Haven of Relaxation: The Cook Islands
Let your cares float away on the Cook Islands.
The main road of Rarotonga in The Cook Islands has no stop signs or traffic lights. The speed limit is 50 km/hr. A young woman with a gardenia over her ear rides past me on her motorcycle, her wee child holding tight to her waist as he perches behind. "Kia Orana" or "may you live long" is the usual greeting, and perfectly embodies the laid-back, unhurried pace of The Cooks.
A cluster of 15, tiny gem-like islands, The Cooks sit quietly in the South Pacific, the largest island and capital being Rarotonga. As soon as I arrive at my beach bungalow at The Little Polynesian, I slip off my shoes and run out across the powdery, white sand into the warm, calm turquoise waters. Calf-deep, I close my eyes, listening to the whisper of the early morning breeze, letting it carry my tensions away.
Bungalows at The Little Polynesian are modern, calming sanctuaries, but with an island aesthetic. Cream walls, lime-washed mahogany beams and luxe natural stone is indulgent yet relaxed. This boutique resort, with its 10 beach and four garden suite bungalows, was renovated three years ago by Cook Island proprietors and sisters, Dorice and Jeannine Reid. Their architectural and cultural direction is spot-on: inviting and indulgent, relaxing and airy. A neighbour and I lounge on my deck, trading snorkelling and kayaking stories, chilled white New Zealand wines in hand. Inside, a commanding king-sized bed beckons me. Off the spacious bathroom, double doors open into a private outdoor bathing area, complete with open shower and larger soaker tub.
Dining explorations take us to The Windjammer and Tamarind House restaurants. The popular Windjammer is an octagonally-shaped and cosy spot, with cuisine pleasing to both the eyes and the palate. The Tamarind House is a larger, fine dining establishment, a colonial house set on a wide expanse of lawn that stretches to the beach. A slow, neon sunset entertains as we dine on pawpaw salad and authentic curries.
Rarotonga's main centre, Avarua, offers colourful pareus (sarongs), handicrafts, and the Cook Islands' famous black pearls. It also offers visitors a chance to get their temporary scooter license, complete with group driving test and picture ID card. I pass the test, and rent a scooter during my stay, driving the island's ring road and circumnavigating the island in about an hour. A morning visit to the Saturday market uncovers wood carvings and noni juice—the latter having quite a distinct flavour and smell. Nightlife means a stop at Trader Jack's, a lively, bustling bar. We sit at the bar enjoying Mai lagers from the local Matutu Brewery, then join newly-made friends at a waterside picnic table. To end our night, we stroll over to Whatever, a 2nd storey bar reminiscent of a back porch gathering in the heat of summer.
Rarotonga isn't the only island offering respite. An hour's flight away is Aitutaki. In this atoll, we stay at the Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island and Resort which features rustic-style over-water and beach front bungalows. There are many activities and we choose sailing with a guide one afternoon, our sail alternately calm and intense. By the time we reach shore, we are happily soaked from head to toe. On our own, we head out in an outrigger-style canoe to an island we spy in the distance. We park and explore this isolated poke of land, eventually walking around a corner and coming upon volcanic rock dotted with low, hardy bushes. Before us, the open ocean dramatically rolls and breaks.
Later, I sink into my private double hammock. the gentle swaying lulls me to sleep, and by dinner time, I'm refreshed and hungry. A short jaunt away is the Boat Shed, a casual restaurant serving diverse fare. It's friendly and unpretentious, the embodiment of The Cooks' culture. Our server is even barefoot as she sets down our pad thai and Indonesian curry.
A four-hour boat excursion the next day takes us to the farther reaches of the Aitutaki atoll, to Honeymoon and One Foot Islands. Our captain and guide, "Peaches", drops anchor at a crystal clear snorkelling spot within sight of Honeymoon Island. As in Rarotonga, snorkelling takes us into an other-worldly experience of bubbly coral and vibrantly-coloured fish. We decide to wade to Honeymoon Island after our snorkel, across sandbars and through shallow waters as the boat glides around to meet us.
The sandbars we walk across are littered with newly-sprouted coconut trees; their green fronds wave at my ankles. Honeymoon Island itself has only emerged over the past ten years; greenery anchors the accumulated sand, while a small population of the red-tailed tavake bird makes its home in the foliage. Between Honeymoon and One Foot Islands, we're back on the boat, and are caught in a rainstorm so fierce, Peaches and a few of our group desperately tie up a tarp at the front of the boat. Thankfully, the storm is short-lived—by the time we reach One Foot, the storm has passed, we dry off, and enjoy lunch and exploration around the tiny island.
As our time on One Foot concludes, Peaches recounts the tale of a lone One Foot Island fisherman and his loyal son, revealing the island's namesake. Sharing and retaining Cook Island culture is increasingly important to the Islanders. We are honoured to have heard many stories, and learned the area's history and culture during our stay. Before we leave One Foot, we mail a postcard and have our passports stamped: One Foot, however small, boasts a functional post office and its own official stamp.
Our time in the Cook Islands concludes back in Rarotonga. We say our reluctant farewells to new friends, and say even more reluctant goodbyes to the sparkling ocean as we fly away. I will miss this unhurried, tropical haven called The Cooks.