From its underwater treasures to dazzling celestial visions, a Norfolk Island holiday is in one of the most spectacular playgrounds in the South Pacific.
A Norfolk Island holiday takes your breath away. It’s tiny. A green speck, sitting proud of the South Pacific Ocean, just five kilometres by eight, smothered in Norfolk pines (of course) and barricaded from the sea by formidable cliffs, interrupted – sparingly – by stunning bays.
On the island, you can go snorkelling at picture-perfect Emily Bay, tours by catamaran, climb the ‘Uluru of the South Pacific’, play golf, scuba dive and much more. Read on for the best things to do on Norfolk Island.
At Emily Bay we plunge off a pontoon into the lagoon. We snorkel over coral bommies and fend off aatuti – Norfolk’s cheeky, territorial fish that believe they can kiss you to death with their teeny weeny mouths.
I’m seated in a catamaran that’s dangling from a crane, being lowered into the ocean at Cascade Pier for a champagne sunset cruise. With no port or marina on the island, this is the only way to launch a boat; it’s a thrilling, if slightly nerve-wracking, experience.
As the sun speeds towards the western horizon, skipper Luke Fitzpatrick negotiates a sloppy shoreline surge to slip through a narrow tunnel and around formations called Elephant and Cathedral rock – their names suggesting not only their shape but also their size. Enormous columns of basalt loom above and, arriving at Anson Bay, there is bottomless champagne to farewell the day. Cheers to tomorrow.
Phillip Island is called the ‘Uluru of the South Pacific’. Sure, it’s a big rock, but to me the nickname seems meaningless at sea level.
Puffing at the top of a rope climb and several timber-ladder paths, I begin to understand why – it’s a landscape like nothing else on Earth. Red, purple, ochre, white and yellow soils have been wind chiselled into dramatic valleys, wild-looking sand dunes and strange rocky outcrops.
Earth colours made unworldly, like Mars and the Red Centre on the same playing field.
Petrels, gannets, sooty terns, shearwaters, noddies and the elegant red-tailed tropicbird come here to breed, nest then leave. What you won’t see is one of the world’s most fascinating insects, the giant Phillip Island centipede which preys at night on seabird chicks snuggled in burrows. A bird-eating centipede… I’m glad to be here in the daylight.
Norfolk Island Golf Club
At Norfolk Island Golf Club, the views could put you off your game. Help yourself to that excuse. The South Pacific will treat your eyes on one side, while the historic convict buildings of Kingston guard the other. In between, hundreds of Norfolk Island pines with fronds like baseball mitts catch every sliced ball. Maybe take a private lesson with Andrew Umlauft, the club professional, to learn how to avoid them.
The Sunset Bar at Puppy’s Point
Resembling a movie set plonked in the middle of a cow farm, The Sunset Bar at Puppy’s Point is Norfolk Island’s newest place to watch the sun go down.
It is the home of Pip and Les Quintal. Les is a bounty descendant who loves tourists so much he decided to invite them for drinks on his terrace.
“Guests love it because they are coming onto a rural property. We have 30 head of Braford cattle, which we breed for the local meat industry, but also for our bar food,” Les says with a smile.
The meat platter tempts me, as do mussels in a tomato-garlic sauce. But, with Sunset’s vibrant green signature cocktail, Mermaid Mimosa, in hand, I opt for the serving of king prawns. This is because I know the melon of the Midori and the sweetness of the seafood will not only be good taste buddies, but also make an awesome Instagram couple. They do.
Norfolk Island history
Norfolk Island is a plateau of basalt formed three million years ago when lava spewed from a submarine volcano. Polynesian seafarers were the first settlers between 1150 and 1450; Captain Cook the first European in 1774; and 14 years later the first British convicts started a 67-year-long penal colony.
Norfolk Island’s capital, Kingston was once known as ‘Hell in Paradise’. It was the brutal destination for the worst of Australia’s convicts between 1788 and 1814, and again between 1824 and 1856.
Then came the descendants of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty seamen who had been living with their Tahitian wives on Pitcairn Island for 66 years. Today, around a third of Norfolk’s 1,750-strong population are proud Bounty descendants.
