THE COOK ISLANDS WELCOME KIDS WITH OPEN ARMS
MANY people think of the Cook Islands as a romantic honeymoon destination, home to crystal-clear beaches, pristine diving spots and rainforestcovered mountains.
While there is no denying that it’s a stunning place offering great adventures, for us it was the Cook Islanders who made the greatest impression on our recent family holiday.
It started the moment we stepped off the plane.
At most international airports you’re greeted by stern-looking security guards; not in the Cook Islands. Moments after landing, we were greeted with a smile and told that there was an express lane through customs for travellers with small children.
The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands spread over 2.2 million sq km in the South Pacific Ocean between Tahiti, Tonga and Fiji or a six-hour flight direct from Sydney or four hours from Auckland.
We holidayed on Rarotonga, the biggest island and the nation’s capital. The main form of income for the Cook Islands economy is tourism and they really know how to turn it on for their guests.
As we made our way through the airport we were serenaded by a local singer and ukulele player, Jake Numanga, who has been welcoming incoming planes since the airport was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
There was no extended wait for our stroller; it was already set up by airport staff, complete with a fresh flower lei for our young travelling companion, our two-year-old daughter Jaala.
I was so impressed by the speed and kindness of our welcome (less than an hour after landing we had settled into our room, unpacked and poured a glass of wine) that I almost overlooked the fact the resort’s staff already knew Jaala by name.
Our home for the week was the 31/ star Edgewater Resort and Spa, a haven on the western side of the island. The balcony of our comfortable beachfront suite was metres from the waves crashing on the lagoon.
The view was priceless – its beauty stole countless moments over our stay.
Although, if I had a dollar for every time Chris, my partner, asked me to ‘‘ Look at the colour of the water in this next set of waves DK’’, I’d have enough money to move there and wave watch permanently.
We spent the first few days of our Cook Islands holiday happily at the resort where there was plenty to keep us busy, from the culturally themed activities – weaving, coconut decorating, fish feeding, dancing lessons, snorkelling and pareu (local sarongs) tying classes, to the coconut kids’ club, international crab races and cocktail hour by the pool.
The Cook Islanders are proud of their culture and history and take a lot of joy in sharing it.
We found it woven into almost everything on the island from the resort’s island feast and cultural dance show, which was a highlight of our trip, to the public bus trips downtown.
We travelled around Rarotonga on the local bus which for $NZ4 ($A3.15) a person was great value.
There are two services available, clockwise and anti-clockwise. Both operate as a hop-on, hop-off service around the 32km perimeter of the island. In true Cook Island hospitality, they delivered us to our hotel foyer at the end of each trip. Regardless of when we hopped on, we managed to get the same bus driver, Apu.
His hilarious tour guide antics were so informative that we visited several sites such as the Whale Centre and handmade souvenir stores from his recommendations alone.
In a bid to experience a more ‘‘ behind the scenes’’ outing, we jumped aboard the Raro Mountain Safari Tour where, in an open-air 4WD, we ventured off the main roads and on to volcanic slab pathways that wound through the countryside through rainforests and up to the highest mountain peaks.
While it was high adrenalin at times as we rode up steep mountain faces and I held on to Jaala with all my might, this tour was a great way to get access to the authentic way of life in the Cook Islands and to visit culturally sacred sections of the island that we’d never normally have access to.
You can’t buy land or even a home in the Cook Islands.
All locals are given a home by the residing chiefs and only 60-year land leases are available for foreigners.
This mutual ownership and respect for their homes is everywhere you look. What struck us was the consistent work ethic we saw while travelling around the island. Almost every home was being tendered to as we passed, the owners stopping their sweeping, gardening or mowing only long enough to wave to our curious group.
As seafood fans, our family was spoilt for choice and freshness as every meal we ate was lured in just hours earlier.
My pan-fried flounder from Trader Jacks Bar & Grill, Mai Mai fish burger from Cafe Salsa and fresh snapper from the Punanga Nui beachside markets were all mouth-wateringly good and always served with a smile.
It’s a sign of a good holiday when you leave feeling as though you’ve been away for weeks when it has in fact only been five nights.
There are many reasons why we’ll go back to Rarotonga, or Raro as the locals call it.
At the top of our long list would have to be an open boat trip in the clear blue lagoons, to take another hipswinging cultural dancing lesson, oh, and to listen to Jake at the arrivals gate at the airport.
The writer was a guest of Escape Travel and Cook Islands Tourism.
TROPICAL TREATS: Snorkelling is one of the Cook Islands’ main attractions (main picture); and a cultural dance show at Edgewater Resort (above).