There it was, Niue, a lone rocky fortress rising out of the Pacific Ocean’s indigo expanse, lush forest spilling over its towering cliffs like a mop of unruly green hair.
Even Paradise can have tantrums sometimes. As the plane approached Niue for landing, it began to yaw and skitter nervously in the face of a blustery northerly. Out the window I could see mountainous foam-flecked swells marching along before rearing up and smashing down onto the island’s bordering shallow reef. It was not the warmest welcome to this lovely island nation.
It helps to explain why I wasn’t overly smitten by Niue initially, particularly as Paul Pasisi, our Pacific Hot Spots reporter for the area who was coincidentally sitting in front of me on the plane, said conditions would prevent any fishing in the short term. Great! It was a reminder that no matter how well things might be organised, Nature remains in charge.
As things panned out though, it also reinforced the fact that, while some places hit you right between the eyes at first sight, others can take longer, gradually working their way under your skin and eventually affecting you more profoundly. After all, it’s not just an impressive setting that makes a place special, it’s the sum of its parts: the people and their attitudes, the unique sights and smells, the opportunities and activities available, as well as the overall vibe. That’s how Niue brought me under its spell.
It started with a very warm welcome from Niue Tourism’s Micah Fuhiniu, wobbled a bit when she couldn’t help screwing her nose up at my fishing prospects, then picked up again when I was given the keys to my Niuean chariot, a spacious Toyota Voxy hatchback provided by Niue Car Rentals – perfect for accommodating my fishing gear and tootling around the island.
This more positive momentum continued upon reaching Scenic Matavai Resort. Experience from various Pacific islands has taught me to keep expectations low where accommodation is concerned. But every now and then there is a pleasant surprise, as proved to be the case at Matavai. In the reception area smiling staff held out refreshing cold drinks – I settled for a freshly-opened chilled coconut (delicious) – and after an introduction and mingle, I made my way to my room.
Feeling somewhat hot and sticky from the 28-degree heat, I turned the key, opened the door, and felt a beautifully cool, fan-forced air-conditioned breeze washing over me. Love it.
The well-furnished and finished room looked thoroughly inviting, with a comfy double bed, decent-sized flat-screen TV, a fridge stocked with various cold drinks, a large bathroom, private balcony and, best of all, an elevated view of the resort’s pools, bar and restaurant, with the stunning Pacific Ocean then taking over and stretching out to the horizon.
It didn’t take me long to unpack, sort my fishing tackle and then get down to the serious business of relaxing!
I never quite made it. While making my way down towards the cool, beckoning waters of the resort’s pool, I heard someone call out my name and was happily surprised to see Peter Leyden, an old fishing buddy of mine from 30 years ago! After a quick catch-up and introduction to his family, he suggested visiting Avatele Beach boat Ramp. This area is protected from most swells and offers the chance of land-based trevally – both bluefin and giant – or perhaps a coral trout, barracuda or red bass. On the downside, it would be dark in a couple of hours, so we needed to get going!
Twenty minutes later saw us pulling up at the ramp and I could see why Pete had suggested coming here. Although a relatively serene white-coral sand beach (a rarity on the island) is situated on the left-hand side, with the famous Washaway Café nestled above it amongst the vegetation, the right side is a very different matter. Here, a curving rocky point and towering coastline provide the necessary sea protection, with a narrow channel funnelling the bay’s tidal flow and swells, intensifying them. Add to this some substantial structure – including a manmade breakwater consisting of several concrete blocks – along with a large dark cloud of baitfish swimming within the channel’s confines, and we had the perfect scenario for encountering ambush predators. And did I mention the simply unbelievable, crystal-clear water?
Pete, still as intrepid as ever, headed off around the rocky coastline towards the point, the roiling current and white water at the bay’s channel entrance proving too hard to resist. It looked good to me, too, but I didn’t want to risk thousands of dollars’ worth of camera gear amongst the rocks and crashing waves. Besides, I liked the scenario in front of me, too.
Sure enough, fourth cast my Rapala X-Rap Sub Walk lure got whacked hard, but failed to hook up. Then, 10 minutes later, I heard a shout and saw Pete leaning back hard, his rod wrenched over as he tried to stop something fishy and powerful from breaking off. He was only partially successful: while he managed to hang onto his old-style Cotton Cordell pencil popper, the treble hook bent out. (I won’t mention suggesting to Pete that he change them over to a heavier-duty type back at the resort!)
Encroaching darkness chased us off soon after, but the potential here was obvious, and at least we had dinner to look forward to.
The Matavai has a large, airy, inside-outside restaurant onsite that offers relatively simple but fresh and tasty fare, made better still by the stunning ocean views. Then, after an enjoyable fish meal, I went back to my room and fell asleep to the whoomph and rumble of the swells.
Getting up early for breakfast, I was greeted by a frustrating sight. In addition to a vastly improved sea state, dozens of seabirds were fluttering and swooping over a school of small yellowfin tuna feeding energetically just a few hundred metres out.
This is one of the great things about Niue’s lack of a surrounding lagoon: every 100 metres from shore sees the sea floor plunging 100 metres deeper, so some wonderful natural spectacles play out surprisingly close to shore.
