With electricity out on the island and the dive center's backup generator kaput, it was easy to see why Annie was so thoroughly frustrated. It was impossible for her to fill the tanks for this morning's scheduled dive. That left four divers, myself included, with little choice but to cancel the outing with her and tramp back through the trees, rocks and sand of Niue to our hotel, the Matavai Resort, where we'd laze away another day around the freshwater pools, hoping to spot one of the pods of spinner dolphins that sometimes spent their mornings in the cove below us. But Annie, anxious not to lose paying customers, had something else in mind.
"What do you reckon, David?" she asked in her Aussie accent. "Are you game for a little snorkeling in Snake Gully?"
Hmm. You know what? I love diving and hanging with Nemo and the parrotfish and other denizens of the deep, but I'm not crazy about snakes. Particularly sea snakes. Did I really want to swim with a creature whose venom, so it's said, is 10 times stronger than a cobra's? Not so much.
"No worries," Annie assured me. "No one on Niue has ever been bitten by a sea snake. Or if they have, they never lived to tell the tale." Aussie humor. She smiled. "Besides, they're not really true sea snakes. They're sea kraits."
So what's the difference? She just shrugged.
I begin this tale of Niue (pronounced "nee-OO-way"), billed as the world's largest uplifted coral landmass and an island you've probably never heard of, with a story about snakes because there's something Garden of Eden-ish about this remote South Pacific sanctum. And as you'll recall, a snake plays a key role in paradise. This was much on my mind that morning. Because my week on the island had been so magical -- what with facing down lackadaisical coconut crabs, stuffing myself to the gills with pawpaw and taro, and floating naked in a sacred pool -- I couldn't help feeling that eventually something bad had to happen. And of course if you do anything with snakes, someone invariably comes out of nowhere bellowing: "Now you've done it! Now you've messed up! You are henceforth banished!"
But life is what it is, and sometimes you go along with the plan, even when your gut tells you not to. So I turned to Annie and said, "What the heck. Take me to Snake Gully."
I'd already seen most of this pebble in the deep blue sea. You barely spot it on the map below because it's only 260 square miles. You can drive Niue's 30-mile ring road in an hour, as I did almost every day, going round like on a carousel. Captain Cook originally christened the islet "Savage Island" after a less-than-genial reception in 1774. "We had been there but a few minutes, before the natives ... came with the ferocity of wild boars, and threw their darts," he wrote in his journal. But its preferred nom de plume is "The Rock of Polynesia."
And what a rock. The skies above are biblical: Puffy cottonballs from kingdom come float over graceful stone churches where village dogs and bush chickens are as welcome on Sundays as fallen-away apostates like myself. Each little village -- and there are only 14 on the island -- comprises a handful of brightly painted one- or two-room structures, most with tin roofs, floating in valleys of lime-green grass, scratched by drooping coconut palm fronds. Sunday mornings, men like Taso Tukuniu, who tolls the bell atop the Ekalesia Niue church in the Tamakautoga Village, wear leather sandals with their baggy white suits while the church ladies don finery once common on Easter in the deep South: fine white linen dresses and wide-brimmed hats with flowers and lace. Yet there are also the Niueans who look like the type of seen-it-all guides you'd trust to lead you deep into the Huvalu Forest or down a hidden ladder to the secret beach of Togo Chasm or up a random flight of stairs into the Avaiki Cave.
Villagers and visitors alike enjoy the inherent freedom of this paradise, but there are also certain unspoken rules that you must learn if you want to stick around. Rule No. 1 on Niue: Critters, large and small, are sacred -- especially marine ones. Thus, when you see an uga crossing the road, give it the right of way or risk really upsetting a Niuean, not to mention the uga. Oh my God! You don't even know what an uga is, do you? This is how people get banished from paradise; they don't know an apple from a noni (we'll get to that in a moment). As any of Niue's 1,444 residents would gladly tell you, an uga (pronounced "UN-gah") is a coconut crab. They are plum-colored with beady red eyes, and their main purpose on Niue seems to be entertaining locals and terrifying travelers by oh-so-slowly crossing the path right in front of you while double-daring you to hurry them along. Which is why, although I never saw a single pedestrian crossing sign on the island (there are also no traffic lights), I did see several "SLOW DOWN: Uga Crossing" reminders.
