn’t much in the way of five star cuisine but we found the fresh fish (wahoo) and chips and flat whites at the fantastic Uga cliff top cafe as good as any in NZ.  A bonus was the panoramic view over the bay.  Niue is a great spot to pack a picnic lunch and head to the deserted east coast and sit and watch the surf roll in.   We were overwhelmed at the water clarity – Bandit was sitting in 39m and we could clearly see the bottom.


Niue’s main attraction are the migrating humpback whales that appear in August and September.  We had a mum and her calf in the anchorage most days playing but, of course, the one afternoon we went ashore for an ice-cream (Hokey Pokey trumpet…it’s been a while) they decided to play around Bandit.  Our neighbours gleefully told us of the magnificent show they’d had in our absence!  We made up for it when a humpback breached just behind Bandit – leaping right out of the water four or five times.   By the time I raced below to grab the camera he’d almost finished his magnificent act – all I captured was the gigantic splash.


 For anyone looking for a soft adventure tourism destination, a place where you don’t have to escape the crowds (there aren’t any), an island with fantastic hikes and some of the best snorkelling and diving we’ve had – head for Niue.  You won’t be disappointed.

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