My friend Annie had never been to a South Pacific island and we needed a winter holiday. Our hope was to swim with a humpback whale, dive in sea caves and snorkel in reef-top pools.
Niue Island seemed to tick all these boxes. We booked our flights with Air New Zealand, the only airline to service Niue. It runs two flights weekly from Auckland. Niue airport therefore has no permanent staff. People simply come out from the villages twice a week to service the two flights and so a nice friendly atmosphere is evident on arrival.
Being greeted by a warm breeze and melodious local singing from inside the small terminal building was a nice way to begin our island experience. We were soon sitting on the balcony of our superb unit at the Matavai Resort sipping a cool drink and looking out over the clear waters of the blue Pacific.
On our first morning, as we sat outside enjoying breakfast and taking in the sea view, a humpback whale and her calf surfaced near the reef edge right below us!
Every year humpbacks make the 6500km journey from Antarctica to Niue to give birth to their young in warm water. Niue is one of the few places where people are allowed to swim with the giant mammals.
Next morning we visited Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive, where Kate gave us a 20-minute briefing on whales and explained that we had a good chance of swimming with a whale, but that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to wildlife.
Swimming with giants
After only 50 minutes out on the water, we were snorkeling right beside a humpback whale and her inquisitive six-day-old calf. This was, to say the least, a humbling experience and we considered ourselves very lucky.
Calves are born weighing between one and two tonnes and drink 500lt of milk per day. The calf does not suckle. Instead the mother squirts milk with the consistency of yoghurt into the wide-open mouth of the calf. We spent most of that afternoon relaxing beside the resort's pool and reflecting on this amazing experience.
On another occasion while relaxing on the wharf one morning, someone shouted, "Whale breaching". After recovering the camera from the car, I aimed it in roughly the right direction just as Mademoiselle Humpback launched skyward again. On motor drive I managed to capture six photos before she crashed back into the water.
Most days from shore, we witnessed humpback calves practising airborne manoeuvres such as breaching, tail-slapping and spy-hopping. Sometimes it seemed like non-stop action as pods of spinner dolphins could also be seen cruising along the reef edge.
To drive a rental car or motorcycle on Niue you need a licence, which is NZ$22.50 and obtainable from the police station in Alofi. Driving on Niue was a pleasure, with low traffic volumes, and no traffic lights or stop signs. The open road speed limit is 60km/h and in the villages it's 40km/h. It sounds slow, but it doesn't take long to realise there is no reason to rush.
As we drove our tiny rental car, which I named 'Escargot', every Niuean driver waved to us, and I mean every single one! A mechanical waving hand, mounted just inside the windscreen, would have been a great accessory.
The whole population of Niue is only 1500 people so everybody knows everybody else. This is probably why there is no serious crime. A few street signs suggested the residents are anti-smoking and during 10 days on the island I only saw one smoker.
On Sundays almost every resident of Niue, young and old, is at church by 10am. Visitors are welcome at the services and, even if you're not religious, it's a great cultural experience and the singing is incredibly uplifting.
Apart from beautifully harmonised Niuean hymns resonating across the village greens, the rest of the island was quiet so we decided to explore.
We drove on narrow tarmac roads, weaving our way through a tunnel of trees, which included coconut palms. We entered quite a number of Niue's 14 villages, but no one was in sight. It takes about 90 minutes to drive around the whole island.
Thanks to our tourist map, we were soon exploring some of the many sea tracks, caves and caverns around Niue's coastline. They were surprisingly well set up for visitors, with signage, picnic tables, platforms, showers and toilets.
Our first stop was Halagigie Point, near the airport. We spotted a whale and also became quite mesmerised watching large sea swells crash against the cliff and explode into plumes of white spray.
Further up the coast north of Alofi are many wonderful reef-top pools, which are best visited when low tide coincides with the midday sun. One of my favourites was Hikutavake. As I looked down from the whale-watching platform the gorgeous blue pools beckoned. We grabbed all our gear and excitedly climbed down the cliff path for some more snorkeling.
Niue is the world's largest raised coral atoll. If you were to put together all the 15 islands in the Cook Islands group, Niue would still be bigger. It has no rivers and the close surrounding coral reef plummets to the sea floor about 5000m below. This scenario usually means clear water and so I greatly anticipated my first scuba dive.
Into the abyss
Krystal, my experienced dive guide and photographic model, took me to her favourite spot just a short boat ride from the wharf. I rolled backwards off the inflatable pontoon at Snake Gully, flipped over and then simply stared into the blue abyss in total disbelief. Krystal obviously enjoyed my reaction and, given that the visibility was 75m-plus, it occurred to me that Krystal was very aptly-named, as the water was crystal clear.
Descending felt like free fall and within a few minutes Krystal was gently caressing a katuali or flat-tail venomous sea snake (Laticauda schistorhynchus), which grows up to 1m in length and is found only in the waters of Niue. Sea snakes will often come close, but are not aggressive towards divers or swimmers. This one was no exception.
As we entered a sea cave, shafts of sunlight penetrated the clear water. It was a photographer's dream location and not difficult to spend 40 minutes continually pressing the shutter button.
Krystal had also mentioned an air bubble cave. I imagined it to be simply a black hole with a pocket of air and dismissed the idea, but a last-minute change of heart proved a good decision. We carefully negotiated a narrow passage and then slowly ascended towards the bubble. I broke through the surface and was elated to see beautiful limestone formations inhabited by baby sea snakes. After removing our regulators the air inside the bubble seemed quite fresh and breathing was not a problem. A total dive time of 80 minutes was easy in such warm, shallow water and as we exited the cave I could clearly see our boat like a speck in the distance. There could be no excuses for getting lost here.
Supply ships visit Niue once a month and as the island had only recently been restocked prior to our arrival, fresh food was plentiful and we were eating great food. Two local delicacies were a must try - marinated raw wahoo and locally made coconut bread - and I have to say they were absolutely delicious!
Evening entertainment at the Matavai Resort was most enjoyable and introduced us to a huge coconut crab along with Bev, its owner. Known locally as the Uga it is the largest land-living anthropod in the world and although eaten is subjected to strict size limits.
Niuean singing and a fire dance were part of the night's entertainment and the highlight for me was the Gutuvai local string band. Their star performer was a talented four-year-old boy called Irwin, who confidently performed a Niuean war dance called Takalo.
It was also great to visit a local school where the art of hand-building a dug-out canoe is still being practised. They were building quite a number to take part in celebrations of Niue's 40 years of self-government.
Unfortunately a visit to the local hospital was on the agenda when I developed some very painful mouth ulcers, which would not heal. I was introduced to the friendly resident Niuean dentist and he spent 40 minutes checking me out, treating me and prescribing antibiotics. He then asked me to pay the account at the desk on my way out. I opened it to see a consultation cost of $5 and treatment $10. If you're in need of a dentist, you might want to consider a visit to Niue...
During my photographic career I have been lucky enough to visit most South Pacific countries, but Niue was fast becoming one of my all-time favourites.
Some of the highlights include locals who are very friendly and welcoming and who speak English; the local currency is $NZ; there are so many wonderful local natural attractions, no one pesters you for money; the roads are good and renting a car is easy.
In addition, Niue offers some of the clearest seawater diving I've experienced, as well as world-class gamefishing.
And, of course, if you you visit between July and November you have a very good chance of seeing humpback whales and even swimming with them. It's a special opportunity not to be missed.
Special thanks to Shannon and Krystal Hunter of Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive and to Niue Island Tourism.