Ben Hills

They used to say we get two kinds of tourist here – the newlywed and the nearly dead,” says Lance Poulton, the urbane general manager of the Colonial, one of Norfolk Island’s newest and plushest resorts. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen too many newlyweds lately.” As if on cue, the duo in the dining room strikes up what sounds like a faded Barbra Streisand medley, and the mai-tre d’ archly inquires of the coach party tucking into their entrees on the dot of 7pm: “Hands up those youngsters aged under 60.”

Four hands emerge from the cloud of blue and grey, with much joshing from the other 30 or 40 members of the visiting tour, who wear name tags identifying them, and their generation, as Phyllis and Stanley and so on. They appear to be having the time of their lives.

I am dining alone with an ill-chosen copy of Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything for company. While he prances through the mists of Piedmont in search of white truffles, I am struggling to amputate a portion of a fossi-lised lamb shank, resting in a puddle of gravy the consistency of custard, and a blob of grey, grainy mash. Eventually I surrender and send the whole mess back to the kitchen.

I should have guessed this was not going to be the idyllic South Pacific junket the brochures had led me to expect. “Paradise” cropped up a bit too often. “Idyllic days in midwin-ter,” they boasted. “Celebrated chefs, renowned for the culinary masterpieces they create.” “Fruit and vegetables fresh from the island’s fields and gardens … seafood straight off the boat.”

You get the picture.

Jan Morris loved it, I was told. Gourmet Traveller praised the food. Alex Buzo gushed “It doesn’t get any better than this” in these very pages not 18 months ago.

Well, I don’t know what island they got off at, but it wasn’t the one I spent a week on. The description that kept popping into my mind was that of Governor Darling, who banished the very worst convicts here, decreeing that it should be “a place of the extremist punishment short of death”.

Just kidding.

Things started to go wrong before I even got on the plane, which was six hours late. “I reckon the president wanted it for the weekend,” said the car-hire man who met me at the airport – as good an explanation as you will ever get when the Norfolk Jet Express you thought you were booked on turns out to be a rebadged Qantas 737-300 leased from Air Nauru.

I had chosen my hotel carelessly from the Web site, which lists 40 or so accommodation options. Hillcrest Gardens is “Norfolk Island’s premier loca-tion,” not its “premier hotel”, which is what I thought I had read. There’s another brochure, strangely not available on the Web site, which would have told me the NRMA had awarded it a mere 21/2 stars.

My scantily furnished room was four paces by five, with painted Besserblock walls, a view of grass from a slit of a window, a pizzling, lukewarm dribble of a shower, and no heating. When I kicked up a fuss the next morning, they were kind enough to upgrade me to the unoccupied honeymoon suite (Lance was right), which was four times as large and, without a bride, just as teeth-chattering cold.

It was mid-June, a 30-knot gale was ripping through the pine trees, rain was machine-gunning down and I was wondering whether the temperatures cited in the guide (June allegedly is a balmy 15C-19C) had been, well, massaged, so I rang the meteorologist at the airport. “12.6 was yesterday’s minimum, and 17 the maximum,” he explained. “But it felt colder because the humidity was low. You know, like Antarctica.”

I know.

In fact, the whole place reminded me more of the Hebrides than the South Seas – crashing waves, craggy cliffs, misty green hills, pines instead of palms. Polynesians, no fools them, never had a permanent settlement here – your average palm-frond hut wouldn’t last 10 minutes. When the Europeans arrived they built of stone, bits of which are still standing.

Sucking Sudafed and worrying that my flu was going to turn into pneumonia, I croaked to the nice young woman mind-ing the reception desk: “What am I going to do?”

You have to watch your health on Norfolk Island. Dr Michael Sexton, the former chief medical officer, has been telling a parliamentary commit-tee that diarrhoea is endemic because “people were drinking their own sewage” from leaking septic tanks.

“We don’t have any heaters or air-conditioning; they’re not allowed,” the receptionist said. “But you could do what I do in the winter – I go to bed with my clothes on wearing a beanie.”

No heaters allowed? I took this up during a stroll around the convict ruins of Kingston with the amiable George Smith, the island’s minister for tourism and a dozen other things – with admirable economy, they have only four ministers who look after everything. He explained that it was because the island doesn’t have enough electricity-generation capacity – gas heat-ing is permitted, but most resorts don’t have it because it costs too much.

There’s nothing for it but to drown my sorrows. But even that is no easy task, because the island has no pub. My spirits rise, however, when I am told that someone has opened a mini-brewery down by the air-port, and one of its brews even won an award in New Zealand.

In through the doors I burst, to discover three people playing pool and a disconsolate brewer leaning against the deserted bar with a row of empty barrels.

“This is all we’ve got,” he says, siphoning me a warm beaker of wort from a pipe. “The ship arrived, but the weather was too rough to unload it so it sailed on to America or somewhere with my malt and my hops. Come back in a couple of weeks.”

I should explain here that this was not one of those freebies Norfolk Island’s energetic tourism people shower on the media in an attempt to fill some of those empty seats on planes during the winter slump. I was on Norfolk Island to work … though I had hoped to combine a little pleasure with business.

