An isolated speck of land halfway between Tahiti and Easter Island, Pitcairn was the perfect hiding place for the infamous mutineers of the HMS Bounty in 1790. Five Hollywood films and over 1,000 books later, Pitcairn’s celebrity status far outweighs its physical size. With a current population of fewer than 50 residents, exploring its rugged landscape of tall sea cliffs and fertile valleys blends both sensation and fear. It is as remote as it gets in an already remote region, a paradise with a mysterious past and an unclear future. For those seriously out for adventure and travel accomplishments, here’s a Pitcairn Island travel guide to help make the dream come true.
About This Guide
Having visited over 30 islands in Polynesia, making it to Pitcairn Island was probably my toughest achievement. I was fortunate enough to spend about a full day on the island as part of an expedition-style cruise from Tahiti to Easter Island. The information in this Pitcairn Island travel guide is based on my experiences and on extensive research.
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Where is Pitcairn Island?
Pitcairn Island is a tiny “rock” in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean measuring a mere 4.5 km2. It is the only inhabited island in the Pitcairn Islands group (population less than 50). Pitcairn is located about 2,000 km west of Easter Island and 2,300 km east of Tahiti (or 14,707 km from London). Its nearest inhabited neighbor is Mangareva in the Gambier Islands group of French Polynesia, some 540 km to the northwest. Pitcairn’s closest neighbors within the group are Henderson Island and the atolls of Ducie and Oeno.
Why Visit Pitcairn Island?
Making it to Pitcairn Island is mighty tough. In fact, it’s probably the toughest inhabited island to reach in the entire South Pacific. While Pitcairn Island is stunning from a natural perspective, without a doubt, the main “excuse” for the long (and expensive) voyage is to experience the legendary story of the mutiny on the Bounty and its aftermath on one of the smallest inhabited islands in the world. If you’re not familiar with the story of the Bounty, you cannot really fathom the feeling of visiting Pitcairn Island and appreciate the beauty that lies in its isolation from the rest of the world.
What’s Included In This Pitcairn Island Travel Guide?
- A brief history of Pitcairn Island
- Pitcairn Island travel tips
- The top things to see and do in Pitcairn Island
- Interactive map and detailed local maps of Pitcairn
Brief History of Pitcairn Island
Together with its larger neighbor – Henderson Island – Pitcairn Island was likely settled by Polynesians from Mangareva somewhere between 800-1100 AD. Polynesian expansion might account for early settlement but it is more likely that Pitcairn was settled as a “trading outpost” for the Mangarevan Empire at the time. Natural resources not found on Mangareva – mostly the obsidian volcanic glass used for tools and weapons – were exported from Pitcairn to the thriving empire in exchange for food, shells and other goods. Mangareva was essentially the umbilical cord of the isolated and fragile community in Pitcairn. When exploitation of natural resources by the Mangarevans deteriorated into civil war, trade seized and the settlements in the Pitcairn Islands became completely cut off. Pitcairn Island was left uninhabited for centuries.
Fast forward to the year 1790. Nine British sailors and eighteen Polynesian men and women arrive in Pitcairn. The British sailors are part of a group that revolted against Captain William Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty. They were sent on a mission to deliver breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the Carribean colonies. Having spent months in Tahiti due to various delays, Bligh’s crew fell in love with the Polynesian lifestyle and could no longer bare his abusive temper. Led by Fletcher Christian, the mutineers seek a place to hide from the British Crown and find Pitcairn Island which was incorrectly charted on maps. It made for an excellent hiding spot.
The mutineers and the Polynesians find evidence of the ancient settlement in the form of petroglyphs, temples and fruit trees. They burn the Bounty and establish a settlement in a lush plateau in an otherwise rocky island which has no natural harbor. Shortly after, the British and the Polynesian men do not get along and “civil war” breaks out. Mutineer John Adams is the only man to survive and he is regarded as the “father” of the modern-day settlement.
