WEL­COME TO THE COOK IS­LANDS

Shim­mer­ing blue la­goons, gen­tle breezes, home­town smiles and fewer tourist vis­its than Florida’s Dis­ney­world gets in two days

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ANNE Z. COOKE Is­lands

AVARUA, RARO­TONGA, COOK IS­LANDS

— It was a quiet af­ter­noon on Raro­tonga, in the Cook Is­lands, when Ly­dia Nga got the news.

Overnight her home­land, 15 Poly­ne­sian is­lands west of Tahiti, a par­adise smaller than Detroit, had grown ex­po­nen­tially, re­born as a 690,000 squaremile na­tion.

But it wasn’t the is­lands that grew. In 1982, the Third United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea ruled that coastal na­tions had ju­ris­dic­tion over an “exclusive eco­nomic zone,” de­fined as a 200-mile stretch of ocean mea­sured from the shore­line. Most coun­tries wel- comed the idea. But for a tiny na­tion like the Cooks, pop­u­la­tion 15,000, it was a Cin­derella prom­ise.

Fast for­ward 35 years to last Au­gust and our first visit to Raro­tonga, the main is­land, lured by the thought of shim­mer­ing blue la­goons, gen­tle breezes, home­town smiles and fewer tourist vis­its than Florida’s Dis­ney­world gets in two days.

“And how about that eco­nomic zone, the one the guide­book de­scribed?” asked my hus­band. Had suc­cess spoiled Raro­tonga’s Poly­ne­sian charms?

Not re­ally, ac­cord­ing to my friend Kathy, who stays up on th­ese things. “The last time we looked, the Cooks were like Hawaii in the 1960s, 50 years be­hind ev­ery­body else,” she said. (I knew what she was think­ing: If it doesn’t have a spa, it isn’t lux­ury.) “Ask around, see what peo­ple say and let me know,” she added.

As our overnight flight from Los An­ge­les de­scended over a clutch of green vol­canic peaks, my first view of the la- goon, its sandy shore­line, scat­tered roofs and rows of palms was re­as­sur­ing. I fig­ured we’d greet the dawn with a stroll along the beach, cool off in the la­goon, maybe even snorkel near the outer reef, where the coral clumps into mounds.

But Nga, my email con­tact in the tourist of­fice, now known af­fec­tion­ately as Aun­tie Ly­dia, had a re­quest. So be­fore bolt­ing for the la­goon, we paid a visit to Ocean Spe­cial­ist Kevin Iro to hear about the Marae Moana Ma­rine Park con­ser­va­tion project, and to learn why an in-depth sur­vey of ev­ery fold and rip­ple within the Cook’s 690,000 square miles is long over­due.

“Marae Moana means ocean do-

Yes, we’re wor­ried, but we’re do­ing our part. HENRY PUNA

maine,” said Iro, an ath­letic fig­ure in shorts, ush­er­ing us and a half­dozen high school kids into a cramped lec­ture room with rows of desks, its only decor a large TV screen for pre­sen­ta­tions and a half­dozen back­lit pho­tos of trop­i­cal fish and coral.

“The ocean do­maine is a mind­set, an idea,” he said, put­ting a chart up on the screen. “It’s a shift in the way we see our­selves.” Not as sep­a­rate is­lands, he ex­plained, but as a sin­gle ma­rine na­tion. And as the owner of vast, still un­tapped re­sources, the gov­ern­ment needed to ap­point a task force to head the project.

It was also time for a just-caught, grilled fish sand­wich at one of Raro­tonga’s many ocean­side cafés, where pic­nic-ta­ble seat­ing guar­an­tees con­ver­sa­tion. And so be­gan our education.

If our ta­ble mates hap­pened to be is­lan­ders on a lunch break, they de­scribed the Cooks’ his­toric con­nec­tion with New Zealand, where al­most ev­ery­one has rel­a­tives and yearly vis­its are the norm. When it’s time for col­lege, am­bi­tious stu­dents gen­er­ally go to New Zealand or Aus­tralia.

At the Moor­ings Cafe we learned that New Zealand’s Maoris orig­i­nally came from Raro­tonga. Fac­ing a fight with a ri­val clan, they loaded up their ocean-go­ing ca­noes — vakas — and pushed off for parts un­known. And raw sea slugs? They are a favourite snack.

At Char­lie’s Cafe, I was thrilled to be sit­ting with peo­ple speak­ing Cook Is­land Maori, one of the few Poly­ne­sian lan­guages still in com­mon use. A re­quired sub­ject in school, it lives on de­spite colo­nial rule, a mi­nor role in the Sec­ond World War, tourism and even cell­phones.

Cu­ri­ous about the rest of Raro­tonga, we de­cided to rent moun­tain bikes to ex­plore the 20-mile-long cir­cle-is­land road, “a good way to get your bear­ings,” ac­cord­ing to my guide­book. We could have raced but it was much more fun to poke along, stop at vista points, look for craft shops and wave at friendly mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers.

