Back in May, my brother Otis asked if I was keen to go on a short holiday to Niue. Knowing nothing about the place, I asked a mate that had been there a couple years previously. Their description? “It’s an adventure place, not somewhere you go to lie on the sand and sip cocktails”. With those convincing words, Otis and I booked tickets for August, which would put us on the island during peak humpback whale watching season. Flights to Niue only depart from Auckland, and fly twice a week; Tuesday and Friday. We had two weeks on the island, which is a lot compared to the week that most tourists do. The island is a small place, and we could have visited all the popular tourist sites in a week, but we would have been rushing around and it wouldn’t have felt like much of a holiday. Besides, it’s no fun if you don’t leave any time to do any adventuring away from the crowds!

If I could give anyone planning a trip to Niue one piece of advice, it would be to plan around the tides. Niue has three distinct tiers. The top tier, in the center of the island, is mostly forest with a few villages. The middle tier circles the island, and has most of the villages, especially on the western side. The bottom tier is where the magic happens, provided you get the tide right. It is a large reef flat, which is exposed at low tide. Many of Niue’s attractions (Avaiki cave, Talava Arches, Limu pools) are only accessible a few hours either side of low tide. We ended up scribbling all over our map of Niue, with info next to each attraction like what tide is best, whether it needs calm seas etc.

As you can (maybe) see by my rough scribbles, we did a lot of planning around the tides and weather. We had quite a bit of wiggle room since we were there for two weeks, so if the tides weren’t suitable we checked out some other places. There is only one bush walk (that we knew of), which is the Vinivini bush road. I retrospectively labelled it is having flies. There were lots of flies. There was also a massive spider, which provided some entertainment in the form of throwing the flies into the web. We checked out Togo (pronounced “Tongo”) and Anapala Chasm on “land” days as well, and Otis took a liking to one of the walls in the clearing since it had nice handholds.

While there are plenty of popular destinations to keep tourists busy, there are a heap of cool spots around the coastline that are worth exploring. Some of our most enjoyable days were spent just wandering along the reef flat, checking out rock pools, and exploring caves that weren’t on any tourist maps. We took the full complement of snorkel, booties and fins. This was a good move, as we swam nearly every day, so renting would have been rather pricey. Lots of the rocks are sharp coral, and can give you nasty cuts, so booties were a good buy too. All around the coast are sea tracks, that lead from the main road down to the sea. They’re all unique, and are best visited at different times. We ticked off nearly all of the sea tracks, and could have easily revisited some (Liku sea track would have been awesome for sunrise). Having a rental car is a definite bonus, as there is no public transport (except hitchiking), and a bike ride to the east coast would be a pretty hard slog in the heat. Another perk of having a car is you get to enjoy the wave-at-everyone rule! If you want a McLovin-style drivers license you can get one at the police station for $20. I’ve been told that they can be used in NZ for a year after they were issued, but I’m not too sure if I would want to give it to a policeman after being pulled over..

From a photography point of view Niue is extremely photogenic! It’s easy to do justice to the rugged coastline, and the good lighting means you hardly need high-end gear. In saying that, it takes extra care to do justice to some of the more complicated scenery to shoot. Shooting in places like Avaiki cave, where I wanted to capture the detail of the reef flat outside as well as the interior of the cave, meant I spent a fair bit of time making sure I got the exposure right, as well as editing the RAW file to make it as accurate to what I saw as possible. Bracketing and knowing how far shadows and highlights can be pushed in post certainly helps. There is also very little light pollution which makes Niue an awesome place to shoot astro! I took my D750, and Tamron 24-70mm and 15-30mm lenses, as well as a polariser and tripod. I used both lenses equally, although I often found myself using the 24-70mm because it could take a screw-in CPL filter. If I went again I would probably take an ultra-wide lens that can take screw in filters.

The possibility of swimming with humpbacks was a big drawcard, and we chose Niue over other islands, such as Tonga, because of the differences in management of whale interactions. We booked with Magical Niue based on a recommendation, and they were awesome. We got a clear introduction and safety briefing, and explanation of the restrictions around whale watching in Niue. There is a balance between trying to please the tourists, and not harassing the whales, and they did an excellent job at keeping everyone happy without pursuing the whales or forcing them into an encounter with humans. We did two trips with Rami and Jules and their staff, and while we didn’t swim with any whales, we saw several from the boat, including a mother and calf, and an adult breaching in the distance. We also swam with a massive pod of spinner dolphins, and got to explore some choice snorkeling spots that we would never have found by ourselves. Highly recommended!

We got the impression that whale tourism is a rather divisive issue with locals, with some against and some supporting. I suspect that those opposing it don’t benefit from the tourism dollars that come with it. Hopefully the whale watching permits have been adjusted so it’s clear where operators can and can’t operate, which would remove the possibility of officials interpreting the regulations differently depending on their personal stance. As always it’s a delicate balance between benefiting from the boost to the local economy that tourism can offer and not putting pressure on existing infrastructure or impacting the peaceful nature of the location.

Niue doesn’t have any running streams or rivers, so the water surrounding it is really clear – perfect for snorkeling or diving! We didn’t do any diving, but went snorkeling several times a day. One of the first things we found was that there are sea snakes, which are some of the most venomous animals around. I was initially pretty keen to stay away from them, but quickly got used to them and enjoyed watching them swim through schools of fish and pop up to the surface to breathe. Some of the best snorkeling we did was in big rock pools in the reef flat, which had a heap of fish left in there when the tide receded. I spent a lot of time chasing them around with my GoPro, and watching them nibble on bits of coral.

When Otis and I were in the departure lounge at the end of the stay, we figured around 90% of the people on our flight were over 30, and the vast majority were close to retirement age. I don’t know if this is a reflection of Niue Tourism’s target demographic, but it is certainly not reflective of what Niue has to offer. While out and about during our two weeks we mostly saw younger tourists exploring and at the popular coastal locations, so it seemed that plenty come to Niue for a getaway rather than to explore. The various, somewhat hidden, sea tracks are perfect for exploring, and the rocky coastline is awesome for checking out on a calm day. While it’s possible to spend your whole stay poolside at the resort, or at the few easily accessible tourist hot spots, Niue really is “an adventure place, not somewhere you go to lie on the sand and sip cocktails”.