Visiting Norfolk Island is like meeting a long-lost relative (who just happens to be a phenomenal cook), says Nikki Wallman. Photography by Hayley Anderson.
G’day mate!” might be our most loved form of greeting, but what you hear on the street typically varies from that. Queenslanders are far more likely to greet you with an “’Ow you goin’?”, while a Melburnian may simply gift you with an air kiss or two.
At the tiny airport of Norfolk Island, however, you’ll hear a decidedly lesser well-known phrase: “Wataweih!” Norfolk might be only two-and-a-half hours from Sydney, but the fact that you need your passport to get here hints at how far you’ll feel you’ve travelled.
It’s kind of like discovering a quirky cousin you never knew you had. You might feel an instant sense of familiarity; perhaps you’ll even recognise that stubborn family nose, or characteristic laugh. Yet you’ve forged independent lives, developing unique traits and talents along the way. And getting to know this particular long-lost relative is a fascinating journey indeed.
This eight-by-five-kilometre subtropical speck is an utterly unique place: a patchwork of pastoral, forest and beach scenery, like some sort of tropical re-imagining of a Jane Austen novel set in the South Pacific.
Pink and yellow hibiscus flowers line the garden walls of painstakingly preserved colonial Georgian homesteads, delightfully doe-eyed cows that roam freely have right of way on the roads and the township of Burnt Pine is deliciously daggy – no soulless high street chains or self-consciously cute shopfronts here; just a low-key lineup of quaint stores, pubs and the requisite bowling club.
The 2000 or so residents of this self-governing Australian territory even have their own UNESCO-recognised language called Norf’k, which originated on faraway Pitcairn Island, midway between New Zealand and the Americas. It was on Pitcairn that the British ‘Bounty Mutineers’ hid out with their Tahitian wives following their famed rebellion aboard the HMS Bounty in 1789.
The isolated but growing community was later granted Norfolk Island – previously a penal colony for Australia’s worst convicts – as a new home by Queen Victoria in 1856.
A dash of Americanism
Today, most Norfolk families are descended from these ‘Pitcairners’ and this heritage, along with an added dash of Americanism, flows through to their food. (Visiting American whalers had a big impact on local culture; so much so that Thanksgiving is a public holiday here.) The food is reflective of everything that makes Norfolk Island so unique – its history, its isolation, its reliance on the land and the sea.
The first – and probably this writer’s favourite – meal of our visit to Norfolk happens at a cliff-top ‘fish fry’, a temporary outdoor restaurant perched high above the ocean at long picnic tables as the sun drops, silhouetting enormous Norfolk pines.
Beers are served at the makeshift ‘bar’ and guitar strings plucked as we help ourselves to salads, freshly-baked coconut bread, banana pihli (ripe bananas, mashed and baked to coax out a new dimension of sweetness), and the hero of the evening, fresh trumpeter and kingfish from the surrounding sea, fried to golden perfection in beer kegs on site.
The salty, earthy, sweet and fresh flavours all combine beautifully to create a kind of tropical soul-food: simple, satisfying and hitting all the right tastebuds.
The pihli is just one glimpse of the resourcefulness woven into this island life. Norfolkers have 101 ways to use their homegrown produce – green bananas are fried into fritters, or cooked in milk to create ‘mudda’ (dumplings); when over-ripe, they become pihli or pudding.
It’s a frontier, make-the-most-of-what-you’ve-got way of cooking that’s enjoying renewed popularity and admiration worldwide, thanks to the likes of everyone from Jamie Oliver to Matt Moran (though you get the impression that Norfolkers couldn’t give two hoots about these blokes).
It’s easy, in fact, to find yourself admiring many elements of Norfolk’s approach to food. Here, ‘fast food’ is measured by how quickly your meal arrives from the garden out back to your plate.
With almost all importation of fresh produce banned (aside from potatoes, onion, garlic and ginger) to protect the local food supply, many Norfolk islanders grow their own in the fertile volcanic soil, swapping supplies when their avocados or guavas are just too darn abundant.
Bigger growers sell their produce to local restaurants and at the tiny Saturday growers’ markets, where you can buy beautiful, dirt-crusted fruit and veg – yanked from the soil hours before – off the back of utes.
You can sample home-baked melting moments and bacon and egg pies at the Sunday markets, along with more produce like fresh feijoas, grapes and avocados, resplendent on huge palm leaves on the main strip.
