Words can't do justice to majestic Niue, discovers Alexia Santamaria.
If, like so many other New Zealanders, you've spent a lot of your 20s backpacking around the world, it can be a challenge to holiday later when you have a family. The backpacker in you still wants a degree of adventure and is not quite ready for the package-holiday-with-kids-club deal but the parent in you knows there are practicalities to holidaying with children and that you probably don't want to stay in the same kinds of places now, as you did in back then.
Enter Niue Island. Affordable family holiday and plenty of adventure without sacrificing the luxury touches of a relaxing getaway. The one resort, Matavai, underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment last year and is ready to play. Perched on a clifftop, it has stunning views of the ocean with a chance of spotting humpback whales or dolphins off the deck, if you're lucky.
We arrived on the one flight a week to the gentle welcoming ukulele sounds and that divine embrace of heat that gives you a new lease on life after leaving a miserable Auckland drizzly day. Almost the whole island is at the airport; it's a big deal.
We now understand the downcast, wistful looks on the departing tourists' faces as we came in. They had fallen in love with Niue just as we were about to.
The independent traveller in me isn't really keen on anything "organised" when on holiday but I heard Niue requires a bit of inside knowledge so we went on the Commodore's Orientation Tour of Niue early on in our stay. I take back all I've ever said about group excursions.
Run by a New Zealand couple who have been on Niue for 10 years, it was incredibly informative and set us up perfectly for the "must visits" of the following week. And there certainly were some "must visits". We spent the next seven days with our jaws on the ground as we ventured from one stunning panorama to another, each a little more beautiful than the last.
Niue is not like other, more frequented, Pacific islands we have visited.
There are no bars, shops or massage huts near the beaches or swimming holes. It's just majestic natural raw beauty at its resplendent best. We swam at beaches, in chasms, in underwater caves beneath stalagmites, in giant rock pools and out in the deep blue Pacific. Words can't do it justice.
That's not to say all the usual elements of a relaxing Pacific holiday are not present. The Matavai Resort, Villa and Motel are all first rate so once you've done your adventuring you can relax over some ota - their beautiful raw fish salad - or a cocktail poolside (I quite liked the Hurricane and Matavai Sunset, if you're asking) and read a book in the sun.
We stayed at the Matavai Villa, a self-catering, very well-equipped and furnished house which was perfect for a family with two active young boys that still gave us access to the pools and other amenities of the resort and motel. It was the ideal mix of privacy and fraternising with other visitors and locals.
I think the greatest joy of Niue was the tranquillity. Solitude - or family solitude in our case - is easy to find, and in the most magnificent of settings.
Our favourites were Matapa Chasm with its sheer cliff faces descending to clear blue water and sun-drenched rocks; Limu Pools where we spent hours snorkelling with thousands of tiny fish in the gigantic rock pools, and Tamakautoga Beach, a secluded cove where we relaxed and the kids pottered in the shallows.
We were stunned how in peak season we only ever shared these spots with one other family once. Talk about exclusive.
Getting to the water itself is all a bit baffling when you first get there as Niue is a giant volcanic rock and you wonder how it could be safe (or fun) to do any kind of swimming. But it soon becomes obvious as you explore the hundreds of sea tracks out to the sheltered lagoons or tiny beaches which are calm and flat for swimming and snorkelling.
There's always a descent to the sea tracks but none were dangerous. We were the ultimate road test with a not-very-adventurous 70-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old in tow. We never had any problems and the paths were well worn with plenty of rails and ropes if needed. Reef shoes, however, were essential for all. Do not go to Niue without them.
Swimming in the open sea is also possible for keener snorkellers and divers. But even our rather timid and under confident 7-year-old got very brave with the extreme buoyancy and clarity of the water (visible 60m-plus most days we were there) and came out on a dive boat with us. The charming Shannon and Crystal run Niue Dive and organise dolphin swimming, snorkelling and scuba tours and I highly recommend their service. Snorkelling with our child in open water and seeing enormous blue parrot fish will be one of the most magical experiences of my life.
Niue is definitely a piece of paradise, but there are things you need to know before you go. As a destination that has just taken a huge leap in popularity, it is imperative to book dive tours, rental cars and accommodation in advance. While we're on that subject, you will need a car as getting around would be pretty hard without one.
There are a few good places to eat (with a population of 1300 people it's not overrun with restaurants) but if you are self-catering I advise bringing a chilly bin as check-in luggage with all your favourites - you can bring anything into the country except honey.
Not a lot is grown on the island because of the coral soil, but you can buy local hydroponic lettuces and - depending on the day - fresh pawpaw, coconut and tiny sweet bananas. Everything else comes from New Zealand.
If you are eating out, the Matavai Resort Seafood buffet night is a good option. Kai-ika is a wonderful Japanese sashimi restaurant which marries the best of fresh Niue seafood with Japanese expertise into a truly wonderful culinary experience. They also do a kick-ass New York style pizza - Niue is perfect for this because of the hard water needed to make perfect dough. The Crazy Uga is also great, serving standard, western, casual fare in generous portions done well.
For cheap beer and good (basic) cocktail specials, head to Sails bar with its gorgeous views. Washaway Bar is another must-visit - only open on a Sunday at Avatele Beach, you write down your drink order in a book, go behind the bar and serve it yourself (can you imagine that working in other parts of the world?) It's very easy to pass an afternoon over multiple beers and a fresh fish foccacia and chips.
Niue is one of the few places where you can have all the advantages of the sun, sea and relaxation of a tropical island without feeling like you're on a tourist production line. It's accommodating and friendly but simultaneously non-intrusive. The option of being around others, or on our own, and being able to choose between resort luxury and fun and adventure made it the ideal holiday for this retired backpacker and her tribe.
IF YOU GO
How to get there: Air New Zealand flies in and out once a week (Saturdays) from Auckland. There is also a 2nd flight weekly from May to October (Wednesday)
Where to stay: Matavai - Resort rooms from $260, Motel rooms from $189, Villa $3250/week (sleeps up to 8)
Currency: New Zealand Dollars.
Websites for more information:
Alexia Santamaria was a guest of Matavai Villa.