After decades in complete isolation, Pitcairn was rediscovered and trade began between the settlers and passing ships. Disease, isolation, violence from visiting crews and the infrequency of passing ships led to two evacuation waves from Pitcairn, but some Pitcairners always came back home.
Today, Pitcairn is a British Overseas Territory with a population of fewer than 50 residents living in the only settlement on the Island, Adamstown – named after “father” John Adams. The settlement’s future is still unclear, mainly due to a declining population, especially of younger age groups.
In 2004, a highly publicized sexual assault trial put a dent in Pitcairn’s image and led to a permanent police presence on the island.
Who Lives on Pitcairn Island?
Currently, Pitcairn’s population mix is comprised of descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the Polynesian men and women whom they brought with them, descendants of early visitors to Pitcairn, immigrants who settled on Pitcairn in recent decades and a police officer, teacher and a doctor on rotation from New Zealand.
Pitcairn Island Travel Tips
Listed here are essential travel tips for those seeking to ever visit Pitcairn Island.
Here are a few key resources for both planning a trip to Pitcairn Island and understanding the background to this fascinating destination.
- Pitcairn Islands Tourism: the official website of anything Pitcairn related. You’ll find here relatively up to date information and local contacts that can help you with certain logistical arrangements such as accommodations and transport to Pitcairn.
- The Pitcairn Miscellany: Pitcairn’s only “newspaper”, published on a monthly basis and providing a look at local life and local Pitcairn news ($20 annual subscription).
- Mutiny on the Bounty (book): the legendary novel that captivated hearts and minds across the globe.
- Mutiny on the Bounty (film): five Hollywood versions exist but my absolute favorite is the 1984 version starring Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, and a young Liam Neeson.
- Take me to Pitcairn: a documentary film about one man’s attempts to re-trace the romantic voyages of the most infamous fugitives in British naval history. However, he soon discovers he is not alone on an emotional quest to reach one of the most remote islands in the world.
- Pitcairn Island, the Bounty Mutineers and Their Descendants: an excellent book recounting the history of the modern settlement on Pitcairn starting from the Bounty.
- Trouble in Paradise: a documentary about the sexual assault trials.
How to get to Pitcairn Island?
This is by far the most important question and there is really an easy answer to this – by boat! Pitcairn has no airfield and there are no plans of building one at the moment. Additionally, since the island has no proper harbor, both passengers and freight are delivered to the island by small rafts. This means that if sea conditions aren’t right, you won’t be able to land on the island.
So the only remaining question is which boat can take you to Pitcairn?
- Cruise ships: in recent years, more and more cruise ships sailing across the South Pacific call at Pitcairn (here’s a planned schedule). Since they must maintain a schedule, cruise ships only spend a few hours in Pitcairn and if landing conditions are not optimal, passengers actually do not disembark. In this case, the local community will attempt to board the cruise ship using their longboats, giving passengers the opportunity to meet them and offer their goods for sale. Pro: comfortable and predictable | Con: short stay pending actual landing.
- Chartered yachts: unless you have your own yacht, visiting Pitcairn Island via small raft is a bit tricky. Occasionally, there are several operators from Mangareva who will run chartered trips to Pitcairn Island, usually priced at around $5,000 per week. Have a look on yacht forums or contact Pitcairn Island Tourism for more information. Pro: small and intimate | Con: expensive, possible rough sea voyage, operator’s reputation often unknown.
- Cargo ships: currently, Pitcairn is serviced by the MV Bravo and you can book your spot on the ship for a visit to Pitcairn ranging from 4-18 days and even longer. More info can be found on the Freight Expeditions website and on the official Pitcairn Island Tourism website. Keep in mind that you will need to make it to Mangareva in French Polynesia before boarding the ship. Pro: predictable and allowing for long stays | Con: expensive.
When is the best time to visit Pitcairn?
