Niue, the coral island where visitors are like family
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST My favourite experience is snorkelling inside a cave in crystal-clear depths and I’m bowled over by the beauty of the coastline
THEmost enticing thing about Niue is that so few people have heard of the island, let alone seen it on a map. But there it is, somewhere near Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.
This, in turn, means Niue is not overrun with tourists. Not even the travel agent appears to know about it, which does make me a little concerned, particularly when he sends me my itinerary for Niue Island, Albania.
Albania? Really? I suggest he tries a bit closer to home, like 2400km northeast of New Zealand.
Amajor hotel booking site is no better informed. It says the place where I’ll be staying in the capital, Alofi, offers ‘‘easy access to the city’s must-see destinations’’. City? The population of the entire country is about 1400.
And, as suspected, when I do get to Niue (pronounced ‘‘nue way’’), tourists are limited to a few New Zealanders and a handful of Australians. We’re all on the weekly flight from Auckland and, I guess, we’ll all be on the return flight in a week.
The same tourist faces keep bobbing up — literally. By the end of the week, it feels like we’ve all become one big family. I decide that tourists really can be the pleasantest of people.
Our focus becomes the chasms, rock pools and sea caves that fringe Niue, one of the world’s largest coral islands, a raised atoll of limestone that gives the country its moniker of the Rock.
The ocean is a brilliant, pale aquamarine. Occasionally it looks oddly pixelated through a dive mask — it’s the refractive effect of fresh water mixing with salt water. My favourite experience is snorkelling inside a cave in crystal-clear depths and I’m bowled over by the beauty of the coastline.
If tourists are scant, the locals seem to be even more so.
As I drive around the 260sq km island, I pass villages without seeing a sign of life, bar a dog or two lounging in the sun or the occasional hen scurrying into bushes.
While it’s hard to see a live person, it’s easy to locate the dead. In the absence of a cemetery, and in keeping with traditional customs, islanders are buried near roads on family-held land. So Niue is peppered with burial plots, some festooned with flowers and bunting, others marked simply with a large lump of coral.
The graves are brimming, but nearby houses are empty. I pull off the road and poke my head into one of the old buildings with its walls made from a rough mix of coral and cement. There’s a wooden bed, meat safe and table, all dusty and abandoned. The population was much higher until 1974 when the country proclaimed selfgovernment in free association with New Zealand.
When the Kiwis granted citizenship to Niueans, almost everyone took advantage of the newly opened airport and moved to Auckland.
In 2004, a cyclone tore through Niue, resulting in more empty homes and another wave of migration. I’m told the situation causes no end of disputes when Niuean expats return to find that other families have moved into their houses.
Having heard enough depressing details about Niue’s economy, I decide to head down the nearest track for another swim. No doubt I will be joined by some of those friendly Kiwi and Aussie tourists.