In addition to witnessing plenty of fish and bird action over the next few days, we were regularly entertained by a large pod of spinner dolphins, the members taking turns in launching themselves high and rotating through the air at speed, as befits the species’ name. Apparently, you can even be treated to whales tail-slapping and jumping just offshore, too – what a great accompaniment to your meals and drinks!
Unfortunately, despite much calmer seas, large oceanic swells continued to lazily roll into the coastline, so fishing was going to have to wait a little longer. But every cloud has a silver lining: I could now look around this gorgeous island.
While the Scenic Matavai Resort is the island’s premier full-service hotel accommodation, there are plenty of other great options available – everything from self-catering fale or cottage-style units to guest-houses, motels and backpackers’ lodges. Attractions and facilities vary, but all those I encountered had a wonderful Niuean Island charm and looked clean and tidy. The best way to examine the potential options is by checking them out online, but be aware that the island’s internet system can be somewhat shaky at times, so you may need to be a little patient.
For more memorable water-related activities: head out in a glass-bottomed boat and check out the amazing local reef inhabitants; hire a paddle board and propel yourself sedately around the island’s great sights; try out an inflatable kayak (great fun!); or have a fascinating reef and rock-pool walk.
Inland activities: perhaps get Misa to show you what life was like here in times past, including using natural resources to start fires and which natural herbs can produce medicines. Or, if you want to be more active, head off for a spot of golf or check out the lawn bowls. I think the mini putt course situated at the pulsating café Vaiolama is the best I’ve ever come across.
At the other end of the scale, for those wanting a bit of extra relaxation, indulgence or relief from aching muscles, a wide range of massage, therapeutic massage and body-scrub services are available, along with spas and manicure and pedicure procedures.
There are plenty of places showcasing local carving, artwork and handcrafts; you can see the artists at work or buy their creations. However, the marketplaces often provide the best opportunities to see lots of artefacts at once, along with the freshest island produce and various knick-knacks.
One of the real treats for me when overseas is the chance to eat delicious fish caught from local waters. As far as I’m concerned, tropical species such as mahimahi, wahoo and coral trout cannot be beaten for tastiness, so I choose meals incorporating these fish whenever possible.
Although Niue’s small population and visitor numbers mean just a modest number of eateries are viable, these are typically upbeat, friendly and offer surprisingly varied cuisine from countries including Japan, Italy, India, Europe and Niue. I always looked forward to meal times. In addition to beautifully cooked fish in various forms, I also enjoyed some sensational chicken and meat dishes – I will always remember a couple of the towering burgers chock-filled with local produce!
The resort’s affable General Manager Simon Jackson suggested an Island Orientation Tour guided by Hima Douglas. Hima turned out to be fantastic. A gentleman in every sense of the word, Hima showed me around the many natural wonders tucked away amongst Niue’s rocky shores, as well as providing a running commentary on everything else in between. His massive store of knowledge never ceased to surprise me – he had something worthwhile to contribute on every subject that came up.
So how did I reward Hima for sharing his fascinating insights and showing me around several wondrous underground caves, secretive ‘natural swimming pools’ and special sights? Well, while he was manoeuvring out of a tight spot near a boat ramp, I asked him a question, and in the midst of answering it there was a loud graunch as he collected a boat trailer, leaving a nasty gouge down the van’s side. So unfair, Hima!
I also had the chance to visit more of Niue’s natural structures and landmarks by myself. Most are relatively easily reached, as it’s possible to drive right around the island within an hour. It’s a lovely drive, and at times you’ll find yourself driving through ‘vegetation tunnels’, the thick bordering tropical forest joining up overhead. However, in places there is more road repair than road, and some of the unfilled potholes hold legendary status. The real trick is to watch for potholes and manoeuvre round them if necessary, whilst waving to the friendly oncoming traffic at the same time!
For those wanting a more sedate trip, it’s possible to cycle around on hired bikes – or rent a motor cycle if you don’t like the idea of grinding away up the odd steep hill.
While two flights filled with mainly tourists make their way to Niue each week, it’s still possible to visit one of several sparkling ‘rock pools’ partly open to the ocean, and then swim and snorkel amongst the multitude of brightly coloured inhabitants by yourself or with just a couple of other bathers for company. I can tell you now, the snorkelling available here is simply breath-taking – how can it not be with a wealth of sea life surrounded by crystal-clear water? And yes, just so you don’t freak out, there are sea snakes, but they won’t bite you: if one of these beautifully marked serpents swims up to you, just enjoy the encounter.
This segues nicely to the diving activities. We had a very professional looking diving outfit called Niue Dive alongside the Matavai Resort; Magical Niue Sea Adventures is another, based in Alofi. Both offer a wide range of diving options for all levels of experience (and inexperience), including seasonal whale interaction/encounters.
One of the activities I regret not doing during my stay was hunting uga, a species of terrestrial hermit crab better known as coconut crab. These crabs are the biggest living arthropods in the world, but as they are also particularly tasty, they have vanished from most of the more inhabited areas.
There are options aplenty for cavers and intending cavers, too; some of these subterranean caverns are very accessible and a couple really blew me away. Again, different experiences require different levels of skill and fitness.
There are several very competent and experienced fishing-charter operations on the island and I was booked to fish several of them. So, with the swells subsiding and the winds now coming from a more favourable direction, I looked forward to experiencing Niue’s fishing. As it turned out, the action was so amazing, two further features are needed to cover it all!
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