Within hours of arriving, I’m standing at the viewpoint at the top of Mount Pitt, looking out across Norfolk Island, and realising that this small Australian territory is much larger than I thought. It may be remote here but there are still lots of things to do on Norfolk Island!
For a long time, Norfolk Island was a bit of an afterthought for travellers – somewhere you would visit later in life when you had seen the world (and the rest of Australia). The average visitor here was a retiree who would see the island on tours.
Well, that’s all changing now. There are heaps of things to do on Norfolk Island for young and adventurous travellers, so you’re now seeing more of them visit. And the younger generation of locals are also starting innovative businesses and evolving the offerings here.
I want to share some tips for what to do on Norfolk Island, and the good news is that there’s a lot of variety – even beyond the island’s heritage (particularly the convicts and the early free settlers) that has always been a big attraction.
The backdrop for everything is the stunning nature, with opportunities for swimming, hiking, fishing, and cycling. There’s also a large range of dining options, including some excellent restaurants using local produce.
You can fill your days with activities like golf or sightseeing, or you can just relax on the beach or in the national park. Even after almost a week on Norfolk Island, I still hadn’t managed to fit in everything I wanted to do!
World Heritage Site
Let’s start with the World Heritage Site on Norfolk Island because it’s the most important piece of history here. The large site on the waterfront is where the first convict settlement was established in 1788.
That first convict settlement continued until 1814, and then there was a second convict period from 1825 to 1855. Many of the buildings that are still intact here are from the later settlement.
The World Heritage area is officially called the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, which is usually abbreviated to KAVHA (pronounced car-va). But you’ll also see it referred to just as Kingston.
There are four museum buildings within the World Heritage Site, collectively just called Norfolk Island Museum.
The first one is the Pier Store, which gives you a good overview of the arrival from Pitcairn Island of the descendants from the Bounty mutiny. But the main focus of the exhibition is on how the island community has developed over the years since.
The next museum is the HMS Sirius Museum, dedicated to the ship that was shipwrecked just a few metres off the coast of Norfolk Island. It was the flagship of the First Fleet and its loss threatened the existence of Sydney in those first few years. There is a fascinating collection of artefacts here that were retrieved from the wreck.
The third museum is Commissariat Store, where the main exhibition is about the convict settlements and includes the whips and leg irons from the particularly cruel years.
The fourth museum, called No. 10 Quality Row, is quite interesting because it shows how the Foreman of the Works lived during the brutal convict times. With elegant furniture and ceramics displayed, it’s quite a contrast to the prison!
A museum multi pass costs $35 for entry to all four museums at any time during your stay, plus two museum tours. Otherwise, single entry to a museum is $10.
Other than the four museums, there are lots of other historic buildings that you can see independently and for free – although many of them just from the outside.
Along Quality Row, there are the Georgian houses built between 1832 and 1847 for officers, and some of them are still private residences.
You’ll be able to see the beautiful Government House from the road, and it’s only open occasionally for public tours.
There are quite a lot of interesting buildings around the Kingston Pier precinct, including the site of the original Government House.
And one of the most harrowing sections to walk through are the old prison ruins where you still get some sense of the tiny hot cells that the convicts would’ve lived in (if you can call it living!)
One of the most striking parts of the Kingston World Heritage Site on Norfolk Island is the cemetery, which was established about 1798 with the first convict settlement.
It has a beautiful location, right on the beach with green hills rising up from one side. The marble headstones spaced out through the site give it a slightly eerie feel.
There’s lots of history here in the stories of those buried, from convicts on the First Fleet, British soldiers, descendants from the Bounty – right up to today, because it’s still the island’s main cemetery.
The World Heritage Site isn’t the only way to learn a bit more about the history and the culture on Norfolk Island. There are a few other Norfolk Island attractions that are worth your time while you’re here.
An island tour
Even if you’re a relatively independent traveller, I would recommend doing a general island tour when you arrive. It’s not just a good way to get an overview of where everything is, you’ll also learn a lot about island life from the local guide.
