TRAVEL SPECIAL: PACIFIC: CHAMPAGNE ON THE ROCKS

BRINGING THE MILLENNIUM'S SUNRISE IN ON A SOUTH PACIFIC ISLAND? THEY'RE ALL SCRABBLING TO DO IT, SAYS HESTER LACEY
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The Independent Culture
Should you be the victim of an unhealthily overdeveloped competitive spirit, and insist on being absolutely first to see the sun rise on the first day of the year 2.000, you may find it difficult. First of all, a number of islands (some of them extremely miserable chunks of rock) are claiming the distinction of being the place to experience those first pale chilly rays. Secondly, most inconveniently, they are all on the other side of the world.

Some of these locations, while perhaps technically with a better claim than others, would not make for a gleeful celebration; the champagne would be freezing in the bottles. Among them is the peak of Mount Galloway, on the uninhabited Antipodes Islands, owned by the New Zealand government. There is no aircraft landing strip on the islands, let alone any nice hotels which will supply hot-water bottles and flasks of warm soup to see you through the historic occasion; and the surrounding seas are rough enough to prevent even hardy naturalists from the New Zealand Department of Conservation from visiting too often. Plus the weather is guaranteed to be utterly miserable so it will probably be cloudy. Antarctica's Adelie coast has also put in a bid, though it is a matter of debate whether the sunrise will be visible to observers on the ice cap - probably best left to the penguins.

The three (comparatively) accessible contenders are Pitt Island, one of the four Chatham Islands, part of New Zealand; the tropical Nuku'alofa atoll in Tonga; and Caroline Island, part of the Kiribati chain in the south Pacific. Strictly speaking, Tonga was always in second place. The sunrise in Pitt Island is over an hour ahead, a fact conveniently ignored by the King of Tonga and his PR people, who preferred to emphasise Tonga's real trump card, exotic beaches and atolls, perfect for beach parties. But in a spectacular last-minute coup that left the king's nose totally out of joint, the Kiribati islands decided to move the International Date Line in 1995.

Formerly, the islands straddled the Date Line, so that half of them were a day behind the other half. The Kiribati government decided to shift the line so that all the islands now share the same day; and enjoy an early dawn a good 20 minutes ahead of Pitt Island's. Yelps of outrage resounded throughout the South Pacific at this news. The Royal Greenwich Observatory, called on to arbitrate, has quite evidently had enough of the whole knotty question. "It all depends on your interpretation of when the New Year starts," explained a spokeswoman, somewhat wearily. "All we can say is when the sunrise will happen, and what interpretation people put on it is up to them."

So what are they like, these islands where intrepid travellers can be the first, or at least one of the first (maybe), to see the year 2000 slip over the horizon? The windswept Chatham Islands are 400 miles from mainland New Zealand, and are inhabited by 750 humans and 250,000 sheep. The fortunes of the island's fishermen are founded on crayfish and abalone, flown to Tokyo from the island's only town, Waitangi (there is also only one hotel, the Chatham Island Lodge, which gets pretty crowded). Pitt Island itself has 55 inhabitants, and is served by an irregular light- aircraft shuttle. Tourists will be jostling the television crews of the world, all assembled to record the historic moment. And, in the end, it may not even be worth the trouble; the weather on the islands leaves much to be desired from a holiday point of view, and only one in five dawns has a visible sunrise anyway.

Tonga is more used to tourists and is already building hotels and planning bonfire-on-the-beach parties with "international stars" on the guest list. Celebrations will centre on the International Date Line Hotel in the capital, Nuku'alofa, where reservations are already being taken. Travel pieces about Tonga wax lyrical about the profusion of lovely white beaches and lush vegetation on the country's 170 picture-book islands, many of them uninhabited. (Writers also tend to note that the Tongans are well-upholstered, and that everything except church is out of bounds on a Sunday.)

Caroline Island is an unknown quantity, likely to be short on creature comforts, being uninhabited and without a water supply. As Conde Nast Traveller magazine has delicately observed, "The closer you get to the International Date Line, the more, well, rustic the accommodations become." It suggests the Regent or Sheraton resorts on neighbouring Fiji as appropriately non- rustic alternatives.

The personal choice of Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs at the Association of British Travel Agents, involves island-hopping on a rather larger scale. "The most interesting thing you could do for the millennium is to get a Concorde trip - that's what I would like to do, ideally. You can start off with a millennium party in London in a hangar in Heathrow, do Concorde from London to New York, then do the same thing when you arrive in New York. That way you'd get two parties."

Those who agree that islands are best when they are sizeable and equipped with all mod cons can head for the eastern tip of New Zealand, the nearest large body of land to the controversial International Date Line. The town of Gisborne, in the revelry frontline, is planning a party on top of nearby Mount Hikurangi, which has the earliest views of the sunrise.

The original traveller could go against the flow and head for the islands of Western Samoa, where the sunrise will be later than anywhere else on the globe (one tour company is proposing to fly clients from Tonga to Western Samoa so they can celebrate the sunrise twice). If all else fails, leaving well alone until the following year is an option. After much to- ing and fro-ing and heated arguing, the general concensus among people who care about such things (backed up by the Royal Observatory) is that the new millennium doesn't actually happen till New Year 2001. So book now by all means; just remember that 12 months after, the whole circus will be starting up again. !

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