Captain James Cook first caught sight of Niue in 1774 but had quite an unsuccessful landfall. Niueans were traditionally very protective of their island and met vessels with suspicion and hostility. Cook and his men were received by a band of local warriors covered in what appeared to be blood. To add to their ferocity, the warriors painted their mouths with a red die from the hulahula, a native red fe’i banana. As Cook wrote in his journal, “The conduct and aspect of these islanders occasioned my giving it the name of Savage Island.” He set off and never returned. I mean, I get it. If Niue were my home, I would be protective too.
Navigation charts still label it as Savage Island, locals know it as The Rock of Polynesia, and its name translates to “behold the coconut”. We haven’t seen anything quite like Niue in any of our travels worldwide, and in my humble eyes, this place is the absolute gem of the Pacific.
With only 260 square kilometers and a population of 1600 people, this rugged little coral atoll packs some significant wow factor. We have indeed found a piece of paradise everywhere we go, and in Niue it felt like we had it all to ourselves. There are two flights from Auckland per week, 13 mooring balls for crazy people who sail here, no traffic, no buses, no cabs, no cruise ships, no crime and plenty to do. Locals were all friendly and welcoming. For the first couple of days I kept wanting to smile and greet them with an Ia Orana. Three months in French Polynesia had made the phrase stick, but also Fakaalofa lahi atu (hello in Niue) didn’t roll of the tongue.
The coastline of this pinky-toe-of-an-island is hugged by steep limestone cliffs, caves and chasms. The water clarity is insane – visibility underwater exceeded 150 feet! A booklet given to us upon arrival highlighted 17 “sea tracks”, or narrow walkways from the road that lead to something truly unique. We swam in shallow cold pools where inland fresh water and salt water intertwined; hiked through unforgiving rocks towards limestone caves, arches and pinnacles; swam into crevices; did a 2-tank dive into caves and underwater chasms; swam with sea snakes, giant parrot fish and a plethora of reef fish. Sunday is a day of rest and religious observance, so boating, swimming, snorkeling and commerce were not allowed.
Now I feel bad for Cook. If he only knew what he would be missing.
Gallery of fun times in Niue
We had made successful landfall but had yet one more feat to master: the dinghy crane. Cruiser guides demystified this industrial strength creature, nevertheless I still felt intimidated. With high surge and little protection, leaving your dinghy tied to the wharf is not an option. You have to lift it with a crane, also used by the locals to remove the dive and fishing vessels out of the water. If its strong enough for them, we were certain Charlie would be fine. It was not as hard as it looked. Funny enough we don’t have a single picture of us getting Charlie out of the water! I guess it required maximum concentration on both our parts.
Lets explore! But first, figure out how to drive.
There’s no public transit on the island so procuring a rental car was a must. Our first time driving a car on the left side of the street! Everything in the car was in Japanese, and we couldn’t get the GPS lady to shut up. Good thing it’s hard to get lost in Niue, there’s very few roads.
Matapa was a former fresh water bathing place of Niue’s past kings. The short hike down the sea track culminated in a pool of ultra-transparent aquamarine water with cliffs sheltering this tiny cove. Here, salt water and fresh water meet, causing a blurry effect when they mix.
A beautiful swimming and snorkeling area where crystal clear salt and fresh water also mix.
An easy hike from the entrance of Matapa Chasm, Tavala Arches was traditionally used as a lookout point for impending raids on foreign vessels. The arches were beautiful and the limestone caves in route were a spectacular surprise.
This gorgeous cave right onshore was the spot where the first canoe landed.
Down a flight of 155 steps is a narrow chasm where light barely seeps in – hence why I have no more pictures. This pool used to be a main source of freshwater for a neighboring village. Swimming in here, with little light, was nuts. (OMG, was that a sea snake? No that was a twig. OMG, what was that? It was a leaf.)
The geology at Togo was surprising and surreal. After leaving a bushy trail you pop into a mass of jagged coral pinnacles. Down a steep wooden set of steps, you end up at a small patch of golden sand where some coconut trees rise. Tucked in here you can still hear the waves violently crashing onshore, only yards away.
Under the sea
I have no experience as an underwater photographer, so our shots are, well … I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. If you dive, add Niue to your bucket list.
Hikulagi Scupture Park
You’re driving down the western coast of the island and all of a sudden, there’s a sign for a sculpture park. Niue’s primary artistic attraction, this park may be small in size, but monumental in the point it aims to make. Pieces are made of trash – debris brought in by tourists, freight, or washed ashore. The installation called ‘Protean Habitat’ (pictured above) invites the public to “add their own sculptures to the substructure leaving their small indelible mark on the growth of the main construction. I recognize this is designed as an invitation to produce art, but taking it deeper I saw an ironic challenge to watch the impact we chose to leave behind.
The unfiltered side of Niue
Niue was devastated by powerful Cyclone Heta in 2004, which also hit neighboring Tonga and American Samoa. The devastation was still visible around the island in the shape of small dilapidated homes. Damage to these islands was estimated at $150M USD. New Zealand and Australia provided relief and supplies to devastated residents. It is said that many islanders fled their home country and took residence in New Zealand.
A google search of “why are there so many graves on the side of the road in Niue?” yielded mix results. It’s a mildly inappropriate question to ask a local you just met, so we were left wondering. Dates and subsequent research didn’t indicate a correlation with the cyclone. Some were ceremonial sites of past notaries, most remembrances of common folk. It’s heard of in other south pacific islands to bury your loved ones in front-lawn graves. They are well maintained and scattered all across the island and town center. It’s a normal occurrence and for locals a fact-of-life. For us, a haunting sight and a reminder that death doesn’t discriminate. So…YOLO?