A holiday in the Cook Islands is so laid-back you can easily forget the time and even what day it is. In fact, the only time you need to stir is when you hear the sound of the conch shell, SUE PRESTON reports.
THE traditional greeting in the Cook Islands is Kia Orana “may you live long”. These are the first words you hear when you arrive in this Polynesian paradise halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.
As a heavenly scented lei, a token of love and friendship, is slipped around your neck, you feel all the pressures of a busy life evaporate.
I have flown into Rarotonga, which is where most visitors start their holiday. It is the largest of the 15 islands that make up “The Cooks” but it is still small enough for you to be at your accommodation and in your bathers within 30 minutes of leaving the airport.
The 10,000 people who live on Rarotonga are outnumbered by coconut trees and fleet-footed free-ranging chickens.
The island has no traffic lights, no fast food outlets, no branded accommodation and no building higher than the tallest coconut tree.
There are only two roads, both circular and strung round the island like a double-stranded necklace. Most people travel on the 32km round coastal road, which is serviced by public buses – one travelling clockwise, the other anticlockwise. You simply hail the bus depending on where you want to go.
Life is simple here, so a holiday in the Cook Islands will best suit those who like to read a book while swinging in a hammock under a palm tree, who like to swim in safe protected waters, and who are open to getting to know the islanders and their way of life.
The islands have a rich culture, which make them perfect for a multi-generational holiday. Better still, WiFi is limited in some places so Ipads can be relegated to the suitcase and the grandchildren can get out in the fresh air. Here it’s all about the outdoors.
Wonderful lagoon cruises will take you out into the deep blue waters to swim and snorkel among the marine life including fish that swim so close you could almost scoop them up in your arms.
The water is a delicious temperature and it is only the sound of the conch shell that interrupts your reverie and reminds you it’s time to swim back to the vessel.
The protected waters of the Cook Islands make up the world’s largest marine park at one million square miles – and you may be lucky to visit in whale-watching season. Each year migratory humpback whales come from Antarctica, reaching the islands between July and October.
With a living coral reef so perfect for swimming and snorkelling it’s hard to tear yourself away from the beach, but at Rarotonga’s heart are steep lush green mountain ranges.
While hardy trekkers can tackle these on foot, a great way to get to the clean green heart of the island is with a four-wheel drive tour like Raro Safari Tours.
Captain V takes us along Rarotonga’s ancient inner and second road to visit the Papua Waterfall, the sacred site known as Te Arai-Te-Tonga Marae and the Avatiu Valley for a view of the peak known as Te Rua Manga or The Needle.
On the way we pass abundant fruit plantations.
The coconut palm is regarded as the tree of life here and the rich soil is perfect for growing the bananas, jackfruit, papaya, mango and avocados you will enjoy while you’re there.
That night we get the chance to sample some of this local produce at a progressive dinner – an ingenious way to get tourists to step beyond resort life. These dinners take you into the homes of three islander families to learn a little about family life today.
Due to the influence of Christian missionaries, the church is the pillar of the community and your host will say a simple prayer before inviting you to eat dishes such as rukau – which resembles spinach but it is actually young taro leaves cooked in coconut cream – poke, a dish of arrowroot and coconut cream with a pudding like texture, and the wonderful ika mata, fresh raw fish (often tuna) marinated in lime juice and coconut cream.
You can also sample local dishes at the Punanga Nui Market every Saturday morning at the waterfront township of Avarua. Wander among the fresh produce, arts and crafts and other stalls – and don’t miss the amazing performances from young dancers and musicians on the main stage.
The cheap and cheerful Muri night market is another place where you can enjoy a range of foods in an outdoor setting. The Moorings Fish Cafe, operating out of a shipping container, serves man-sized sandwiches of freshly fried mahi mahi to a steady stream of diners.
A visit to the tiny island of Aitutaki, just a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga and home to less than 2000 people, is a must.
From airport to your accommodation takes half the time as it does in Rarotonga – all of 15 minutes. On the way you will pass a sign saying Slow down. Your (sic) in heaven.
This island has what is widely regarded to be the world’s most beautiful lagoon scattered with 15 motu (islets).
Once home from Aitutaki you will have trouble convincing family and friends that your photos of the huge turquoise lagoon haven’t been photoshopped.
The motu sprinkled along the reef are mostly uninhabited, but on beautiful One Foot Island you will find a post office where you can mail your postcards and have your passport stamped. Where else in the world can you do that?
Good to know...
The Cook Islands are blessed with wonderful weather year-round. Cooler months are May to October.
Currency is the New Zealand dollar.
You can hire cars, scooters and bikes. Cars drive on the left and the speed limit is 40kph in town and 50kph outside of the populated areas because of the number of cyclists, motor scooters and chooks on the road.
WiFi is available but not free. Buy a pre-loaded Visitor Sim Card on arrival from Bluesky and the helpful staff will install it for you.
Other things to do include attending a Sunday church service to enjoy the beautiful singing, attending the vibrant Te Vara Nui Cultural Village Dinner and Show and exploring the tropical Maire Nui Gardens.
If you go...
AIR New Zealand operates a 787-9 Dreamliner on the direct Sydney-Rarotonga service, offering lie-flat business premier beds, comfortable premium economy seats and the economy skycouch. Passengers can book a row of three economy seats with customised footrests that raise to a horizontal position, creating a flat flexible space to stretch out and relax. The six-hour service operates once a week. You can also go to Rarotonga via Auckland – www.airnewzealand.com.au
STAY: Both islands have a range of accommodation, from resorts to thatched bungalows to holiday house rentals. The best places to stay on Rarotonga for snorkelling and swimming on soft sand are around Muri Lagoon and Titikaveka. Other beaches can be stony, so bring reef shoes or use the ones provided at your accommodation.
Crown Beach Resort and Spa Rarotonga has 36 individual villas set in five acres of tropical gardens. Its position on the west side of the island means beautiful sunsets. Guests gather beachside of an evening, drink in hand, to watch the sun go down. The resort has two restaurants, a bar, swimming pool and activities such as reef walking, coconut husking, snorkelling and kayaking, nature and village walks and Maori language lessons.
Friendly family-run Tamanu Beach Resort on the west coast of Aitutaki offers Polynesian style bungalows nestled in tropical gardens, self-contained studio rooms and one-bedroom lagoon view rooms just a stone’s throw from the water. It has two pools, a restaurant and a wildly popular Island Night every Thursday – www.tamanubeach.com
For a luxury stay, Aitutaki Escape has three beautiful villas each with their own private pool. Owner Thomas Koteka recently established Rumours Cafe on site with a menu designed around freshly caught or grown produce –www.aitutakiescape.com
Spacifica Travel has a six-night Rarotonga Experience package from $599 per person twin share (excluding airfares). It includes airport meet and greet, return airport transfers in Rarotonga, six nights’ accommodation with breakfast, free use of sporting equipment and free daily on site cultural activities. Extras such as a lagoon cruise with barbecue lunch can be added from $70 per person, an Island Discovery Tour from $60 per person and a Spectacular Overwater Night Show with dinner and transfers from $110 per person. This deal is valid for travel from January 2-March 31 next year and bookings must be made by October 31.
Spacifica also has a Rarotonga and Aitutaki six-night package from $1399 per person twin share which includes return flights from Rarotonga to Aitutaki and a Giant Clam snorkelling tour for two. It is valid for travel from January 8-March 31 with bookings required by October 31 – 1800-800-722, www.spacificatravel.com
* Sue Preston was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and flew courtesy of Air New Zealand.