''My first glimpse of Niue Island belies its title of "The Rock of Polynesia".
I imagined a formidable bulwark like the impregnable Rock of Gibraltar, but what I see is an oval-shaped coral atoll rising out of the deep blue Pacific, perched on top of an undersea volcano.
When I step off the three-hour flight from Auckland on a balmy Friday afternoon it seems that most of the population are at the airport. Vanessa Marsh is there to "meet and greet" along with Hayden Porter, the man charged with revitalising Niue's tourism industry.
Between the flurry of airport activity and animated "Fakaalofa lahi atu" welcomes, Porter tells me that the whole island is undergoing rapid change in preparation for Air New Zealand's twice-weekly service starting in April.
I check in at the four-star Matavai Resort and get a first-hand experience of the changes. My room is new and, overlooking the ocean, provides a grandstand view of passing humpback whales.
The best way to unlock the hidden secrets of this lonely Pacific outpost is to join the Commodore's Island Orientation Tour. Keith Vial is Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club, which hires out 20 moorings to the world cruising fraternity. The club won the prestigious Cruising Station of the Year award in 2011 for making Niue such a safe and reliable stopover point.
Vial is a bon vivant raconteur and one of nature's gentlemen. He soon has his passengers completely at ease as we drive to stunning Avatele Bay, Avaiki's Cave of Kings and Matapa Chasm swimming hole. At the yacht club premises Keith casually announces that the famous club doesn't own a single yacht and no one on the management team can sail. Never mind, I will still wear the official cap proudly and share the passion for this very popular little bolthole on the yachties' "Coconut Run".
Sunday is a day of rest, when the island settles into its most peaceful mode -no work, fishing or hunting. Tall, slim inbound tour organiser Hima Douglas accompanies me to a traditional Niuean church service where the ladies in their immaculately white ensembles and broad-brimmed hats harmonise beautifully with the powerful base voices of the men dressed in black.
After the service we chat with Young Vivian, who once served as Niue's premier. He is keen to see tourism flourish in the hope that many of the 23,000 residents who left the island for the bright lights of Auckland will come home. About two-thirds of the island's homes are empty and the population fluctuates between 1100 and 1600.
Mutulau Village on the northern tip of the island is my rendezvous point with Tony Aholima, a big, muscular man with unruly black hair who is passionate about his wild plantations of taro, yams, tomatoes, bananas and pawpaw. Aholima demonstrates how he plants taro roots in gaps between the mish-mash of razor-sharp, honeycombed coral outcrops that blanket the island.
Later, I accompany Aholima on an exciting night trek over a deeply pitted track to sink holes where giant coconut crabs - uga (pronounced oongah) - venture out to feast on ripe coconuts left as bait. The prehistoric monsters are built like a tank and Aholima tells me their powerful pincers can amputate a human finger. Of course, I pick one up. My writing fingers are still intact and I can report that the world's largest arthropods make a delicious meal.
By the fourth day, I've adopted the easy-going lifestyle on the world's largest raised atoll. Driving the island's ring road I wave to the locals and dodge the feral cats and strutting roosters that rule the road. I find myself constantly drawn to the friendly milieu of Alofi town, observing its market's low-key commerce and gravitating to a lookout point on the high cliffs. It's easy to visualise Captain Cook trying to land his cutter in the sheltered cove below, only to be driven off by a volley of coral rocks thrown by "savages" covered in blood, which was really the vivid red juice of a unique variety of red banana that is still grown on the island.
The most popular meeting place in Alofi is the Crazy Uga Cafe, owned by the redoubtable entrepreneur Willie Saniteli, one of Niue's living legends. He moved to New Zealand as a teenager and ran his own mechanical workshop in Grey Lynn for 20 years, returning in 2000 to apply his business skills in a host of new ventures. His Washaway Cafe at Avatele is the place to be on Sunday nights with a serve-yourself honesty bar, big burgers and seafood paninis.
Saniteli runs an automotive workshop, big-game fishing charters, late-night uga hunts and has a free-range chicken farm on the drawing board - if only he can find some way to import 600 laying hens. "We are the luckiest race as we are quite affluent compared to the people of Tonga and Fiji," he tells me. "We should move towards complete autonomy and wean the island off Mother Aotearoa."
I book a scuba diving trip to Snake Gully, one of Niue's signature dive sites with dive operators Crystal and Shannon who are conveniently located next door to Matavai Resort.
Twenty metres down in Avatele Bay, Shannon and I encounter a curious white-tipped reef shark, a spiky lion fish and giant Maori wrasse. A bevy of sea snakes coiled up in a grotto spiral up to us with unnerving, sinuous movements. When conditions are right, Shannon allows his clients to swim with whales and dolphins.
Dawn is breaking as I meet fishing guru Paul Pasisi. With a powerful physique, a bubbly personality and a no-nonsense approach to grappling with Niue's fickle seas, Pasisi is confident we will catch some big kahuna fighting fish today.
As we troll the west coast from Avatele to Mutulau at a steady eight knots with five lines out, baited with flying fish and coloured Rapala lures, Pasisi recounts the horrors of Cyclone Heta in 2004. Massive waves flattened his cliff-top home, and his three cars and two boats. "All I could do after that was go to Auckland, earn more coin and then come back to start from scratch," he says.
Hearing Pasisi's moving tale galvanises me to achieve the goal of catching my first big game fish. Sure enough, after hours of uneventful trolling, a rod bends in half and line screams off the gold Shimano reel. Fully harnessed and straining hard for 25 minutes, I haul in an 18kg Pacific barracuda. Soon after, another angler reels in a 14kg wahoo, followed by a yellowfin tuna. We gaze in wonder at the sleek, shimmering fish and count the day a great success.
A walk in the cool rainforest is a "must do" on Niue and ebony carver Jack Feliti is the ideal guide and commentator. This thick-set, quietly spoken Niuean knows the forest intimately - the only landmarks I can discern are scattered limestone sink holes, the chosen refuges of the dreaded uga.
Feliti tells me he was brought up by his grandmother in New Zealand but "Niue is the only place in the world I want to live".
At his home workshop I marvel at his beautifully executed dolphin and whale carvings and the ever-popular traditional hook of the Pacific. As my week-long visit draws to a close I continue to bump into my new local friends as well as visitors I've shared excursions with. Whether it's the Crazy Uga Cafe, Avi's Restaurant, Jenna's, Talo's, Clayton's or the Falala Fa Bar, I see familiar faces each time I visit. The gentle people of Niue seem to be all part of one big family and I feel as if they've adopted me as one of their own.
Niue is a kaleidoscope of colourful scenes and little miracles, with a host of awesome vistas and outdoor adventure. It just may be the most surprising "Rock" in the world.
Paul Rush travelled to Niue courtesy of Tourism Niue and Air New Zealand.