Lots to do in tiny Rarotonga

BY BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 19/10/2010
Rarotonga beach
Fairfax
RAROTONGA: Beautiful beaches, but plenty to do on dry land as well.

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There are two bus routes on Rarotonga: "clockwise" and "anti-clockwise".

That should tell you all you need know about the island: that it's roughly round, fairly small and the public transport isn't too crash hot.

On an island known for its beautiful beaches and sea life, there's a surprising amount to do on dry land on Rarotonga - not that visitors are able to get to any of it easily.

Those hourly buses take their last run at 4.30pm, before a "night bus" does three trundles around the island. And with a population of just over 10,000 in the Cook Islands' languid capital, there's little need to point out that a high-speed train network won't be appearing any time soon.

There is, however, two-wheeled salvation for the stricken tourist: the scooter.

As the four-wheel-drive is to inner-city soccer mums in Sydney, so the scooter is to your average Cook Islander.

It's the staple mode of transport - freedom on two wheels. It's cheap, accessible and reasonably safe. And perfect for visitors.

Suddenly, you can go anywhere, any time. The island is your oyster.

The speed limit for unhelmeted riders is a lazy 40km/h, which is more than fast enough for the casual sightseer, and traffic is almost non-existent (except for that hourly bus).

The island is an easy place to find your way around. Given that it's hemmed in by a circular main road, all you have to do is point your front wheel at the ocean and you'll know where you are within seconds.

To gain possession of a scooter, foreigners have to front up to the police station in the main town, Avarua, and apply for a licence.

This is an extremely complicated and thorough procedure that involves signing a sheet of paper and posing for a photo. Ten minutes later you're flicking the starter button on a 125cc hired from the servo next door. A few seconds after that you're burbling down the main street, wind in your gloriously unhelmeted hair.

Your tour of Rarotonga begins.

Taking the main ring road out of Avarua, you can open up the throttle and work your way towards 40km/h, passing the new international airport, zipping around the edge of the runway and finding yourself at Rarotonga Golf Club for an early-morning round. The RGC is a tidy little nine-hole course with six giant radio towers anchored to the middle of the first fairway. (Although, as any amateur golfer would know, the best way to avoid these obstacles is to aim straight at them.)

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With nine holes completed, jump back on the scooter and point your front wheel inland, touring past a few small houses, avoiding a few wild chickens and puttering past the local jail.

Admittedly, it's not a known tourist attraction but the island slammer is worth a glance at for its pure quaintness - a tiny little building nestled into the mountainside, fortified by a few palm trees and a barbed-wire fence.

In this peaceful part of the South Pacific, most inmates are repeat traffic offenders, although who arrested them is anyone's guess, given Rarotonga's smiling policemen seem to spend most of their time driving around in battered panel vans waving at people. Those inmates could probably do with some time at the next site along the road: the Cook Islands Christian Church.

While crime might be almost non-existent in Rarotonga, religion is everywhere. From the prayers before every meal to billboards such as the one advertising the "Jesus Is Lord General Store", the big man upstairs has a serious presence in this part of the world.

Best way to appreciate this is to call in to a church service on a Sunday morning. Don't feel you're intruding - everyone is welcome. At the Cook Islands Christian Church, large men in crisp white suits stand at the pulpit and joyfully spread the gospel before the congregation breaks into song, a glorious harmony of religious devotion.

"I cannot sing by myself," one worshipper whispered, "but in the church, I think God helps me."

God's doing a sterling job, too, because the sound is incredible.

All that fervour, however, can leave you thirsty. Fortunately, a small scooter ride from the church is the Shipwreck Hut, one of the better drinking establishments on an island dominated by bland resort bars. Here, you can wiggle your toes in the sand while drinking an "opu-ra" (sunset) cocktail from a glass jar, Gilligan's Island-style.

"It saves on washing up," the owner, Stephanie, will shrug as she screws the lid on a jar and shakes the fruity cocktail inside.

Best to stick to one opu-ra though, because after that it's back on the scooter and on to the ring road, past the abandoned Sheraton Hotel - an ambitious project that went bust about 20 years ago and which, thanks to managerial ineptitude and a curse that a group of locals put on it, has never been completely finished - and on to a stretch of road that hugs a deserted section of coastline.

It's here you'll find true island paradise. Pull up the scooter, grab your towel and hit the beach. Cool waters lap against the sand, palm trees sway overhead, coconuts litter the beach ... and there's not a soul around. Perfect.

One of the few places where you will find people, however, is 10 minutes down the road at Rarotonga Sailing Club on Muri Beach, which makes a handy lunch stop. Give the scooter a rest and settle in on the wooden balcony overlooking the beach. There's snorkelling equipment for hire, or you can struggle to come to grips with the physics of windsurfing. The lagoon is placid and harmless. You're not going far.

Back in Avarua, head to the servo and hand in the keys to your trusty motorised steed, because your final port of call, Cooks Brewery, is not exactly scooter friendly.

The big "free beer" sign outside is the giveaway, although the fine print of "tasting" is a slap in the face.

Still, Cooks brews the island's best beer and a generous sample of each of their three brews is enough to slake the thirst after a hard day in the saddle. Don't linger at the brewery too long, though.

The clock's ticking, and you have to make it back to your hotel. Remember: you're on the bus now.

- The Age