Norfolk Island looks to baby boomers

By Jim Eagles

The dowdy image of Norfolk Island is getting a makeover for a younger generation of visitor, writes Jim Eagles.

Geese wander the historical Kingston ruins on Norfolk Island. Photo / Supplied
Geese wander the historical Kingston ruins on Norfolk Island. Photo / Supplied

Norfolk Island is trying to give itself an extreme makeover. Not, you understand, that it really needs one right now. The island is just as attractive as it ever was and probably heading for a record number of visitors this year.

But the canny islanders reckon that 10 to 15 years from now, the golden oldie generation of New Zealanders and Australians that is the mainstay of their tourist industry will have moved on to the great hotel in the sky.

So it's goodbye to the image of a place rather like home used to be in the good old days - slow-paced and English-speaking, with familiar food and great bowls tournaments - but with a better climate.

In its place they are seeking to create a new Norfolk Island - exotic and exciting, sophisticated and romantic - designed to appeal to young people, families and baby boomers.

Tourism minister David Buffett, a descendant of the Bounty mutineers who settled on the island in 1856, told a promotional launch in Auckland the change was "the most dramatic in the island's history".

The aim, he added, was for "a dynamic new image" to "attract a new legion of holidaymakers".

That, as you can imagine, will require a fair bit of plastic surgery, plenty of makeup wizardry and a lot of new clothes.

How, for instance, do you make a girl-next-door like Norfolk Island seem suddenly exotic?

One way, it seems, is to highlight her exciting ancestry, with its mysterious early Polynesian settlers, and later convicts and Bounty mutineers.

Another is to rediscover the fact that at home she speaks her own unique language, developed by the mutineers and their Tahitian partners.

The island's government has launched a drive to preserve the language by teaching it at school and encouraging its use between locals, and it is being highlighted as part of the new promotional campaign.

"Nyuu luuk fe Norfuk Ailen" means, as you might guess, "New look for Norfolk Island".

How, similarly, do you transform a likeable neighbour into a suave sophisticate?

In Norfolk Island's case a lot of work has been put into creating a gourmet image. The island now produces its own chocolates, beers, liqueurs (including an "aromatised whiskey" called Convict's Curse) and arabica coffee, grapes are being planted for a wine industry, and it boasts 35 restaurants.

The trouble is, there is a bit of a leap between planting grapes and producing fine wine. There is nothing wrong with the island beer (a lager called Bee Sting won a gold medal in the 2000 New Zealand beer awards), and the guava jelly chocolates and macadamia liqueur they gave out at the launch of the new image in Auckland were very nice.

But a coffee-drinking colleague to whom I gave the sample packet of coffee beans reported, "I didn't rush to spit it down the sink, but I didn't write it at the top of my shopping list either.

"As a medium-dark roast it seemed a bit underpowered, with no intensity of flavour. Best described as ordinary. The growers of Costa Rica, Jamaica, New Guinea and East Africa can sleep easy."

And 35 restaurants, while not bad for a place with a resident population of 1800, is about the same as in my home town of Devonport.

By the sound of it, the most exciting dining experience the island has to offer is the wonderful progressive dinners where, for about $35 a head, visitors get to visit five homes and enjoy different courses of local food such as mudda (banana dumplings), hihi pie (made from periwinkles) and sweetlip (red emperor fish topped with fried banana).

The makeover people also face a challenge turning a sedate young lady into a frenetic thrillseeker.

When it comes to excitement, Norfolk Island is probably best-known for its bowls, bridge and scrabble tournaments, and the calendar of events still lists plenty of those.

But these days they prefer to highlight the fact that it is a sub-tropical island with world-class scuba diving, good surfing, marvellous fishing, terrific sea-kayaking and great swimming.

Or, if you prefer to stay on land, there are huge areas of magnificent sub-tropical rainforest, much of it protected in national parks, with a network of tracks which is ideal for walking, bird-watching, cycling or horse-riding.

And, of course, there is the rich history of the island, especially the tales of convicts and mutineers, which are told through light and sound shows, festivals, preserved buildings, guided walks and a 360-degree cyclorama painted by locals.

Those things, tourism minister Buffett agrees, have always been part of the Norfolk scene. The difference now is that a lot of effort has been put into making them more accessible to visitors.

For instance, he says, while visitors were always able to enjoy walks through the forest "it has become more organised and more interpretive. You'd have walked along the track before, but you'd have known not a great deal about where you were going or what you were seeing."

The tour operators and the island's national parks authority now provide "a lot more information about the forest, the birdlife, and so on, so you get more value out of it".

Put all that together - not to mention the beautifully printed new brochure which forms the heart of the new image - and it is obvious the makeover has been a fairly expensive one for such a small place.

So what does the new Norfolk Island look like when she walks a little tentatively through the curtains after her transformation?

Attractive, certainly, with a nice climate, a lively history, great diving, interesting walks, beautiful beaches, lovely scenery, friendly people and a good range of places to stay and to eat.

It doesn't have the excitement of Africa, the food of France, the shopping of Singapore, or the history of China.

But it is a place where cows and ducks have right of way on the roads, which decided by referendum not to have a mobile phone network, that has more ghosts per square kilometre than anywhere in Australia, where locals are identified in the phone book by nicknames like Tarzan, Lettuce Leaf, Diddles, Rubber Duck and Shaggy, and which was described by Captain James Cook when he discovered it in 1774 as "paradise" (and, as the islanders proudly remind you, he didn't say that of anywhere else).

It is, in fact, very much like the old Norfolk Island, with a bit of carefully applied makeup, a few sparkly new jewels and a nicely cut wardrobe.

Thank goodness, because Norfolk Island is a good neighbour to have just two hours flight away, and you wouldn't want her changing too much.

- NZ Herald

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