Brightly lit orange letters at Rarotonga airport call out, “Kia orana!” You’ll hear those words a lot if you’re lucky enough to visit this small, lushly wooded extinct volcano jutting out of the Pacific bed.
They mean “may you live long” in Maori, and the etiquette is to answer “kia orana”.
Make sure to do it: With a pale look after the 24-hour trip on three planes just before the international seal, I made the mistake of just saying ‘hello’ to the jovial immigration officer.
The Cook Islands are 15 small islands spread over an area of 2 million square kilometers, home to 18,000 souls
“Kia orana!” He roared with a grin and only let me in when I said it.
Traveling to the South Sea is one of the greatest travel experiences in the world. And the cooks – without touching wood, a single case of coronavirus so far – are at the heart of this region: 15 small islands spread over an area of 2 million square kilometers, home to 18,000 souls.
Hawaii is 3,000 miles to the north; Australia the same distance south west. The remote location is part of their romance.
They are named after the English explorer Captain James Cook, who, while never setting foot or even seeing Rarotonga, briefly stopped in an uninhabited atoll in 1774. You can circle the capital Rarotonga in less than an hour by car. It has two main roads, the busiest being the ‘outer’ closest to the sea. This was paved by European missionaries in the 19th century and is circled dozily by two buses marked ‘Clockwise’ and ‘Counterclockwise’.
The older shortcut was constructed by the seafaring Polynesians who landed in an unparalleled piece of ocean movement about 1,000 years ago: Stone Age tribes navigating the sun, stars, ocean currents and bird migrations in huge ‘vaka’ canoes that fit 250 people .
While there are more islanders living in New Zealand today than on the Cooks, traditional culture remains strong, with a reverence for flowers, a boundless love of music and dance, and a deep affinity for the ocean.
The islands are named after the English explorer Captain James Cook, who, while never setting foot or even seeing Rarotonga, briefly stopped at an uninhabited atoll in 1774
Hawaii is 3,000 miles north of the Cook Islands and Australia the same distance southwest
A local wore an “egg katu,” a flower crown, and said, “We are people of the water.”
At one time they were of course also enthusiastic cannibals.
Arerau “Ali” Maao, whom I met a few days after the trip and whose squat, progressive build is typical of his countrymen, told me that he once ticked a Chinese tourist for collecting sea snails, which Ali thought was cruel.
“I’m Chinese, we’ll eat anything,” the tourist chuckled, trying to push him away.
Ali leaned forward and whispered, “I’m a Cook Islander, we eat Chinese.”
The snails went back into the water.
Today, the islanders are exuberantly Christian and, it seems, especially grateful to the Victorians who converted their ancestors. One Sunday I went to one of the oldest churches on Rarotonga, where the congregation, all in white, sang in a loud, piercingly beautiful harmony somehow reminiscent of the Welsh valleys.
So how did you get here? The fastest way is to fly to Los Angeles and then Air New Zealand to Rarotonga.
Due to the coronavirus crisis, there will likely be questions about that route, so I would recommend adding a few days to a trip to New Zealand or Australia, then taking the four or seven-hour flight.
But why go at all if you can get sand and sun in the Canary Islands?
The answer becomes clear when you wake up the first morning – I was at the Moana Sands Lagoon Resort – and see an empty beach of creamy perfection lined with coconut palms and blooming hibiscus.
Dancers have fun in Rarotonga. Cooks are a single case of coronavirus so far without touch wood
I thought it was best to orientate myself early on a bike ride. It was mostly flat, with my only soundtrack buzzing with insects and crashing crashers on the reef.
As we walked on, the roadside lived with bright, intoxicating scented heliconia flowers. Every other tree seemed to swell with fruit.
The avocados were almost the size of footballs. Neon meat mangoes hung low. We stopped to taste tooth-melting sweet guavas. And then there were the noni (or ‘cheese fruit’), richly smelly things that were much appreciated in Pacific medicine.
The food in the Cook Islands is a pleasure. At The Mooring Fish Cafe, a cabin where a rooster stands proudly between the tables, I enjoyed an excellent “FOB” (fresh from the boat) breaded mahi-mahi in a squidgy bap with lime juice and chili.
In the evening, consider joining a ‘progressive dinner’: not a left-wing supper club, but a way to meet islanders and eat authentic food. Three families open their doors and welcome you. Ika mata is definitely on the menu: raw fish, often tuna, served with lime juice, coconut milk and chopped bell pepper.
One of the beachfront bungalows at the Pacific Resort on Aitutaki, where Oliver Thring of the Daily Mail stayed
THE CHOICE IS YOURS…
- Rarotonga, the largest, with 88 percent of the population.
- Aitutaki, to explore its small motus (islands) by kayak.
- Mangaia, believed to be the oldest island in the Pacific.
- Atiu for rare birds and thriving traditional culture.
- Manihiki, home to the famous black pearls of the Cook Islands.
Music is everywhere. Ukuleles are released regularly. The hostess at dinner clicked on spoons like maracas while our driver kept drumming time on an inverted plastic water cooler bottle. As the sun went down, the rich, harmonious voices of Polynesia carried over the gardenia-scented lawn. An unforgettable moment of holiday escapism.
On a hot, windless afternoon, I hiked (almost) to the top of Mount Raemaru with, while forming himself, “Rarotonga’s Coconut Warrior”: a wonderfully happy guide who assured me that he was 50, even though he looked halfway.
“Warrior!” He nicknamed me. Near the top, with its beautiful views, we ate ripe papaya and the marshmallowy interior of sprouted coconuts. But I don’t think a true warrior like me would have wiped out the last part of the climb: lifting yourself up with steep cliffs.
If I can tip the Cook Islands, it’s a 45 minute rattling plane to Aitutaki. Surrounded by orange coral, this atoll of 2,000 people bathes in a lagoon of supernatural turquoise.
The first European to spot Aitutaki was Captain Bligh of the Bounty, 18 days before his crew mutinied in 1789. Paralyzed and apparently unaware of the disagreement of his men, he called it ‘so charming a little place’.
Here I stayed in the Pacific Resort, with bungalows right on the warm water. I traveled to the lagoon of Aitutaki on a “vaka cruise” filled with coconut water and a big lunch. A ukulele strummed, of course, and “Captain Bossa Nova” sang with his crew before stopping at Akaiami Island.
The Cook Islands are surrounded by crystal clear water filled with tropical fish
On another island, we snorkeled in a lagoon while huge, harmless trevally fish, built as sumo wrestlers, circled us in the clear water. Deep below a giant shell protruded from the sand bed.
Back on Rarotonga, I rented a kayak and paddled alone to Taakoka, another small island wrapped in the palm. With hermit crabs as a company, I scrambled over the rocks until I lost sight of any sign of civilization. The open ocean, the wind, and the sound of the rustling palms were all as they must have been for millions of years.
Finally and reluctantly I paddled back.
One evening I had a conversation with a full-time and endlessly walking travel writer, a woman who has experienced and considered much more of the world than most.
“The cooks,” she said, “are what Thailand must have been forty years ago. Quiet, no big hotels, just a handful of happy families coming to visit. The Bahamas, Seychelles, Maldives: they are all built up now.
“This has to be the last perfect island destination in the world – if only you make the trip.”