Pitcairn Island lies just below the Tropic of Capricorn so weather is warm throughout the year though with some fluctuation. It is said that the best time to visit is between December to March when the weather is warmest. If you are flexible with your planning, try timing your visit to Pitcairn Island with Bounty Day – an annual public holiday celebrated on January 23rd to commemorate the arrival of the Bounty mutineers to the island. Celebrations include the burning of a model of the Bounty and a giant communal feast.
I personally visited during late October and we experienced some clouds. The main factor when visiting Pitcairn is not only the rainfall but mostly the sea conditions which will determine whether you can actually land on the island.
How long do you need for a Pitcairn Island visit?
I personally visited Pitcairn on a cruise ship so we had less than a full day to spend exploring the island. If possible, I would recommend spending at least three full days on the island. Assuming the weather cooperates, this will allow you to see all the top sites and still have a bit of time to meander around and chat with the locals. I can easily see why spending a week on the island would make sense, as part of the magic is simply enjoying the slow pace of life on such a beautiful and remote island. Keep in mind, you will most likely not visit Pitcairn a second time!
Do you need a visa for Pitcairn Island?
Unless you’re sticking around for more than 14 days, a tourist visa is not necessary for Pitcairn Island, though you can have your passport stamped for a $10 fee. More information on tourist visas and immigration can be found here.
Where to stay on Pitcairn Island?
Recently, more and more local accommodations are available on Pitcairn Island. These range from homestays with local families to long term rentals. This is a unique opportunity to spend quality time with Pitcairners who love to share their island’s history with visitors and they will also be happy to help you explore the island on guided tours (paid separately).
Spoken languages on Pitcairn Island
English and Pitkern are the official languages with the latter being a “pidgin” form of English mixed with some Tahitian – a legacy of the first years of the settlements when mutineers had to somehow communicate with the Polynesian women and men brought over to start a new life (some without consent).
What’s with the names?
If you’ve ever done some research on Pitcairn Island you will have surely noted the odd names given to some of the points on the island. Down Rope, Where Tom Fell and Oh Dear are just some examples. This stems from the early days of settlement where you simply needed to come up with catchy names for places on the island. In addition, many islanders lost their lives in accidents such as falling off a cliff so the names are both in their memory and also to warn others to take extra care.
Currency and money on Pitcairn
The official currency on Pitcairn Island is the New Zealand Dollar. Apparently, there is a way to withdraw cash using a credit card on Pitcairn Island but the local economy, with respect to tourists, is based on cash. Locals are used to cruise ships visiting for a few hours and will accept all major currencies. I highly recommend carrying a mix of mostly small and a few large bills.
Getting around Pitcairn
Pitcairn Island is best explored on foot via a maze of dirt paths that criss-cross the island. Trails leading to the top sites are signposted and tourist maps are available (linked later on in the Pitcairn Island travel guide). A popular way to explore the island is also on quad bikes – the only form of motorized transportation on Pitcairn. Locals will be happy to take you around the island for prices ranging from $50-100. In addition to the driver, two passengers can ride the quad.
Electricity on Pitcairn
At the time of writing this guide electricity on Pitcairn came from diesel generators running from 7 am to 10 pm, after which the island becomes invisible!
What to buy on Pitcairn Island
Be sure to have plenty of space in your suitcase because there are many lovely and rare souvenirs to bring back from your visit to Pitcairn Island. When cruise ships visit, locals erect a makeshift market in the village square. Here are a few highlights:
- Stamps: as a means to generate income, Pitcairners started to sell stamps in the 1940s with astounding success. Nowadays, stamps are sold mostly to visiting tourists. You can purchase them in the market or at the local post office.
- Honey: Pitcairn honey is highly coveted and even the Royal Family ensures it gets a steady supply. Pitcairn has one of the most disease-free bee populations of anywhere in the world and its honey is of exceptionally high quality. However, if you’re visiting Easter Island after Pitcairn (or Chile), please note that Pitcairn honey is prohibited. It will be confiscated and if you try sneaking it in, face fines.
