Travel Editor SUSIE BOSWELL took a week off in 2016’s pick Destination, the Cook Islands. She’s still overwhelmed (and tanned).
Like a line of stout-bottomed bumblebees, a convoy of bright yellow dune buggies burbles into view, wide-set headlamps resembling big round bug eyes. The throbbing exposed engines grumble with low growls and occasional burps as the squat squadron rumbles on thick tyres along the roadway lining the Rarotonga beachfront. The sound and colour are remarkable against the peaceful oh-so-blue lagoon stretching 100 metres and more to spume breaking on the reef and the slow-mo poetry of paddle-boarders, windsurfers and kite-surfers weaving to and fro across the clear shallow waters.
Yet the buggies, driven by pairs of thrill-seeking tourists, are just as much an integral part of the Cook Islands’ visitor scene. For despite the ineffable beauty of “the Cooks”, as they’re known, and the glorious omnipresent lagoon encircling its main island … the weather on this mere speck floating in the South Pacific Ocean can, of course, sometimes be wet.
While it’s usually still warm enough to snorkel and play about in the lagoon in the rain it’s at times when the sunshine takes a holiday that the buggies, and a diversity of other non-water attractions, come into their own. And, unlike some of its Oceania neighbours, Raratonga has plenty of variety, and all within easy striking distance of any and all accommodation on the Cooks’ main island. The buggies don’t operate as traditional “beach” buggies – that would be an affront to the most beautiful, gentle, necklace of beaches anywhere in the world. Instead, led by a pilot and backed up by a second guide riding shotgun, a string of them strikes out on safari onto challenging hinterland trails on a three and a half hour “Encounter, Explore, Experience” historical and environmental odyssey. “Don’t come to me with your dry cleaning issues!” the pilot tells the group, with a wink, in a pre-tour briefing. And indeed, on return, none of the mud-splattered posse – in swimmers, shorts and old Ts – has any complaints; the party wears just wide grins and the woozy weariness that sets in from sheer exhilaration.
Raro Buggy sets out from the Muri Beach Club Hotel, my first hosts in a week “on the rock”, as the locals refer to Rarotonga, by far the biggest of the 15-island Cooks group, gateway for international flights.
A little geography: the islands are flung wider across the ocean than any nation on earth, over 2 million sq km. Yet in total their population’s well under 15,000, at least two-thirds of them resident on the rock, way fewer than 2000 on second-biggest Aitutaki, the rest sparsely scattered about. New Zealand has four times as many Kukis, as they call themselves. (“Depopulation” is perhaps the country’s biggest talking point and concern). Aitutaki’s 45 minutes away by daily air, yet, as one of the “southern group”, is one of the closer islands to the capital: reaching the northern islands by (infrequent) air can take four hours.
Rarotonga, it seems, combines all the best aspects of the array of other South Pacific destinations; among them: sophistication, derived from its unique bond with New Zealand and that many in the tourism industry (the islands’ biggest industry) were educated at secondary level in NZ; the year-round equable tropical climate; the friendliness of Fiji; the beauty of Bora Bora – which lies, after all, just Sydney-Brisbane distance away to the east … without the heavy freight. And it’s much closer than the Maldives, far more affordable in times of a declining A$, and – though topographically different – equally pretty, and more varied (that is, less uniform than the Indian Ocean nation).
For good measure add in ease of language and currency (English; and the New Zealand dollar, near enough to the same value as our own); familiarity of driving on the left, no special licence needed (and you will drive or ride a scooter here); airlines we’re accustomed to (Virgin, Jetstar and Air New Zealand); no land snakes, no visas, no bargaining, no tipping, no departure tax. No other Pacific Island holiday destination can boast all these attributes. While traditional getaways such as Fiji and Vanuatu are not only recovering from devastating cyclones, they also suffer an “ennui factor” to an extent, meaning a massive marketing program by Cook Islands Tourism – in Australia – in 2016 is likely to strike a chord, including with couples planning weddings and honeymoons. (Channel 10 weatherman and character Tim Bailey has been appointed the Cooks’ first Aussie “Ambassador”).
