The Cook Islands are administered in association with New Zealand, so no-one is sure if this is an official country or not. The 15 islands would maintain that they are self-governing. The people have Cook Island nationality, as well as being citizens of New Zealand. There are a lot of Kiwis here, both running businesses and on holiday. That means plenty of flat vowels and friendly, but we're not going to stand any nonsense or emotional twaddle conversation.
The Cook Islands were settled by Polynesian peoples in about 10000 AD, migrating in waves from what is now French Polynesia. The islands were visited by Captain James Cook, in the 1770s, but were named the Hervey Islands, after Augustus Hervey, third Earl of Bristol. In the 1820s, Russian Admiral, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, referred to the southern islands as the "Cook Islands"on his maps after their British 'discoverer'.
The islands were decaled a British protectorate in 1888, but later annexed by New Zealand (against the wishes of the local chiefs. At that point the entire territory became known as the Cook islands. (the southern group islands are still referred to as the Hervey Islands.)
Cook Islands websites say that visitors refer to the islands as Paradise on Earth. They're certainly gorgeous - the perfect coral islands of your imagination. Aitutaki, in particular, is stunning, with its idyllic lagoon. Read about my visits:
Flying on, to French Polynesia, is as laid back as everything else in the Pacific. From Aitutaki, returning to Rarotonga, I'm early for check in, so I hang around, thinking that at least I'll get a good seat. Mais non. It's free seating. So, some lunch, I've got well over two hours. I wander across the road to a café on the beach. All departure lounges should be like this.
There are no safety announcements. We have to wait for the stewardess to finish the chapter in the novel she is reading, before we get any drinks. I'm going on to Papeete, French Polynesia.
Aitutaki is billed as the most beautiful lagoon in the world, so expectations are high. And it is stunning. Tiny island, huge reef. It is all a notch better than Rarotonga. The beach is wider, the palms bendier and the water warmer. The temperature is perfect, the breeze is just right. Nothing to do except lounge around, swim, and watch the humpback whales steaming past the reef on the way to their breeding grounds.
Aitutaki is also much quieter. A sprinkle of Kiwis and Italians, (either on their honeymoons or into grizzled retirement) and some yachties. But I still have the company of the cockerels and mynahs, of course. The restaurant is only next door, but I get lost coming home in the inky blackness. I don't even recognise my own bungalow, when I eventually find it. I forget that I have hung my towels on the veranda and think it is someone else's clothes.
The dawn cock a doodle do chorus is so rowdy, that it becomes difficult to sleep after 4 a.m. and there are too many mosquitoes. I have to swaddle myself in the sheets and daren't so much as stick a toe out, or it gets bitten. And that's after burning coils, spraying me and the room and using little machines. So I get up early to do my emails. I've been sold Internet for twenty pounds. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.
They're not above pulling a fast one, even in Paradise, it seems. Paradise has other flaws. The restaurant menu isn't quite what it seems. Catch of the day is? Tuna. Battered fish with chips is? Tuna. Parrot fish sizzler is? Tuna. 'Well it's tuna season madam'. I ask if the squid is tuna. 'No, but it's off, madam'. Back to the good things about Paradise. The snorkelling off the beach here is great. Reasonable amounts of live heliotrope coral and myriad kaleidoscopic small fish, crammed Jenga like into the overhangs. The lagoon is shallow and it's like swimming in a giant aquarium.
A lagoon cruise today. This one is the exact opposite of the one on Rarotonga. The scenery is so incredible it has to rank with the best I've seen. I don't know where to start. The deepest turquoise, the most pristine dazzling sand. Rare red tailed tropic birds and their huge fluff ball chicks, nesting between palm trees, on a minuscule motu, called Honeymoon Island,
Another islet, called One Foot Island (or Tapuaetai), is often touted as the most important attraction of all. It offers the best views of the Aitutaki Lagoon and visitors can stroll on the sandbanks. It's so gorgeous that One Foot Island was awarded "Australasia's Leading Beach" at the World Travel Awards in 2008.
There are also two excellent snorkelling expeditions. Once, over a giant clam farm. Thousands of them, frilly mouthed splashes of luminous colour suspended from plastic bottles in cages, sorted tiny to huge. The very largest are freed, to be scattered over the smooth white lagoon floor and embedded in the mini reefs.
