The warmth and beauty of Rarotonga is just the antidote to a hectic life or a wild winter.
The south Pacific spirit hits you as soon as you step off the plane. The smell of frangipani drifts on the warm breeze, the friendly immigration staff greet you with smiles not suspicion and Jake Numanga sings songs of welcome, accompanied by his trusty ukulele.
Jake, in his 70s, has been greeting passengers at Rarotonga International Airport for more than 20 years; he's even been awarded an MBE for services to the Cook Islands. Sitting on a podium in the middle of the luggage carousel, he wears a brightly coloured shirt and a floral headdress and in between songs, offers tips to the waiting tourists.
Arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning, he suggests we go to the Punanga Nui Cultural Markets in the main town of Avarua. "Get up early though," he warns. In this proudly religious nation, everything closes at noon on a Saturday and won't open again until Monday morning.
The best thing about arriving in Raro at night is you have no idea what the island looks like until the next morning. Our short drive from the airport to Crown Beach Resort and Spa provides glimpses of the lagoon on our right but, to the left, the mountains of the island's interior are indistinguishable from the inky black sky.
We arrive at Crown Beach tired, hot, sticky and a bit grumpy after staying up way past our bedtime but it takes only one look at our courtyard villa's private plunge pool to get us back in the right frame of mind. There are many good things about this resort: the proximity to the beach; being on the sunset side of the island; the spacious, stylish, high-ceilinged villas; the on-site spa where I will have the best massage of my life. But the private pool is by far the best thing of all and we waste no time trying it out. So what if it's past 2am? The cool water under the light of a full moon and millions of stars is more refreshing than any shower could ever be.
Those stars become our nightly entertainment. The TV in our villa remains unwatched for the duration of our stay. Instead, each night after dinner we sit on sunloungers at the beach and drink wine while we stargaze and contemplate our place in the universe to the roar of the Pacific Ocean.
Circling the island is Rarotonga's one main road, which will take you less than an hour to complete a full circuit. It's compulsory for tourists to get a Cook Islands' driver's licence to be eligible to drive (available from Avarua's police station for $20). But if you don't want to drive while you're on holiday, Rarotonga has a bus service you could set your watch by. Two buses circumnavigate the island – the clockwise bus, which leaves from Avarua's Cook's Corner on the hour, and the anticlockwise bus, which leaves from the same spot at the half hour. They stop outside all the major resorts but if you're not at a designated stop as the bus approaches it doesn't matter – simply wave it down and the driver will stop.
Cruising along the road adjacent to the beach, Nick's eyes are wide and his jaw drops as he sees for the first time just how beautiful Rarotonga really is. The palm trees, white sand, turquoise lagoon, the deep blue sea beyond the breaking waves, the lush green mountains ... it's such a cliched ideal of paradise it's easy to believe we're dreaming.
Lucky for us, we have seven whole days to enjoy what Rarotonga has to offer. Pacific Island holidays have developed a nickname – fly and flop – and I've been looking forward to a lot of time lazing by the beach and the pool. But to my delight I find the Cooks offer far too much to do to simply stay sedentary.
We take Jake's advice and enjoy a Saturday morning wander around the Punanga Nui markets, where plentiful stalls offer everything from wood carvings to brightly coloured screen-printed silks, to black pearls at discounted rates, to the traditional local dish of ika mata (raw fish with lime juice and coconut milk) and old plastic soft drink bottles refilled with fresh papaya juice.
Local fruit and vegetables are being sold at competitive prices compared to the supermarket across the road where all the fresh produce seems to have been imported from New Zealand.
We find more culture later that day at Te Vara Nui, a locally owned and operated purpose-built village that gives tourists a taste of what Cook Islands life was like before colonisation.
George, a handsome Cook Islander with a gentle sense of humour, is our guide around the different educational huts of the village, where we learn about the history of the islands, traditional medicines, fishing, costumes and weaving. After our village tour, we're seated in the large, airy dining area for a delicious buffet dinner showcasing local ingredients and authentic dishes, before the Ura Po performance, a truly impressive dance and light show combining dramatic drumming with music, song and narration to tell Cook Islands folklore.
Music is a big part of Cook Islands life and it seems everywhere we go we're followed by the sound of ukuleles, drums and beautiful lilting melodies. A lagoon cruise leaving from Muri beach is full of song and laughter. Koka Lagoon Cruises is a smaller alternative to the well-established Captain Tama's Tours and the company donates a percentage of its profits to marine conservation funds.