Scuba diving at Norfolk Island
I’m dangling from the Cascade Pier crane – again. In a dive boat this time.
After 10 years without a commercial dive operation, local Mitch Graham has made scuba diving possible on a Norfolk Island holiday.
“Nowhere else in the world can you dive a pristine coral reef, surrounded by a marine park, bordered by a World Heritage-listed convict settlement,” says Mitch.
Underwater, the reef crackles and pops like breakfast cereal. Coral-crusted chimneys, chasms, caves and tunnels swarm with schools of drummer, kingfish, trumpeter and snapper. Stingrays soar on currents like submarine albatrosses, green turtles make dashing cameo appearances and sharks cruise past with ‘border patrol’ authority.
Norfolk Island is classified as a Gold Level Dark Sky Town and the stargazing is out of this world. We lie on top of Mt Pitt, scoffing the last of our holiday chocolate, and cheer as shooting stars stage a private fireworks show.
Governor’s Lodge Resort
Hibiscus’ smother my cabin, bravely fending off macho staghorns, frangipani and banana trees under a canopy of chaperones: kentia palms and king ferns, the latter of which don’t need to boast – they are the tallest tree fern in the world, endemic to Norfolk.
I’m checked in to one of Governor’s Lodge Resort‘s 55 cabins. They are scattered among the retreat’s tropical gardens. I am not the only one being plant-wooed, if you eavesdrop (who doesn’t?), you’ll hear nothing but talk about the beauty of the grounds. The property is green in other ways, too: harvesting rainwater and generating solar energy, with excess shared to the main grid.
Governor’s Lodge’s new owner, Mat Christian-Bailey is a seventh-generation descendent of Fletcher Christian. Fletcher led the mutiny aboard the Bounty. Now his great-great-great-grandson guides me away from the manicured gardens to bush-bash an overgrown road. The road was cut out by New Zealand soldiers during WWII to access spring water at the bottom of the hill. When cleared, this will be yet another new path in Norfolk’s diverse history.
“I grew up running around here,” says Mat. “I rode bikes, horses, all over this place. And I always wanted to own it, even as a kid. I’m just so happy it’s now back in my family.”
The centrepiece of Governor’s Lodge Resort is Bailey’s Restaurant in the original homestead. It has pit-sawn ceilings and a verandah of limestone from the old jail in Kingston.
The pumpkin soup is a deliciously creamy starter, which I follow with steak and potatoes dauphinoise. I pause to think of the starving convicts who preceded me on this bountiful island. Millisecond over.
Homestead Restaurant is another Norfolk Island beauty that has been given fresh life. The 1930s estate has been in the Menghetti family for 40 years. Chef Kurt Menghetti cooks over a traditional Argentinian perilla grill handmade by his dad. I’m impressed even before he reveals he also makes his own charcoal from olive tree wood on the property.
Awkwardly, I choose to go raw, as Norfolk Island’s freshly-caught kingfish is unsurpassable; Kurt cures it in beetroot juice and serves with his own wood-fired sourdough bread.
Norfolk Island Brewing
Diving is thirsty work. It’s the saltwater, I convince myself, walking (slightly too quickly?) into the brewhouse at Castaway Resort.
After years of being asked by visitors if there was a local beer, Tony Watts decided to brew one. Norfolk Island Brewing now has seven beers on tap, made with Australian and New Zealand barley.
Tour the brewery, enjoy a tasting on the sunny deck, and make sure to order Tony’s bread baked using the spent grain from his brewing process.
Settling into my seat for the flight home, I catch sight of the airport fire station and see the mornings’ incoming flight got 10/10. Perfect. It sums up my week on Norfolk Island, a place that, in just 200 years, has gone from ‘Hell in Paradise’ to a ‘Helluva Paradise’
Getting to Norfolk Island
Regular flights from mainland Australia to Norfolk Island operate from Brisbane and Sydney with connecting services to all other major capital cities and from Auckland, New Zealand.
Norfolk Island is a two-and-a-half flight from Brisbane or Sydney, about 1,600 kilometres offshore. It is one of Australia’s seven external territories. It’s an international flight – but no passport is required. At the airport, there’s still the thrill of over-spending on duty-free goodies.