Fam­ily first

THE COOK IS­LANDS WEL­COME KIDS WITH OPEN ARMS

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - Front Page -

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.

Pic­tures: Donna Kramer, Getty Im­ages

TROP­I­CAL TREATS: Snorkelling is one of the Cook Is­lands’ main at­trac­tions (main pic­ture); and a cul­tural dance show at Edge­wa­ter Re­sort (above).

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