Nukunonu, Tokelau

Photo: Tourist Destinations
Photo: Tourist Destinations

You feel a little wobbly. After multiple flights and a two-day cargo ship journey—yes, two days on the water without cruise line amenities—your legs feel like jelly. Unlike some of the remote places you’ve visited—Ascension, the Cocos Islands, and Socotra—there isn’t an airport on these remote islands. The open Pacific was your only option. You felt like you were going to end up in Antarctica, given the seemingly endless voyage. But Tokelau is anything but Antarctica.

Tokelau is a New Zealand territory in the South Pacific. It’s three atolls—Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo—are located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. There are no airports, no harbors, and few roads here. Ships anchor offshore, and supplies are slowly transported to the islands. Instead you’ll find dense forests, untouched lagoons, and traditional customs.

You arrive on Nukunonu, the largest of the three atolls. There’s one hotel, Luana Liki, which serves three meals a day. You gobble down fresh fish, sweet potatoes, and taro roots—plus a Samoan Vailima Lager—before heading out to stretch your legs and start exploring. Nukunonu is home to a shark sanctuary, public toilets hanging over the water, pandanus palms perfect for weaving, snorkeling spots with enormous clams, and a Catholic church. Visitors are expected to attend Sunday Mass; even the nonbelievers will be entranced when the singing begins.

After Nukunonu, visit Fakaofo. The southernmost atoll is made of 62 motus. A Polynesian god, made out of a coral slab, stands outside the traditional village hall. Three churches are open for worshippers. Breadfruit trees create shady spots from the hot sun. The Ai Sokula freighter has been lodged in the Ahaga Loa reef offshore since 1987. And pigs swim in between the islets to forage for shellfish at low tide.

Though you’re sick of boats at this point, you jump in a dugout canoe to travel to Atafu, the last and the smallest of the three atolls. Here, the homes are made from sturdy kanava trees, the canoes are still handmade, and the men are master fishermen. They use lures, traps, nets, and even nooses to go deep-sea and reef fishing. Lizards and migratory seabirds outnumber people, and there are 10 types of land crabs.

Back on Nukunonu, you’re sipping another Vailima Lager and listening to music emerge from a log drum, wooden boxes, and biscuit tins. The smell of grilling fish mixes with the salty air. Small waves crash against the lagoon just offshore. You can’t imagine boarding the next ship that arrives. You may just have to become a fisherman, find faith, and stay in the middle of the South Pacific. At least until cyclone season begins. Then you’d rather head to Antarctica.

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