There’s much more to Norfolk Island than appears on a map and learning a bit more about the customs and the quirks will set you up for a more rewarding visit here (and you can ask all those questions you’re wondering about).
Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama
The story of how the Pitcairn Islanders ended up on Norfolk Island is fascinating and goes back to the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. There are various ways to learn more about the story but one of the best is at Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama.
An unassuming gift shop reveals an enormous panoramic 360-degree painting that shows different scenes from the history. It was painted by two artists over the course of two years, with a third artist finishing the detailed faces.
It’s a great way to understand more about the founding of the free settlement on Norfolk Island, and is a special piece in its own right as well.
The people of Norfolk Island are very proud of their heritage and there are a few occasions throughout the year when they turn out in force to celebrate it. If you’re able to time a visit to be there when one of the Norfolk Island festival is being held, it’s worth joining in!
The first main one each year is Foundation Day, held on March 6, which commemorates the arrival of the original British settlers in 1788, who founded the first penal colony. There’s a reenactment of the boats arriving on the beach at Emily Bay.
The other biggest event is Bounty Day, held each year in June 8. It commemorates the day the Bounty descendants arrived on Norfolk Island from Pitcairn Island and there are lots of festival-style events, including a tradition of rolling down the grassy hill at Government House.
Throughout the year, there are lots of other events. There’s the food festival in November, for instance, and you can even celebrate Thanksgiving on Norfolk Island (a legacy from when US whalers were based here).
Colleen McCullough’s House
One of the most famous residents of Norfolk Island was author Colleen McCullough, who wrote dozens of books but is probably best known for the international bestseller The Thorn Birds.
She moved to Norfolk Island in the late 1970s and lived here until her death in 2015. Her husband Ric still lives in their house but it’s still opened several days a week for a tour that you can go on.
The tour is led by Colleen’s housekeeper and she’ll show you all the interesting art and artefacts that Colleen collected from around the world. The house is full of interesting furniture and other items, but it’s hearing the stories of life here that make the experience extra special.
The heritage gets a lot of attention but, for me, it’s the nature of Norfolk Island that is its main attraction. It’s an absolutely stunning island, with so many incredible landscapes and views. There are lots of things to do in Norfolk Island with the natural environment, but here are a few highlights.
The island has a surprising variety of ecosystems and there are trails that will lead you through each of them. Whether you’re looking for a short walk to a viewpoint or a longer strenuous trek for several hours, there’ll be something for you.
For a challenging hike with some of the best views on the island, I recommend taking the Bridle Track from Captain Cook Monument up to the Palm Glen Circuit Track, combining a couple of iconic trails.
There is a great trail that links the two highest points of Norfolk Island – Mount Pitt and Mount Bates. Although there is some uphill, it’s not as bad as you might expect, and you get amazing views over the island.
A pleasant walk that isn’t too long but still feels like a good distance is the loop trail at Hundred Acres Reserve. It leads to a lookout at Rocky Point where you’ll find a large number of birds during nesting season.
Norfolk Island National Park
Many of the walking trails I’ve mentioned are within the Norfolk Island National Park, but there’s more than just hiking to do. The national park covers about 14 per cent of the island, and has done an excellent job of preserving the special flora and fauna found here.
First, you can pop into the Discovery Centre, which has exhibits about the natural history of Norfolk Island, especially the many species of seabirds that come here. You’ll be able to get a bit more information about what you’ll see in the park.
Then you can head to the Captain Cook Monument, which marks the spot James Cook and his crew landed in 1774. There’s a spectacular view of the rocky cliffs along the coast, but also tables and other facilities for a picnic.
And then there’s Mount Pitt. Although not officially the tallest mountain on Norfolk Island (it comes second by just one metre), it can be accessed by car, so it’s a good spot to come for a 360 degree view of the island.
Norfolk Island Botanic Garden
There are a number of endemic species of plants on Norfolk Island and the best collection of them is at the Norfolk Island Botanic Garden.
It was once a private garden started by a keen local who wanted to collect the island’s unique species, but it’s now larger (almost six hectares) and is officially part of the national park, although it’s just outside the main boundary.
