Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The microscopic island nation of Niue emerged from the morning darkness off our starboard bow two days after having had to bid farewell to the Cook Islands. I peered intently through my binoculars as we rounded the island’s southern point, trying desperately to get some sort of perspective on this place that, only three days before, I’d never even heard mention of. As such, our slow 10 knot cruise into the island’s main harbor of Alofi, took on an energy that I was hardly used to. This was uncharted territory as far as I was concerned. Even the island name’s pronunciation (New-way) remained open for debate amongst the crew, even as we prepared to drop the anchor.
Described as the world’s largest raised coral island, the “Rock of Polynesia” or, more simply “the Rock” as it’s known by the locals, seems a fairly apt description upon first glance of the island’s seemingly endless, fortress like coastline. Located 1,500 miles northeast of New Zealand, the island which exists in “Free Association” (read not completely sovereign) with New Zealand is all of 100 square miles large and with a population in the vicinity of 1,800 souls. Nearly ten times more Niuens reside in New Zealand than on the island itself. Walking down the main street of the island’s largest town of Alofi is about as action packed as walking through a small strip mall, only after a bomb scare. The island’s only sand beach, ironically enough, isn’t really a beach at all. Togo Chasm is on the opposite side of the island within the Huvalu Conservation Area with the “beach” being a small patch of white sand set at the bottom of coral pinnacles reached via a climb down a steep wooden ladder.
Yet, it was while spending a mere two hours running errands ashore that it became clear Niue was special for what it still possessed, rather than what it was lacking. And what it seemed to have lots of was that special something, an unspoiled Polynesian warmth that in Hawaii goes by the name of the Aloha Spirit. The island was full of smiling, happy people willing to talk and share a moment of their day with you. Isolated and not overrun with Hawaii and Caribbean style tourism, the visitor to Niue gets an experience of a different sort and the novel, mesmerizing nature of the place only increases exponentially for anyone donning scuba gear or, as I’d do, a mere mask and snorkel.
The one or two local dive operators boldly proclaim visibility of up to 70 meters (or a whopping 200 feet). With 100 feet visibility considered pristine and worldclass, I could hardly wait for the guests to go ashore so I could take a peak below the surface along the shoreline reef just off our bow. I wasn’t disappointed as there, just offshore of the island’s main town, I floated in gin clear waters harboring more healthy hard corals in a single 100 yard circuit than I’d seen in a lifetime of diving. Even more impressive was in knowing that this particular stretch of reef was still in a recovery phase from the pummeling it took back in January 2004. It was then when Cyclone Heta decimated the shoreline and 90 percent of the island itself with 130 mph winds and 30 and 40 foot plus waves damaging shoreline reef and dwellings situated atop the cliffs overlooking the bay.
Today, five years on, only a repaired giant crack in the town’s main concrete pier remains as testimony to that time and for two days we’d remain anchored offshore in as tranquil a setting as any I’ve known in my yachting career. Just long enough to begin to realize, such time was hardly enough. The Cooks, now tiny Niue, both full of sincere smiles and easy banter were proving infectious and the South Pacific in general, after so many books and photos, was no longer a distant pipe dream. Tonga was next on the itinerary and, truth be told, I didn’t care if it took forever to get there.