I’ve found the perfect way to relax – visit the South Pacific island where the locals enjoy a three-day weekend every week! On Niue there are few manmade activities and no commercial attractions. And you’ll enjoy a digital detox. Put down your devices, forget about Facebook and ignore emails – internet access is so painfully slow you won’t want to go online! Instead, there’s lots of stunning scenery to keep you busy.
I was only in the air for around four hours during my flight from Auckland but I felt literally like I’d gone back in time. That’s’ because I had to cross the International Dateline and went back a day. Organising arrival and departure dates really messed with my mind!
Few people know about Niue. It’s a small coral atoll with cliffs that drop straight down to the water and few beaches. It’s not your traditional Robinson Crusoe-type island. It’s around two-thirds the size of the Isle of Wight, is covered with thick, green foliage, and has just 2,000 people. And that number varies depending on who you are talking to. If it’s a government official the figure will be higher – something to do with them needing to keep the numbers up to ensure that the New Zealand government continues to send the cheques!
As a visitor, you’ll reap the benefits of the Kiwi’s bankrolling Niue. I’ve travelled to a number of Pacific countries and usually you find a poor infrastructure and poverty caused by their relative isolation. Not in Niue. They have to make do and mend with equipment and some roads are quite potholed, but there is a Kiwi quality about the place.
You can enjoy unspoiled beauty and real island life without foregoing clean white sheets and drinkable tap water. It’s safe for all travellers and people leave their doors unlocked. You’ll also find Marmite (not Vegemite!) and Whittakers chocolate in the island’s only supermarket. Oh, and the locals love the All Blacks.
I discovered the island by chance ten years ago whilst on holiday New Zealand and forged a friendship with two holidaymakers while I was there – people with whom I’ve kept in touch. It’s definitely a place where people have time to talk and make new mates. There are only two flights to Niue each week in the peak season and just one in the winter. Manager of the Scenic Matavai Resort, Simon Jackson, believes that this isolation helps people discover and fall in love with Niue. Guests are there for an entire week and that means they have time to meet locals and see the same faces again and again. It’s more social and because of that many visitors return regularly.
Simon’s role in the hotel differs from his previous management positions. He told me he was part tour guide, part entertainments manager. Your week starts with a poolside drink and orientation talk. Other low-key events are arranged during the week and there’s no naff entertainment. Talks about the island’s large ‘uga’ coconut crab seem more appropriate.
The resort is the island’s only full-service hotel. There are a few self-catering cottages dotted around Niue and there’s a backpackers’ lodge in the town. The Matavai has recently been extended and the rooms are clean, modern and stylish with wooden floors, high ceilings and sliding doors that open straight onto palm-shaded coral rocks sloping down to the sea.
The accommodation is well spaced out and landscaped, giving an intimate feel. It’s green and leafy. The centrepiece is a long, winding pool overlooking the sea, with inviting blue waters that lead to a swim-up bar. The pool is very tempting in the heat, which remains in the thirties Celsius. You’ll never feel crowded at the Matavai as there is so much outdoor decking – you’ll always find a space to call your own.
That’s the thing about Niue. Even if the island is really busy there will still only be 150 visitors there – basically the capacity of the 737 jet that makes the twice-weekly trip. It’s all very low-key and dissimilar to the nearby Cook Islands, which are crawling with tourists in the season.
But you will need transport to really appreciate the place. All of the island’s attractions are natural phenomena – caverns, caves and coral formations – and they are all found off the round–the–island coastal road. The highway – just a single-track in places – circles Niue for 77km and can be quite bumpy in parts. Most settlement is around the coast and the centre of the island is mainly forest and thick vegetation, or bush as it’s known locally.
I headed off to explore food and shopping options on ‘The Rock.’ The resort is only ten minutes drive from the capital Alofi but it’s too far to walk. It’s quite a stroll between businesses in town too. Alofi is long and spread out along the highway. Its wooden villas and buildings are well spaced, which gives the impression that the settlement is more populated than it actually is.
The hotel has a shuttle bus to and from town, which you call on demand but that gets costly at $10 per person each way. There are a number of car rental operations on Niue but before you hit the road, you will need to spend $22.50 on a driving licence available from the Police station. Ironically most people have a hire car delivered to the resort and then drive into town to buy the licence, which gives them authority to drive! As I posed for my picture for the photocard the police officer found my previous licence from ten years ago and commented on how much I’d aged and how grey my hair had become. There isn’t a charm school on Niue, clearly! The card provides a great souvenir and I’ve used it as ID frequently in the United States to prove that nobody ever checks these things.
