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A hidden paradise in the Pacific
David Ellis

There’s a minuscule dot of land in the Western Pacific whose few visitors will tell you is the closest they’ve come to an Island Paradise Found.

Tiny Fanning Island, just 18km by 11km in size and its highest point a mere two meters above sea level, is part of the independent nation of Kiribati and is blessed with lagoons of shallow turquoise waters, powder-white sand beaches, drooping palms and even the remains in one lagoon of an out-of-Hollywood half-sunken trading ketch.

Some visitors say Fanning Island is like visiting TV’s Gilligan’s Island, some say it is the South Pacific of a century ago, and others simply call it Heaven on Earth—indeed because of its shape and beauty, to the 1700 islanders who live there it is called Tabaueran, which means “Heavenly Footprint”. So why don’t people flock to this Pacific Paradise?

Because it is remote, laying in the sun 1600km south of Hawaii, it is visited by only one passenger ship, NCL’s Norwegian Wind. Twice a month, the ship takes two days to get there from Hawaii and the same to get back.

But during their day ashore there, passengers discover not only Paradise but some fascinating contradictions.

While it is so remote, Fanning has been raided by sea as a result of war on the other side of the world. It has a road but no cars and only one truck,; it has been owned both by a Scotsman and the island trading firm Burns Philp; it is closer to America than any other major nation but uses the Australian dollar for its currency; and the door on its jail in paradise—a 2.5 meter by 2.5 meter concrete blockhouse—came from a wing of Alcatraz Penitentiary.

Fanning Island was named after U.S. trader Captain Edmund Fanning, who discovered it unoccupied in 1798 while sailing to China; it took another 50 years before Scotsman William Greig began a coconut plantation on the island with workers brought from the neighboring Cook Islands.

Greig’s heirs subsequently sold out to Burns Philp in 1936, who in turn sold Fanning in the 1980s to the nation of Kiribati.

Cable & Wireless built a cable relay station on the island in 1902 to connect England to Australia by way of Canada, Fanning and Samoa, but in 1916 the German warship Nuremburg landed a raiding party on the island, cut the cable, dragged the two ends out to sea, and fled.

The cable was repaired and remained in use until 1964 when radio and satellite communications spelt its end.

On the map you’ll see how the International Date Line goes around the Kiribati group, but this was not always the case: in the early days, it sliced through the islands, and wily workers realized they could walk off the plantation and sail across to a neighboring island on the “other side” of the Date Line—giving themselves two Saturdays and two Sundays off work every week. The Date Line was subsequently moved.

The friendly if sometimes timid Fanning Islanders are welcoming hosts to visitors from Norwegian Wind, school and church groups performing dances and songs, and selling souvenirs including shell necklaces, grass skirts and items made from driftwood and coconut palms.

NCL pays US$10,000 in port charges and fees every time Norwegian Wind visits, but otherwise it’s a largely subsistence economy; crew of NCL ships also donated their own time and money to build one of the three primary schools on the island and the ship’s doctor conducts a free clinic every visit.

The island has few salaried public servants—three nurses, a Tourist Officer, an Immigration Officer and a Customs Officer, a number of teachers and a couple of policemen, who when the jail is full would chain those on minor offences—like riding their bicycles drunk—to a flagpole.

When NCL first started visiting Fanning Island several years ago it donated unused food from their passengers’ beach barbecue for the locals—but the islanders had no love of hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw and ketchup, and fed the lot to their pigs, chickens and, dogs.

Visitors can ride bikes, take village walks and swim with the fish in the shallow lagoon, take in the sun on the beach and use the NCL bar to drink to this largely untouched taste of paradise.

For more information see travel agents or phone Creative Cruising on 1300 362 599; prices for a 10-night cruise through the Hawaiian islands to Fanning and back to Honolulu currently start from just $1959pp twin share if booked by September 30 for travel in October, November or December, including return air from Sydney to Honolulu.

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