Hihi pai I was looking for-ward to. Everyone writes about it. It is one of those exotic English-Tahitian dishes developed by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, apparently a kind of pie, filled with periwinkles, which carpet the rocks around the island.

I ring Cat’s Cafe, which is famous for its buffet of island food, and ask what local delicacies were on the menu. Bananas in rum, I am told. Rum? I thought that was from the West Indies.

“What about hihi pai?”

“You go and collect the winkles, and I’ll cook them for you – how’s that?” offered the obliging Ms Cat.

I give the buffet a miss, but I do try half a dozen of the more fancied restaurants on Norfolk Island. The food runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the unforgivable.

With no competition – restrictions on starting new businesses, strict immigration controls and a cosy cartel of local businesspeople who even agree on who can sell what brand of perfume see to that – the island is trapped in a culinary time warp.

Steaks arrive with tiny paper flags reading “medium rare” pinned to them with toothpicks; buttered, pre-sliced white bread is poked among the fish and chips; the wine arrives with the cork swaddled in a paper napkin neatly knotted around the neck of the bottle. The vegies are frozen, the beetroot tinned and the salad dressing comes from a bottle. By eight at night the place is dead.

Day after day, down at the Kingston jetty, I see sport-fishing boats coming in laden with crates of still-flapping trumpeter and great gasping grouper. Night after night I search in vain for anything resembling fresh fish on the menus, eventually giving up when I track down an escaped fillet of trevally, only to find it raw in the middle and branded with burnt beef fat from a filthy grill.

Even on the menu at the Colonial, where I meet a French chef in a white toque, I can find only frozen fillets of Nile perch, imported from God knows where. I ask him why.

“Zere is no professional fish-ing industry here,” he sneers. “Zee locals, zey are too lazy.”

With bananas hanging from the trees, pineapples in the fields and ducks and chickens free-ranging everywhere, the old dears are offered tinned peaches and pears from the breakfast buffet at the Hillcrest, followed by chrome-yellow powdered eggs and tinned spaghetti.

I am told older people love the place because it is abroad without the foreigners – you need a passport, but everyone speaks English, and the food is just like what you get at home. If, that is, you happen to live in Dunedin in the 1950s.

And the island boasts it has no crime to speak of (people leave the keys in their cars), although while I am there the chief minister, a Mr Nobbs, has his laptop nicked, and there are alarming rumours of a criminal ring stealing kentia palm nuts.

Eventually, the day before I am due to leave, the weather does clear up and I am able to inspect the ruins, stroll in the completely deserted national park, visit the museum and think about – just think about – a swim at Emily Cove. That’s about it – you can cover it all comfortably in a day.

On the way to the airport, I contemplate picking up some souvenirs, but what to buy? There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of local handicrafts. Islanders are extremely proud that Lego is cheaper here than in Denmark, but why would any-one fly 1,600 kilometres across the Pacific to buy a Scandinavian children’s toy?

In fact, the whole shopping scene on Norfolk Island is a bit of a scam. In spite of the “duty free” signs on some of the shops, everything sold here carries a 10 per cent duty. I check the prices on a couple of cameras and some perfume and discover that they are, in fact, cheaper at the Sydney Airport duty-free.

If it is to retain its popularity – and 37,000 Australians and New Zealanders visit every year – Smith acknowledges that the island will have to upgrade its facilities. Two hundred more beds have been approved, including a 41/2-star resort, which he hopes will be a start.

It would be a great place for a restaurant, too.

Trouble is, once locals are outnumbered by visitors, and if the island succeeds in attracting a younger crowd, it risks losing the bucolic 1950s lack of sophistication that many regard as its greatest charm.

Destination Norfolk Island

Getting there: Norfolk Island is about 21/2 hours north-east of Sydney by jet. There are plenty of cheap packages during winter, including a five-night deal from Ansett for $689 (phone 13 13 44). Qantas has a seven-night special also for $689 (phone 13 14 15). Demand Norfolk Island Tourism’s blue and white guide to accommodation tariffs to avoid disappointment – it gives the NRMA ratings. Self-catering accommodation is a better option than staying in a hotel or motel – some units even have heating, or so I am told. You also get a kitchen – smuggle in what supplies you can, buy your fish at the wharf and your meat from the butcher, and avoid the restaurants.

Getting around: Even though the island is only eight kilometres by five, you will need a car if you want to avoid the coach tours and Bounty re-enactments. Fortunately, hire cars (mostly little white Mazdas imported secondhand from Japan) are cheap – about $30 a day with insurance. Petrol is $1.18 a litre, and other goods are all imported and expensive.

What to take: In winter, take warm clothing, waterproofs and stout shoes. Also lots of good books. Check prices at Sydney Airport before you leave. Basically, there is no duty-free on Norfolk Island.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 26 August 2000
Edition: Late
Section: Travel
Sub section:
Page: 3
Word count: 2081
Geographic area: Norfolk Island
Caption: Food for thought …
1. Norfolk Island is surrounded by the sea, there are boats, but no fresh fish seem to make it to the menu
2. The old cemetery. Map: Norfolk Island.
Comments: Destination Norfolk Island joined to story.