Norfolk Island, a speck on the Pacific Ocean closer to New Zealand than Australia, is one of the few places outside the United States where locals hold a public holiday for Thanksgiving. A fascinating place, the people of this Australian territory are perhaps more thankful for the food gracing their table than most other developed countries.
Norfolk Island History
The British originally used the island as a penal settlement for convicts. They abandoned the island in 1856, leaving a fine settlement of stone administration buildings and officers’ homes nearly 1,000 miles from Australia.
The next settlers were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers. You may remember the Hollywood retelling of the 1789 mutiny on the HMS Bounty. A young Mel Gibson played Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who with his mutineers takes over the merchant vessel and sets Lieutenant William Bligh and his supporters adrift.
The mutineers sailed to Tahiti, where they picked up Tahitian women (not all came willingly) and males to use as laborers. Knowing they could hang for their crimes against the British crown, a group of nine mutineers sailed to Pitcairn Island, one of the remotest islands on Earth. They torched the Bounty. They had escaped the world but not the company they had brought with them.
Pitcairn Island was only two square-miles, much of it mountainous and inhospitable. There were arguments over the women and the land. A series of gruesome murders or misadventures left one man standing, John Adams (no relation to the U.S. presidents). After the bloodbath, he had a vision, leading him to become the religious leader to the remaining nine women and 19 children. He taught them literacy from the Bible.
Another couple of generations on, and the population had grown to almost 200 mouths to feed. The tiny island would not sustain them. The elders wrote to Queen Victoria. She took pity on this God-fearing community and gave them Norfolk Island.
In 1856 after a miserable trip of 3,700 miles over 5 seasick weeks, they arrived at Norfolk Island on the 8th of June. A reenactment of this landing is celebrated annually, called Bounty Day. The journey was not dissimilar to the Mayflower’s, which set sail from Plymouth in 1602 with 102 passengers all hoping for new life in a new land.
To the descendants of the mutineers, Norfolk Island was their new world. They had never seen stone buildings before. The lavatories filled them with amazement. They puzzled over these strange things called wheels, and the horses and cattle seemed strange creatures.
As descendants of the mutineers and therefore of British stock, the Pitcairn islanders, like the Pilgrim Fathers, celebrated the harvest festival. But Thanksgiving, the distinctly American concept, came later.
Norfolk Island And The American Whalers
American whaling vessels visited the island in 1890, and the islanders crewed for them. A local, Isaac Robinson, became an agent and trader and in time, the American consul. It is unclear if this was an official role or symbolic, as living near the pier and liking a chat, he would often greet the whalers.
Perhaps homesick, the American whalers shared stories of Thanksgiving celebrations, and Robinson decided to replicate the experience. He and three friends decorated the pews of the All Saints church with palm leaves and lemons. Parishioners brought produce to adorn the church.
Robinson died in 1912 and was buried at sea, but the islanders kept up the tradition.
Whaling boats could be away for two to five years, so some American whalers brought their wives, who would stay on the island for extended periods. They introduced the islanders to the fine art of American baking.
Norfolk Island’s Thanksgiving
Norfolk Islanders celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day, the last Wednesday of November, by attending Church services. Even non-regular church attendees attend on this day, and tourists are welcome.
The churches are loaded with fresh produce, a testament to the local practice of almost complete self-sufficiency. There are piles of fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, sacks of potatoes, and baked goods. Corn is planted at a time that makes the cobs perfect on that day. The day’s hymns are those with special meaning to the American whalers, such as “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “In the Sweet By and By.”
It’s an American concept but with local traditions. Perhaps not turkey, but certainly suckling pig, Tahitian fish salad, and cornbread. Yes, there’s pumpkin pie. Due to the American influence, the islanders are wonderful bakers. But much of what they bake is banana-based, including pilhi (savory banana slice). Expect lemon, passionfruit, coconut, and hihi (periwinkle) pies.
During Thanksgiving, the islanders are doubly grateful for what their island provides. And so are tourists who come to feast in this stunning island setting.
Other Reasons To Visit Norfolk Island
A Unique Food Culture
While concepts such as “paddock to plate,” “eating with the seasons,” and “food miles” today seem trendy, to the islanders these have long been a way of life. This is partly due to strict biosecurity regulations. The only fresh produce they import are potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger. Everything else is grown on the island.