It was so en­er­giz­ing, in fact, that we joined a sec­ond guided ride with Dave and Tami Fur­nell, owners of Sto­ry­tellers Eco Cy­cle Tours, a lo­cal out­fit­ter. With rain threat­en­ing and 11 of us geared up and ready, we headed for the in­land road.

We cy­cle the his­toric, 1000-yearold “ara metua,” a grassy, grav­elly track built at the base of the vol­ca­noes.

Fol­low­ing Tami among the farm fields, we dis­cov­ered why restau­rant food was so fresh. Away from the coast it was all pro­duce: taro (the ed­i­ble leaf va­ri­ety), salad greens and toma­toes, pump­kins and red pep­pers, onions and ba­nanas, and or­chards grow­ing limes, or­anges, pa­paya, star fruit and none.

Stop­ping be­side the no­nis, prized as a health tonic and mos­quito re­pel­lent, Tami pulled off a cou­ple of soft smelly fruits, broke them into pieces and to a cho­rus of “yuck, icky, sticky” and gales of laugh­ter, dared us to rub them over our necks, arms and legs.

Since no visit would be com­plete with­out a cou­ple days on neigh­bour­ing Ai­tu­taki (eye-too-TOCK­kee), world-f amous for its la­goon, we flew over, checked into an over­wa­ter cabin at the Ai­tu­taki La­goon Re­sort and booked a la­goon cruise with Tere (pro­nounced “Terry”), owner of Te King La­goon Cruises.

Pil­ing into Tere’s 12-pas­sen­ger boat we sped south across the la­goon, round­ing the mo­tus (islets), search­ing for coral gardens and stop­ping to snorkel. And af­ter you’ve spent a morn­ing in the heart of one of th­ese turquoise aquar­i­ums — lakes within a coral reef — you can’t help but marvel.

Pro­tected from wind and waves but con­tin­u­ously re­freshed by the ocean spillover, a la­goon’s unique ecosys­tem nur­tures birds, fish, crabs, clams, mol­lusks, coral and ev­ery other ma­rine or­gan­ism in­clud­ing peo­ple.

And while we gazed around us, lit­er­ally in awe, Tere pep­pered us with Maori leg­ends, celebrity anec­dotes and ma­rine bi­ol­ogy. Af­ter a stop at One Foot Is­land — where “been there, loved it” pass­port stamps are is­sued — and a grilled chicken pic­nic, we headed back.

On our last evening, we squeezed in one of the twice-a-month din­ners served at the Plan­ta­tion House, the colo­nial home of for­mer restau­rant owner Louis Enoka. Din­ner here, pre­pared by Chef Mi­nar Hen­der­son for 20 to 26 guests and served twice a month only, of­fers not just a blend of is­land-grown in­gre­di­ents but an evening with is­lan­ders for whom cultural tra­di­tions and 21stcen­tury sci­ence go hand-in-hand.

Find­ing an empty chair, I was bog­gle-eyed to find I was sit­ting next to the prime min­is­ter, Henry Puna, who stud­ied law in New Zealand and Aus­tralia be­fore turn­ing to politics. With dishes guar­an­teed to en­cour­age con­ver­sa­tion — ev­ery­thing from prawns with l emon grass to co­conut-flavoured rice and cous­cous with kaf­fir lime — we man­aged to cover pearl farm­ing on Mani­hiki, the search for rare-earth min­er­als and the im­por­tance of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (which Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has aban­doned).

He rem­i­nisced about the evening he hosted Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton, whom he found to be de­light­ful, in­tel­li­gent and in­formed. But it was the pan-seared mahi mahi with gin­ger and gar­lic that added a som­bre note.

“Your pres­i­dent doesn’t be­lieve in clean en­ergy,” he said. But, we agreed, global warm­ing is cre­at­ing ris­ing seas, threat­en­ing atolls like Ai­tu­taki. “Yes, we’re wor­ried,” said Puna, “but we’re do­ing our part. Right now 50 per cent of the is­lands’ elec­tric power comes from so­lar in­stal­la­tions. By 2020 the Cook Is­lands will be 100 per cent so­lar.”

If only the rest of us could say that.

PHO­TOS BY STEVE HAG­GERTY, TNS

Calm and as clear as glass, Ai­tu­taki La­goon is the stuff of dreams.

Trop­i­cal show­ers wind up an ex­hil­a­rat­ing half-day ride with Sto­ry­tellers Eco Cy­cle Tours.

Strolling be­fore break­fast on pop­u­lar Muri Beach, with motu (islet) Taakoka and the outer reef at rear.

STEVE HAG­GERTY, TNS

Brunch, lunch or a swim, life is easy at Ai­tu­taki La­goon Re­sort.

Blue lipped clams, mem­bers of the Gi­ant Clam fam­ily, thrive in Ai­tu­taki La­goon, Cook Is­lands.

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