Cook Islands enchant a return visitor

After 34 years, a tourist finds a still-pristine, well-kept and spectacular South Pacific paradise
  Black pearls and blue lagoons beckon visitors to the Cook Islands. As our overnight flight from LAX neared Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands, I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The 15 islands of the Cook Islands, tucked halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii in the South Pacific, had left an indelible impression on me 34 years ago. I recalled calm, azure lagoons, sandy beaches, angular mountains and affable, English-speaking people. Had my enchanted island changed since then? Thankfully, it hadn’t changed much: There were still no mega-resorts, no buildings taller than a coconut palm and no stoplights on the sole two-lane road that snaked around the island’s 21-mile circumference. With its small population — around 10,000 — Rarotonga felt uncrowded, and the light amount of traffic politely drove, British-style, on the opposite side of the road. The island appeared clean and tidy (due in part to the Ministry of Health’s monthly inspections and fines imposed for unsightly trash). A short drive from the airport brought us to our hotel on one of the nicest lagoons on the island, Muri Beach. From our upstairs balcony we gazed upon an idyllic tropical island scene — coconut palms framed the waist-deep lagoon and a motu, or island, a couple of hundred yards away. Small tour boats ferried visitors to the island, and the sounds of drumming and laughing filled the air as people ate, swam and played games. The rainy weather brought strong winds that propelled kite surfers across the lagoon with breathtaking speed. The friendly dogs that frequented the beach prompted our Muri Beach Club Hotel to sponsor a whimsical contest to see which guest could carry the most dogs across the lagoon on a kayak (the winner had four). On a more serious note, I was delighted to learn that our hotel participated in the “Safe Passage” tagging program that monitored humpback whales as they passed through the Cook Islands’ waters on their annual migration. From beach-side cafes to more upscale venues, we found the food to be excellent, especially the seafood. At the popular Mooring Café, with tables on the sand, I had my all-time favorite blackened tuna tacos. My wife savored the FOB (fresh off the boat) mahi-mahi sandwich. During the Highland Paradise cultural evening, we not only sampled traditional Polynesian foods but also learned a great deal about the island’s tribes, customs and ancient battles. An American couple on their honeymoon raved about a progressive dinner tour that introduced them to a variety of traditional foods in local peoples’ homes. I particularly enjoyed my morning bike tour with the Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. Our small group pedaled behind a local tour guide, Ani, who led us through the village where she grew up. She shared insights about how her uncles, aunts and cousins lived, farmed and divided ownership of the land. Two dominant themes in the Cook Islands, she explained, are religion and land ownership. Most of the Christian faiths have established churches in the Cook Islands, yet the blending of old and new traditions was demonstrated by the aboveground tombs in front of many homes, allowing deceased loved ones to remain close to the family. Though we’re not big shoppers, my wife and I were captivated by the island’s iridescent black pearls, which are found mainly in the Cook Islands and French Polynesia; we bought a few as special mementos of our trip. One of the more unique and memorable people on Rarotonga was a nutritionist/healer/trekker-extraordinaire named Pa. We joined him on his Nature Walk, during which he extolled the virtues of noni fruit and local herbs from his garden, before setting off on a hike through the countryside and a brief detour straight up a steep hillside, which he traversed barefoot. Next time we want to do Pa’s renowned cross-island trek — a “must-do” for visitors who hike. One of our goals was to explore other parts of the Cook Islands, so we flew on Air Rarotonga to neighboring Aitutaki, which Tony Wheeler of the Lonely Planet Guide called “the most beautiful island in the world.” Only a 45-minute flight away, Aitutaki’s fragmented coral atolls formed a necklace around its 20-square-mile, brilliantly colored lagoon. I agreed with a tour book that proclaimed, “The view of Aitutaki when approaching by air is one of the most stunning sights that travelers to this part of the world will experience.” Aitutaki was indeed so appealing that three days there wasn’t enough. We felt fortunate to have stayed at the Tamanu Beach Hotel, in a thatch-roofed bungalow. The hotel’s location on the west side of the island meant that the strong winds from the east were blocked, which resulted in calm water and gorgeous sunsets. The nearby lagoon was not only a work of art to behold, but it offered the best snorkeling of our trip. The shallow, warm waters contained coral formations teeming with small fish of every hue, blue starfish, and countless sea cucumbers on the seafloor. In the early morning, I kayaked out to the distant coral reef, where I observed the near-mystical manner in which the thrashing ocean was transformed into a placid lagoon. One of the highlights of our visit was the five-hour boat tour of the vast Aitutaki lagoon. Despite the strong winds, the sunlight painted the water with a palette of blue hues that defied description. Our boat stopped at beaches where we swam or explored the land nearby, but when we anchored in the middle of the lagoon, we watched in amazement as two giant fish with basketball-sized mouths emerged from the depths to devour the pieces of fish that our guides has tossed nearby. Our weeklong visit to the Cook Islands had met and exceeded our expectations. When I thought back to my earlier travels across Asia, I had been inspired by a travel motto: Be inspired, be adventurous and be yourself. This is exactly what we experienced in this South Pacific paradise, the Cook Islands. It was worth the wait.

If you go

Lodging

Muri Beach Club Hotel Rarotonga: info@muribeachclubhotel.com; www.muribeachclubhotel.com  (682) 23-000. Tamanu Beach Hotel, Aitutaki: reservations@tamanubeach.com; www.tamanubeach.com; (682) 31810. Hosts a fun Polynesian dance and Fire Dance show.

Activities

Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours: tours@storytellers.co.ck; www.storytellers.co.ck (682) 23450 or (682) 53450. Highland Paradise Cultural Center: www.highlandpradise.co.ck; (682) 21924. Fabulous views, don’t miss “Drums of Our Forefathers Extravaganza Evening” and village tour. Pa’s Treks: jillian@pasbungalows.co.ck; www.pastreks.com; (682) 21079. Pa is a unique herbalist and trekking tour guide: try his cross island trek. Akirata Cultural Dance Troupe at The Islander Hotel: info@islanderhotel.co.ck; www.islanderhotel.co.ck First class performance — highly recommended. Te Vaka Cruise, Aitutaki: www.thevakacruise.com. Five-hour tour ends at One Foot Island with the world’s smallest post office amid a tropical paradise.  

Transportation

New Zealand Airlines: www.airnewzealand.com; (800) 262-1234. Weekly nonstop flights from LAX. Air Rarotonga: www.airraro.com; email, bookings@airraro.co.ck. Provides inter-island flights.

Tourist information

Official Cook Islands websites: www.cookislands.travel or www.paradiseincookislands.com; email, usamanager@cookislands.travel or canadamanager@cookislands.travel.