Norfolk Island — Paradise Found

There’s an island in the South Pacific between Australia, New Zealand, and New Caledonia that is home to the Norfolk Pine, and fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. This small island, about 13 sq miles, was once a place where only the most undesirable people were sent. Today, it is a tourist’s delight and a haven for those seeking a bit of paradise away from a turbulent and stressful world. This remote serenity has attracted writers such as Colleen McCullough who maintains a permanent home on Norfolk Island.

Despite its size and location, the island has a lot of historical significance in its attempts at settlement. Discovered by Captain James Cook in the late 1700’s on his exploratory voyage on the HMS Resolution, the island was at first considered a valuable source of flax and hemp, much needed by the Royal Navy for sails and ropes. The supply of flax was of little benefit, however, as the few colonists had no knowledge of weaving hemp, and the wood of the many trees was not strong enough for building ships. There didn’t seem to be much use for the island, as the salty air, vermin, and lack of a good harbor and supply chain further hindered its development. However, many of the ships carrying convicts to Botany Bay in Australia were being diverted to Norfolk Island. A small group of 15 convicts (9 male and 6 female) and 7 free men were the first Europeans to arrive and colonize in 1788, primarily for farming. The wreck of the HMS Sirius on the reef of Norfolk Island in March of 1790 spelled further disaster, as much-needed supplies were lost, and many were marooned for 10 months. The convict population continued to grow despite these hardships to over 1,000 in the next two years, as more were sent from Sydney, and some remained on the island after serving their sentence.

Norfolk Island was a place of no return for the incorrigibles, as might be compared to Alcatraz. The prisoners faced harsh and indecent living conditions, indescribable cruel punishment, and death by hanging. Any sort of rehabilitation for their crimes was unheard of. The prisoners were kept in 22 wards, with hammocks in each ward for 20 to 120 at a time, until individual wooden cubicles were built. Subsequent closures of the prison and attempts at re-settlement were made, but these ultimately failed with the last convicts removed to Tasmania in 1855. By 1856, the prison was completely abandoned, leaving the ruins of the Protestant Chapel, which was re-roofed and is now the site of the Maritime Museum. The next settlers, arriving from Pitcairn Island, were much more successful in establishing a colony of farmers and whaling fleets. A local holiday, June 8, is observed as Bounty Day in honor of the Pitcairners, whose Tahitian culture is still evident in cuisine and customs.

Where prison walls once stood, there now remains an unspoiled paradise where tourism has become the mainstay of the economy. The beauty lies in the abundant native plants including the rare towering tree ferns and the Norfolk Island Pines, as well as the many species of birds, some endangered, which have managed to survive in this mild, semi-tropical climate. About ten percent of the area that was once a dense rain forest has been set aside for the Norfolk National Park. Here, you can visit the botanical gardens, see Cook’s Monument, and explore an outstanding natural history collection. Bird watchers and others will enjoy the scenic views from Mt Bates and Mt Pitt, a pleasant walk to the top. (Hours: Monday — Friday, 8:30 am to 5 pm.) For the eco-tourist, there is a also a free “Walk in the Wild, daily from 2 to 5 pm. Another interesting outdoor attraction are the coffee plantations, where tours are available, as well as food and beverages at the Norfolk Island Coffee House, open 7 days a week.

Although the steep cliffs that line most of the perimeter of the Island prohibit landings by sea except at the main port of Kingston, visitors enjoy watching cargo ships unload to whale boats towed by launches to and from landing docks. Nearby is the Maritime Museum, which holds a fascinating collection of artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Sirius, as well as many items brought to the Island by the Pitcairners; e.g., the ship’s cannon and the old kettle used for fermenting liquor and boiling sea water for salt. (Hours: Daily, 9:30 am – 1 pm, $5 admission)

Another popular attraction is the Norfolk Island Museum, #10 Quality Row, also located in Kingston. This 1844 Georgian style home, once occupied by Pitcairn families, houses artifacts unearthed from the region and one of the largest collections of Colonial china. Visitors will find more items recovered from the wreck of the HMS Sirius in the Pier Store of the Museum. The upper floor exhibitions relate a dramatic story of mutiny on the bounty and the history of the 3rd settlement by mutineers and Pitcairners. Activities in the Museum include a theatre production of the first 15 convicts put on trial, and guided tours Monday — Saturday. (Hours: Book store and cafè: Monday — Friday, 11 am to 3 pm; Saturday — 10 am to 3 pm). (All Museums Pass – $21.80; Single ticket – $10)

Norfolk Island has its own version of Camelot, a magical 2-acre garden sanctuary, carefully managed by the local Clerk to the Legislative Assembly. Ducks and geese meander through the beautifully landscaped grounds of fruit trees, native plants and shrubs, fountains, and statuary. (Admission – $5 adults, children under 16 are free.) Here, as beside produce stalls along many of the country roads, visitors just drop their money in a tin “honesty” box at the entrance. Camelot Gardens is also included on many of the Island tours.

Accommodations range from cozy guesthouses and cottages to the aptly named Fletcher Christian Apartments and The Castaway Hotel. There is no public transportation, but rental cars are readily available.

Norfolk Island is accessible by two airlines, Air New Zealand and Norfolk Air. Norfolk Air has regular 2 to 2 ½-hour flights, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from Sydney and Brisbane to the airport at Burnt Pine. Another option is their flight from Newcastle, New South Wales, on Mondays, and Air New Zealand from Sydney and Brisbane on Wednesday and Saturday.

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel ideas

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Comments (2)

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  1. Youngho CHOI says:

    This Island sounds very much similar to Australia. It is wierd that the island was actually used for undesirable people. Although whole Australia was used for convics from England. The place seems like a Fremantle in Perth. Hum..better check it out before visiting my cousin in New Zealand.

  2. Kwon YunHwan says:

    Hi!! It’s me Kwon from your class

    since few years ago I wanted to travel overseas for a vacations but for various reasons I wasn’t able to do that…

    since I on my last year of University I’ve bean looking for some place to travel.. some where really nice and far where I could get rid of all the stress and this island might be the one!

    since this site has lot of information I’ll look through more…

    If I go to this place I’ll leave a review of my travel for you. I hope to see you next semester and have a merry christmas!!!

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