Across the road from the markets, the woodfired bakery does pizzas, pies and breads including a yummy rye flecked with caraway seed; and down the other end of town, you’ll find your caffeine fix at Fred Wong’s Anson Café – just ‘two songs on the radio’ from where the beans are grown, picked and roasted at his own palm-fringed coffee plantation.
None of this is fancy. But that’s really the beauty of it all.
Cooking Norfolk style
Should culinary inspiration strike after sampling all this produce, you can always brush up on your cooking skills at the ‘Mastering Taste’ classes run by Hilli’s restaurant owner Kim Wilson at her home.
Her huge garden supplies the produce for her restaurant. Strolling through colourful rows of beans, tomatoes, kale and herbs, she picks leaves and hands them to me.
The aromas and taste of the lemony basil and rocket are hyper-real; as though you’re stepping into a comic-book version of what food is supposed to taste like.
Classes pick their own produce from this garden before perfecting fish en papillote with herbs, and a honeycomb dessert that brings the bees in from the property next door.
Or, if you prefer others to do the hard work in the kitchen for you, you can still get hands-on by checking out one of the farm tours on offer (ask at the Visitor Information Centre) to really get a feel for where your food’s coming from.
At Norfolk Blue restaurant, for example, they take ‘paddock to plate’ one step further: from conception to plate.
The island’s own breed of cattle, called Norfolk Blue for the cows’ distinctive grey-blue coat, graze less than one kilometre from where they take pride of place on the menu.
As we tour the paddocks before our meal, I discover there’s something unnerving, yet ultimately honest about looking your lunch in the eye.
Back at the beautiful old homestead-turned-restaurant, my filet mignon topped with a silky house beef pâté is intensely yet smoothly flavoured, and I can’t tell how much of the beautiful scenery and wild, fresh air is embedded in my perception of what I’m eating.
But it doesn’t matter. On Norfolk, it’s all intertwined. And it’s all good.
The Details: Norfolk Island
Air New Zealand is the sole carrier, with flights from Sydney (Monday and Friday) and Brisbane (Saturday and Tuesday) starting at approximately $600 return. Don’t forget your passport – it’s an international flight.
Affordable: Heritage Hill offers basic but clean, spacious self-contained cottages with spectacular views to Phillip Island. From $164 per night; 159 Taylors Road; hillcrestnorfolkisland.com
Comfortable: The South Pacific Resort Hotel has recently undergone a revamp, updating the rooms and common areas including the pool and deck. From $175 per night; southpacresort.com.au
Splashing out: Norfolk’s latest 5-star property, The Tin Sheds, ups the ante with three beautifully appointed apartments packed with every mod-con, large outdoor entertaining areas, Fiat convertibles and thoughtful extras like a ‘toy box’ with snorkelling gear, tennis rackets and other fun items. From $425 per night; tinshedsnorfolkisland.com
The beauty of such a small island is that you can go ‘deffy’ (this way) or ‘daffy’ (that way), and find something to tickle your fancy within minutes. Here are some recommendations:
1. Hike nearby Phillip Island or explore the many trails on the main island for a close-up look at the beautiful trees and exotic birdlife.
2. Play at Norfolk Island Golf Club; a heritage-listed golf course with stunning ocean views.
3. Read the fascinating inscriptions on the graves of convicts and settlers at the old cemetery. Follow up with a nighttime, ghostly ‘sound and light’ show and see the brutal convict past come to life within the ruins of the World Heritage-listed Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area.
4. Swim, snorkel, surf or scuba dive at one of the many picturesque sites around the coastline, such as Emily Bay.
Norfolk Blue for delicious beef dishes with matching scenery; norfolkblue.com
‘Mastering Taste’ cooking classes run by Hilli’s restaurant owner Kim Wilson; facebook.com/HilliRestaurantNorfolk
Need to know
Bad weather can strand flights, so don’t forget travel insurance.
There’s no public transport on the island, but check with your accommodation before you book a car – many include car hire.
Practise your ‘Norfolk Wave’ – either a dainty single finger salute or a full-hand wave is de rigeur for all drivers on Norfolk.
You definitely don’t need to speak Norf’k to get by, but adding a little to your vocab won’t go astray. Try ‘Wataweih yorlyi?’ – it means ‘Hello and how are you?’
For more information contact the Norfolk Island Visitor Information Centre; 1800 214 603; norfolkisland.com.au