Ray McVinnie in Niue
Fakaalofa lahi atu means “hello” in Niuean and it was a phrase I quickly tried to learn as I was made very welcome in the small community of Niue. It’s an interesting and very special destination for anyone who wants a tropical break from the New Zealand winter, or indeed anytime.
Niue is 3½ hours from Auckland and there are only two Air New Zealand flights a week which means that, unlike some other Pacific islands, it is not crawling with tourists. There can only ever be three to four hundred tourists on the island at one time as well as the (approximately) 1600 residents. There is only one resort, the very comfortable Scenic Matavai Resort (pictured below), which is where we stayed, as well as a variety of smaller motels and cottage options.
It was refreshing to be somewhere that wasn’t littered with resorts and the commercial culture that goes with them. The Niuean people are friendly (everyone waves to you) and there is no touting for business.
Alofi, the main centre, is simply a street with a rather basic but adequate supermarket, a few shops, an art gallery, craft outlets, a tiny market and government buildings. Niue is a large raised coral atoll so there are no long sandy beaches, but this is amply made up for by the many small sandy coves and beautiful natural swimming pools around the island (interestingly the island is punctuated with carefully manicured lawn areas as Niueans seem to be charmingly addicted to mowing the grass).
If you are looking for somewhere that is relaxing, unspoilt by commercial tourism, largely still in its natural state (which is how Niueans want it to remain), this is the place for you. Fishing charters, diving (the water temperature reaches 34C), walking, kayaking and biking as well as tours of things like vanilla plantations, local villages, reef walking and natural caves are available — all enjoyed in a lush tropical setting.
Perhaps one of the major attractions are the humpbacked whales. Niue is on a whale migration route and most cafes, restaurants, the Scenic Matavai Resort and self-catering rental properties are near the coast and have panoramic views of where the whales travel. Whale season is July to November so I didn’t see any but I did see dolphins every day and was very happy watching them. Check out the Niue website niueisland.com for more information.
There is a growing number of food producers and I had an interesting chat with Jazinta Levi of the Niue Island Organic Farmers Association about sustainability. I also met vanilla growers (the Niue Vanilla International pure vanilla extract is excellent), producers of coconut oil and ex-Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky, who is now a resident. With business partner James Douglas he has an amazing hydroponic vegetable and herb operation, Niue Fresh, which grows some of the best produce I have seen.
The incredibly fragrant herbs, I believe, are soon to be exported to New Zealand. Kiwi chefs take note! I was not surprised to learn that Niue Fresh won the Best Producer Award at the Niue Business Awards. One of the highlights of my stay was a tour of the virgin rainforest with Tony from A5 Plantation tours. (a5toursniue.com). We had a relaxing walk with him and his small son Max and went looking for the famous uga (pronounced oongah) — the big Niuean coconut crabs that live in the forest and are delicious.
Tony knows all about the flora and fauna in the forest and his gentle commentary as we walked was fascinating. When it began to rain he used his trusty machete to cut large leaves for us to use as umbrellas. He also took us to his plantation where he grows traditional crops like yams, taro (Niuean white taro is famous throughout the Pacific) and cassava.
If you are a gardener, a trip to John and Doris Ranfurly’s property is also a must. John and Doris are redeveloping his grandparents’ plantation at Vaipouli which was last used in 1958 and are growing all sorts of plants. He will also deliver a soothing commentary that will fascinate those who like growing things.
Where to eat
For such a small community I was impressed with the number and quality of the relaxed licensed restaurants and cafes. We ate at:
Run by generous host Avi Rubin, serving Japanese food including sushi, prepared by his Japanese chef. Generous portions, charming Japanese lantern-lit dining room, great service, bookings essential.
Falala Fa Cafe
Owned by BJ Rex (who was student of mine at AUT, so I know he can cook) and his family. Light meals, steaks, fresh seafood. Again, make a booking.
Run by Vikki and Tony Kalauni with chef Kyria who trained at Auckland’s MIT. Burgers, fries, local seafood, delicious. In a great setting looking out over the whale route, the cafe recently won the Best New Business and Supreme awards at the Niue Business Awards.
Don’t miss this slightly ramshackle, unbelievably relaxed cafe hung with dusty sailing memorabilia set in the small sandy Avatele cove (pictured above). You arrive, go behind the bar, select your drinks, place a food order, write it down in an exercise book and pay later. Willie the proprietor (also a local mechanic) makes his own knockout panini bread and I ate a delicious one stuffed with panfried fish and slaw. The perfect place to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Pauline Blumsky runs this idyllic cafe, which looks out over the sea (and the whale route). Her icy signature drink, Rock Melon Crush, is legendary and perfect on a hot day, which it always is in Niue. Light meals, sandwiches and cakes. Excellent quality, great service.
Humu Island Retreat
Saluma Hunt runs this small garden retreat which has two units for rent. On Sundays she does a traditional Niuean lunch. I was slightly apprehensive, I have to admit, expecting it to be tasteless (to me) taro and the like, but it was a revelation and proved there is good food everywhere, you just have to find the good cooks.
We ate a sensational lunch of takihi, (which I was told was the national dish of Niue, a gratin of white taro, pawpaw and coconut cream, my version follows), baked young taro leaves with coconut cream, freshly caught baked tuna, delicious coconut crab, roasted local pork, nuku (local fernheads, like pikopiko) baked with corned beef (it was really good!) and marinated raw fish with chilli and coconut cream, great with a cold beer.
There are also plenty of self-catering places to renton Niue and if you bring a polystyrene container of any extra specialities you may want (good New Zealand extra virgin olive oil being one I would choose), these along with the local seafood, fruit like pawpaw and the amazing big yellow passionfruit, Niue honey and vanilla, will ensure eating well will not be a problem.
You may want to have a chat with Mr Blumsky about securing some of his produce. If you really want to eat local, try the wild pigeon and bat — but only with the locals! There is also an award-winning local bakery, Rockbak Bakery, but be early as they sell out quickly.
There is plenty of seafood in Niue as fishing is a major pastime. This is good with a side of steamed jasmine rice. Get the recipe
This may sound weird to some people but is a delicious gratin, excellent with roasted or barbecued pork. Takihi is usually made with the famous Niue white taro, but several Niueans told me it could also be made with kumara, so that is what I have used as kumara is easier to get here. The coriander is my idea and works well. Get the recipe
I got the idea for these buttermilk puddings from British chef Mark Hix’s excellent book British Seasonal Food. He describes it as a British version of panna cotta. Since Niue is famous for its award-winning honey (it just won a medal at the British Honey Awards) and its vanilla, I wanted to use them in a dessert.
Both seemed the obvious flavourings for such a pudding. Manuka honey is the closest Kiwi honey I could find for the dark, caramelly Niue honey, which I didn’t bring back with me.
I did bring vanilla back and used it in the following recipe. Make this the day before you need it, as has only enough gelatine to lightly set it (it should not be too firm or rubbery) so its texture benefits from long setting and refrigeration. When melting the gelatine, place it in a heatproof bowl then add the 3 tablespoons of boiling water to the gelatine powder. Don’t stir it yet, but place it over another bowl of boiling water so the heat melts it, then stir it up. When adding it to the mixture make sure you get it all or you won’t have enough to set the puddings. Get the recipe
Thanks to Niue Chamber of Commerce , The Scenic Matavai Resort, Niue Tourism, Niue Car Rentals, Rae Finlay for being the perfect minder and all the lovely people on Niue who also made our stay so perfect.