The Matavai does offer indoor or outdoor dining at breakfast, lunch or dinner and locals often go there for special occasion meals, but I like varying where I eat. Businesses in Niue don’t always keep regular hours or days, so the Tourist Information Centre has a whiteboard on which they write opening times – in theory! I was keen to check out what was on offer. Meals are not what you’d consider cheap and I guess the low visitor numbers mean that owners can’t make volume savings.
There is a sushi restaurant and you can’t miss it because there’s an ark in the garden! It opened five years ago as a partnership between Israeli-born Avi Rubin and a Japanese businessman. Avi made his fortune selling radio pagers in the United States and then worked as a cage-fighting promoter before retiring to the island and starting an ice cream business, which is now closed.
“It’s a very small restaurant with just one chef and we serve a maximum of twenty-four people a night,” Avi told me. He’d never run a restaurant before. “I learned everything I needed to know from watching Gordon Ramsay and his Kitchen Nightmares TV show,” he laughed.
I’m not a sushi fan and people I spoke with told me the food was perfectly fine but claiming it is “the fifth best sushi restaurant in the world,” was a bit cheeky. However, I enjoyed his menu alternative, pizza, which had the thickest chunks of tuna I’d ever been served on top of a twelve-inch. Top marks to Avi for having fish too! During my 2006 visit I enjoyed plenty of fish, but this was off the menu at many places during my more recent stay. Some locals said fishing conditions were bad following a recent tropical storm, while others claimed that reliance on government jobs had killed entrepreneurial spirit and people couldn’t be bothered to fish any more!
The Vaiolama Cafe serves deli-style lunches and incredible cakes and is just outside town. Just don’t go there expecting a coffee on a Sunday – that’s the day when none of the staff on duty know how to work the coffee machine. That is accepted as quite normal. It’s another quirk of Niue and part of its uniqueness!
Owner Pauline Blumsky has recently returned home to the island after many years living in New Zealand and the Middle East. The cafe is built on the foundations of her mother’s house. It has amazing views across the thickly wooded clifftops and out to sea but its exposed location meant the family home was decimated by a cyclone in 2004. Now locals build their houses further inland. The structure was formed from shipping containers and clad with wood.
I wouldn’t normally rave about salad leaves and garnish but you’ll notice the intense flavour of leaf or vegetable dishes here. Pauline’s husband Mark is a former Mayor of Wellington and New Zealand Member of Parliament, who relocated to the island to take up the High Commissioner role. When he retired he set up a hydroponic farm to produce affordable fruit and veg. Soil is thin on Niue and there hadn’t been a salad crop growing, which meant supplies had to be flown in at huge expense. “I was fed up of having coleslaw with every meal and I wanted to provide a product to make the nation healthy,” Mark told me. “Pacific islanders aren’t good at eating healthy food.”
I went to look around Mark’s farm, which has a sales outlet for self-caterers. He handed me a passion fruit that he’d grown. Its taste was incredible – rich, intense and concentrated. “It’s so different to the passion fruit we have in New Zealand. It’s stronger isn’t it?” he said. ”When you cook with it, it just powers the flavour.” So that’s why Pauline’s cakes are so delicious!
The cafe has the added attraction of an 18-hole mini golf course cut through the coral outcrops and foliage, which offers expansive sea views. I can guarantee you’ll end up taking your eye off the ball.
Further into town you’ll find the Crazy Uga Cafe. It’s named after the prehistoric-looking, tree-climbing uga crabs that owner Willie Santelli offers expeditions to view. He built the conjoined round structures using unwanted plastic water containers from a now defunct factory. There is gravel at your feet and the occasional chicken wanders in to peck at your crumbs as you eat.
His other cafe is fifteen minutes drive away on the other side of the resort – the Wash Away Cafe. The ceiling of the corrugated iron-roofed shack is plastered with T-shirts signed by previous customers and includes one from the first couple to marry there. Uniquely, the Wash Away operates an honesty bar system – you just write down details of what you eat or drink in a book and leave the appropriate amount of cash. It’s only open on Sundays and offers simple, but freshly-cooked, burgers and chips. “How long are you open today?” I asked him. “Maybe 8pm but I’ll close earlier if there’s nobody around,” said Willie.
You can’t make plans on Niue. Niue will plan for you! Willie was busy fishing when he opened the business and thought that the honesty bar approach worked better. He’s kept it to this day because the system works well for him. There’s no unemployment here and Willie, like many islanders, takes on multiple roles. As well as physically building and running the two cafes he is also a fisherman, fixes cars, operates a car rental business and offers guided wildlife tours looking for coconut crabs in the bush.