There are five different walking trails through the botanic garden, ranging from 90 to 600 metres long, so none of them takes very long. But they will lead you through different sections representing the variety of ecosystems of Norfolk Island.
I know I’ve mentioned birds a few times now and there’s a good reason for that – there are lots of them here! It makes sense, seeing as Norfolk Island is a good refuge of land in the vast Pacific Ocean for birds that migrate each year.
Of the seabirds that call the island home (permanently or temporarily), keep an eye out for the wedge-tailed shearwater, masked booby, and sooty tern (among many others). During the breeding season, they are usually hard to miss!
The most iconic bird is probably the green parrot – the symbol of Norfolk Island but usually quite hard to spot. You’re more likely to hear its distinctive call than see it.
The Norfolk Island morepork owl is another important species and almost became extinct when there was thought to be just one left. But by breeding with the New Zealand morepork owl, a hybrid has allowed the genes to survive.
While you might like to just look out for birds as you explore the island, there are specialty tours and activities for people with a particularly keen interest in birdwatching.
In the water
Of course, the nature of Norfolk Island doesn’t stop at the land. Being surrounded by water, it’s no surprise that some of best things to do on Norfolk Island involve the sea.
Because it’s part of Australia, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Norfolk Island is a Pacific island and parts of it feel a bit like Fiji or Vanuatu.
That includes the water – and Norfolk Island is an incredible spot for a swim. I’m actually surprised more people don’t come here for a beach holiday, considering everything else you get as part of the experience.
The most popular swimming spot on Norfolk island is Emily Bay, which is on the edge of the historic Kingston area. A sheltered lagoon with a large sandy beach, the water is crystal clear – but also calm and safe, making it popular with families.
On either side of Emily Bay are two other popular beaches – Slaughter Bay (it’s not as scary as it sounds) and Cemetery Bay (also not scary), but they get a bit more surf and can get rough sometimes. Because they’re big and have easy access, you’ll find most people at these three beaches.
But there are two other amazing beaches on Norfolk Island I want to mention. The first is Bumbora Beach, which you access along a wooden boardwalk from a dirt road. Surrounded by tall trees, it’s a beautiful spot where you’ll have to navigate some boulders near the shoreline to get out to the clear water.
The other is Anson Bay, with a dramatic setting of steep cliffs around it. The water is quite rough but still swimmable on nice days, and you’ll likely have it all to yourself. It makes for a special experience.
With pristine water and an abundance of marine life, Norfolk Island is great for snorkelling. Anywhere you can swim, you can snorkel, although a lot of people like to head to Emily Bay because the water is so calm, you’ll get better visibility.
Bring your snorkel and goggles over with you or rent them once you arrive. A lot of the accommodation providers will have them available for free or for a small rental charge.
If you’re looking for some particularly interesting places, that are a bit more challenging, consider The Chord and Crystal Pool – although get some safety advice from the locals before you head down.
As well as snorkelling, there’s also diving. I don’t think Norfolk Island is internationally famous as a diving location but it has some excellent spots. Much of the water around the island is officially a marine park, so the sea life is protected and is some of the healthiest you’ll ever see!
There are dive sites on the coral close to the shoreline, or there are some quite dramatic ones around Phillip Island. As well as all the fish, there are some quite impressive formations underwater.
The dive shop scene is still not massive here, but you should be able to arrange something with Norfolk Island Diving, if you’re interested.
While some people like to look at the fish – some people like to catch them. The fishing around Norfolk Island is fantastic and most people have no trouble catching something. It’s worth noting, this is because the fishing industry is carefully regulated and is all done in a sustainable way.
You’ll see locals just casting a line from anywhere along the shore, although spots like the Kingston Pier or Cascade Pier are particularly popular. Feel free to join them or find your own spot and you should be able to get yourself dinner.
But for the serious fishers, you’ll want to head out on a charter for a half-day or day trip with a local skipper who knows all the best spots. There are a couple of options, and I would suggest checking out Charter Marine or Advance Fishing to see what they can arrange.
