When I first telephoned Norfolk Island, the international operator reported back: "Their switchboard is closed for lunch." At 4:30 p.m. they'd shut down for the day, and at 9 a.m. they hadn't opened yet. I knew Norfolk Island was a place I had to see.
It's a pinprick on the South Pacific map, not the kind of place you drop into in passing. It's off the main shipping lines, 1,150 miles from Sydney, Australia, 750 miles northwest of Auckland, New Zealand, and a mere 500 miles south of its next-door neighbor, New Caledonia.
But Norfolk has a few things going for it: an unusual history, magnificent scenery, the purest air outside an oxygen tent, tax-free shopping (with goods from all over the world) and a warm welcome for tourists -- or at least the 600 or so they can accommodate.
Flying in from Sydney on an F28 Fokker Fellowship propjet, I landed at the well-scrubbed, tiny airport, which was smothered in hibiscus flowers and the native red-leaf shrub. The friendly customs and immigration officer in shorts and sandals asked me where I was staying.
"Good on yer," he said when told Colleen McCullough, author of "The Thorn Birds," would be my hostess.
Within an hour, we'd driven the length and breadth of the 3-by-5-mile island, which is a self-governing territory of Australia, using the mainland's dollar as its currency.
The population of 1,850 is 33 percent Norfolk Islanders -- direct descendants of the Bounty crew who moved over from Pitcairn Island in the mid-1800s -- 31 percent Australian, 29 percent New Zealanders, with a sprinkling of English, French and Americans making up the rest.
As we drove the scenic country roads where cows have the right of way, Colleen recounted the Norfolk story. Just 150 years ago this beautiful place was the South Pacific's answer to Devil's Island -- the most miserable, the cruelest, the most unforgiving of all the penal colonies.
After four years as an island resident, Colleen has become an expert on its bloody and colorful history.
"For the convict it was a hideous place," she explained, "not the land of milk and honey it is today. It took them eight months to get here from England in overcrowded, stinking convict ships, and for them it was like landing on another planet. They'd been ripped away from their families and knew they would never see them again."
We passed the graveyard overlooking wild and stormy Cemetery Bay. The headstones tell the sad stories: "Thomas Hunter of Belfast, Ireland, died 1843, aged 22. Catholic. Offense -- stealing bacon."
"Over there is an ancestor of mine," said Colleen, pointing to the grave of William McCullough, executed 1834, aged 21, "for a mutiny on this island."
"Their offenses were so minor, of course," said Colleen. "The ones who'd done anything serious were executed in England."
The island reeks of convict history.
"They tore down the old jail because it was haunted," said Colleen with conviction. "But over there is Quality Row a street of stately Georgian houses built by convict labor for British officers sent to administer the colony . Mind you, you won't get an islander to walk down there at night alone."
The original walled garrison is preserved, as are the Georgian houses now used by the local government. One of them, however, is the golf club, on what surely must be one of the most magnificent ocean courses in the world. (It is open to the public.)
We crossed an old stone bridge and Colleen told with relish how it got its name: "It's called Bloody Bridge because some convicts murdered their guard and walled up his corpse in the stonework of the bridge. Unfortunately for them, it rained that night and a telltale trickle of blood seeped out of the stone. They were hanged, of course."
The coming of the Pitcairners to Norfolk gave the place its current distinctive character. Names such as Christian, Adams, Quintal, Evans and McCoy are everywhere.
The islanders are a handsome, friendly, independent lot and remain closer to each other than to any outsider. Or at least some of them do.
"They have the most magnificent family feuds," laughed Colleen. "They last for generations. In fact, there's one going on to this day and one of the parties is called McCoy."
The islanders speak English. But among themselves they have another tongue, a mixture of 18th-century English, Tahitian, Irish and Scots Gaelic, all spoken with an English West Country burr. Snippets of it drift into the outsider's consciousness: "See yorlye morla" means "See you all tomorrow."
Driving past the walled garrison on Quality Row we saw the flag flying at full staff.
"Nobody died during the night on the island," explained Colleen. "If there's a death, we all know it. And God help you if you meet a funeral procession on the road and you don't stop and bow your head. Nobody will ever speak to you again."
Another ritual is the Norfolk wave, the raising of a single finger off the driving wheel to acknowledge another driver as you pass. There's an absolute prohibition on speed. "Anyone going fast," said Colleen, "is a tourist."
Colleen McCullough had her choice of just about any island in the Pacific as a home base, but she chose 12 acres on Norfolk.
"In many ways it's paradise," she said, "never too hot or too cold. Basically tropical, but it has a curious arctic feel to it because of the Norfolk pines." (The tall evergreen trees, unbowed by the sometimes fierce winds, give the island a distinctive character.)
Norfolk has no smog. I saw stars I never knew existed. No crime -- no one bothers to take the key out of the car. Doors are never locked and children wander without fear at any time of the day or night.
The waters are turquoise, the beaches unsullied, the roads clean and well-paved. Even the verges are nibbled to a tidy eighth of an inch by the cows, who look as if they are polished every morning to make their hides gleam.
Then there are the duty-free shops packed with the best of Paris, London, Rome, Copenhagen and Hong Kong. Tourists from New Zealand stagger onto a plane as if returning from the promised land, clutching everything from toasters to video recorders, from pearls to Hermes scarfs.
Food on the island is plentiful, to say the least. Many restaurants serve superb native fish and shellfish, unbelievably flavorful lamb, venison and pork, along with a selection of the choicest reasonably priced wines of France, Australia and New Zealand.
And although the island is small, there's enough to do to keep you here for weeks.
The fishing is so easy it's almost unsportsmanlike. There are golf and tennis (the clubs welcome you with open arms), snorkeling around the magnificent coral reefs that fringe the island, surfing, horseback riding, biking, lawn bowling, clay target shooting and squash.
And in the end, you'll have the joy of knowing that yours will be the most exclusive holiday photographs in the neighborhood. Even the locals wear T-shirts that say, "Where the hell is Norfolk Island?"