Norfolk Island was once the most dreaded penal settlement in the Southern Hemisphere. Today, the only punishment on a Norfolk Island holiday is exhaustion from the pleasure of leisure. Writes Susan Elliott.
A Norfolk Island holiday takes your breath away, even before you’ve landed. 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.
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.
My Norfolk Island holiday
Taxiing into Norfolk’s petite terminal I have to laugh; the airport fire crew has ‘scored’ our landing. The result is 7/10, which, given hefty crosswinds, seems unfairly low. But it’s funny, quirky, and sets the tone for my week on this drop of basalt, a place that, in history, has not always had much to laugh about.
Norfolk Island history
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.
Next came Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of mutineers from HMS Bounty. They were on orders to collect breadfruit trees in Tahiti but reckoned a future with beautiful Tahitian women was infinitely more appealing than months more at sea. Especially under the ferocious command of Captain William Bligh. Bligh was set adrift, and the mutineers settled with their new brides on Pitcairn Island before re-locating to Norfolk Island in 1856.
The mutiny on the Bounty is a big part of Norfolk’s culture. 70 per cent of the island’s population descends from the mutineers.
A modern destination
While Norfolk’s history is fascinating, the island is far from stuck in yesteryear.
Within an hour of landing on Norfolk, 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.
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.
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.
Scuba diving at Norfolk Island
I’m dangling from the Cascade Pier crane – again. In a dive boat this time, feeling marginally happier in a wetsuit should hings go awry.
After 10 years without a commercial dive operation, local lad Mitch Graham has made scuba diving possible on a Norfolk Island holiday. And I’m excited for it.
“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.
The towering basalt formations seen on my sunset cruise appear dramatically different underwater. But at the same time they are strangely familiar as I watch fish circling the formations as excitedly as the sea birds above.
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.