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Introducing Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island (population 2302) is a pine-studded speck adrift in the South Pacific Ocean, 1600km northeast of Sydney and 1000km northwest of Auckland. It's the largest of a cluster of three islands emerging from the underwater Norfolk Ridge, which stretches from New Zealand to New Caledonia, the closest landfall, almost 700km north.

Polynesians were in Norfolk 800 years before it was first seen by Captain Cook in 1774. From 1788, only weeks after the First Fleet reached Port Jackson to settle Sydney, until 1855 it was twice used as a penal colony and became known as 'hell in the Pacific' after being declared 'a place of the extremest punishment short of death'.

After 1855 the prisoners were shipped off to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and Queen Victoria handed the island over to the descendants of the mutineers from the HMS Bounty, who had outgrown their adopted Pitcairn Island. About a third of the present population is descended from the 194 Pitcairners and their Tahitian wives who arrived on 8 June 1856.

The island measures only 8km by 5km, with vertical cliffs defining much of the coastline. Kingston is on Slaughter Bay on the island's south coast. The service town of Burnt Pine is in the centre of the island, near the airport, while Norfolk Island National Park encompasses the hillier northern part of the island.

Covering 650 hectares, the national park offers bushwalking, with awesome views from Mt Pitt (316m) and Mt Bates (318m). There's a sheltered beach at Emily Bay in the south, from where glass-bottom boats depart to ogle the coral below.

Snorkelling around the Kingston breakwall is worthwhile; hire gear in Burnt Pine. Alternatively, several companies arrange snorkelling, diving and fishing trips.

Kingston, built by convicts of the second penal colony, is Norfolk's star attraction. Many historic buildings have been restored – the best of these, along Quality Row, still house the island's administrators, as well as four small-but-engaging museums.

By the shore are the ruins of an early pentagonal prison, a lime pit (into which convict murder victims were sometimes thrown) and the convict cemetery.

Bounty Folk Museum is crammed with motley convict-era and Bounty souvenirs. Fletcher's Mutiny Cyclorama is a 360-degree panoramic painting depicting the Bounty mutiny and Norfolk Island history.

There is plenty of accommodation on Norfolk, though none of it is budget; check out www.norfolkisland.com.au/accommodation for listings. All accommodation must be booked in advance. Most visitors come on package deals, sometimes including car hire and breakfast.

The visitor centre is next to the post office or check out the websites www.norfolkbedbank.com and www.gonorfolkisland.com.

The island is a 2½-hour flight from east-coast Australia, 1¾ hours from Auckland. Air New Zealand flies from Auckland (from $475 return) once a week, with more frequent flights to/from Sydney (from $558), Melbourne (from $980), Newcastle (from $980) and Brisbane (from $508).

All visitors must have a valid passport and a return airline ticket. Australian and New Zealand passport holders don't require visas, but all other nationalities must obtain an Australian entry visa before flying.

Island time is GMT plus 11½ hours – 1½ hours ahead of Sydney (30 minutes ahead in summer).