- Crafts: Pitcairn’s wooden crafts are legendary and served as a major trading commodity with visiting ships back in the day. The Miro wood used for carving is brought over from Henderson Island on rare visits and is always labeled with the local artist’s name. The most coveted craft is a wooden model of the HMS Bounty which sells for around $120.
- Tapa: the historic Polynesian cloth made from the inside bark of certain trees, tapa is very rare and comes decorated with local symbols.
Click over to the next page to explore the top things to see and do on Pitcairn Island!
Things to see and do in Pitcairn Island
Listed here are the top Pitcairn Island sites you should see during your visit. This will obviously depend on the amount of time you have on the island and the weather. In the next section, I’ll highlight the best Pitcairn Island hikes and walking trails.
Follow the sites mentioned in this section on this interactive map. Simply click on the image to open in Google Maps.
This is currently the only landing area on Pitcairn Island and it’s not exactly what you would call a harbor. Over the years, efforts have been made to tame the power of the ocean but it is still a rough landing on most days. Bounty Bay is also the site of the Bounty wreckage which lies just a few meters beneath the waves. It is very common to spot sea turtles and rare birds hanging around the landing area.
Hill of Difficulty
The legendary trail leading from Bounty Bay to Adamstown was the original path taken by the mutineers when they landed. It steeply rises for 70 meters hugging the side of the cliff. As in the old days, all supply must still be transported up this road. Before the arrival of motor vehicles in the 1960s locals were known for their high level of fitness, having to often go up and down the Hill of Difficulty. Reports even tell of elderly locals giving a ride on their backs to visitors who found it difficult to scale the hill.
On your left just as you finish climbing the Hill of Difficulty, The Edge is an iconic lookout point over Bounty Bay and home to commemorative plaques honoring the original settlers of Pitcairn, both the British mutineers and Polynesian men and women.
The only settlement on the island, Adamstown – population fewer than 50 – isn’t a very happening place but it will be if you visit Pitcairn on a cruise ship. On the outskirts of the village are the local police station, health center, and general shop but most of the “action” is centered around the main square. This is also where Pitcairners gather in the small community hall.
Reached via a flight of stairs just behind the main square, Pitcairn’s museum ($5 entree) is home to the Bounty Bible as well as many artifacts from the legendary ship and ancient Polynesian settlement. It is well worth the visit but can get very crowded when cruise ships visit.
Many locals sell collector stamps but if you actually want to send something home or buy individual stamps, head to the local post office. Keep in mind though that it will take several months for any parcel to reach its destination.
Salvaged in 1957 from Bounty Bay, the massive anchor of the HMS Bounty is proudly displayed in the main square.
Built in 1954, Pitcairners associate themselves with the Seventh Day Adventist Church since conversion in the late 1880s. These days, few locals attend Sunday church service but be sure to try your luck when you visit.
Giant Banyan Tree
On the “outskirts” of Adamstown just before you reach the cemetery, Pitcairn’s likely ancient look-and-feel comes into view in the form of a giant banyan tree. This part of the island is very tropical with many birds and colorful flowers hanging around.
The island’s cemetery is populated a just small handful of family names. For those familiar with the story of Bounty, they won’t come as a shocking surprise. At the turnoff to the cemetery from the main road, one of the rusty Bounty canons is on display. Further along, the cemetery path stands Pitcairn’s sugar cane mill. A long-running community tradition, locals gather each year to produce sugar syrup that will be used for making pudding and other sweet delights.
The only school on the island, there are currently more toilet stalls than the current school roster. The complex itself is far beyond the needs of the island, with plenty of space and even a large herb garden. Tourists are welcome to visit after 10:30 am when school is in session.
