It’s the middle of summer on Norfolk Island, and the locals are checking out the island’s newest arrivals: a handful of surfers and their film crew from the Australian mainland. The conditions are just right for tackling a crystal-clear barrel off Anson Bay. And many of Norfolk Island’s 2000-or-so residents are here to see it. Two surfers can be spotted close to shore – a third is being towed by jet ski out to the break. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
A tiny speck of land around 1600km north east of Sydney and 1000km northwest of Auckland, Norfolk Island boasts dramatic natural assets – be it surf, lagoons, national park or dense pine forest. One of Australia’s most geographically isolated communities, the island, an eroded remnant of a basaltic volcano active around three million years ago, is also of major biological importance, home to many endemic species of flora and fauna.
Of the island’s 174 native plants, 51 are endemic and at least 18 of those are rare or threatened. The Norfolk Island palm and the smooth tree-fern – the tallest tree-fern in the world – are common in the Norfolk Island National Park but rare elsewhere on the island. The landmass is also home to a mix of land, water and seabirds, and again, the isolation means that a high proportion of these are found nowhere else in the world. There’s the wedge-tailed shearwater, masked booby, sooty tern and green parrot – the latter has become the symbol of the island and a conservation success story, thanks to an assisted breeding program that brought back the parrot’s population from the brink of extinction.
Norfolk Island’s remote location in the Pacific also made it the ideal place to house convicts. Previously occupied by seafaring Polynesians, the island was turned into a British convict settlement from 1788 – just six weeks after Australia’s founding settlement at Sydney – until 1814. At the time, it was known as ‘Hell in the Pacific’ after being declared “a place of the extremest punishment short of death”. Ironically, the former prison site in Kingston is now one of the island’s most idyllic spots.
A scenic road bordered by pine trees weaves downhill to Norfolk Island’s capital: a series of heritage-listed Georgian buildings along a strip known as Quality Row. By the shore are the ruins of an early pentagonal prison, a lime pit (into which convict murder victims were sometimes thrown) and the convict cemetery. The backdrop is picture-perfect Emily Bay, where locals dive from an offshore pontoon into clear water that fades into a shallow reef – so shallow, in fact, that it claimed the HMS Sirius in 1790. Part of the old settlement has been turned into a museum dedicated to the ship, its salvaged ruins on display.
After a second phase of convict settlement between 1825 and 1855, prisoners were shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and Queen Victoria handed the island over to descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers and Tahitians, who had outgrown their adopted home on Pitcairn Island. In 1856, 194 Pitcairners from eight families relocated here from their tiny island more than 6200km away. The fact they only brought eight surnames with them, and around a third of the Norfolk Island population still has Pitcairn roots, is one of the reasons why locals today are known by nicknames, such as Truck, Trailer and Paw Paw.
The Tahitian background of the Pitcairn settlers has resulted in a number of aspects of Polynesian culture being adapted to that of Norfolk Island, including the hula dance. Local cuisine shows influences from the region. Tahitian fish salad is on most menus around town, with the recipe calling for raw white fish to be marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk before being mixed with fresh herbs and vegetables. Other local favourites include mudda (green banana fritters) and kumara pilhi, a type of baked sweet potato slice made with coconut milk. There’s also all manner of fresh fruit pies, just one of the many legacies of American whalers who frequented the island for more than 100 years.
It’s the laid-back Polynesian sensibility that shines brightest on Norfolk Island. Across the island, a strict 50km/hr speed limit is enforced, perhaps in part because roaming cows always have right of way. There’s one taxi and a new Uber driver. There’s also a vineyard (Two Chimneys), where Rod and Noelene McAlpine (née Buffett, one of those original eight surnames) serve applauded wines paired with a pretty-as-a-picture platters. Surprisingly for an island its size, Norfolk Island has two cheesemongers, the newest being young entrepreneur Emily Ryves.
A former flight attendant on now-defunct Norfolk Air, Ryves changed careers after watching a documentary on the founders of Victoria’s award-winning Holy Goat Cheese. Winning a Churchill Fellowship, she packed her bags to study with the Holy Goat founders on the mainland. Returning to Norfolk, she launched her own production, The Hilli Goat, and today has 11 goats. She makes two types of cheese, a fresh curd and chevre, every two days, and also uses the goat’s milk to produce organic skincare products. Her family is self-sustaining and only eat what they grow or barter with their neighbours – which just happens to be seriously delicious pork products. In fact, self-sustainability has become a mantra across the entire island, thanks to strict biosecurity laws as well as the expense of flying or shipping in fresh produce from the mainland.
Like many of Norfolk’s born and bred, Ryves speaks a few words of the local Norfuk language, a blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian. Even the immigrants, mostly from the Australian mainland, love using the Norfuk drawl, its long and lazy vowels easily roll off the tongue. There are an increasing number of mainland deserters moving here, in part due to the end of Norfolk Island’s self-governance in July 2016 – the island is now officially subject to Australian rules, regulations and taxation.
But to be honest, there’s a lot more than the chance of a job drawing east coast Aussies here. Driving around the island, similar stories can be heard: so-and-so visited on a whim, fell in love with a local, and never left. Crime is low, the community is strong, there’s an emphasis on creativity, property is inexpensive, the scenery is mind-bogglingly beautiful –it could be the ideal place to bring up children, or gain levity and be inspired.
WHERE TO EAT
Dino’s at Bumboras
The husband-and-wife team not only grow their own produce, but serve it in their own home. Rooms of the family house have been converted into a dining space where Dino serves seasonal fare.
Adjoining the cyclorama and a craft gallery, this restaurant offers a taste of the island. The menu changes to make the most of in-season produce. If you can, book an alfresco table in the garden.
This place is all about the entertainment, with owner Matt singing and playing guitar nightly. The food is classic pub grub, the crowd is welcoming and the drinks flow. What’s not to like?
With some of the best views on the island, Bedrock is an essential stop for a leisurely lunch. The smoked fish chowder is a winner, but don’t miss the decadent sandwiches and cheese platters.
Home to boutique accommodation, this property offers an alfresco high tea that you won’t forget in a hurry. With dramatic coastal views, you can enjoy fine wine and local fish.
On Norfolk Island’s main strip, The Olive is the best place in town for coffee, indulgent cakes and a great breakfast. Tables spill out onto the grassy verge so you can enjoy your meal in the sunshine.
For more information, visit norfolkisland.com.au.