Our cruise heads out on the translucent waters of Muri's lagoon for some high-visibility snorkelling over the clam cages put in place to regenerate reef life, before mooring on a small island across from Muri Beach. We feast on fresh salads, barbecued meats, fish and tropical fruit, then watch yet another coconut tree-climbing/husking demonstration, and huddle around in a circle on the beach for some sand crab racing. The half-day tour is over much too soon for my liking – I am so taken with Muri Beach's beauty I could happily stay for the whole day.
Nick is entranced by our walk with local legend Pa. This spritely 70-something-year-old has been guiding cross island treks and nature walks since 1987. He still walks the arduous cross island track once a week, and it's often his younger guests who are struggling to keep up with him as he clambers up the steep mountain. With his blonde dreadlocks, slim figure and easy smile, he has the demeanour of a man much younger than he is. Wearing a red loincloth and jandals, with vine leaves tied around his knees, he greets us with "namaste" and talks often of his spirituality. He has 12 children and 22 grandchildren and says his only health problems are "that I can't stop working". Some of his tales seem tall but there is no denying his knowledge of the plants and wildlife we come across as we walk. He points out flowers which will stop mosquito bites itching, fruits which will prevent cancer, and the horny goat's weed plant which he says is a natural viagra. With a cheeky glint in his eye, he picks some from the ground and gives it to Nick to put in his pocket.
After the enchanting walk we go back to Pa's house where he gives us fresh tuna rolls, raw chestnuts picked from the tree, fresh papaya, coffee, and a glass of kava each. Pa sends us away with heartfelt blessings and we feel lucky to have spent time in the presence of this colourful local character.
Amid all the enjoyable activities, we still find plenty of time to relax, none more so than at our second accommodation, Little Polynesian. This luxurious, exclusive resort is on the southwest corner of Rarotonga and if we were happy at Crown Beach, we're ecstatic at Little Poly. Our are – one of only 14 in the resort – is absolute beachfront with a large deck and an abundance of comfortable day beds with views of the ocean. The interior is beautifully designed and furnished and the resort's ethos is to exist in harmony with the natural environment.
This vision is thanks to a highly esteemed member of the Cook Islands community – the late Te Tika Mataiapo Dorice Reid – who owned the resort and oversaw its redevelopment in 2006. This extraordinary woman was an advocate for many things: Pacific women, tourism, indigenous people's rights, the environment and the protection of traditional Cook Islands practices. With her sister, Jeanine, as manager, Dorice aimed to keep the resort simple and unpretentious, showcasing the natural beauty of the reef and ocean by which her ancestors arrived generations ago.
Dorice passed away in 2011, a month before she was due to take up her position as high commissioner of the Cook Islands to New Zealand, but Little Poly continues to be run to her high standards, in the hands of her family and Fijian general manager, Alex Wilson.
"We want our visitors to enjoy their holiday best when there are no distractions but being with loved ones, a little shade and a lovely beach," the in-room information book states, and it's a sentiment we can't help but agree with. As we sit on our deck and await our late night transfer to the airport for our departing flight, our only distractions are the ever-breaking waves and those beautiful stars. It's been only a week but we feel light years away from our normal hectic lives.
The thought of returning to reality is too depressing for words but at the airport we have one last treat. Jake Numanga sits on his podium and plays a farewell song to the departing passengers. "I hope you will return again soon," he says. And we can be sure he'll be there to greet us when we do.
Where to stay: Crown Beach Resort & Spa, Beach Rd, Sunset Coast, Arorangi, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, crownbeach.com. Little Polynesian, Titikaveka, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, littlepolynesian.com.
Where to eat: Both Crown Beach and Little Polynesian have on-site dining options. Crown Beach has two restaurants – Oceans and Windjammer – and a tapas bar/cocktail lounge – Tang.
What to do: Punanga Nui Cultural Markets, Downtown Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, punanganuiculturalmarket.co.ck. Crown Beach Ariki Spa, Crown Beach Resort. Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, Muri, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, tevaranui.co.ck (bookings can be made online). Koka Lagoon Cruises, Muri Beach (beside Vara's), Rarotonga, Cook Islands, kokalagooncruises.co.ck. Pa's Treks, pastreks.com. The Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre, Atupa, Avatiu, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, whaleresearch.org/centre.
Stephanie Holmes travelled to the Cook Islands courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism and Goode PR.
- © Fairfax NZ News