Get to know the Cook Islands
1It’s like a mini-Tahiti, minus the price tag
Tall mountains, a green hinterland, a blue lagoon and a fringing reef – Rarotonga’s just like a smaller version of Tahiti, only without the prices. Tahiti is the most expensive island in the Pacific, whereas the Cook Islands are reasonable (think $NZ5 for a beer, about PGK12). What’s more, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia share so many of the same characteristics – they have the same national dish (raw fish cooked in lime juice with coconut milk), the same kind of national flower ( tiare tahit and tiare maori) and the same evocative dance.
2It’s small and easy to navigate
Other islands throughout the South Pacific, like Samoa and Fiji, require visitors to spend plenty of time in vehicles getting from attraction to attraction. Not Rarotonga. It’s just 69 square kilometres, and you can drive around the whole island in 30 minutes. What’s more, the speed limit’s a leisurely 50kmh, meaning it’s the perfect place to hire a scooter. It also means the best place for sunrise is no more than 15 minutes from the best place for sunsets.
The lagoon is home to a collection of small uninhabited islets ( motu) you can travel between on a day tour, or by chartering your own speedboat.
3You’ll find the best sunset bars in the Pacific
These are the sunset bars of your imagination – the sort conjured up in the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel (who visited here in the 1930s). Try The Waterline (waterline-restaurant. com), Wilson’s Bar (castawayvillas.com) and Aro’a Beachside Inn’s Shipwreck Hut (aroabeach.com/ shipwreck _ hut.htm) along Rarotonga’s west coast in the district of Aorangi. You can sit and watch sunset with the locals, while listening to local musicians. Happy hours make for cheap cocktails and interesting conversation, as families fossick for limpets on the reef in front.
4There are islands with no other tourists
You could spend all your time on Rarotonga, but you can find islands where as few as 20 tourists visit all year, all within an hour’s plane ride. On islands like Mitiaro, Mangaia and Atiu you’re likely to be the only tourist there. You’ll get an insight into traditional Polynesian family life. Rarotonga’s surrounding islands offer a fascinating insight into how life was, as well as offering perfect uncrowded beaches, swimming holes, underground caves and rare endemic birds.
5It’s one gigantic whale sanctuary
The Cook Islands sit in over two million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean – all of it classified whale sanctuary. Because the ocean beside the islands slopes down drastically, humpbacks swim exceptionally close to shore. On Rarotonga’s northern coastline you can see whales 100 metres from the beach. Or go on a whale-watching boat tour (bluewatertours.com).
6No high-rise buildings or peak-hour traffic
There are twice-daily peakhour traffic jams in nations all over the Pacific and you’ll find high-rise hotels spread throughout the islands of Melanesia and Polynesia. But not in the Cook Islands. The constitution states no building be taller than a coconut tree – and there are no chain hotels anywhere. And because there’s no major urban space, Rarotonga is free of any peak-hour traffic – just keep an eye out for wandering pigs.
Fish like the Polynesians
Go deep-sea fishing with locals who shun technology and use traditional techniques to locate fish. So don’t expect morning tea and polite chat, this is serious stuff and when the biggest tuna, or mahi mahi, in the sea takes your hook, you better pull it in so you don’t disappoint the locals (fishingrarotonga.com/FishingRarotonga.html).
8Cook Islanders are the extroverts of the Pacific
Eating out is the national pastime in Rarotonga – for such a sleepy place, Rarotonga boasts the most lively bar scene of anywhere in the South Pacific. There are beachside bars all over the island, including the South Pacific’s most iconic institution, Trader Jacks (traderjackscookislands.com) built right on Avatiu Harbour. You’ll also find some great restaurants on Rarotonga. Try Polynesian dishes with a modern twist in an old colonial home on the lagoon at Tamarind House (tamarindrarotonga.com), a local favourite.
9You’ll find the prettiest lagoon in the South Pacific
Bora Bora’s lagoon might hog the limelight, but Aitutaki’s gigantic, equilateral-triangleshaped lagoon has no five-star hideaway resorts, meaning visitors have open access to every centimetre of the lagoon. It’s home to a collection of small uninhabited islets ( motu) you can travel between on a day tour, or by chartering your own speedboat. You can sail or kite-surf between the islets –the lagoon’s one of the world’s kite-surfing hot spots. The concept for Survivor was born here with British TV series Shipwrecked in 1999, and a series of Survivor was filmed here in 2006.
10It’s a diving hot spot
Because the Cook Islands drop straight into 4500-metre-deep ocean, divers experience some of the steepest oceanic drop-offs in the Pacific. There are over 30 dive sites across Rarotonga and Aitutaki, which suit everyone from beginners to experts, and most sites are less than 10 minutes by boat. The water temperature sits between 23 and 28 degrees year- round, and water visibility is usually around 60 metres. You’ll see hundreds of fish species and over 70 types of coral (diverarotonga. com, pacificdivers.co.ck). See cookislands.travel.
Cook Islands landscape ... a green hinterland and tall mountains surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.