The second Aitutaki expedition offers 'g and ts'. I am not sure that I am up for alcohol this early, but they turn out to be enormous fish called giant trevallies that circle us in a reef channel, looking suspicious, but benevolent. (They might well look suspicious. Half the tourists here have come with the ambition to catch one).
Lunch is scrumptious: breadfruit salad, seaweed, pawpaw and banana salad, sea grapes (seaweed that tastes like caviar) and tuna (!) Most of the people on the boat are kite surfers having a day off, as it's not quite windy enough. They are having withdrawal symptoms.
One of the kite surfers comes on a scooter, to fetch me to have dinner in the evening. It's dark and moonlit and for a long time the road runs along the side of the airport runway. We debate whether to sing Top Gun or I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair!
I had been cajoled into having a paddle-board lesson today. Kiwi Ken (so pronounce it Kin) was going to teach me, but it is raining. Paradise doesn't look nearly as good when it's cloudy, but it is a bit of a let off. I didn't even know what paddle-boarding was till this week and I'm a bit worried I will go flying off out of control to the edge of the reef. It hasn't stopped raining all day, and I have accomplished very little.
I attempt to sleep, to compensate for the rooster punctuated nights, but the ladies who service the rooms like to listen to the radio, as they work. They drive round in a golf cart, sending the ubiquitous chickens scattering in front of them, as they make a rapid U-turn away from the beach. I have just about mastered the art of bungalow door management. There are three sliding layers. Window (or door), insect screen (huh!) and wooden shutters. I also visit a Kiwi couple for a chat. They have a little TV in their room. I haven't seen a TV since I left LA. But theirs only has one channel and all it shows is rugby.
It’s still raining. You would have thought the supply of clouds would have been exhausted by now. There is a sort of truce, when the sun comes out for half an hour. I shoot down to the beach, find a mattress and commandeer a sunbed. I'm alone here and it's the only mattress out, so a little tabby cat decides to share it with me. Well, first of all, she thinks I've set it up just for her and she has to be persuaded off. Then she jumps back up, onto the end. She's rolling about and stretching over the edge, so I have to tuck my legs up. Then she falls off altogether, clawing frantically at the bed and scrambling back up. I have to pretend not to laugh, so she can preserve her dignity.
It begins to rain again, so I run for shelter and that's the pattern of the day, except that the cat only features once. I manage to snorkel, whilst it's drizzling softly. There's plenty of activity at the water's edge today. Smaller trevallies, (GT cousins) zoom up and down with dorsal fins protruding like mini Jaws. They make a lot of splash.
Meanwhile, the waders are feasting on the tiny fish, trying not to look disappointed, when they hoik up a mouthful of seaweed instead of their intended prey. Every so often the terns bob in too, diving from their lofty perches in the palm trees and there is a small hermit crab, lugging a shell which is much too large for it. He tries to sneak closer, every time he thinks I'm not looking. The thousands of black sea cucumbers on the lagoon floor creep along more quietly, tentacle feet to the fore, leaving a trail of sand pellets in their wake.
Then, another Aitutaki scooter adventure, trying to find a Polynesian restaurant up in the hills. Sandy floors, beach theme for some reason, but great seafood curry. My scooter companion is an anaesthetist. Not at all sexy, but he's married anyway. We have a good chat about books and films. A very chaste farewell. I leave tomorrow.
Later, a text. 'If there is anything you need in the next 12 hours please let me know'. What can he mean?
Flying here is as laid back as everything else. From Aitutaki, returning to Rarotonga, there are no safety announcements. We have to wait for the stewardess to finish the chapter in the novel she is reading before we get any drinks. Next, Papeete, French Polynesia. (Read more about the Cook Islands here.)
I've flown in from LA and Route 66. Now I'm on my own, on the other side of the world, in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The island is extraordinarily pretty with craggy peaks. My beach bungalow faces the most picture perfect lagoon, straight out of the Paradise Catalogue, with little islets (called motus) a reef (with crashing waves which sound like an aeroplane that never quite manages to land) and the obligatory white sand and bendy palm trees. Too bad the weather is mixed. Still no warmer than LA,, except for sudden odd baking patches of sun and a little rain. Global warming is becoming very disagreeable.
