As winter quickly sweeps in and we bid farewell to another magical summer, Australia and New Zealand are gearing up for the start of their tourist seasons, and with them millions of visitors who will make the long journey to discover their wonders. But if you’ve already come this far, cap off your vacation in style with a short eastbound flight over the blue waters of the South Pacific to the magical Cook Islands – where your visit to paradise can be as relaxing or as active as you wish.
Consisting of 15 small islands, the Cook Islands span across a vast area of the South Pacific roughly the size of Western Europe. A former colony of New Zealand, they are named in honor of Captain James Cook – the great English explorer who mapped this remote part of the globe in the 18th century. Cook was the first introduce the wonders of ancient Polynesia to the Western world, ending the islands’ years of isolation for better or worse.
The journey begins in Rarotonga, the main island where over 10,000 of the Cook Islands’ 15,000 residents live. On the four hour flight from Auckland, the uniform scenery of an endless blue ocean from my window seat is suddenly broken by what must be a mirage. Rising from the deep, lush mountains dramatically reach for the skies – appearing to be hugged from all sides by a turquoise lagoon. As the plane touches down, the captain further adds to the confusion – announcing that we’ve just traveled back in time and landed almost a full day before taking off.
Things are strange when crossing the international dateline.
We are greeted in the arrivals hall with heavenly scented flower necklaces and sounds of ukuleles. A visit to the Cook Islands stimulates your senses throughout the day, and the fairytale experience already begins at the airport.
As I exit the terminal, a surprising traffic jam develops on the island’s circle road as we must give way to an Australian jet taking off. I eventually make it to the Muri Lagoon, where Gwen – the cheerful owner of Muri Beach Cottages – is waiting for me in her tropical garden, shaded by trees loaded with mango, noni, and papaya. As she leads me through a narrow path towards the lagoon, she recounts her story of leaving the U.S. in 1962 to travel across the South Pacific, simply falling in love with Rarotonga. Looking at least 20 years younger than her biological age, she opens the door to the sun-drenched wooden hut that will be my home for the next few days. Gwen tells me that the very same beach that supports the poles of my beach hut, was the departing point for the local ancient Maoris on a brave voyage into the unknown, eventually discovering a faraway land which they named Aotearoa – present day New Zealand.
The following morning, I admire the view of the awakening lagoon with a steaming cup of coffee, as a few kitesurfers take to the water for their morning exercise. I head to Avarua – the island’s main town, and can’t help but notice that everyone around here drives a scooter. No matter how small it may be, locals manage to pack the entire family and a few bags of groceries for the short ride back to their village. Avarua is a cute little town, home to cafes, galleries and black pearl jewelry shops.
The town is extra busy on this Saturday morning, as tourists and locals head to the Punanga Nui Market – which comes to life just once a week. Strolling alongside tropical fruit juice, local food and souvenir stands – a voice from the stage informs the crowd that a dance show will begin in “5-10 Cook Islands minutes from now”, which basically means it will start at some point in the next hour (hopefully). Such is the life in the South Pacific Islands – there is simply no reason to rush.
Since when in Rome you must act like a Roman, I rent a scooter of my own and begin to circle the island for what should be an easy 32-kilometer journey. But on an island that pushes your senses to their limits, I stop every 10 minutes to: swim in picture postcard tropical beaches, admire panoramic views from the surrounding hills and sample local food such as fresh sashimi and ikamata – the national dish – made from raw chunks of tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime.
Though Rarotonga has an excellent nightlife scene, the number one evening activity is no doubt taking part in an ‘Island Night’. Showcasing the exotic Polynesian culture, Rarotonga produces evening shows that wouldn’t shame a Las Vegas production. I head to the Te Vara Nui Village to start things off with a buffet dinner filled with local dishes and Western delights. After some more ikamata to start things off, I fill up my plate with refreshing papaya salad in lime sauce and the locally grown staples of breadfruit and taro.
As drums begin to send vibrations through my neighbor’s cocktail glass, dozens of professional dancers act the legend of a fearsome warrior named Tongaiti on a floating stage. Exotic women sporting coconut bras and feathered skirts shake their hips, and young men – well equipped with six packs – tremble the ground with every step they take. Just when you thought the show reached its climax, fire dancers emerge from the dark – effortlessly twisting and turning with impressive speed that casts a spell on the audience staring with amazement.
The following morning, I was woken up to the sounds of church bells and engine motors, and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I followed the motorcade of scooters and cars – packed with locals dressed in their finest whites – back to Avarua and its Catholic Church. Built in 1853, the church is home to a full house on this Sunday morning. Between the pastor’s weekly sermon and his recount of the story of Abraham in Cook Islands Maori – a perfectly synched choir breaks out in beautiful acapella style hymns. The entire congregation then joins them in loud and genuine singing that must be heard all the way back to Gwen’s tropical garden.
With the Lord now on my side, I felt comfortable to explore Rarotonga’s rugged interior on the the Cross Island Track – linking the island’s north and south coasts via its mountainous and uninhabited interior. The hike begins with a steep climb through the dense rainforest, where the roots of ancient trees double as stairs. As you reach a clearing in the forest, the island’s signature feature makes a dramatic appearance. At 413 meters, the fittingly named cliff that is simply known as ‘The Needle’, proudly rises above the canopy. The panoramic views from up here are breathtaking: deep valleys meeting the infinite blue ocean and nothing but silence.
With just a few days left in paradise, I hop on a tiny plane for a 50-minute flight to the island of Aitutaki. In fact, in a short amount of time by geological standards, Aitutaki may not be an island anymore but rather an atoll – as what remains of its ancient volcano is slowly reclaimed by the deep ocean.
In a vast ocean scattered with an infinite amount of crystal clear lagoons, Aitutaki is home to perhaps the most magnificent of them all – a perfect excuse to visit if you really needed one. After spending a few days in Rarotonga, Aitutaki seems to slowly move in first gear – which is exactly how the locals like it. Thanks to a WWII runway built by the Americans, curious tourists flock to Aitutaki to explore its lagoon and detach from life.
I climb aboard a catamaran named The Vaka for a full day of cruising. Just when I thought that I’ve seen the perfect shade of aqua blue, the lagoon colors intensify as we sail away from the shores of the main island. Our first stop is Akamai Island, a perfect looking beach with a few tourists who chose to seriously go off the grid in the tiny island’s simple lodge. Our guide points to a small jetty – the only reminder of the legendary 1950’s Coral Route between Fiji and Tahiti. Before the advent of the jet engine, the small jetty served as a refueling stop for seaplanes making the long voyage. Lucky passengers would spend a few hours on the beach as the plane was refueled, for what had to be the best layover in aviation history.
As our captain steers the catamaran towards the lagoon’s ‘coral garden’, we pass by Motu Rakau – a tiny island where a season of the US television show Survivor was filmed. Unable to control our craving for much longer, the captain gives us the OK signal to head beneath the waves. Snorkeling in Aitutaki’s coral garden is like strolling in a fantasy world that’s entirely made out of your favorite candy. From every possible angle, tropical fish in all colors of the rainbow swim among pristine coral and giant clams that open and shut as you drift by.
Before we head back, there’s one last stop that needs to be made. As we reach the very edge of the lagoon, small white sand dunes appear to float in the bright blue waters like an inflatable mattress. Not a word is spoken as all passengers are completely in awe as we land on One Foot Island. I’ve always wondered where those pictures of that perfect beach that you see in travel magazines, posters and screensavers – were taken. I guess they were taken in the Aitutaki lagoon.