There's an Ultra-Remote Island in the South Pacific that Celebrates American Thanksgiving

Norfolk Island, a territory of Australia, gets as gourd-y as a Norman Rockwell painting come late November.

Norfolk South Pacific
The beaches in Norfolk at sunset. Courtesy of Brandon Presser

In Norfolk, Thanksgiving church service is so well attended that families reserve their pews months in advance—but this isn't Virginia or even Massachusetts, it's a teeny Pacific islet located over 7,500 miles from mainland America. A territory of Australia, Norfolk—around half the size of Manhattan—sits smack in the center of the deep blue triangle formed between Brisbane, New Zealand's North Island, and New Caledonia.

Evidence suggests that early Polynesian voyagers found Norfolk around 800 years ago, but when the British arrived in the late eighteenth century they laid claim to a desolate outcrop, turning it into one of their holding sites among the elaborate constellation of penal colonies throughout Oceania.

The island was once again abandoned in the 1850s when the convicts were relocated to Tasmania, and a few years later, as a gift from Queen Victoria, Norfolk was given to the descendants of the HMS Bounty's infamous mutineers and their Tahitian brides who left their overcrowded hideaway of Pitcairn to inhabit the derelict officers' quarters left behind by the British.

So how then did Thanksgiving become such a staple of modern-day life on Norfolk?

Cemetery Norfolk South Pacific
The cemetery is full of the original sailors who established the island. Courtesy of Brandon Presser

As a distinct Norfolkian culture steadily grew from the Pitcairners' blend of European and Tahitian traditions—a creole language called Norfuk is still spoken by around a quarter of today's 1,750 residents—the island began to receive hundreds of visitors from the United States; merchant sailors stopping to replenish their supplies on their arduous journeys to and from the Antarctic continent in search of whale and seal blubber.

The advent of Thanksgiving on Norfolk is credited to an American sailor named Isaac Robinson who, in the 1880s, took up residence (and likely a wife) becoming the island's Registrar of Lands and the US's first—and only—foreign consul. Homesick at the end of November, he decorated the All Saints Church in the island's capital, Kingston, with palm leaves and filled the pulpit with freshly harvested produce.

The tradition stuck, and in a destination that practices staunch agricultural self-sufficiency due to stringent biosecurity regulations, a holiday celebrating a harvest still feels apt. And despite November being the height of the Southern Hemisphere's spring, there are still many crops available for the usual gamut of festive dishes, like pumpkin pie, banana pilaf and cornbread.

Fishing in Norfolk South Pacific
Fresh fish and beautiful pine trees are some of the more coveted products from Norfolk. Courtesy of Brandon Presser

For Australians, Norfolk may, however, be more closely associated with Christmas due to the popular export of its indigenous pine. The thin, towering trunk—prominently featured on Norfolk's flag—is the perfect Christmas tree, decorated by thousands of Aussies at the end of the year. According to legend, Captain Cook was so enchanted by the branches' evocative beauty—and how they grow so majestically against the turquoise shoal water ringing around the island—that he sketched the single tree governing over Emily Bay as he circumnavigated the globe. It still stands to this day.

Planning your visit

Norfolk's overly large runway was built at the request of the United States during the Second World War in an effort to use the island as a launching site for bomb squadrons on the Pacific Theater. Today the tarmac hosts flights from Sydney and Brisbane in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand.

House in Norfolk South Pacific
Residences like this are some of the charming places visitors can stay on the island. Courtesy of Brandon Presser

Accommodation options are more of the private cottage and guesthouse variety, with locals moonlighting as innkeepers in addition to their day jobs. Although it lacks ocean views, The Tin Sheds is one of the island's most upmarket offerings with a handful of spacious villas orbiting a refreshing plunge pool. Its location near the Burnt Pine Shopping District is convenient for those less inclined to cook.

Travelers planning on bearing witness to the Norfolk's Thanksgiving traditions can delight in the island's annual food festival, which coincides with the holiday, and showcases the native bounty: coffee, honey, farmed beef and pork, cheese, and—of course—fresh fish. You'll find locals grabbing a latte and a steaming scone at The Olive Cafe and dining out on outrageously delicious fish and chips at the Norfolk Island Bowling Club—both are located in Burnt Pine as well.

There's an Ultra-Remote Island in the South Pacific that Celebrates American Thanksgiving | Culture