Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, is a unique sort of place. In order to visit, I had to go back in time. I’m a time traveller. And I only had to fly to Rarotonga, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, to do it. Thanks to the mysteries of the International Date Line and not a magical Delorean (unfortunately), I left Melbourne Airport, Australia, on a Friday morning and landed the day before on a Thursday night. This only begins to describe the unique awesomeness of this relaxing destination.
The Cook Islands are a group of islands in the South Pacific, somewhere between New Zealand and Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Their own currency is useless anywhere outside of their own country (they have a triangular two dollar coin) and is not transferable at any currency exchange, hence New Zealand money is dispensed from ATM’s and recognised as the main form of currency. Rarotonga, the largest island, only has two bus routes- one clockwise, the other anticlockwise and it only takes one hour to do a full lap (and for some unexplained reason the anti-clockwise bus seems to operate far less than the clockwise). Wild chickens roam freely and are fair game for eating (fact), everyone has a pawpaw tree in their backyard (basically fact), and the local touch rugby competition has a dedicated segment on the national news (seriously). It’s a place where the weather is warm, the food is fresh and local culture and history is important. It is like visiting a small country town except the town is a country and you need a passport to visit. It’s fantastic.
We chose the Cook Islands as a destination because of the high chance of relaxation and the chilled reputation that came with it. We wanted to be so relaxed we were borderline asleep. You know, that kind of relaxation where hours drift away and you don’t care. But we also wanted something with a bit of adventure. There is only so much sitting on a banana lounge that a person can take. ‘Raro’ is the perfect destination for that.
You get a sense that Rarotonga is a fairly relaxed sort of place as soon as you land. At the international arrivals terminal you are treated to a musician playing ukulele, sitting in the middle of the baggage carrousel as you wait for luggage; the only way you can improve on that kind of airport welcome is to be given a cocktail as you go through customs. If you can name a more inviting airport arrival I’m all ears. It’s literally as though you are being serenaded just for visiting a country. After collecting your luggage, you walk out the door and realise that the airport is literally right next to the main road. In general, airports have the uncanny knack of being a mix of angry airport staff, tired travellers and heavy traffic where parking for more than three minutes is frowned upon unless you’re paying twelve dollars per minute or whatever the price of short-term airport parking is these days. So, to walk out the front door, flower lei around your neck, onto a tropical island and realise that the only main road around the place is right there becomes a breath of fresh tropical air.
The thing is that it’s this kind of laid back, laisse-faire attitude that typifies Rarotonga in every way. The most stressed out I saw any local was when I walked into their store 5 minutes before closing time which always seemed to be no later than about 3.30 in the afternoon. Perfect timing for a siesta or a beer. My kind of place. I even saw a shop closed because the owner was out fishing. They have a few craft breweries to utilise as well- Matutu Beer do daily ‘tours’ and you get a taste of all their beers in the process- the most value for money activity on the island behind mini golfing and sunbaking at your hotel.
Even the adventurous activities are done in a chilled-out manner. For example, we used a guide to hike across the mountainous interior of the island. I like using guides for such activities- being lost in a tropical jungle doesn’t interest me all that much and I like to learn a bit about a place in a way I cannot from a guidebook. He broke the hike up into two parts; the ‘cardio’ (uphill) and ‘yoga’ (anything not uphill). He cruised around in a pair of ‘off-road’ sandals that looked like they cost him all of five dollars- the type of sandal that that would make a pair of Birkenstocks blush- and rarely seemed to raise a sweat the whole time. That’s impressive in 95 percent humidity. So, while we were sweating up a storm, he casually cruised along, happily chatting away, giant machete strapped to the side of his daypack that was full of fresh fruit for us to eat when we rested/tried to get enough oxygen into our lungs sufficient enough to support life. There was no rush, no stress, just sweat.
The real beauty of Rarotonga is the reef that encapsulates it. Crystal clear water hiding a myriad of brightly coloured fish who dart in and out of the rocks. Locals wander out at low tide just to walk around and coconut trees dot the shore line. A simple paddle in the shallows results in small fish swimming between your legs (you don’t even have to sit still for it to happen either, they come over like a dog at dinner time solely to cut laps around your calves). Looking out over the reef at sunset, sipping a local brew is one of the more satisfying things I have ever done.
The locals are what really make this place, though. Smiling faces proud of their culture and proud of their country, all of them mad about rugby and content just listening to some music, having a quiet drink. I can understand why so many New Zealand expats have set up shop there. Other than being so damned relaxing, the wearing of Hawaiian shirts is not a fashion faux pas. (Actually New Zealanders made up about 80 percent of the tourists as well, so if you are one of the three people in the world who don’t like them, I’d steer clear).
I’m not sure that someone wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves- “Shit, I really want to go to the Cook Islands.” I’m pretty confident that when deciding on a holiday destination, Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, doesn’t even rate a mention. If you searched for ‘lists of countries you need to see before you die’ on the internet, the Cooks won’t be there either.
And that’s a shame. Unique locations like Rarotonga are hard to come by.
1. Be aware that it isn’t a cheap place to visit- almost everything has to be imported and they were one of the first country’s to introduce a sugar tax (a 1.25lt bottle of Sprite is $6.90). Unless you are a devotee of soft drink, this shouldn’t be a turn off. You are not visiting Southeast Asia, you will have to pay normal amounts for food and drink.
2. Double check your arrival time as you very well might need to book an extra nights accommodation due to the International Date Line. Don’t do as I did and book for a Friday night but forget that you travel back in time and land on a Thursday. Expensive mistake.