'The Rock of Polynesia' is raw, real and unapologetic, writes an impressed Stacey Hunt.

"This is Niue?" we ask each other in surprise as we fly into "The Rock of Polynesia".

Faces glued to the plane window, we're greeted by a vast expanse of lush green vegetation broken only by a single runway and narrow roads snaking through the island.
Niue is a coral atoll sitting on top of an undersea volcano and I had envisioned it to be more barren and rocky, perhaps like Mt Ruapehu in summer. I could not have been more wrong.

When you are planning a Pacific Island getaway, Niue isn't a destination that springs to mind — and that's one of the reasons it's so great.

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With only two flights a week from Auckland, Niue has fewer tourists than the likes of Fiji, Rarotonga or Samoa.

And with a population of around 1700 there are no crowds, no spas, no kids clubs. It's raw, real — and completely unapologetic about it.

Stepping off the plane three hours after having departed a gloomy Auckland, we are hit smack in the face by the heat and greeted with a warm "fakaalofa lahi atu" before being taken to our accommodation at the Scenic Matavai Resort.

The clifftop resort offers 180-degree views of the Pacific. With brilliant blue waves breaking on the coast and dolphins playing in the water, it's a seascape you could stare at forever.

From a self-catering villa to the deluxe clifftop rooms, there's something to suit all travellers.

All have sea views and the restaurant, pool and bar overlook the water.

The lovely Vanessa Marsh, of Explore Niue Tours, is the perfect person to help you get your bearings. Her knowledge of everything Niue was evident when we peppered her with questions. She'll help orientate you with the island and then send you on your way to explore.

I spend my first morning diving through Niue's enchanting chasms and surrounding reef with Rami, from Magical Niue Sea Adventures.

The island is formed of porous limestone and with no lakes or streams, its water is ranked among the best in the world for clarity. With tropical ocean temperatures that don't require full wetsuits, it's diving most of us dream of.

The sea floor drops away sharply just metres off the shore so you don't have to spend hours on a boat to reach a dive spot. In fact we anchor up right next to yachts a stone's throw from the main port.

Twenty metres down while exploring the coral reef I encounter a white-tip reef shark, an array of alluring fish and most importantly — sea snakes.

Said to be one of the most poisonous creatures on both land or sea they're not exactly top of my list of animals to encounter, but as this particular species is native to Niue they're an absolute must-see.

The black and white striped snakes slither through the water, popping to the surface every now and then for a gulp of air. As is so often the case with animals we fear, they have no interest in us humans and despite my initial hesitation, I find myself drawn to the snakes and follow them with my eyes as long as possible.

The underwater system of chasms provides the location for our second dive of the day.

With the majority of my diving experience having been in vast open water, the thought of navigating through narrow caves had me on edge. Fortunately, Rami prioritises safety above all else and puts me completely at ease.

Weaving between coral cave walls, drifting from the darker inlets back out into the bright blue open water is an experience like no other. The underwater landscape here is unique and provides lots of hidey-holes for fish spotting.

Any climate change sceptics need only dive a coral reef to see the impact warming sea temperatures are having. They are drained of many of the vibrant colours that once would have been seen and the impact is confronting. Fortunately, Niueans hold their environment in the highest regard and have various projects to combat coral bleaching.

Still buzzing from the sights of the morning, I spend the afternoon with Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive in search of spinner dolphins.

They are regularly seen from the deck of the resort so you don't have to go far to find them. Hanging on to the side of the boat we cruised through the water watching the dolphins swim below.

Though I was captivated by the four we saw, I've been told on a good day there can be hundreds putting on a show.

Buccaneer Adventures have been operating on the island for 30 years and are a wealth of knowledge about Niue's underwater world. Our afternoon snorkelling spot on the outer reef saw us floating in crystal-clear water with views of the ocean floor 20m below.

Bright fish danced with one another while the odd sea snake would pop its head up alongside us to draw breath.

Unfortunately, being a few months shy of whale season I miss the opportunity to see the humpback whales make their annual migration.

July to October is the best time to travel to the island to see these gentle giants, and you can easily see them from the shore or watch them up close while in the water.

Finding a shoreside swimming spot may initially seem daunting without the usual white sand beaches associated with island getaways, but Niue's coast is littered with tracks leading through lush vegetation to the ocean — so many in fact that it's not unusual to find yourself floating in the warm waters of a small pool all by yourself.

Misa's Nature Tour offered the chance for us to learn more about the culture of the island.

Misa Kulatea grew up in the Niuean bush and has stories that could keep you entertained for hours. He showed us the traditional equipment used for cooking and hunting; native plants used for food and medicinal purposes; and introduced us to his friendly fruit bats.

Niue is also my idea of food heaven. Fresh fish, melon and coconut (with the odd cocktail or two thrown in there) made up the base of my diet on the island.

Hio Cafe, built out of a container, makes divine fresh fish tacos, while Violama Cafe and Bar is worth a visit for its signature rockmelon crush and a game of mini golf on the course built into the rocks.

Kaiika is a must-do for Japanese cuisine with a Niuean twist — think freshly made sushi with tuna straight from the ocean. Scenic Matavai's spit roast and umu night is excellent for food and entertainment, plus they do a pina colada that's not to be missed.

For something a little different, meet Toni the uga man when he visits the resort and purchase a giant coconut crab from him. If you're brave you can even have a go handling one of the live ones. The resort kitchen will cook it up for you, so try not to get too attached to your new friend.

The greatest joy of Niue for me lies in its untouched beauty. It has a unique charm in that it offers all the perks of a relaxing tropical holiday without the usual tourist traps. The people are warm and welcoming, the landscape is captivating and the water the stuff of postcards.

If you want to escape the real world and experience raw and real island life it's the place for you.

Checklist

GETTING THERE:

Air New Zealand

flies twice-weekly from Auckland to Niue, with Seat fares from $348 one-way.

STAY:

Scenic Matavai Resort

ONLINE:

niueisland.com