‘Kia Orana’ in big letters – meaning ‘Welcome’ in the Cook Islands’ local variant of Māori – is the first thing you’ll see after getting off the plane. That plus a welcoming dance and live music at the baggage carousel. Unless you’re a statesman (not sure we can count many of those among our readers), how often does that happen? It’s not just for show either: Cook Islanders have a down-to-earth, no-nonsense type of hospitality. There’s no “I expect a 20% tip” courtesy here, just a genuine desire to be friendly. We stayed in a little place outside of town, and there was not a single time we didn’t get cars stopping to offer us a ride when we were walking to town.
Unless you’re a Kiwi or an Aussie, the Cook Islands are not an obvious travel destination. Close to the International Date Line (the imaginary line that marks the place where the date changes by one day), the island does however get its fair share of circumnavigating travelers that have figured out that it makes for a nice little stopover between the Americas and the Pacific.
The Cook Islands first settlers were the Polynesian people from Tahiti, early in the sixth century. Ten centuries later, Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese sailor working for the Spanish Crown, made the first documented landing here, but it was only in the 18th century that the Islands received the visit of the English captain that would lend them his name: James Cook. After some confrontations between Europeans and locals, the Islands became an English protectorate in late 19th century. Currently the Cook Islands are an independent territory but live in free association with New Zealand. Cook islanders have the status of Cook Island nationals but also hold a New Zealand passport.
We only had time to visit Rarotonga, the archipelago’s main island. However, in a streak of luck that’s becoming characteristic of this trip (like our visit to Buenos Aires during a general strike that allowed us to have the city almost to ourselves, the ‘dia de campesino’ holiday in Titicaca and the preparations for the Pope’s visit in Quito), we were there during the celebration of the Island’s fifty years of independence. Our next-door neighbors, a friendly couple of Europeans that moved to New Zealand many years ago, took us with them to see the celebrations and gave us a grand-tour of the Māori and Polynesian cultures (the Māori people descend from the Polynesian tribes, but after centuries of isolation in New Zealand, developed their own language and performing arts). The performances from dancing groups from the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Fiji and other Polynesian islands were mesmerizing!
Rarotonga is a small island (just 30 km – 20 miles – to go around it), so Jules reluctantly agreed to rent a couple of bicycles to tour the place. The main road (and pretty much the only one) circles the island right next to the coastline, so our ride was a non-stop procession of postcard-perfect beaches. The whole island is surrounded by a shallow reef that not only lends the water a beautiful topaz color but also creates a multitude of places to snorkel. This time of the year you’ll only see tourists in the water though, and locals will nod their heads with the same bewildered look Jules and I get when seeing Scandinavians walking around Lisbon during winter wearing flip-flops.
The island’s most famous beach is Muri Beach, a sort of cove sheltered by four tiny islands. We rented a kayak and struggled against the current and wind to reach one of those islands. The water is never deeper than a meter or so: if it wasn’t for the prodigious amount of sea urchins littering the sea bed, it would have been much easier simply to walk there. Once there, we had the whole place for ourselves. Alas, the hardships of winter in the tropics!
At the end of our ‘Tour de Rarotonga’ we stopped to check out the Mai Tai wreck, a ship full of Ford Model-T cars that sunk 400 meters off the coast, back in 1917. The cars are long gone, but there’s all sort of ship parts to snorkel around, including the engine block that partially sticks out of the water. The cheap way to get there is by swimming but be careful, as there’s a strong ebb current.
There’s two more things in most Rarotonga bucket-lists: one is experiencing jet blast from the road that passes right next to the airport. Authorities are cracking down on this, as more than a few daredevils have been injured (if you really want to do it, check out the departure times first, it’s not a busy airport). The other bucket-list item is arguably more family-friendly: hiking the path that crosses the island. The path goes through the Needle, one of the island’s highest peaks, so the view is incredible.
One last thing : don’t be surprised to see stray chickens everywhere. Apparently dogs and cats don’t eat them, neither do people (despite the fact that all local dishes seem to include some sort of chicken and coconut combination).
We’re off to new Zealand now: a bunch of awesome stuff and a very cold winter are waiting for us!