Another thing that really annoys Niueans is visitors who try to ride the humpback whales, as a yachty did last winter. Riding whales is very bad form. However, it's OK to swim with the dolphins, as I did one morning with Annie. And when I say "swim with the dolphins," I'm not talking about getting in the water with my snorkel mask and floating like a log face down while they pirouetted around me. No, this is slightly less sophisticated but a lot more interesting. Annie instructed me to put on a diving glove, snorkel and mask, and then hold onto the gunwale of her skiff while bodysurfing the chop. With my free hand, I signaled to Annie the direction I thought the dolphins were heading. I was often wrong, making for some hilarious course corrections as Annie tried to keep me skimming through the water, at a respectful distance, at about the same speed as the pod. Great fun, though a little hard on the shoulder.
But to finish about ugas, they're called coconut crabs because they like to eat coconuts. Now if you've ever messed with a raw coconut, you know that you generally need something like a hammer to open one. But an uga, which can grow up to 8-plus pounds, can do it -- no problem -- with its beefy little claw. Think about it, and you'll realize why visitors get terrified of these little buggers, which are born in the sea but love to romp on cliffs and in the jungle looking for delicious little coconuts to crack. And ugas supposedly love fingers, which they think resemble coconut meat already cracked and ready to eat. They also say that the one way to make an uga open his claw is to get a sharp stick and poke his bum. Fortunately, I never had to test this theory.
Speaking of coconuts, this is Rule No. 2 on Niue: Never park your car under a coconut tree. Particularly if it's a rental. (A lesson I learned a little bit late.) And since we're talking about coconuts, I have to tell you this: The name Niue translates as "Behold! The coconut!" I'm not kidding.
Knowing these rules, let's get back to this idea of Niue being some sort of Polynesian Garden of Eden. I don't mean it in a Gauguin-primitive sort of way, natives napping on the beach. I mean it in an everything-you-need-to-live-simply-but-happily way. Which means that in order for this to be your paradise, you have to decide that you can make due with less -- without it bothering you.
For instance, one Friday afternoon I headed into Alofi, the only town on the island, to search out Swan Sons Super- market, the only real market on the island (which, to be honest, would be called a Kwik-E-Mart if it were in Santa Barbara), to buy some snackies and beer for a Saturday afternoon barbecue I'd been invited to. But although it was only a few minutes past 5, the store was closed. I went back on Saturday, and it was closed then as well. Likewise on Sunday. Just like almost every other business on the island.
In order to understand this, I talked to Ida Talagi-Hekesi, who was born on Niue, moved to New Zealand, then came back for the lifestyle. "Money is kind of a new concept on the island," she said. "Making it, spending it. Niueans like their lifestyle, which is much more family-oriented and not so much about corporate business or commerce."
Which brings me to Rule No. 3: Don't wear Dolce&Gabbana sunglasses, unless you want to be referred to as a yachty.
So if everything closes at 5 and nothing is open on weekends, how do you make do in paradise? Like I said, every- thing you need to be happy is here. You just need to know where to look for it. One such place is the Limu Pools, the most extraordinary natural swimming hole I've ever seen. You walk down a coral path through the jungle, wondering where the heck you're going, and then suddenly there it is, a crystal-clear pool of shallow water ringed by hollowed-out limestone rocks with secret caves and underwater tunnels.
You get in the warm water, mingling with the anemone and butterfly fish, the Moorish idols and brightly colored wrasse -- some with yellow tails, others with bands of blue or red -- and the first thing you notice, besides the impossibly clear water, is that it doesn't seem very salty. And it's not. The island is made up primarily of limestone, which is quite porous, and when it rains here, the water literally disappears on contact, seeping straight down into the ground before percolating into the sea at spots like the Limu Pools. So the water is actually part ocean and part fresh water.
This is true all over the island. You can actually see the fresh water pouring into the sea at places like Avaiki, where a large, deep natural pool has etched its way into an open-mouthed cave, facing the sea and overhung with giant stalactites. One afternoon I spent hours exploring the numerous reef pools and caves here and at Liku, finding a number of private little beaches, some no more than 16 feet long, where I'd take a snooze or just loll in the sun.
Which leads us to Rule No. 4 on Niue: Pay attention to the tides. By the time I was ready to leave the sandy cove at Liku where I'd fallen asleep, the tide had come in over the outer sea wall. That made it difficult to keep my camera and shoes dry while I dog-paddled back to the sea track. Which reminds me: The Talava Arches on the opposite side of the island from Liku are also a must-see, depending on the tides. Captain Cook supposedly talked about them in his journal, marveling at how caverns would only open up at low tide. The arches themselves were and are great spots for lookouts.
