Table for six at the Falala Fa

Michael Wayne
The South Pacific island of Niue doesn't boast the sandy beaches of its neighbours

I was ill-prepared for my journey to Niue, a drop in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Fiji and the Cook Islands. I knew it had a tiny population, and that it wasn't the typical island paradise.

So what is? Getaways such as Fiji, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands have weathered political and social upheavals that threatened their idyllic nature. Reckless tourists have changed Bali's image. The Caribbean is constantly at the mercy of angry skies.

If anywhere was going to provide the kind of far-off escape promised by a thousand postcard pictures of palm trees and blue water, it was Niue.

Except it wasn't. Niue isn't the typical island paradise either.

Its points of difference are embraced by its people. For starters, rather than a sand bar like most islands in the Pacific, Niue is a block of fossilised coral. They don't call it the "Rock of Polynesia" for nothing.

This means it's a slave to the tides. The timing of the tides can turn a peaceful swimming hole - of which Niue has many - into a dangerous whirlpool.

Secondly, it's sparse - really sparse. You can drive for hours on the country's roads and never see another driver. When you do, you're guaranteed a friendly wave. And attention those who want to escape the nine to five world: no traffic lights.

With that in mind, I certainly wasn't expecting company when I sat down for dinner at the Falala Fa Cafe in Alofi City.

The nation's capital is tiny, perhaps the smallest capital city in the world. It's just a smattering of modest constructions.

Nevertheless, it's spoiled for choice when it comes to eateries. Niueans love their food (a little too much; diabetes is a major health concern), and they love company.

The problem is that these diners open when they feel like it. Just as Niue's clear blue shores come in tides, so too do the tourists. Until the tourism industry reaches maturity, the locals aren't beholden to it. It's a refreshing state of affairs in the South Pacific, where islands more often than not sell themselves a little too cheaply to the almighty tourist dollar.

There are some constants in the world, however. Saturday nights are reliably busy in Alofi. A crawl through the main drag shows the most popular restaurants are open for business.

My visit has come at a busy time for Niue. My flight from Auckland, one of two the diminutive Hannan international airport receives each week, was unusually packed.

I'm told there are three reasons: the Niuekulele festival, a wedding, and most monumental of all, "land court is in session".

The Niuekulele festival is the brainchild of Niue Tourism, designed to set the island apart from its distant neighbours. It's a canny move, and plays right into the nation's quirky identity. This year, guest performers from Hawaii - the ukulele capital of the world - have drawn quite a crowd, and tonight they're all in Alofi for a feed.

The Falala Fa Cafe is busy, but what makes me stay is that it's full of locals - not tourists. Always a good sign.

Despite the cafe's popularity, my book and I are quickly seated at a table far too big for us. No sooner have I ordered grilled fish (on a tropical island, how could you not?) than a big Niuean family arrives for dinner.

Suddenly feeling selfish, I offer them my table. I figure my book won't mind.

Their counteroffer is to join me. Actually, it's not really an offer - Niueans are friendly to a fault, and insistent. It's impossible to say no, and within minutes, I'm a part of the family. One lady (let's call her Rosie) is clearly the matriarch, and she and her cousin gossip about the weekend's goings on while her cousin's husband feeds the kids fish and chips.

Eventually, she turns her attention to me.

"I used to be a journalist," she begins, as she opens up about the state of affairs on the island.

A tight-knit community breeds gossip and hearsay, and I'm served a generous portion of food for thought to go with my grilled kingfish. I hear thoughts on other cafes, on tourism ("We can't handle that much,"), the government (an eye-roll speaks volumes), even the Niuekulele festival.

She's distracted though - the Falala Fa seems to be entirely staffed by family and friends. During dinner, she manages to identify and say hello to just about everyone, including the resident cat.

It's this level of familiarity that allows for, and ultimately excuses, the dishy table talk. Everyone knows each other, and feelings come to the surface whether you like it or not. Everyone cares about their home country. They can knock it because they're such a part of it, but they won't stand for any badmouthing from outsiders.

When the population is this small, you feel like you can't really know the place. In a country with a huge population, you can make it yours. On Niue, it's theirs, and you have to fit in around that.

Niuean society isn't big enough to have fostered that splinter community of cynical disinterest that leaves it to the die-hards. Here in this tiny, rocky, isolated microcosm of the wider world, everybody cares. They have to.

At the night's end I feel satiated, the kind of full you feel you've fed your mind and soul just as well as your stomach. Rosie thanks me for my company, and says she'll see me around. She's probably right.

The next day, I'm seated at Alofi's popular Crazy Uga Cafe, just across the road from the Falala Fa. My book has deigned to join me, and I hope to finally make a dent.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice cuts in.

"Excuse me, mate, mind if we join you?"

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Niue is approximately three and a half hours from Auckland. Air New Zealand fly to Hannan International Airport on Tuesdays and Fridays only.

STAYING THERE: The island's coast is spotted with motels and guesthouses, but accommodation is limited. The Scenic Matavai Resort is the most comfortable option. For more info visit scenichotelgroup.co.nz

PLAYING THERE: The sense of discovery and exploration of the unknown is enormous, but it helps to do some research. Visit niueisland.com for more info.

The writer was a guest of Niue Tourism and Air New Zealand.