Numerous adults only (18+, sometimes 15+) resorts and accommodation options exist on Raro, as well as a few on Aitutaki. I wouldn’t hesitate to book again the two adult havens I stayed at: Muri Beach Club mentioned above, and Little Polynesian, just down the road. Fly out of Sydney on a Saturday night and return a week later and you have six nights on Raro: I spent three at each and it was perfect. The Beach Club is a white stucco-ish resort hotel reminiscent of the Moorish style of the Tunisian Mediterranean, perfectly positioned on the most popular lagoon, yet with plenty of privacy for guests on its own reserved stretch of sand. Just 30 guest rooms are modern yet casual, all with lovely views: my deluxe beachfront marvellously spacious, with a double-size shower, cascading hot water, welcoming and comfy enough to spend a day in, making … whatever mischief you want. The dining room sits between the bougainvillea-decked deep blue pool and the glorious pale blue lagoon, itself perfect for using the resort’s free stand-up paddleboards, snorkelling gear and kayaks, located right at your door, two steps from the water. On a drizzly day, curling up in my cossie and reading didn’t feel like being cooped up, just beautifully relaxing. I rated my complimentary facial – not normally my favourite pastime – by Kritika in the hotel’s day spa equal best-ever with one I enjoyed in the Maldives (and that was spectacular: a treatment room on the ocean bed, in an underwater aquarium, tropical fish gliding by the sheer glass walls!)
Little Poly, as it’s affectionately known, boasts numerous Luxury Hotel awards. A haven of just 14 “ares” (as in: thatched beach bungalows, bures, fales) each secluded among pretty tropical shrubs and pathways – mine not, as described, “over beach” as much as near sitting in the lagoon. At high tide, it takes just a single stride to slip from my open veranda daybed into the embrace of the clear sandy shallows. It. Is. Sheer. Heaven. My giant bed’s impossibly romantic in all-white magnificence under a soaring ceiling, the massive luxe bathroom invites intimate frolics, and the open-air spa and shower in a walled garden sanctuary beckon, an irresistible sensory delight.
But there’s so much more calling me. As I’ve found, the variety of tours and experiences is immense and, confounding for its small population, far greater than in other bigger Pacific destinations. There are cultural tours and “Island Nights”, the equivalent of luaus; the local “lei” is known as an “ei” and the hula becomes an “ura”. Charming church choirs, the female congregation dressed without exception in outstanding flower-decked hats. And craft and food markets (markets schmarkets, for me). But also there’s a progressive dinner experience in Kukis’ homes, a warm, endearing and privileged evening out; top notch reef fishing and ocean diving tours; glass-bottom boat cruises; learn-to-sail; kiteboarding; beach volleyball; tennis; serious hiking across the mountainous volcanic interior; many restaurants and serendipitous cafes – in lush gardens, set in the lagoon shallows, in a half shipping container on a grassy point. The highlight is Air Rarotonga’s day trip to astoundingly magnificent Aitutaki – quite possibly the best day of your life.
You must hire an economical little car (many also hire scooters, helmets not mandatory). My tip’s to pick it up at the airport: you cannot get lost, you’ll be touring and calling out “Kia Orana” immediately, the speed limit’s low and traffic observance excellent (seniors, take note). Immediately striking is the neat slim sealed roadway circling the island (a mere 30km circuit), paralleling the ever-there – and really, truly, sensational! – lagoon. Houses and properties next to the road boast metre-high “picket” fencing in the form of a green-topped native shrub with slim militarily-erect trunks; kids sell cropped coconuts from stalls.
What to fault? Ah, my decision to stay only a week. Definitely make it two. So much to do. Cooks, I’m in love with you!
Way to go!
Susie was a guest of Little Polynesian, Muri Beach Club Hotel, Cook Islands Tourism and Air Rarotonga, travelling Business Class with Air New Zealand ex Sydney on Saturday night (flight 5 hours 45) returning the following Saturday night (6 hours 45). Virgin and Jetstar have good-priced services via Auckland.
Budget options also, across a range of accommodation styles.
Research and packages: Cook Islands Tourism at www.sales.cookislands.travel and Lonely Planet’s Rarotonga, Samoa and Tonga RRP $23.95.
Aerial photo courtesy Pacific Resort Aitutaki.