Cook Islands – Pearl of the Pacific
Tired of life in the fast lane? Want to go where time stands still and you can stop and catch your breath? Take a break on this tropical island paradise only six hours from Sydney. Rarotonga is the gateway to 15 islands scattered across roughly 2million square kilometres of the South Pacific. Aine Dowling has been visiting the Cooks for many years and passes on some travel tips.
I’ve been coming to the island for the past 15 years—ever since I had a stopover from Tahiti en route to Auckland and fell in the love with the quaint little airport; the tropical flowers, and Jake—who greets all arrivals and departures with a song and his ukulele. Well obviously I’m not really in love with Jake but you get my meaning.
Rarotonga is in a sort of time warp—in the nicest possible way. Stay here and you can’t help but relax. It’s warm, sunny and has that slow leisurely tropical feel to it, and if you do feel like exerting yourself in some random uncalled for way, you can always fling yourself in the lagoon and float about for a bit until you’ve calmed down.
So what is there to do? Surprisingly plenty …
The lagoon surrounds the entire island so there are water sports galore including snorkelling, diving, kayaking, wind-surfing, and floating about. Or you can take a glass-bottom boat cruise around the lagoon and out to the reef—the cruise includes a BBQ lunch and plenty of serenading from the crew. Off the water, and a bit more adventurous, you can take a safari into the inland or try your hand at quad biking. Hire a scooter and drive around the island—you won’t get lost as there’s only one road and it’s a great way to get a tan, or if you’re fitness personified you can cycle—though not recommended in the heat of the day.
If you want to learn a bit about the history of the island and its people—Cook Island Maori—enjoy dinner and an Island night show at the Cultural Centre, or join a progressive dinner where you get to meet the friendly locals in their own home. Many of the resorts also have Island or Polynesian nights where you’re invited to try your hand at dancing and drumming. You can also take a day trip to Aitutaki, said to be the most beautiful island in the Pacific and a favourite for weddings and honeymooners.
But my all-time favourite pastime is eating—and shopping, but we’ll get to that later.
Where to stay
Accommodation can be a big ticket item or as cheap as you want—without sacrificing privacy. For visitors on a budget or those with young children, resorts are a great option, and most have a Kids Club to entertain the youngsters while you make the most of the beach. Club Raro is a great family resort with something for everyone, and if you don’t mind a bit of communal living, backpacker places—such as Are Mango—offer both dorms and doubles. For families or couples who want something a little more upmarket, check out the Pacific Resort on Muri Beach or, a little further round the island Moana Sands or Crown Beach Resort. For total luxury, or something really special, Little Polynesian or Rumours will take your breath away—and possibly your wallet!
If resorts are not your thing, try a holiday rental. Hire your own holiday home from as little as $500 a week—all homes are fully furnished and come with linen and basic essentials. At the top end, a luxury villa will cost you around $2,200 a week and although that seems a lot, a couple of families sharing can easily reduce the cost.
You will, at some time during your stay, want to enjoy a meal out and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. In the main town of Avarua, Trader Jacks on the Water is the iconic place for lunch—sit on the deck over the water and enjoy fish ‘n’ chips and a local beer, or sit in the bar area and share a pizza. Café Salsa serves traditional wood-fired pizzas and their smoked marlin hash is a taste sensation. The Blue Note Café and The Old Schoolhouse are also worth a visit. Slightly out of town Bamboo Jacks (a relative of Trader Jacks) gives the local food an Asian twist.
Happy Hour and al-fresco dining start around 4pm at most of the bars and resorts, and a half-price Mai Tai is well worth the $10 or so.
Deli’lious (Muri Beach) does the best big breakfast in town but is quite a small café, so be prepared to wait for a table—while waiting you can avail yourself of the internet or curl up on the sofa with the local paper. Cafe Loco (opposite Wigmore’s convenience store in Vaimangi) is also up there with perfect poached eggs on toast, and Muri Beach Resort is great for a leisurely breakfast by the pool.
After breakfast you can start on the shopping… oh yeah!
The Cook Islands is famous for its black pearls from the lagoon on Manihiki. There are many pearl outlets on Rarotonga and you can buy from the display or choose a pearl and have it set to your own design. Manihiki and Penrhyn are famous for their weaving, and the local women (known as Mammas) make hats, bags, fans, table mats and jewellery to sell at local shops and markets.
Sarongs are everywhere. In a rainbow of brilliant colours, prints and fabrics, they hang outside the shops and flutter in the breeze. The silk print ones are stunning and often include the traditional red hibiscus on sunshine yellow and sky blue backgrounds.
Punanga Nui Market, between the town and the wharf, is held every Saturday morning and is a treasure trove of pearl jewellery, clothing (including sarongs), weaving, and textiles. Get there early for the best fruit and vegetables then have brunch in the outdoor food area while watching local singers, dancers and drummers hone their performance.
Both Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia have regular flights from Sydney to Rarotonga, either direct or via Auckland—keep an eye out for specials.
Even though there is only one main road on the island, accommodation can be hard to find in the dark, especially holiday homes that are tucked away on beach or inland roads. So if your flight arrives in the early hours, be sure to book a hotel transfer or rental pick-up through the managing property agent.
For more information visit www.cookislandstourism.com.au
Photographs by Surya Magazine
This article first appeared in Surya Magazine www.surymagazine.com.au