When you think of the South Pacific Islands you would probably think of Tahiti or Fiji or maybe even Easter Island. However there is one group of islands that have quietly gone about their business of providing absolute unadulterated heaven on earth to discerning visitors for many awesome sunsets. The Cook Islands (or just The Cooks to locals) are a Polynesian coral necklace of some 15 islands spread out over 2 million kilometres of Pacific Ocean but actually only a combined land area just 240 kilometres.
It’s the area where Captain Bligh’s mutinous crew downed tools and whilst most of the islands are too remote for the casual visitor, the capital Raratonga and its sumptuous neighbour Aitutaki a 40 minute local flight away have a wealth of luxury resorts, restaurants and night life to cater for a truly outstanding holiday experience. Air New Zealand offers direct flights to Rarotonga and this has opened up a whole new option to travellers looking for a stop over on the way to Australia or New Zealand from Los Angeles.
I was looking for some luxurious chill time. You know the sort – white sands, a hammock, turquoise sea, coconut palms, and, if the mood took me a simple choice of whether to snorkel amid colourful coral or just eat some delicious food. So where was I going to get this. I mean really get this, not just a promise that ultimately disappoints.
The capital of The Cook Islands and the entry point of the islands as it has the only international airport on the island necklace, Raratonga might at first glance seem a little commercial but where there’s an airport you’ll always find traders. I say traders and commercial in the loosest sense of course, after all this is a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.The upside is you’re thrown instantly into a world of palm-studded velvet-white beaches, coral, exotic tropical vegetation and bizarrely more than a few rugby pitches!
The island is surrounded on all sides by a lagoon courtesy of a natural reef further out making it the perfect venue for snorkeling sailing and swimming among the colourful tropical fish.
Most of central Raratonga is dominated by a once huge volcano now tamed over time to a series of vegetation hugged peaks and ridges, perfect for a hike across the island from north to south.The nearest nest of civilisation from the airport in the north is the town of Avarua worth exploring for the outdoor markets, restaurants and shopping for hand made crafts and of course black pearls, the regional specialty. There are few hotels here however you’ll find most of the resort hotels at Muri Beach on the south coast.
A castaway island of classic beauty. It has a population of just 1,400 but 7 churches of different denominations. You can cycle around the island in less than an hour, and it’s a great way of seeing the way locals go about their daily lives. They speak Cook Maori and English and whilst The Cooks are an independent nation they have a free association with New Zealand principally because that allows every resident to also hold a New Zealand passport. It’s interesting that many islanders have English surnames and it’s said that perhaps they are direct descendants from the crews of Captain Bligh’s Bounty or of course Captain Cook’s Endeavour. Exploring the island, you’ll come across a number of tiny villages and individual homes and of course secluded beaches. But a trip climbing up Maunga Pu, the highest part of the island will provide a stunning 360 degree view of the entire area.
Aitutaki has a good choice of local places to eat most of which will provide transport for you. ‘Island nights’ are a traditional way of giving visitors a taste of native dancing and local custom, and far from being a cheesy tourist night out, are a good value experience that includes dinner and a real insight into the culture of these truly welcoming island race. Wherever we went on the island and whoever we passed on the road we were greeted a smile and a wave that proved to me that tourism is highly welcomed here.
The Pacific Resort at Aitutaki promised and delivered all this and more. You know, it’s the small things that make it for me. The welcome including , of course the customary Ei flower necklace, the first impression, the personal touches, and the Pacific Resort ticked all those boxes for me – from the personal hassle free greet at the airport to the welcoming chilled coconut with a straw and the complimentary sarong that all female guests get to keep and take home.
At the heart of the resort are 27 luxury beachfront properties set amongst 17 acres of tropical forest. Each has its own sun deck, directly leading to the beach and drop dead views of the lagoon, only an average of 12 feet deep filled with brilliant coral and marine life. It’s the sort of place that you immediately sink into and feel totally at peace with the world and think to yourself – it doesn’t get any better than this.
It’s just that of course it does when you realise that every evening, directly off your deck is the most jaw dropping sunset you might ever see. I can honestly say that each night we witnessed nature’s own light show – no two nights the same.
A visit to The Cooks would not be complete without a lagoon cruise, simply an indispensable part of the Cook experience. There are a number of family owned cruise boats that all offer a great personal day sailing around the different island atolls that adorn the Aitutaki lagoon. I went with Bishops, who operate two boats, one small four seater and a larger one which caters for around 20 people. The day included a great barbeque lunch on One Foot Island which incidentally has the World smallest post office, refreshments, snorkelling equipment and towels. We visited the islands that have hosted two reality ‘castaway’ shows, and spent plenty of time snorkeling around the crystal clear waters abundant with incredible fish and marine life.
All images except Avura (c) Andy Mossack