I first set foot on Cook Islands by accident. Or serendipity, as they say. En route to Moorea, the affordable and most accessible Tahitian holiday island, I was unaware my Air New Zealand flight would transit Rarotonga, Cook Islands’ capital.
We were keen to complete the long flight to our destination ex Sydney, via Auckland, but delighted to discover as we strolled to the terminal a charming troupe of islanders singing and dancing to welcome the arrivals. Somehow they seemed sweeter and attractively simpler than the norm. So, later, I returned to get to know this formerly “anonymous” archipelago, overlooked in favour of favourites such as New Caledonia, Hawaii, Fiji. The Cook group of 15 scattered islands is equally blessed with blue lagoons and palm-fringed white-sand beaches and is safer and gentler than some places, and more affordable than others, in the Asia-Pacific. While it too has developed some 5-star luxury resorts the equal of its neighbours, its simplicity endures in the chance to also enjoy, e.g., an absolute beachfront twin villa for as little as $150 a night, or an apartment from $85 single on what many regard as the “achingly beautiful” island of Aitutaki. Cyclones are rare, and anyway this month sees the end of the monsoon or rainy season and the beginning of lower humidity during the best months to visit, April to October: average temperatures, 26 degrees. Access now is easier, with Air New Zealand flights ex Sydney travelling the 5000km north-west in around six hours non-stop. Cook Islands are 20 hours behind EST so you won’t have jetlag (and who cares if it’s roughly this time “yesterday” when you’re relaxing!) The climate’s idyllic, the food – tropical menus featuring fish, bananas, coconuts, pawpaw, pineapples – is healthy and the Polynesian people are warmly welcoming. With no international chain hotels and no buildings taller than the coconut palms, tourism is decidedly low-key compared with other developed destinations.
A mixture of coral atolls and volcanic islands, Cook Is are grouped into nine southern islands and six in the north; the main island of Rarotonga’s easily explored via a 30km ring-road, by car, scooter or bus. Places to stay are plentiful around Rarotonga, predominantly on the “sunset coast” beaches and around popular Muri Beach and Lagoon. The tourism office lists year-round attractions including snorkelling and learn-to-dive in clear shallow turquoise-tinted waters, exploring lush mountain interiors on 4WD trips or hikes, dining at budget waterfront restaurants serving delicious fresh dishes with free million-dollar views, mingling harmoniously with friendly laid-back locals at markets and roadside stalls – beautiful carved home wares, colourful handmade quilts, arts and crafts – and at church on Sundays, and learning about the islands’ amiable, fascinating Maori traditions at hotel “island nights” or by visiting cultural villages. Many travellers take a 45-minute flight north to the breathtaking Aitutaki, boasting what many claim is “the world’s most beautiful coral lagoon”. Aitutaki’s a magnet for weddings and honeymoons but also for all lovers of natural beauty. Cruise operators here ply exquisite waters, stopping at dazzling uninhabited sandy islets. Diving and deep sea fishing are other popular diversions, as is browsing for black pearls, sold loose or in lovely settings.
Who can say it better than those who know it best: “Welcome to the secret of the Pacific. Breathe in the fresh pure air. Wade into cool calm blue lagoons. Let the untouched charm of these beautiful Cook Islands capture your spirit and hold your heart”.
See the excellent website and booking facility at www.cookislands.travel