I was expecting Niue to be a small country. But there was no way I could have anticipated just how small and remote it is.
Jono, my Kiwi partner, and I traveled from New Zealand to “the rock” of Polynesia at the end of August. Upon our arrival, we realized the entire country is the equivalent of a rural village dropped onto an island in the middle of the ocean.
With its approximately 1200 human dwellers (and possibly twice as many chickens), we felt like we were getting a true getaway from the fast pace of life. You’ll understand why if you ever have the chance to go, or you can just keep reading.
Time travel to yesterday
We flew from Auckland northeast toward the Cook Islands. Despite the flight being under 4 hours long, we crossed the International dateline which put us 23 hours behind New Zealand time.
Sweet! We gained a day coming to Niue!
I configured the screen in front of me to map view as the pilot announced our descent. We were aligned West of the Cook Islands, East of Fiji and Tonga, and South of Samoa.
I laughed out loud at the display of the plane hovering over what looked like a never-ending expanse of ocean. “Where’s Niue? It’s so small the plane hides it on the map!”
Landing at Niue International Hanan Airport
There are only two flights (both AirNewZealand) into Niue each week—one on Tuesday and one on Friday. We arrived on Tuesday in the early afternoon.
I hopped down the stairs off the plane and onto the tarmac. Greeted by a warm breeze, I slid on my aviators and then prepared my camera to document our arrival. I was able to snap a few shots walking into the airport despite a few of staff members asking me not to take pictures (oops!).
I’ve gotten on and off planes onto tarmac before—but never have I entered an airport quite so small as this one!
First, we got our passports stamped. Then it was time to pick up our luggage. With no conveyor belt in sight, baggage claim consisted of waiting beneath an overhang for workers to unload the cart of luggage they had just wheeled over directly from the plane.
Well that was easy.
Staff called out for everyone to make their way to quarantine. They scanned only one of our bags and allowed us passage down a corridor. Welcoming us at the end of the corridor on the way outside was a grinning man dressed for the beach strumming on a guitar and singing. My style already.
A few women were outside handing out little booklets with Fakaalofa Lahi Atu (“Hello”) Welcome to Niue on the cover (take a look at the arrival booklet here). I grabbed one. This little booklet was so helpful it became tattered from use by the end of our stay!
We soon discovered there is an endemic population of chickens and roosters on the island.
Our host at Kololi Guesthouse gave us a ride to our accommodation in the capital, Alofi. His foot hovered over the break and tapped lightly every so often in anticipation of the hens and roosters scurrying across the pavement. There were tons of them!
We pulled into the grassy area in front of Kololi where the roosters strut around like they rule the island and believe me—they do! Like clockwork at 3:30 every morning we heard them cockle-doodle-dooing outside our window. Thankfully, I brought ear plugs along.
By the end of the week I had gotten used to them. I couldn’t stay mad at them, anyway, with their cute little chick babies running around everywhere.
Where cats and dogs roam
Alongside the chickens are the numerous cats and dogs roaming the island. They aren’t quite as numerous as they were in Thailand, and I think most of them were actually owned. But they were all free to move about. No leashes. No restraints.
The cats are known to regularly pick off some of the chicks for dinner (aww). And the dogs line the roads trying to keep cool in the grass.
We did see runaway/wild dogs when we explored some of the less populated areas of the island. They saw us coming and ran into the forest. Similarly, we spotted ocelot-patterned wild cats on the roads on the West coast one day. They raced into the jungle at first sight of us.
The more domestic ones were very friendly, though, and their freedom meant I got to enjoy their company on occasion. This made me extremely happy as an avid pet-sitter/house-sitter who has been somewhat animal-deprived as of late. The experience kept reminding me of the animals I had the chance to interact with on Ko Tao.
Let’s just say I made a few more furry friends in Niue :)
Burial and religion
Religion is clearly important to the majority of people living on Niue. Almost everyone living on the island was attending a big church party when we arrived.
The Congregational Christian Church of Niue claims about 75% of the population of Niue is Christian. Every Sunday, the entire island closes down and certain activities are expected to cease (e.g., snorkeling, fishing, boating, etc.).
As we rode in the backseat from the airport through Alofi, we noticed graves prominently displayed on the roadside and directly next to people’s homes. There didn’t seem to be any large cemeteries on the island. Commemorations to the dead were made in small family plots facing the road, often beautifully decorated.
I inquired about this when chatting with a local and found out this burial practice has to do with the family member’s request prior to her or his death. Some Niuean’s ask to be buried in the front of the family home in order to watch who comes and goes, as if standing watch and protecting the household. Perhaps this was the reason why the graves face the road—to watch passersby and to protect the island.
I’m not sure if this information is completely factual. Maybe a Niuean reading this can confirm or elaborate further!
Not soon after our arrival, I could sense there was something different going on with Niue. Yes it was remote. Yes small. Yes unpopulated. Then it hit me! I’m so used to being bombarded every day with advertising in the Western world, I almost didn’t realize Niue has none of it. And to be free of it all was such a delight.
There were no billboards. There were no flashing signs. There was no commercial bombardment, whatsoever on the island. It was even less than I had expected considering I had already heard the island was not a popular, over-corporatized tourist destination.
Niue is a true “getaway.”
If not for the booklet, the minimal signage on some buildings, and the aid of the visitor's center, we might have missed out on most of the shops and restaurants available!
We spent the few hours after our arrival in the visitor’s center learning about our options for the week. A helpful sign out front displayed the next few day’s events.
Yes, these were all of the events for the whole country!
The woman working there allowed me to use the landline to make phone calls and book a few tours. She was so patient and attentive, but maybe that was because we were the only ones there.
Sea tracks, whales, and lifts
The sun was already beginning to set. “Where can we go down to the water?” we asked our host. “Anywhere! Just walk along the road and you’ll see tons of sea tracks. Pick one.”
And that’s just what we did.
We found a sea track titled Vaila Cave and another one unmarked. The cave was huge and waves came around the corner and crashed gently inside. Apparently we would need to come back during low tide to try some snorkeling.
Tides for the month were helpfully inserted into that booklet I had gotten earlier. Now we could plan our tomorrow around the tides.
As the sun ducked lower in the sky, we suddenly felt sleepy from our day of travel. Turning to leave, we ascended stone steps etched into the coral rock. Jono, walking in front of me, took one last look over his shoulder at the sea.
I watched his eyes widen. “A whale!!!”
“No way!” I spun around and, sure enough, two humpback whales were emerging out of the waves traveling up the coastline. They were here. And we were here.
With barely any effort at all, we caught sight of them and decided to stay a while longer to watch them play.
Eventually we walked up to the road and back toward Alofi. Not 2 minutes into our walk, a car slowed down and a man in the front asked us if we would like a ride.
Really? We’re just going down the road like 500m to Alofi? No worries, he said. He was happy to give us a lift because today was a good day. He had just come from the big church party.
We were back to Kololi before dark, excited to get to sleep so we could get an early start tomorrow.
Niue was already shaping up to be a unique stay with surprises around every corner. The temperature was mild and the mosquitos were no big deal (especially after my new found detest for sandflies!).
After this introduction to the island, we were ready to really start exploring. Caves and chasms, snorkeling and diving, hiking and biking. All of this was on our schedule for the week ahead—and it’s on my writing schedule for this month! So keep coming back to the blog, ‘cause there’s loads more I can’t wait to share!
Can’t wait either? If you haven’t already, make sure you check out my other post about 9 reasons why Niue Island should be on your bucketlist.