Capturing the Cook Islands

by Duncan.Madden

It may mean travelling half way round the world, but the long haul to the tiny Cook Islands, deep in the South Pacific, is worth it if you want a honeymoon in paradise

 

As plane travel has grown and the world become “smaller”, travellers and holidaymakers alike have been exposed to new and wondrous island chains offering a slice of life like no other. Lesser known amongst them are the Cook Islands in the centre of the Polynesian triangle, an idyllic cluster of 15 small islands that although self-governing have a free association with New Zealand.

Smothered with peerless white beaches fringed with the ubiquitous palm trees and engulfed in the electric blue of the South Pacific, they are a true paradise on earth and rival anything you will find in the more popular Caribbean or Maldives. For our honeymoon, we decided all we really wanted was absolute heaven on earth – sun, sea and solitude! - and organised two weeks split between the two main islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

Before you can indulge, however, there’s the matter of getting there. A monstrous trip: we flew Air New Zealand via Los Angeles and Tahiti, taking just under 35 hours with stopovers, before landing on Rarotonga’s brilliantly basic airport. With local musicians playing and a general sense of random order, it’s a unique introduction to the island way of life and, coupled with the jet lag, lingers in the memory as a surreal, dream-like experience. Met by a local tour operator, we headed to Sea Change, our villa overlooking the ocean.

One of three, our private villa had its own pool in the walled garden, with a patio that overlooked a deserted beach and pristine lagoon. Entirely self-sufficient, in the week we spent there we had no interruptions but instead were left completely free to use the kayaks and bikes provided for exploration and cruise along at a pace of life the locals affectionately refer to as ‘island time’. In order to make the most of your visit, you have to throw away your watch and ignore the opening and closing times of the restaurants and shops: it’s all just decoration. Go with the flow and time will take care of itself.

In amongst all the doing nothing, we experienced a heady array of island eccentricities. Everything - eating, drinking, cycling, snorkelling, exploring, swimming, diving and surfing - was infused with an explicitly friendly, laidback quality. I’ve never experienced it so keenly anywhere else in the world.

If you do only one thing on the island, scuba diving is an absolute must. A novice to the sport but a dedicated water baby, I visited the superb Dive Centre to get my wings, and following a brief but concise lesson in the safety of the lagoon, I was soon motoring out, past the treacherous reef that protects the island from the fury of the ocean beyond, for my first dive.

Swimming down the 12 metres to the network of reefs below, the water is so clear you can see everything around you in astonishing clarity. And there’s plenty to see – it’s like dunking your entire body in a tropical fish tank, with more varieties of marine life than you can poke a snorkel at. As Pat, my dive instructor, signalled the okay, we rounded a section of reef and came face to fin with two five-foot white tip reef sharks, cavorting in a small, sandy clearing. But rather than freeze in fear (as I would have expected to do – I still struggle to watch Jaws even today), a sense of unbridled wonder led us to watch quietly before following them along and into an underwater cave, where they quickly and skittishly disappeared into the dark. When I came up from the dive, my wife, waiting on the boat above, said she had never seen me look so awed. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Local cuisine is fantastic. The brilliant Salt Water Café, mere minutes from Sea Change, serves up fish caught moments before you eat, while the infamous Trader Jacks overlooks the beautiful Avarua Harbour in what passes for the island’s only town and is alive with locals and live music most nights of the week. The seafood platter here is the best I’ve ever had.

A spectacular 50-minute flight north saw us landing on the even smaller, more undeveloped island of Aitutaki for the second half of our stay. Passing through the wood-and-palm-leaf customs building at the airport, it was a short and bumpy ride through lush greenery to the Pacific Resort, a five-star sprawl of villas and apartments without any pretension, nestled among the lagoon waters and sun-bleached beaches.

Our suite had private stairs to a secluded beach and was dripping in colonial elegance. It’s barefoot luxury personified and was tough to leave in order to explore the island. But explore we did, and stumbled upon the highlight of the entire trip – a day’s boat ride, with around 20 fellow sightseers, into the incomparable Aitutaki Lagoon, often voted among the most beautiful places on earth.

The cruise into the lagoon is a lugubrious hour of wondrous vistas and amazing wildlife. Huge turtles patrol the waters as you motor through the iridescent blue waters to the first port of call, One Foot Island, boasting the world’s smallest post office. We had our passports stamped with the island logo, ate barbecued fish and watched a couple get married on the far shore before snorkelling out to see the world under water. As unhurried as you like, we eventually wandered back to the boat and the patiently waiting crew, who seemed pretty content to lay in the shade and watch us revel in their island paradise.

Returning to the Pacific Resort was no hardship though, and with little more to do than stroll the beaches and visit the tiny island market, the rest of the week was spent in relaxation, sunning, swimming and eating. Resting and preparing for the long journey home...

 

Duncan.Madden

I fell in love with travelling as a teen when I embarked on my first adventure, backpacking across Canada armed with a Greyhound Bus ticket, one change of clothes and a healthy enthusiasm for the unknown. Two months and several close scrapes later I was back in England and knew that seeing the world would be my first priority in life. I became a journalist and after several years writing for film and technology magazines and websites, I took the plunge, cut my nine-to-five ties and went freelance to concentrate on travel writing. Since then I've been lucky enough to explore almost every environment on earth, from remote islands in the South Pacific to the jungles of Asia, deserts of Africa and even a recent trek through the Arctic Circle. A keen surfer for 15 years, my travels have concentrated primarily on coastal areas, but as much as I've seen there is always plenty more to experience. I split my time living between the south coast of England and the west coast of America and write entirely for the UK press, primarily on travel magazines and websites as well as the mainstream men's titles. Riding the coattails of the gadget revolution, I also keep a hand in the world of technology writing as a thinly veiled excuse to play with the latest toys and stay entertained on the road. Favourite places: Lusty Glaze, North Cornwall Hossegor, South West France Figuera da Foz, Portugal Tarhazoute, Morocco Muscat, Oman Aitutaki, Cook Islands Magen's Bay, St Thomas Venice Beach, Los Angeles Ocean Beach, San Francisco Mulegé, Baja Mexico