Norfolk Island: Where time stands still

By Phoebe Falconer

Norfolk Island offers tranquility but cannot rely on its history alone. Photo / Supplied
Norfolk Island offers tranquility but cannot rely on its history alone. Photo / Supplied

Some say it was the wine (a very good Australian pinot grigio), but I prefer to think it is the view that induces my feeling of tranquillity on Norfolk Island.

From the veranda of our holiday cottage, Tintoela, a lush green field sweeps down towards a small valley and then up again. In the middle distance, on the left, a red dirt road improbably named Prince Philip Drive winds round a hillside spiked with Norfolk pines like candles on a birthday cake. Where the hill meets its partner on the right, an almost perfect V is formed, framing a view of Cascade Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

"I could live here," I think. Fleetingly.

As night falls, stars extravagantly sprinkle a sky untroubled by city lights.

"Perhaps," I think, "this is why people come to Norfolk Island."

Because there has to be a reason. And it's not always easy to fathom.

There is the history, of course, inextricably entwined with modern day life on the island.

There were four settlements, including a brutal and inhumane penal colony, and trips and tours abound.

The Kingston Convict Trail, History in the Making, ghost tours, re-enactments of the mutiny on the Bounty and cemetery tours are just some of the options.

But the most spectacular way of getting a handle on the history is to visit the Cyclorama, a 360-degree panoramic painting of the mutiny.

Conceived by islander Marie Bailey, it was executed by local artists Tracey Yager and Sue Draper over two years, and the realistic perspective is accompanied by a soundtrack that features old island songs. It still dominates what the island is today.

Exactly what that is seems to be the problem. Where once the duty-free shopping was an attraction, duty-free outlets at major airports now better what the island has to offer.

Some of the attractions, such as the progressive dinners, promise more than they deliver. The chance to sample local delicacies, such as pilah, a sweet cake often made from ripe bananas but sometimes from sweet potato, is readily had, but the mudda, a rather tasteless mash of green banana in coconut milk, is, perhaps fortunately, less freely available.

When there are 40-odd people on a progressive dinner, the chance to chat with a host to find out more about their lifestyle is limited.

And while the views might be spectacular, the dinner is at night, and the views invisible. What would be wrong with a progressive lunch instead?

There are signs the local community is trying to bring itself into at least the 20th century, if not the 21st. Especially when it comes to food and drink.

Local entrepreneur Julian Cameron has established coffee plantations and roasts and grinds his blend of Arabica beans. Excellent stuff it is too, real heart-starter. Julian also bottles local spring water.

Brad Forrester began producing liqueurs in 1994 in his German-made still, and offers 14 flavours, including Convicts' Curse, made from whisky malt, and Pitcairn Passion, an enticing mix of strawberry and banana. I can vouch for the coconut liqueur. Brad also makes and bottles soft drinks, using natural essences.

Richard Woodward has been brewing for the last 16 years, and his pure malt beers, Beesting, Mutineer and Bligh's Revenge, are premium ales.

Rod and Noelene of Two Chimneys Winery produced their first small vintage this year but offer a good selection of imported wines, and Noelene's platters are a delight to share.

Australian singer Helen Reddy has built a pilot aquaponics plant, similar to hydroponics, with a view to rolling it out elsewhere on the island.

Fresh vegetables are important, as local restrictions mean only potatoes, onions, garlic and ginger may be imported. This supply of fresh locally-grown produce means eating is a pleasure.

A local breed of beef, called Norfolk Blue, because of its bluish skin tone, provides meat for a restaurant on a farm, also called Norfolk Blue. It's a very professional establishment, and the beef is excellent.

The restaurant at Governor's Lodge has a well-deserved reputation, honed under chef Ryan Smith and food and beverage manager Kane Reynolds.

The permanent population of Norfolk Island sits somewhere between 1800 and 2000 and almost everyone is involved with tourism, Norfolk's predominant source of revenue.

Although its reputation depends on its history, tourism leaders are determined to lure a wider range of age groups.

Minister of Tourism Andre Nobbs concedes it's going to be an uphill slog.

"We are trying to get rid of the saying that Norfolk Island appeals to the newly weds and the nearly deads. I prefer newly arrived to fully revived."

But he admits Burnt Pine, the main retail area, needs to be updated.

Tourism is down, and the Australian Government in Canberra is making noises about taking more control. Roads are badly in need of repair, and the hospital needs replacing.

The Territories Law Reform Bill, presently under discussion, is scheduled to be put in place on July 1, 2010. And islanders may just have to accept it.

Unless something is done, Norfolk Island risks being relegated to a history book.

Speaking a language all their own

Although not widely heard, Norfolk Islanders have a language all of their own. Called Norf'k, it's a sing-song mix of 18th century English and Tahitian. It is appealing to listen to and often remarkably easy to understand.

For instance, "dars-et", with the accent on the "dars", sounds like "that's it" - and that's just what it means.

"All yorlye gwen?" means how are you all? or, more colloquially, how are you all going?

Similarly, "bussup" means broken in pieces, or bust up, which it sounds closer to.

Rick the minibus driver (and a Norfolk Islander by choice, although his mother was a descendant of one of the families) speaks a little Norf'k, and says the closer the islanders live to the coast, the more Tahitian words are found in everyday use.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has direct flights between Norfolk Island and Auckland.

Where to stay: Forrester Court has three 5-star cottages. Governor's Lodge has executive lodges and deluxe lodges. Tintoela has a one-bedroom cottage and a two-bedroom cottage. A five-bedroom house is also available. Jacaranda Park Holiday Cottages are surrounded by glorious gardens full of flowers and native plants.

Fishing: Darren Bates will take you out for a morning's fishing.

Phoebe Falconer visited Norfolk as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism, Governor's Lodge and Tintoela Cottages.

- NZ Herald

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