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The Cook Islands: The Isles that Time Forgot

by Travelbag on 12 November 2019, 09:11AM

Cook Islands

Fifteen small islands spread across two million square kilometres of brilliant blue ocean, the Cook Islands are the South Pacific’s best-kept secret. Loved by Hollywood legends but still perfectly peaceful, David Whitley explains why they make for the perfect South Seas escape.

 

Rarotonga

Decision-making is never all that taxing in Muri, and largely consists of whether to swim across the sparkling teal lagoon or to hop in a kayak. Or maybe which of the little palm tree-topped islets to aim for. Rarotonga isn’t exactly short on beautiful spots. The island’s surrounded by a lagoon and fringed by mostly white sand beaches with a hilly, green rainforest backdrop. But Muri has grown into the perfect little holiday village for good reason.

A few small resorts line up along the beach, a couple of shops sell the basics, and enterprising locals have opened enough restaurants – bakeries, burgers, Vietnamese, Mexican – to keep eating out interesting. Though, as always on Rarotonga, it’s hard to look past the enormous fresh fish sandwiches.

To call Rarotonga the hub of the Cook Islands is stretching the idea of a hub somewhat. Imagine Hawaii allied to placid New Zealanders, with the clock turned back about 60 years, and you’ve got roughly the right vibe. Around 11,000 people live there, and it takes less than an hour to drive around the whole island. A barefoot unhurriedness consumes even Avarua, where the handful of businesses and shops that keep the island ticking are based.

This is where the Pununga Nui markets are found. They’re great fun to mooch around, with food stalls and entertainment as well as craftspeople selling colourful fabrics, wood carvings and surprisingly high quality souvenir trinkets. There’s no hassle, no haggling and no drama – other than the guy with a ukulele temporarily forgetting the lyrics.

The circular road around the island is largely flat, making it easy to cycle around. Storytellers Eco Tours takes advantage of this, branching off into spots that might not be explored otherwise. Once on the interior dirt tracks, it becomes clear how fertile Rarotonga is. Vegetables and fruit are everywhere – from pineapple plants to taro plantations – and most people have plenty of them growing in their gardens.

We pedal up to one wild, sprawling garden, where there’s a pig tied up outside. Whether it’s a pet or future lunch, we decide not to ask. Mangos, pawpaws, bananas and mandarins are among the bonanza growing, while chickens strut through. A lax approach is taken to chicken ownership on Rarotonga. Basically, if it walks on to your land, it’s yours. Towering above everything else are the coconut palms, and tour leader Uncle Jimmy plucks a ripe coconut from the floor beneath it in a bid to show us how to open them. This is something that every Cook Islander seems to have drilled into them as a child, but for an uninitiated visitor it’s incredibly hard work. A sharpened stick is wedged into the ground, and the coconut slammed down on it. We then have to twist the coconut on the stick in a bid to remove the husk. Once all the husk is discarded, the nut requires a good thwack with a stick. And usually a slurp to ensure the water doesn’t spill out all over the place.

Some fruit is less appealing than others. The noni is one of the Cook Islands’ few exports – its juice is faddishly popular in beauty treatments. The taste, however, is pretty gruesome. Ripe cheese is the closest approximation, and that’s frankly not what I’m looking for in a refreshing fruit salad.

Those who don’t fancy pedal power aren’t exactly short on alternatives. Cruises head out on the lagoon, buggy tours rumble down muddy forest tracks, or simply ambling around provides a wealth of insight into island life. Just south of Muri is Te Ara – the Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise. This acts as a gallery for local artists and a shop for local growers, but also provides a fascinating look at the human history of the Cook Islands, and Polynesia as a whole. Particularly extraordinary are the navigational and shipbuilding feats that led to the gradual inhabitation of the far-flung Pacific Islands while Europeans were still too scared to venture out of sight of the coast. That’s what you need to do, however, to get to the sister island of Aitutaki. You’ll probably want a window seat on the plane too, as the view on approach is extraordinary – a white sand island in the middle of the most glorious lagoon imaginable.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Aitutaki

This is where all your Robinson Crusoe fantasies can be lived out – stepping off the beach into outrageous dazzling turquoise waters, then going for a snorkel to see what you can find. On various exploratory missions, I come across a giant trevally, multi-coloured clams and a turtle.

But a boat cruise opens up the sections of the lagoon that are probably a little beyond swimming distance, pulling in at staggeringly pretty islets. One, Akaiami, has an unusual history of being a refuelling station for flying boats. The likes of John Wayne and Marlon Brando would have stopped here for a few hours’ splashing around before heading back to their respective film sets on Tahiti. Brando was so taken with the Tahitian atoll that he bought an island there and settled down with his co-star Tarita Teriipaia after filming Mutiny on the Bounty. His grandchildren recently opened a boutique eco resort on the island – Tetiaroa – called, inevitably, The Brando.

Back on the Bishop’s Cruises boat, crewman Kimi tries his best to introduce local culture. There’s another coconut-husking demonstration, and then he shows us a thousand ways to wear a pareu – the colourful local equivalent of the sarongs worn in Southeast Asia. But, realistically, we’re all perfectly happy to let the lagoon do the talking.

The lunch time stop is on One Foot Island, where a tuna caught fresh by the skipper that morning is cooked up on a barbecue, and postcards are dropped into what has to be one of the world’s most absurdly remote post boxes. Some decide to go off for a walk through the sand, following a sandbar that appears to be a bright white line in the afternoon sunshine. Others take to the water, absolutely clear above a soft, sandy bottom. Angelfish, and shoals of goatfish – their striking yellow stripes standing out against their otherwise pallid bodies – flit past. The current allows for lazy drift snorkelling through a channel between the islets, and the warm water wouldn’t feel out of place in a bathtub. It’s such moments that play fully into the South Pacific hideaway dream. While many supposed island paradises can seem disappointingly hectic and hyped, in the Cook Islands the magic spell never breaks.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

 

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