By Kathleen McMillan
Flying into Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands at 32km in circumference, I am astounded at how anyone ever found these islands in the first place. The Cooks are made up of 15 islands scattered across almost 2 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean. I’m told that the first arrivals navigated by the stars, but navigation implies knowing one’s destination, so I remain in awe of the men and women who first settled here.
Compared to the island that greeted those first arrivals, and even compared to my first visit nearly ten years ago, Rarotonga has seen its fair share of development. While there are still no traffic lights along the sole road that circles the island, on this visit I see that there’s a new roundabout just outside the main town of Avarua. At the local Punanga Nui Market held every Saturday morning, alongside luscious tropical fruits including papaya, bananas and mangoes, there are two stalls groaning under the weight of fresh, buttery croissants and baguettes as well as an assortment of sweet and savoury pastries. I opt for a mouth-watering spinach and ricotta quiche with caramelised onion. It’s a tasty chaser to my very decent skim flat white, though you may struggle if you try to place a coffee order that includes the words ‘soy’ or ‘hazelnut’.
As visitor numbers have grown, assisted by Air New Zealand’s direct flight from Sydney to Rarotonga, so has the range of accommodation. There are still thatched beach bungalows reliant on the breeze to lower the thermostat, with sunset views as entertainment – perfect for my break from the electronic hustle and bustle of city life – but a good selection of luxury resorts, private villas, boutique hotels and holiday homes cater for all tastes. One of the newest places on the island is Ikurangi Eco Retreat. As the Cook Islands’ first purpose-built eco accommodation and glamping site, it’s an indication of just how much these islands have matured as a holiday destination.
What hasn’t changed is the warmth with which Cook Islanders will welcome you to their piece of paradise. You can expect to be greeted with ‘Kia Orana’ (‘May you live long’) and chatted to as though you are family. You’ll be asked your name and then delight in hearing it used as though you’re an old friend. You’ll be included in prayers before meals or activities irrespective of your religious leanings. After all, this is a place where thanks is given even before sports teams start their weekly training sessions. ‘Amen’ to that, I say.
- Average flight time: 6 hours direct from Sydney
- Time Zone: The Cook Islands are 21 hours behind AEDT (add three hours then minus one day)
- Currency: New Zealand Dollar
- Languages: English, Cook Islands Maori
- Getting Around: The Cook’s Island Bus service operates two regular round-the-island services, one travelling clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. Alternatively, there are several car and scooter rental companies. Note that Australian, New Zealand and UK drivers’ licence holders can drive in the Cook Islands for up to six months using their overseas licence but are only permitted to drive the class of vehicle described on the licence. If you want to ride a scooter and are not licensed to do so at home, you’ll need to get a Cook Islands Driving Licence, involving a theory and practical test, at Police Headquarters in Avarua, Rarotonga.
- Te Maeva Nui Festival: Cook Islanders celebrate their self-governance on 4 August each year with singing, dancing, drumming and sporting events.