Louise Southerden joins the flying visitors writing a new chapter in Norfolk Island's colourful history.
Flying in over green hills, listening to Air New Zealand's Kiwi flight attendants, I can't help but feel I'm arriving on a small piece of the North Island that has broken off and drifted 1000 kilometres north.
Norfolk Island isn't part of New Zealand, of course. It's a self-governing territory of Australia. Officially, that is. In reality, it's a world unto itself, with its own language (Norf'k, a blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian) and way of life.
People wave at each other, and at tourists. There are no traffic lights, and cows have right of way on the roads. Remember when shops, cafes and museums in Sydney would close on Saturday afternoons? On Norfolk they still do.
"I'm a bit crazy," says Les Quintal, who looks and sounds like Geoffrey Rush, as he takes us for an introductory drive around the island. "It's from the inbreeding," he cackles. Like 40 per cent of Norfolk's 1800 residents, Quintal is descended from a Bounty mutineer. You can't go far on Norfolk without bumping into its history.
It's on the road signs (Pitcairn Place, Fletcher Christian Road, Baunti Centre) and at landmarks (such as Captain Cook lookout, where a stone cairn commemorates Cook naming the island after the Duchess of Norfolk in 1774). It's all over Kingston, a former penal settlement, where graves of convicts and soldiers, children and murderers lie side by side. Then there's Cyclorama - a 360-degree mural conceived by Marie Bailey, a descendant of Fletcher Christian - where you can walk right into Norfolk's past.
Closing the door behind me, I'm suddenly standing on the dock at Portsmouth, listening to gulls and the rain as the Bounty departs for the tropics, then following it to Tahiti where it's commandeered by Christian and sails on to Pitcairn Island. It's affecting and helps make sense of the island's convoluted history.
A country-town vibe, a colourful history - no surprises there. But the winds of change have been blowing across this volcanic isle, particularly since Air New Zealand won an Australian government tender in March to provide five flights a week to the island - two from Sydney, two from Brisbane and one from Auckland.
After decades of seven-night packages, Norfolk is fast becoming a short-break destination for time-poor urbanites. There's plenty of accommodation - about 1400 visitor beds, most in self-contained cottages or apartments. It helps that the flying time from the east coast of Australia is about two hours and flights to and from Sydney run on Fridays and Mondays.
"It's a big advantage having a high-profile airline such as Air New Zealand, and its schedule has even allowed us to offer weekend trips to Norfolk Island, which wasn't possible before," says the general manager of the Norfolk Island Tourism Bureau, Glen Buffett.
Plans to integrate the island with Australia could allow local tour operators to join the Tourism Australia family, too. In the meantime, Norfolk is updating itself.
There's still plenty of island charm, from knitwear shops to quilting retreats, but there are now wearable-arts shows, holistic-living festivals, three music festivals (opera in February, country music in May, jazz in December) and an annual golf pro-am.
There are self-guided iPod tours of the island's national park, secret spots and historical sites, and iPod commentary on a new photography exhibition, The World of Norfolk. Norfolk Island Museum recently launched its new website (norfolkislandmuseum.com.au); and Parks Australia's new interpretative centre has live feeds from Phillip Island, a seabird sanctuary six kilometres off the south coast.
Norfolk is becoming more active, too - from snorkelling and reef-walking tours, to walking tracks and beach yoga classes. Want to go surfing, kayak around the island, try rock fishing? Ask a local or drop by the tourist information office (which amounts to the same thing); anything's possible on a small island.
Who knew Norfolk had its own winery? The Two Chimneys boutique vineyard opened its doors in 2006 and offers tastings of its New England wines and is expecting its first harvest next year. It's just one of the foodie attractions on an island that lives and breathes sustainability and self-sufficiency, by necessity. "By law we can't import a lot of produce, so most of what you eat here is grown or made here," Buffett says.
Coffee is grown among the Norfolk pines in Anson Bay; Anson Coffee opened a cafe in July, has a mobile coffee van and runs plantation tours. Next month, local surfer Emily Ryves will open her new venture, Hilli Goat Farm, also at Anson Bay; she plans to sell goat's cheese at a small cafe on the property.
Norfolk Blue beef cattle homestead and restaurant offers a true "paddock to plate" experience, while Hilli's (another restaurant) has a new Mastering Tastes tour where guests gather and prepare local produce with its head chef. Then there's Dino's, which grows its own herbs and vegetables; its 19th-century Norfolk-pine bungalow wouldn't look out of place in Newtown, with its eclectic artworks, old photographs and crystal chandeliers.
But the island isn't too fashionable, not yet, thank goodness. It might want to shake off its quaintness, but it's the oddities that make it special. Where else can you play golf on a World Heritage site for just $70 a week? The phone book famously lists locals by their nicknames, such as Binky, Crowbar, Lettuce Leaf and Gumboots. God Save the Queen is the island's anthem and Thanksgiving Day is a public holiday (a legacy of American whalers). On Norfolk Island, it all makes perfect sense.
As the world gets faster and busier, who doesn't long for a simpler, slower way of life? On this little island you can have it, if only for a long weekend.
Getting there Air New Zealand flies to Norfolk Island from Sydney (2hr 30min) on Mondays and Fridays from $572, and from Brisbane (2hr 10min) on Tuesdays and Saturdays from $535 return, including taxes. Fares from Melbourne, including a domestic connection, start at $960. See airnewzealand.com.au.
Staying there Jacaranda Park Cottages has five self-contained, one-bedroom cabins from $255 a night, including car hire, mobile phone use, airport transfers and half-day island tour. See www.jacarandapark.nlk.nf. Islander Lodge's self-contained apartments have the best views on the island from $225 a night, phone +6723 22114 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information See theworldofnorfolk.com.au.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and Norfolk Island Tourism Bureau.