What Niue lacks in sandy beaches it makes up for with crystal clear lagoons.
Why Niue is the Pacific’s best kept secret
One of the best things about the island of Niue is that it doesn’t have sandy beaches.
That fact alone has kept the hordes away from this magical island. In 2016 Niue had 11,000 visitors compared to neighbour Rarotonga’s 146,473. Known as The Rock of Polynesia, Niue is one of the world’s largest coral atolls, boasting a multitude of dreamy pools accessed by paths through lush tropical jungle. It’s the kind of place where you expect to stumble upon Wonder Woman having a swim, though of course Niueans, not Amazons, are the proud people of this “paradise island”.
If, hypothetically, Wonder Woman did want to jet in on her invisible plane, she wouldn’t have to worry about a landing queue. Currently there are only two flights a week to Niue (Air New Zealand ex-Auckland), which is perhaps the reason why the atmosphere at the airport is so festive and welcoming.
On arrival the warmth of the tropics immediately envelops you. Thank goodness the Scenic Matavai Resort, a 10-minute drive from the airport, has a pool. This resort sits high on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. The reef drops off quickly into deep water here, which is wonderful for watching marine life – every morning of our five-day, four-night stay we see a pod of spinner dolphins playing their version of twister. During the whale-watching season (July to October) humpbacks join the fray. Each year around 50 adults and their offspring enter Niue’s waters as they migrate north from Antarctica into warmer waters to breed and socialise.
In October 2017 the Niue Government announced the formation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering 40 per cent of the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which means locking up a proportion of its fishing resource for conservation and protecting grey reef sharks. Once established, the new marine protected area will be the 28th largest in the world.
The magnificent marine life is one of Niue’s biggest attractions. We booked a trip with Buccaneer Adventures ( niuedive.com) to one of the island’s best snorkel spots, known locally as both the Coral Gardens and Snake Alley. These stunning gardens are home
“It’s the kind of place where you expect to stumble upon Wonder Woman having a swim...”
to tropical fish, impressive corals and sea snakes ( katuali). Once you get your head around “snakes in the water”, seeing one surface for air beside you before gliding off is a quite a thrill.
The magic of Niue, if you are a water baby like me, is its plethora of natural swimming pools. There’s even one at the base of the cliffs at Scenic Matavai Resort that you can access at low tide (reef shoes are a must for reef walking and pool hopping).
To make the most of our time on the island we hired local guides ( niuetours.com) to drive us to all the best spots. You can also hire a car or motorbike on the island but you need to arrange a Niue driver’s license. The advantage of Niue Tours is they know the tides well and time visits to the different pools accordingly.
The Limu Pools at Namukulu are perhaps the most famous. The water, like everywhere in Niue, is crystal clear. Snorkelling at mid-tide is best, especially if, like me, you want to swim through the arch in the second pool. Be wary of possible surges through the archway, especially on incoming tides. Flippers are recommended.
Another favourite swimming spot with the locals is Avaiki Cave, Makefu – an impressive water-filled cathedral cave that you can swim and snorkel in (only accessible at low tide). Literally kick back, on your back, and enjoy the view of the ocean framed by the mouth of this expansive cave.
The short walk to get down to Avaiki Cave and swimming spot passes through a sunlit cave. The reef fans out from the front of the cave, its rock pools teaming with ocean treasures making it a great place for reef walking at low tide.
My favourite pool, however, was Matapa Chasm which is safe to swim and snorkel at any tide. This beautiful deep pool is framed by high cliffs and fed by fresh as well as sea water. It used to be reserved as the bathing place for Niue royalty. It’s reached by a forested track at the foot of Hikutavake Hill beside the start of the track to Talava Arches (a historical look-out point).
We ran out of time to walk to the Arches but we did make it to Togo Chasm. This 20-minute walk takes you through an ancient rainforest before alighting to an expansive and breathtaking view of the path weaving downhill towards the ocean through an otherworldly forest of fossilised coral pinnacles. The path leads to the Togo Chasm, a surreal oasis of land-locked palm trees reached by climbing down a wooden ladder.
All this hiking and swimming certainly whets the appetite. The Dolphin Restaurant & Bar at Scenic Matavai Resort serves up great fare with an ocean view, and regular cultural performances. Its philosophy is to source produce from Niue Island through local fishermen, village markets and hydroponic farms (we ate hydroponic tomatoes grown by former Wellington Mayor Mark Blumsky who now lives on the island). Nearby Washaway Café (only open on Sundays) is a popular seafront spot at Avatele Beach. This rustic and relaxed café sticks to the basics – fish and chips, burgers and fries, and has an honesty bar. You help yourself to drinks, write what you had in a book, and settle the bill at the end.
The main town of Alofi is tiny (the island population sits around 1300) but has a couple of stores and restaurants including Kai Ika that serves the unusual combination of Japanese food and pizza. We opted for Japanese which was sensational (after all, Niue is a great place for fresh sushi).
Returning to my studio apartment at Scenic Matavai Resort I soak up the solitude, sitting in the shade on the private balcony with an outlook of lush foliage, palm trees and blue water, lulled by the sound of the ocean. Each day I spend an hour here reading a book without phone calls, emails, Facebook or Instagram. There is no mobile coverage here and free wi-fi for just one hour a day. Bliss, and the ultimate digital detox. Holidaying here really is a holiday, and it’s only a three-and-a-half-hour-flight away.
Best view Above, Scenic Matavai Resort sits high on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Below, Buccanneer Adventures run snorkelling and dolphin watching trips.
You can swim and snorkel in Avaiki Cave at low tide.