They import packaged food, but supplies from the mainland come via ship once a month. Offloading the cargo is hazardous due to the rugged coastline which requires large ships to anchor at least .6 miles offshore.
Locals carry in goods on longboats called lighters to the tiny docks at Kingston or Cascade Pier. These tiny boats are based on the lighter boats used by the American whalers to get close enough to harpoon whales. The men are quite nimble and adept at balancing cargo. To bring in a car or even a truck, they simply lash two lighters together and balance the load.
I was lucky to be there during unloading, and it was quite a sight. I did ask the marshall, who was keeping tourists at a safe distance, whether they ever lost anything over the side. “There were a couple of poker machines that never made it,” he said. “The locals really didn’t want them on the island.”
If the weather’s rough, which it often is, unloading is canceled. The ship returns to its port, and the locals can be left waiting months for supplies. When I was there, the supermarket's shelves were almost bare. Did I starve? Hardly. There are farmers markets, and when driving around the island, roadside tables with honesty boxes are loaded with produce. Norfolk Island has over 20 varieties of pun (bananas), as well as pawpaw, plums, peaches, lemons, grapes, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, and passion fruit.
Norfolk Blue is a unique variety of beef you'll only find here. There’s an abundance of fresh, sustainably caught seafood, supplying restaurants with daily catches of kingfish, snapper, and trevally. Or catch your own on fishing tours. The island has its own thriving food industry with local cheeses, coffee, honey, and vineyards.
The economy of Norfolk Island is dependent on tourism resulting in excellent restaurants and the island is known for its food tours. The annual TASTE Norfolk Island Food Festival has feasting, top-end chefs, and cooking classes. Thanksgiving is part of the week-long festivities.
Stunning Scenery And A Water Paradise
There are regular 2.5-hour flights from Australia or 2-hour flights from New Zealand. The first overhead sighting of Norfolk Island is breathtaking. Nothing quite prepares visitors for the beauty -- rugged cliffs, ocean vistas, and majestic Norfolk pines. Tourists enjoy a natural wonderland as 30 percent of the island is national parks or public land offering coastal walks with dramatic views. Even the heritage golf course has a stunning ocean backdrop. Emily Bay was named one of the top 10 beaches in Australia and offers a safe swimming area with a surrounding reef, teeming with fish and coral -- perfect for snorkeling. The island is also a world-class diving destination with over 30 dive sites and visibility as far as the eye can see.
Fascinating Bounty History
Around 30 percent of the population is descended from the mutineers and their Tahitian wives, resulting in a handful of surnames, such as Christian, Adams, McCoy, Quintal, and Young. To save confusion, the Faasfain (fast find) section of the Norfolk Island phone book lists residents by nickname. Fiercely independent, they were self-governing until 2015. Now an Australian territory, they still call themselves Norfolk Islanders rather than Australians. A famous attraction is Fletcher's Mutiny Cyclorama, a 3D, 360-degree mural on the island's Bounty history.
An Interesting Social Mix
Everyone speaks English, but they have their own language, Norfuk, a fusion of 18th-century English and Tahitian developed so the mutineers could communicate with their wives. The population includes New Zealanders, Fijians, and Filipinos. It has become a popular place for Australian retirees due to cheaper housing, perfect weather, and a relaxed lifestyle. Houses come with all furnishings and even cars because of the expense of shipping goods.
A Safe And Friendly Place
Such is the local friendliness, the Norfolk wave is given to everyone you pass when driving. Residents don't lock their cars or their houses. There are no traffic lights but also no street lights, so bring a torch. Feeling my way to my hire car one night, I started it with the keys in the ignition. It took a second to register -- I was in the wrong car! Such is the sense of community, there are no funeral fees. Neighbors dig the graves and provide the flowers.
Colleen McCullough, author of The Thornbirds, lived here for almost 40 years until her death in 2015. Today, tourists can tour her property. Her husband, Ric Robinson, is a descendent of a Bounty mutineer. Helen Reddy of “I am Woman” fame has a family connection, and she retired to Norfolk Island in 2002. McCullough’s novel Morgan’s Run is a good introduction to Norfolk Island’s convict history and includes Reddy’s research into her convict ancestor, Richard Morgan.
For more information on Norfolk Island, see their official tourism website.