John Adams Grave
Known as the “father” of the modern settlement on Pitcairn, John Adams is the only mutineer whose burial site is marked. Adams was more or less illiterate when he landed on Pitcairn but thanks to a fellow mutineer and the Bounty’s bible, Adams became a devout Christian. The only mutineer to survive a bloody civil war and deadly accidents, Adams formed a religious community living in harmony. So amazed were early visitors who ended the settlement’s isolation, that Adams was forgiven for his crime. Adams is buried next to his wife and daughter.
The Eco Trail is a lovely path which heads through a lush part of the island towards Fletcher Christian’s cave. It isn’t a long walk and nature lovers will appreciate it.
Fletcher Christian’s Cave
It is said that Fletcher Christian spent many hours in solitude up here, gazing at the endless ocean in fear of a British search party out for revenge or perhaps in remorse for having sent his former mentor – Captain Bligh – off on a small boat with little provision (Bligh and his loyalists managed to make it to Timor in an incredible feat of survival and navigation). You can reach Christian’s Cave via a short climb from the end of the Eco Trail but be sure to take extra care and do not attempt to climb to the cave after it has rained.
At 347 meters, the highest point on Pitcairn offers unbeatable 360-degree views plus there’s a cool sign listing just how far you are from just about anywhere in the world. If it’s a clear day, be sure to come up here either on foot or on a quad for a picnic.
Ship’s Landing Point
A magnificent lookout high above Bounty Bay with sweeping views of Adamstown. Picnic tables are available and you’ll want to leave enough time to hang around this scenic spot.
Ridge Rope Lookout
This is a prime lookout during the whale season (July-October) and if you can’t make it all the way to St Paul’s Pool, you can catch a glimpse of the natural wonder from up here.
One of the least accessible spots on Pitcairn, be sure to only visit with a local guide. Down Rope is the only beach on Pitcairn Island and it also served as an obsidian quarry for ancient Polynesians. It is still possible to see petroglyphs left behind.
St Paul’s Pool
Probably the most impressive natural feature of the island, this is one of the must-see highlights on Pitcairn! St Paul’s is a natural pool cradled by a rocky outer layer that forms a cathedral-like experience. The water is crystal clear and you can even find lobsters if you come equipped with a mask and snorkel. Access to the pool is a bit challenging and swimming is weather dependent as the pool is often battered by ocean waves. Swimming is at your own risk and be sure to be accompanied by locals.
Tedside & Galapagos Turtles
Tedside is the furthest spot on the island and en route, you can pay a visit to Pitcairn’s celebrity Galapagos turtle known locally as Miz T. Tedside is also the site of an alternative landing area for ships and a favorite fishing spot for Pitcairners.
Whale Watching in Pitcairn Island
From July to October, humpback whales visit the waters off Pitcairn to give birth and mate. With a lot of patience, you should be able to spot whales from the many lookout points on the island. For close encounters, inquire with the locals.
Scuba Diving in Pitcairn Island
Though it’s been over 220 years since the Bounty was sunk by the mutineers – ample time for wood to decay and for looters to salvage highly-prized souvenirs, it is still possible to see a few underwater relics of the HMS Bounty. Experienced divers might have some luck with organizing a dive in Bounty Bay so be sure to bring your credentials with you.
Trips to Neighboring Islands
Islanders occasionally visit Henderson Island for leisure but mainly to collect craft wood and even more rarely visit Oeno Atoll. Even for local Pitcairners, scoring a seat on a boat heading to the outer islands is quite an accomplishment so I can’t suspect tourists will have any luck. If you do visit Pitcairn on a chartered yacht, be sure to explore this opportunity.
Walking and Hiking Trails on Pitcairn Island
Pitcairn Island is a paradise for hikers. The island has many marked trails which lead visitors to the most interesting points on the island. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled and spot some of the rare endemic birds which call Pitcairn home. Also, please do take extra caution and watch your footing. Do not leave the trails as accidents have happened!
Here is a scanned map of the official trails on Pitcairn. The times mentioned are return times from Adamstown. You can download the map in PDF format here.
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