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DESTINATION: NORFOLK ISLAND

Trip to Bountyful

There's no escaping history on the notorious Pacific isle happily adopted by descendants of the infamous mutineers

October 24, 1999|MARGO PFEIFF | Margo Pfeiff is a writer and photographer based in Montreal

NORFOLK ISLAND, Australia — I have to put the Norfolk Island telephone directory aside because I'm laughing so hard. For the past half hour I have been curled up on my cottage sofa with a cup of tea, perusing the pages of Buffetts, Coopers, Christians and Quintals of Norfolk Island. There are so many members of a handful of families here that their nicknames are included in the directory listing: Buffett, Allen (Puddles, Esq.); Christian, Les (Lettuce Leaf); Cooper, R. (Smudgie); banker Bernie (Slow Bern) Fraser. Multitudes of Evanses are distinguishable as Bubby, Diddles, Tardy, Pelly and Trigger. Here I am, sharing an island 1,000 miles northeast of sophisticated Sydney with Doos, Sputt, Diddles, Biggles, Wiggy and Booda.

The directory is not only a rib-tickler; it's also a roster of the survivors of the South Pacific's most famous--or infamous--tale, the 1787 mutiny on the HMS Bounty (or MoB, as it's known here).

Of course there's no Bligh among the surnames, as the British naval officer was set adrift by the mutineers. They eventually landed the Bounty on tiny Pitcairn Island in the eastern Pacific.

When the Pitcairners outgrew their island, thanks to the Tahitian women who had accompanied the crew, Queen Victoria offered them Norfolk Island, a penal colony that had just been closed, 4,000 miles to the west. In 1856, 194 Pitcairners made the move, and today 35% of Norfolk claims descent from the Bounty crew.

Norfolk, a volcanic outcrop only three by five miles, became a British possession after Capt. James Cook discovered it in 1774 and dubbed it "paradise" in his log. It is now a self-governing territory of Australia, and as a result my passport was stamped when I jetted in from Sydney.

My tiny Japanese rental car was waiting for me at the airport (car rental is included in most accommodations on the island). It didn't take long to get used to not wearing a seat belt (not mandatory on Norfolk), but I never did manage to break the urban taboo and leave the keys in the ignition as everyone on the island does.

I stayed at Dii Elduu, local dialect for "This'll do," a rental cottage smack in the middle of a palm plantation. In the mornings I picked ripe bananas off the hedge outside my bedroom window.

One day I went to Mariah's Restaurant on a hill outside town, as much for its aerial view of the island as for its highly touted seafood chowder. I also sampled Norfolk's "national dish"--a local fish called red emperor topped with fried banana, a Tahitian tradition brought by the Bounty descendants. And I dined on barbecue as a guest of the Lawn Bowling Assn.

Norfolk has little in the way of budget accommodations and no camping; it tends to attract "Nike Nannies"--the local term for outdoorsy older Aussie women. But I had no trouble tracking down plenty of challenging outdoor activities.

It's puzzling that the island is not promoted as the eco-tourism destination it really is. When the tides and weather are right, a great trip is the trek along the rocky seashore to Crystal Pools, a brilliant turquoise tidal swimming area on the island's southern coast.

The island's Bounty Excursions specializes in small, offbeat group adventures. The group I wound up with was a lively mix--a Canadian couple, a pair of round-the-world backpackers in their 10th month away from home in Virginia, and two Sydney gays celebrating their anniversary.

John Adams, who runs Bounty Excursions, took us first to Norfolk Island National Park, an enclave of hiking trails through a peaceful rain forest, the silence broken only by the shrieking of parrots. By afternoon we were rappelling down the cliff to Anson Bay on the northwest coast of the island, where we picnicked on a long crescent of sand beach. The outing ended with the cheeky and personable Adams taking us to the Norfolk Island Brew Pub.

"The Pitcairn years were fraught with troubles," Adams told me over a pint. Capt. Bligh and some of his crew miraculously made it home to Britain, and by the time the government caught up with the mutineers in the early 1800s, all but one had perished. "That sole survivor was John Adams," boasted the most recent Adams, seven generations down the line.

When locals came into the pub and called out to Adams, "Whataway you?" (asking how he was) his Aussie drawl slipped into Norfolk, a lilting cross between 18th century Cornwall English and sing-song Tahitian.

The island, like the language and its people, is an intriguing blend of Britain and the South Pacific. The landscape is often compared to that of Somerset, England--soft and rolling, lush with pasture. Tidy stands of indigenous Norfolk pine appear exceedingly British, with their rigidly horizontal branches and orderly needles growing upright as if trained. Round a corner, and the South Pacific rain forest takes over in a wild tangle of dripping ferns and vines, with brilliantly colored parrots shrieking from the palm tops.

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