Fantasy Island: Discovering Unspoilt Niue

4 November 2015

 

When most people think of Pacific Islands, they envisage long white sandy beaches and huge water's edge resorts serving fruity cocktails. That doesn't really apply to Niue. In fact if you knew nothing about this very special place you might wonder why people go there at all. A drive around the only real road is uneventful, aside from feral chicken sightings and a brief glimpse of a few shops, labelled the 'commercial centre' of Alofi. Not exactly tropical glamour.

That's the thing about Niue. Nothing is immediately obvious and the treasures are hidden, making them all the more delicious when you find them. An unremarkable path will lead to a dramatic chasm that causes a sharp intake of breath when you see it. Another short rocky trail leads to enormous aquamarine rock pools where hundreds of brightly coloured fish dart happily. And that's only the half of it.

A swimming cave in Niue. Credit: Alexia Santamaria. A swimming cave in Niue. Credit: Alexia Santamaria.

 

It's all because of the geology. Niue is a large upraised coral atoll with a two-terrace structure. The lower terrace is 28 metres above sea level and the upper 69m. This means swimming happens in secret chasms, underwater caves and secluded coral sand beaches, rather than the long, flat, sandy expanses of more popular Pacific Islands.

And that's the fantastic thing: Niue really is much less visited than other islands. Even now the secret is out, there's still only one flight a week (an extra Tuesday flight is put on every fortnight in the high season). There's also just one main resort (which is lovely), plus a few other accommodation options – so even when the island is at full capacity, it's not overrun.

Tamakautoga Beach. Credit: Alexia Santamaria. Tamakautoga Beach. Credit: Alexia Santamaria.

 

This means, more often than not, you will have your sublime piece of paradise to yourself. On our trip we swam at tiny Tamakautoga Beach twice and never saw another soul. Being able to experience such natural beauty in complete solitude is a rarity. It was a surreal feeling, reclining in crystal clear warm water, surrounded by incandescent tropical fish, with not a single soul around.

It's a friendly place. I had flashbacks to episodes of Fantasy Island when we landed. While no one was actually shouting 'Da plane, da plane!" it was clearly a big deal. Most of the island turns out to greet the new week's intake of visitors and farewell the downcast departees reluctantly dragging themselves home. Throughout our visit we felt like part of the community, rather than on a tourist production line. Niueans welcome visitors but they are not after your tourist dollar. Remarkably, there are no shops or eateries near the natural tourist attractions.

I'm not a huge fan of organised tours but on a strong recommendation we took the Commodore's Orientation Tour early in our stay. We were really glad we did. Niue requires a bit more local knowledge than more touristy destinations; the tour gave us a good idea of the 'must visits' to come back to later in our stay.

Matapa Chasm. Credit: Alexia Santamaria. Matapa Chasm. Credit: Alexia Santamaria.

 

With its impressive cliff-face setting, Matapa Chasm was one of my favourite spots. It's easy to spend a day lying on large rocks in the sun, dipping in and out of the cool water in this dramatic, movie-worthy setting. Limu Pools was another, its breathtaking rugged edges giving way to turquoise natural pools, perfect for snorkelling.

The snorkelling and scuba diving in Niue are world class. We went out on a Niue Dive boat and visibility was 60 metres. We saw reef sharks, sea snakes, white-spotted surgeonfish and schools of luminous blue parrot fish. Words are frustratingly inadequate to describe such a magical experience. We weren't there in whale season, but Niue is on the humpback migration trail and we did catch a glimpse of one from the balcony of our resort. Swimming with dolphins is also popular.

The dining options are variable. While I would suggest bringing some bits and pieces in a chiller bag from New Zealand – everything is imported from there at freight-inflated prices anyway – there are some great spots to grab a bite.

The best by far is Kai-ika, a wonderful Japanese sashimi restaurant which marries local big game fish (if you are keen on fishing, Niue will be your Mecca) with Japanese culinary expertise. The results are incredible. They also do a fantastic New York style pizza –  the hard water in Niue makes for a surprisingly excellent dough.

Washaway Bar. Credit: Alexia Santamaria. Washaway Bar. Credit: Alexia Santamaria.

 

The Crazy Uga is also great, serving standard Western fare in generous portions, but done really well. The same owner has Washaway Bar, another must-visit, only open on a Sunday at Avatele Beach. You write down your drink order in a book, go behind the bar and serve it yourself (can you imagine that working in New Zealand?) An afternoon easily slips away over multiple beers, and maybe a fresh tuna or wahoo focaccia sandwich, without you even realising.

Niue is not for those who want the manicured, manufactured island experience. It's for anyone who loves natural beauty, just as it is, and wants to be welcomed into the local community while  they're there. You'll need reef shoes, and there's always a short descent to get to swimming spots, but I've done it with over 70s and under 7s without any problem. It's the kind of place that gets under your skin and makes you fantasise about how soon you can get back there. I certainly am.

Alexia Santamaria

Alexia Santamaria is a freelance writer for the NZ Herald, Metro, Next and others, focusing primarily on food and travel. Her past includes two years living in Narita, Japan, one year in London and another in Glasgow. She now calls Auckland home.