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Explore Norfolk Island’s hidden gems

From endangered flora and fauna to a rare language, Norfolk Island is filled with hidden gems offering many ways to discover the extraordinary, writes Susan Elliott.

I’m standing – socks only – on a mossy green platform awash with waves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Obeying the orders: “Socks grip better than shoes,” as captain Dave Bigg tells me before I unlace my sneakers and leap from his charter boat onto the slippery rocks.

I’m here to trek Phillip Island, the petite neighbour to Norfolk Island, one of Australia’s seven external territories, some 1,600 kilometres off the mainland’s east coast. Once the most dreaded penal settlement in the Southern Hemisphere, Norfolk is today home to 2,100 law-abiding folk. Many are descendants of mutineers from William Bligh’s ship, the HMS Bounty, who came to shore here in the mid-1800s.

Island idyll

On Norfolk, ‘extraordinary’ embraces you from the moment you begin planning your trip. Flights to the island depart from international terminals in Sydney and Brisbane, but because you’re travelling to an Australian territory, you don’t need to pack your passport. It’s an overseas holiday, without officially leaving the country. And yes, you can stock up on duty free – just another of the hidden gems of Norfolk Island.

Coming in to land, our plane flies over hulking granite cliffs, tens of thousands of Norfolk pines swaying like the arms of fans at a rock concert. Taxiing to the terminal, keen eyes will spot the ‘score card’ in the window of the tarmac fire station – our landing rates 9/10, the best result yet in my 10 visits here. It’s a quirky touch and raises a smile among passengers. You’ll be smiling, too, upon hearing the excited chatter of locals. Many islanders speak Norf’k – one of the rarest languages in the world. It’s a charming, lilting mix of 18th-century English and Tahitian, with every conversation sounding like the best story ever told. All you need to know for a quick stay is: watawieh (pronounced wot-a-way), which means “How are you?” And the reply, kushu (koo-shoo), which means “Great”.

Norfolk Island vista
'Extraordinary’ embraces you from the moment you arrive © Norfolk Island

Winged wonderland

With the seawater squeezed from our socks, shoes are back on to summit Phillip Island. There’s a rope to help climb the first steep section, then timber-ladder paths criss-cross the rocky surface, a crevassed Mars-scape that could be a movie set. Dramatic eroded valleys of red, purple and yellow earth are garnished with green, the plant life here grasping its way back after years being ravaged by feral rabbits, goats and pigs.

While Phillip Island is devoid of human residents, it is an avian riot, attracting all manner of sea birds to breed and nest – masked boobies, sooty terns, red-tailed tropicbirds, Australasian gannets, wedge-tailed shearwaters and the magnificent providence petrel. The latter was eaten to near extinction during the penal colony years, but is now braving an encore.

The birds have no fear of humans. But it’s not us they need to worry about. When night falls, the Phillip Island centipede comes out to hunt. Growing up to 30 centimetres in length, these terrifying creatures slither into birds’ burrows to feast on chicks. Scientists estimate the centipedes kill and consume up to 3,700 winged wonders each year. Clambering over the island I begin to wish I had extra socks to go over my shoes.

Back from the brink

Back on Norfolk proper, the inventory of rare creatures is equally impressive. The Norfolk Island morepork was once the world’s most threatened owl; the green parrot has been saved from extinction. And darting amid the coral reefs there are five fish species found here and nowhere else on the planet. Not rare, but obscure, is the dreamfish. It’s known for causing auditory and visual hallucinations – including terrifying nightmares – among those who eat it. 

I choose a ‘real’ dream – a snorkelling expedition at Bumboras Beach. I brave the rocky entry to be rewarded with the company of two green turtles in water that is unbelievably clear. The only way to top the experience is with ‘High Tea by the Sea’, served on the neatly clipped clifftop lawns of Forrester Court, arguably the island’s most luxe accommodation. Perched here under those towering pines, platters of delicate savouries, cakes, tea and champagne are delivered, the sparkling service only matched by the sea that surrounds.

I walk to the cliff’s edge, curious to see the drop. It’s not slippery, but Dave Bigg’s advice is still fresh in my mind: “Socks grip better than shoes”. For the second time today, I unlace my sneakers and feel the cool comfort of the Earth beneath my feet. 

Travel File

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This article originally appeared in volume 43 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.