The interior of the island is just as fascinating, no matter the tide. A big chunk of Niue's center and southeast side is in the Huvalu Forest Conservation Area. There, Misa Kulatea, a gentle gray-haired Niuean who grew up in the deep rainforest that sprawls across this part of the island, took me on a walk. He told me how, as a boy, his job was to take care of the bush chickens, feeding them with coconuts, scraps of yams and such, and how he would harvest their eggs from the bird's-nest ferns in the trees. "I know where to look for chicken eggs in the forest," he said.
As we walked, he pointed out dozens of things to eat here in the forest, like wild yams, "the most important food crop on the island." The yam is also a survivor, Misa said. During a drought, other plants will die, but the yam thrives, and the island has over 30 types in a rainbow of colors -- purple, yellowish, white. Most families on the island have a secret place in the forest for cultivating the tuber. "You plant a thousand yams and just remember where you put them," he said. "Then a year, 15 years later, if you need them, they will be there."
I was bent over looking at a wild yam Misa had dug up in the forest when I noticed that something with beady red eyes was staring at me from inside a depression in a limestone rock. "Watch out for that," Misa cautioned. He pulled out a pocket knife and sliced off an inch-thick sapling at its base and stuck it into the hole in the rock. A second later he pulled out a huge uga, attached to the stick. He asked me if I wanted to touch it. As he was giving me instructions on how to hold it from the top, being extremely careful to stay away from its coconut-cracking claw, the uga snapped the thick sapling in half, dropped and scurried back into its shelter. Misa asked me if I wanted him to try catching it again. That's all right, I told him. I get the idea.
Misa noted that for the early Niueans, this forest was their supermarket -- with its coconut trees and bananas, taro, pawpaw and even young fern leaves called luku that are cooked with coconut cream. And it was also their pharmacy. "The abundance of medicines we have in plants are all for the taking," he said.
Which brings me to the noni. Just like an apple, a noni a day is supposed to keep the doctor away. It's also about the size of an apple, is green before turning pale yellow as it ripens, and is said to boost the immune system, help stem the tide of any infection and treat dysentery. No wonder the islanders have never heard of Walgreens. The only downside, as far as I could tell, was that a noni smells like extremely ripe and stinky French cheese. That's probably why the way to get it down the gullet is to drink the juice.
But man does not live by noni alone. You also need to keep yourself busy. I mean, did you ever wonder what Adam and Eve did during the day since, just like on Niue, basically everything they needed was handed to them? I'll bet they didn't go snorkeling in Snake Gully.
And before I do, let me just say that Annie was right when she said the black-and-gray-striped critters I saw popping up on the surface of the ocean all around our skiff were technically sea kraits. (So what's the difference between a sea krait and a true sea snake? As far as I can fi gure it, sea kraits return to land to mate and lay their eggs, and true sea snakes pretty much just stay in the water -- but don't hold me to this.) And it's also true that while they're one of the most deadly creatures in the world, they don't really bother people, mostly because they have these itty-bitty fangs in the backs of their mouths. So basically, you'd have to jam a finger down a sea krait's throat to get bitten.
That said, there was still something a little spooky about snorkeling above a cave-riddled and coral-covered under- water gully, about 50 feet deep, and watching as hundreds of banded sea snakes (I'm going to insist on calling them that) uncurled themselves and, in lazy loops, slithered toward the surface, sometimes just a foot or two from where I nervously floated, to take a breath of air and have a look around. Then, just as quickly, they'd slither back down to the bottom where they'd curl up with a dozen or so of their pals.
I was not tempted to touch one (Annie says their ventral scales, needed for slithering on the shore, feel "creepy"). I was not tempted to stick my fingers in any of the little holes in the rocks where the small coral fish they like to feed on hide. In short, I behaved myself. Which is why I was so surprised, after our successful outing, to hop out of Annie's Zodiac at the boat launch and step directly on one of these snakes. Which did indeed feel creepy. Fortun- ately, it was very cool about everything. And did not bite. Even as I screamed like a little girl. Which brings us to my final Niuean Rule: Just because there are snakes in paradise, that doesn't mean you will end up being banished. It's all up to you.