It's all super-duper organised. My little palace has a kitchen/diner/sitting room, bathroom and bedroom, with every gadget known to man. I even have a share in a gas BBQ. I'm not even going to think about using it. Breakfast is delivered in the middle of the afternoon and placed in the fridge.
Before you run away with the idea that this is all very civilised I should point out that there are dogs, cats, mynah birds and cockerels ( with accompanying harems) skittering around, trying to sneak into the room at every opportunity. There is also a donkey braying plaintively somewhere. Most of the running about (well skivvying - they do everything at their own pace) is done by stocky local guys who seem to favour long grey pony tails which they pin up.
I've gone back another three hours to eleven hours behind BST and it was an overnight flight, so I'm zonked, which is a good excuse for sleeping a lot. This is easily accomplished for the most part, mainly on sunbeds, though it is impossible to oversleep in the morning with so many cockerels marauding around. I ate my breakfast before I went to bed, so a gardener gets me a coconut from the tree outside my room, in the morning. The grounds are full of palm trees. The mynahs spend most of their time causing a rumpus in the branches. They eat the palm nuts, pecking them off with their beaks and mostly ending up playing unintentional games of football with them instead.
I take a lagoon cruise with Captain Tama's Cruize outfit. The name should have alerted me. It is more concert than cruise. The snorkelling isn't bad, there are quite a few large fish, but then we decamp to the motu I can see from my bedroom window. After being fed juvenile sized portions of barbecued tuna, we are subjected to hours of: this is how you climb a palm tree, husk a coconut, end of the pier humour and banjo playing. I grab my gear and wade back across the lagoon to my bungalow. I can still hear it.
Although not quite The Riviera, this is certainly more sophisticated than anywhere I have been in the South Pacific so far. There are plenty of apartments and motels and I'm working my way down a series of excellent restaurants on the beach. Lots of seafood, live music and waitresses in blue and white print flowery frocks. It's not cheap here either, though the currency is interesting. I forgot I was wearing my shorts when I dived in and I discovered that the 'paper' money is waterproof. There are also triangular coins. Never seen those before.
My insides have taken exception to the goat curry I ate last night (I told you this wasn’t The Riviera). It's also very sunny now, so more relaxation is called for today. Massages in the gazebo are very pleasant, though being eyeballed by a cockerel at the same time is a little disconcerting. Choosing a restaurant takes too much effort. Food from the night market next door I think.
I'm feeling guilty that I haven't done anything much since I got here except lie on a sunbed. First, I do my laundry, after shooing the chickens off the washing machine. Then I set off on a bicycle, to explore. The island is encircled by a main road, Ara Tapu, that traces the coast so I'm following that. It's the only real road. There are two buses - clockwise and anti-clockwise.
After ten minutes, I realise that a little more thought should have gone into the expedition. I have forgotten water, sunscreen and a map. I'm also wearing trousers, as all my shorts are wet. Predictably, it is turning out to be the hottest day yet.
I deem it too late to turn back and re-provision so I trundle on. The going is fairly flat, the lagoon and mountain scenery delightful. The sea is turquoise. Hibiscus and frangipani waft by. The Maori men aren't bad looking either. Though I'm pretty sure I surprise one in the act of trying to purloin my bike when I'm on a beach taking photos. He’s definitely taking rather too much interest in it, but pretends to be collecting dead palm branches, as I approach.
When I finally acquire a map, I realise that I am roughly halfway round. The whole circuit is 20 miles. In Tour de France terms this is nothing, so I decide to soldier on. Which is fine, except that I haven't realised that the wind has been behind me all the way so far, until I turn into the northern stretch and by then it is too late to go back. This part of the route winds through the main town, Avarua,
Avarua is the capital of the Cook Islands, as well as being the chief town of Rarotonga. It's home to the Cook Islands' Parliament Buildings, an industrial zone, some docks and a couple of interesting churches, as well as the airport. The tour guide says that it is fun to stand at the end of the runway when the jumbos come in. They advise taking a change of underwear. Fortunately, no jets in sight.
I eventually accomplish my mission hot, aching and sunburned. Good trip, but I shall pay for this tomorrow.
My journey has confirmed my opinion on Rarotonga. Absolutely gorgeous, but a little too sanitised, lacking the edge of, for example, the Caribbean. (Unless you count bike thieves). I suppose that could be a plus or a minus.....
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