You could easily come to Norfolk Island for a week and just relax – hanging out at the beach, eat and drinking, going for some easy walks. But if you want to get a bit active, here are a few suggestions beyond those I’ve already mentioned.
Golfing on Norfolk Island is something quite special! The course is not just within a World Heritage Site, but it’s right alongside a beautiful stretch of coast, with tall Norfolk Island pines growing within it. Some people fly here just to use the golf course!
The clubhouse of the Norfolk Island Golf Club was built in 1843 and was once the Stipendiary Magistrate. The actual golf course was established in the early 1900s and the club was officially founded in 1927. There’s a lot of heritage here, as well as some great holes to play.
It’s also very affordable – something visitors really appreciate. A round of 18 holes will cost you only $37. But even better value is to get a weekly pass for $90, offering unlimited use for seven days!
You might think that riding a bike around Norfolk Island would be a good idea, but I’ve got a word of warning – there are lots of hills! You’ll want to be quite fit if you’re going to do lots of cycling here.
However, riding an ebike changes the story. With that little electric motor doing most of the work up steep inclines, it’s really easy to navigate the terrain of Norfolk Island.
Norfolk Island Fitness and Health (the local gym) offers ebike tours – you’ll get the rental and a personalised tour to some interesting spots that are easy to cycle to. It’s a good way to get some exercise, see some spots that tour buses can’t go, and have a bit of an adventure.
For a real adventure, you might want to consider a day trip to Phillip Island, the rocky island off the south coast of Norfolk Island.
It’s much smaller than Norfolk Island and, even though it’s just six kilometres away, has a completely different landscape. There’s less greenery and it has really striking red features (earning the nickname ‘the Uluru of the South Pacific’).
Phillip Island is uninhabited… by humans. This means it’s been taken over by seabirds and other animals, making it a really important natural reserve and a fascinating place to visit.
There are walks you can do on the island, and you can even stay overnight in a little hut near the coast. If you’re keen, a great option is this trekking tour of Phillip Island with Charter Marine.
The island is not huge and the community is tight. One of the best things to do on Norfolk Island is to meet some of the people who live here – and that’s easy to do if you pop into some of the local businesses.
Believe it or not, there was a time when people came to Norfolk Island just for the shopping. The overseas territory doesn’t have the same tax as Australia, so most things are much cheaper because it’s duty-free and GST-free.
It’s not quite what it once was, but the Bounty Centre is famous for (apparently) having the cheapest Lego in the world! It’s a huge store full of toys and games and is worth having a look at.
Along the main street in the town centre of Burnt Pine, you’ll find all sorts of stores, particularly clothes and some local souvenirs. From sneakers to knitwear, you might be able to find a bargain.
Many of the stores have been here for decades, but it’s worth taking note of some of the new businesses that are changing the culture of the island slightly. There’s Prinke Eco Store, which sells sustainable products and is trying to reduce waste on the island. And there’s also Slick & Sons, a traditional butcher that has been transformed by a new generation into a trendy food store.
The Hilli Goat
There are lots of interesting small businesses on Norfolk Island, and you’ll discover many of them when you travel here. But one that’s worth mentioning in particular is the Hilli Goat.
Run by couple Emily Ryves and Zach Sanders, it is first and foremost a goat farm and produces cheese and other products from the animals. But it’s also more generally about sustainable food, and there’s also a vegetable garden and other products made here.
To show you all of this, the Hilli Goat runs a ‘Norfolk Whey’ tour of the farm, where you can feed the super cute goats, see the production process, and then taste some of the great local food.
Platters by Paige
If you’re looking for something casual, or perhaps something special, you could also get something from Platters by Paige.
Young local Paige Christian Adams puts together amazing platters of food to eat outside (or inside, I guess) and also lays them out in advance at scenic spots around the island. The way she prepares and decorates everything means it could be a casual picnic or a special event.
There are lots of really good restaurants on Norfolk Island, but sometimes you might want to do something a bit different or intimate.