Accessible on direct flights from Auckland, New Zealand, the self-governing nation of Niue is one of the South Pacific's most surprising destinations. After years of population decline it is now home to only 1300 people, but this rugged island, ringed with spectacular sea caves, is packed with life-affirming opportunities above or below the water. If you want to get away from it all, including the crowds, head to 'The Rock'.
Communing with marine giants
From July to September, migrating humpback whales stop off in Niue's warm tropical waters to nurse their newly born calves, and the island is one of the only places on the planet where it is possible to swim with these gentle leviathans. The whales are often in surprisingly shallow waters, around 30 metres from Niue's rocky coastline, which means some lucky participants on snorkelling trips have the opportunity to float gently in crystalline waters above the giant cetaceans. And dolphins are also regular visitors in these waters. Niue supports marine mammal conservation and is a signatory to the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary with a 200
A network of exploration-ready caves
One of the world's largest raised coral atolls, Niue is very different geographically from other South Pacific islands. There's only one sandy beach at Avatele, and instead the craggy shoreline is dotted with idiosyncratic sea caves. Bathed in shadow and light, Avaiki is cathedral-like; cool and shaded Matapa Chasm was the preferred swimming spot of Niuean nobility in earlier times; and the pools at Limu offer a super-sized natural aquarium that's perfect for snorkelling.
Descending into Togo Chasm
Just reaching Togo Chasm is a mini-adventure as a 20-minute track meanders carefully from Niue's circular coastal road through a jagged terrace of indigo coral pinnacles. As the wild blue of the Pacific extends to the horizon, a rustic ladder at the end of the track descends into a sandy palm-studded oasis that feels more Middle Eastern than the Pacific. Niue's more exposed southeastern edge can be windy, but inside Togo's compact natural canyon is always a warm and sheltered haven.
Deep-sea fishing a few hundred metres from shore
Savvy fishing fans from New Zealand regard Niue as one of the Pacific's best open water fishing destinations, and marine anglers from other countries are also increasingly drawn by the opportunity to catch marlin, tuna, mahi mahi and sailfish. Because the waters around the island become extremely deep just a short distance from the coast, local fishing charters ensure it's always a short boat trip to the best fishing areas. Traditional Niuean fishing opportunities include fishing from a vaka (canoe) or catching flying fish with an oversized net.
Crystalline waters and an idiosyncratic underwater landscape
With no streams or rivers draining into the ocean – instead, rainfall percolates the island's porous interior to produce a huge subterranean water lens – the ocean waters around Niue are some of the South Pacific's clearest. Underwater visibility can extend up to 100m, and local operators Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive (dive.nu) and Magical Niue Sea Adventures (magicalniue.com) both other dive trips exploring the caverns, spectacular drop-offs and walls of coral around the island. Snorkelling and kayaking amid sheltered waters along Niue's coastal network of sea caves is also very accessible.
Two-wheeled island adventures
Rugged trails radiate inland from Niue's solitary coastal road, and mountain biking is growing in popularity. More than 170km of relatively gentle trails course through taro plantations and tropical forest – bikes are available from most accommodation – and the annual Rally of the Rock (ridetherock2017.com) across two days in early June attracts riders from Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly the world. Day one is a competitive combination of road and trail riding, while day two sees participants immersed in a slightly less serious 64km circumnavigation of the entire island.
Meeting the locals
Fourteen villages host Niue's concise population of around 1300 people and also provide familial links to the approximately 25,000 Niueans living in New Zealand. Visitors to the island are welcome at each village's annual show day, wonderfully authentic, low-key affairs combining singing, dancing and local foods and crafts. Niuean weaving is renowned around the Pacific, and village matriarchs specialise in delicate hats and fans. Niue Tourism's website (niueisland.com) lists village show days and other events throughout the year. Look forward to local flavours prepared in a traditional umu (earth oven).
Heavenly harmonies on a Sunday morning
Ethereal singing, friendly welcomes from the pastors to visitors to the island, and billowing hats decorated with tropical flowers all feature at Niuean churches every Sunday morning. It's a day of rest, reflection and family – more energetic activities are not allowed – and attending church is a wonderfully warm way to meet the local community. It's appropriate for men to wear long trousers and for women to don a hat, and don't be surprised if you're invited to stay for morning tea and a chat after the service.
Serve yourself on a Sunday afternoon
Perched right above the compact curve of Avatele Beach, the rustic, open-sided Washaway Bar & Cafe only opens on Sunday afternoons, but it's an essential weekly destination for both locals and visitors. Quite possibly the South Pacific's best burgers and fresh fish sandwiches team with cold beer, New Zealand wine and generously-poured spirits, and guests are encouraged to help themselves and settle the tab with owner Willie Saniteli at the end of the night. Welcome to perhaps the South Pacific's only self-serve bar.
The South Pacific's newest food festival
First held in 2014, the bi-annual KaiNiue Food & Wine Festival (kainiue.com) enlivens the island for four days in September with a flavour-packed showcase of island produce and culinary styles. Top Kiwi chefs make the short 3½-hour trek from Auckland to pair special menus with New Zealand wine, Niue's weekly market overflows with a wide selection of local dishes, and the island's handful of cafes and restaurants offer fresh spins on Niue's seafood and tropical fruit. The next festival will be held in 2018.