Forget grumpy customs officials and security guards. At the Rarotonga International Airport in the Cook Islands, you get Papa Jake and his ukulele, SUE PRESTON reports.
PAPA Jake Numanga, nearing 80, has been greeting visitors to the Cook Islands for 36 years.
You’ll also find him in the same spot by the baggage carousel when you leave Rarotonga because Papa Jake has been at the small international airport seven days a week greeting every arriving and departing visitor since the airport opened in the 1970s.
His traditional songs and old favourites immediately put the sleepy Air New Zealand flight passengers from Sydney in a holiday mood. Just outside, resort representatives are waiting to collect their guests, heavily scented leis in hand. Greetings of Kia Orana, bestowing the gift of a long life, ring out.
As genuine welcomes go, the Cook Islands do it better than anywhere else in the world.
This idyllic string of islands in the South Pacific – where there are more coconut trees than people, no traffic lights, no fast food outlets, no branded accommodation and no building higher than the tallest coconut trees – invests in its people and their hospitality. This is what sells the Cook Islands to the world.
The 10,000 or so people who live on the main island of Rarotonga rely on tourism and love to share their stories and culture. Most have family scattered to the four winds, largely to Australia and New Zealand, so welcome the opportunity to talk to holidaymakers.
Older visitors are often referred to as Auntie or Uncle, terms of both endearment and respect.
One of the best places to enjoy the warmth and friendliness of islanders is at a progressive dinner. These are designed to enable tourists to step beyond resort life, are held several nights a week and take groups by minibus into the homes of three Rarotongan families to enjoy a home-cooked meal and learn a little about family life.
Due to the influence of the missionaries, the church is the pillar of the community and your host will say a simple prayer before inviting you to tuck into delicious local dishes such as rukau (which resembles spinach but it is actually young taro leaves cooked in coconut cream), poke (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).
Coconut cream is served with just about everything.
At the first home we were welcomed by Danny and Jane, with Danny proudly showing us through his extensive garden that included avocado, Singaporean palms, Chinese tamarind and coffee plants, before Jane served an entree of ika mata, banana salad and arrowroot tapioca.
“We’re not a restaurant, we are not a hotel, we are a home and we thank you for being here,” she said.
Next, csitting on the deck of Kafo and Pae’s welcoming family home, we tucked into a substantial meal of traditional foods. Kafo has a simple philosophy: “Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly and leave the rest to God”.
We then enjoyed dessert of abundant fruit on the verandah of John and Nona’s six-bedroom home. “Even if we serve food that is imported, we cook it in the local way; we flavour it with island love,” Nona said.
The couple’s children, like countless others, now live abroad. “We encourage them to go out and see the world but tell them don’t forget your home.”
If you enjoyed the progressive dinner food, 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 main stage with amazing performances from young dancers and musicians.
The cheap and cheerful Muri night market is another place to enjoy a range of foods in an outdoor setting. The Moorings Fish Cafe, operating out of a shipping container, serves super-sized sandwiches of freshly fried mahi to a steady stream of diners.
Getting around Rarotonga is easy. You can hire a bicycle, car or motorbike, and there is no chance of getting lost as there are only two roads on the island, circular like a double-stranded necklace.
The 32km round coastal road is serviced by public buses – one travelling clockwise, the other anti-clockwise.
Keen walkers who want to explore the island on foot can try Pa’s Treks, either taking a nature walk with the dreadlocked, loin-clothed Pa or the challenging cross-island trek with his nephew Bruce.
Pa used to lead the cross-island trek but retired after completing 5000 treks and now devotes himself to promoting the benefits of herbal and medicinal plants growing on the island.
One such plant is the noni plant, a foul-tasting fruit – taste it if you dare – which Pa believes can help with every complaint from bone spurs to stomach cancer and thrombosis.
For cultural performances, Highland Paradise takes you to the property of a family that returned to the mountains to teach their own children, and anyone else who was interested, about the islands’ culture and heritage. Their show, Drums of our forefathers, includes a village tour, visit to a sacred marae site, traditional umu feast and cultural show.
No holiday is complete without a visit to the island of Aitutaki, just a short flight from Rarotonga. A highlight is the day trip by boat to the southern lagoon taking in One Foot Island and snorkelling in arguably the most beautiful waters in the world.
IF YOU GO…
GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies non-stop once a week from Sydney to Rarotonga. Travelling through different time zones means you arrive in Rarotonga on Friday morning after leaving Sydney on Friday night. One-way fares from $392 (including taxes).
Aitutaki – Etu Moana boutique beach villas are built of plantation pine with Tasmanian oak floors and have the traditional palm leaf roof. You can take in the sea views from the large covered decks furnished with day beds. Inside you’ll find a king bed, ensuite bathroom, kitchenette and smart TV with movie selection. Breakfast by the pool or take it back to enjoy on your deck. The bar by the pool operates on an honesty system and dinner can be enjoyed at a choice of restaurants on the island, a couple just 10 minutes’ walk away. The Koru Cafe also supplies barbecue packs and heat-and-eat packs.
Make use of Etu Moana’s free masks, snorkels and reef shoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards but don’t venture beyond the lagoon – www.etumoana.com
Rarotonga – Muri Beachcomber sits on the dress circle of beautiful Muri lagoon right in the heart of Muri village and just a stone’s throw from lagoon cruises and other water-based activities. It has 16 sea-view units, two garden units, a two-bedroom family garden unit and three water-garden villas overlooking a lawned area. The resort currently has a five-night/pay four offer and a seven-night/pay six offer – Muribeachcomber.co.ck
Other useful information: The Cook Islands are blessed with wonderful weather year-round. Cooler months are May to October.
Currency is the New Zealand dollar.
On a Sunday head to church. Visitors are made welcome and you will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful singing you have ever heard.
Vehicles are driven on the left and the speed limit is 40kph in town and 50kph outside of the populated areas. The speed is slow because of the number of cyclists, motor scooters and wild chooks on the road. The chickens were brought over by the island’s first settlers and have now bred to huge numbers. Tourists are advised not to feed them. “If encouraged some of them will grow up to be roosters and to become members of the Alarm Clock Brigade” was a warning on the resort’s bedside table. In another oddity there are no dogs on Aitutaki, only cats.
WiFi is available but not free. Buy a pre-loaded Visitor Sim Card on arrival from Bluesky and the helpful staff will install it.
There are many beautiful and safe swimming spots on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Protective footwear (reef shoes) reduces the chance of being scratched by corals.
The tiny Cook Islands Museum, an adjunct the library, and nestled below the beautiful Theological College, provides a fascinating glimpse of Cook Islands history.
Flower lovers note: Rarotonga supports an abundance of food plants and beautiful ornamentals such as cultivated varieties of hibiscus, heliconia, ginger, orchid and frangipani introduced with the missionaries 200 years ago. The main flowering season is October to March.
For shopping, check out the Beachcomber Building, Rarotonga. Built by the London Missionary Society in 1845, it was restored in 1992 and now has a high-quality art and craft gallery and retro cafe with LP records.
For arts and crafts, clothing, music, food, drink and cultural performances, head to the Punanga Nui Saturday morning market. The Cook Islands is also the place for premium black cultured pearls.
More information, www.cookislands.travel
Sue Preston was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and flew courtesy Air New Zealand.