Willie is proud of his constructions. I went to see the house he’d built using coral rock. That’s also provided the base walls for Wash Away. Willie said locals thought he was crazy when they saw him hacking up the rock using a crowbar, but he says it’s smooth and rounded unlike the quarried rock. It all adds to a distinctive appearance.
If you want to chat about island life and how it differs from New Zealand or Australia, you’ll find that expats hang out in the Sails Bar. It’s ten minutes drive north out of town and barman Stafford Guest, a former radio New Zealand editor, will keep you entertained with his views on island life and the world at large. He proudly displays a giant wooden spoon, carved with the inscription ‘The World’s Greatest Stirrer’ on the wall behind the bar. He is very entertaining, as is his Wednesday night pub quiz.
One downside of Niue’s relaxed and chilled environment and low tourism numbers is that opening hours and times don’t necessarily work well for tourists. Mark Blumksy told me that there were some raised eyebrows following their decision to open the cafe on Sundays – on an island where the seventh day is all about worship.
I mentioned that locals generally work a four-day week. That’s because a former Premier had to back-peddle on his promise of a 20% pay rise for government workers. The concession was to create a three-day weekend. That means Thursday night is like Friday evening on Niue – people go out. The Vaiolama even promotes a Thursday happy hour with six-dollar cocktails in the afternoon, which struck me as an odd day to do it until I learned about the extended weekend. The downside is that Alofi is a ghost town on Saturdays and closed on Sundays.
Artist Mark Cross has lived on the island since the 1970s. He describes his work as ‘realism,’ capturing in intense detail the light and clarity of the island water. His landscapes often feature people swimming in the warm, crystal-clear waters but there’s also an environmental edge to his work, highlighting the dangers that man-made pollution can bring. His gallery is located within a block of shops around a village green in the centre of town.
“On Saturday most people are in the bush, gardening from seven in the morning, and in the afternoon they tend to catch up on the sports. Businesses are based around local consumption and haven’t got the swing of tourism needs yet,” Mark told me. You can argue that’s part of the island’s charm and as long as you know in advance, you can prepare. The supermarket opens for just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. If you want affordable alcoholic drinks it’s best to stock up at the government-run off licence, the Bonds Stores, where they will give you duty-free prices if you present your flight boarding card. So don’t throw it out! But they are only open Monday to Thursday.
Over the weekend I made multiple trips to the excellent Gill’s Indian takeaway, which appears to be open all hours. The food was superb and the most affordable on the island with delicious vegetable rotis at six dollars.
Another popular local food choice is a pie. Islanders set their alarms so they can be at the Rock Bak bakery for 6am on Fridays. Co-owner Catherine Panani told me that there can be queues for the bacon and egg, potato topped mince and cheese pies, which her husband Keith makes through the night. He starts work at 10pm and, apart from hospital staff, is possibly one of the only through-the-night workers in this part of the Pacific! “Friday is plane day,” Catherine told me. Departing visitors and islanders don’t want to purchase an expensive ticket including food so they grab a pie to take on board.
You’d think that Friday – effectively their Saturday – would be quiet but it can be the busiest day for many locals, heading to the airport to sell their wares to departing passengers and those arriving as the plane turns around. A singer, Janna, was on his guitar to welcome arriving flyers as soon as they made it through the simple immigration and customs procedure.
Islanders also head to the market in the centre of town, which opens at 6am on Fridays and Tuesdays. You’ll find stalls stocked with local fruit and vegetables, jams, cakes, handicrafts and carved wooden items. It’s a place to pick up simple but beautifully-made souvenirs.
Local women weave baskets, trays and mats from pandanus leaves. Eva told me that it was a dying craft because it’s such hard work. “We cut and clean the leaves because they have sharp thorns on them,” she told me. You can find the women at work in the craft hall in the town centre most mornings. And judging by the amount of chatting going on, it appears to be part work and part social activity.
The best souvenirs of your time on Niue are mementos that reflect the beauty or rich natural resources of the island – maybe one of Mark’s paintings, a handmade basket or, if luggage space is tight, what about a stamp? I’m not a stamp collector but I like to take back a set from unusual places. You can purchase brightly coloured stamps showcasing the island’s wildlife or scenery from the Philatelic Bureau in the town centre.
Getting To Niue
The only way to reach Niue is by plane, travelling on Air New Zealand from Auckland. I stayed at the Scenic Matavai Resort. There’s lots of useful island information on the tourist board’s website at www.niueisland.com.