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The Cook Islands: Archipelago of Good Fortune
by
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

 Like so many people, I need to get away in winter to feel the sand on my feet, loll in the sun and go swimming in a warm sea.  So does my wife Annie.  But we hate feeling socially isolated, cut off from genuine contact with the local people, as can happen in many Third World travel situations.  So it was an unexpected delight to discover the Cook Islands, a former dependency of New Zealand, which lacks the poverty and other social ills that plague so many tropical lands. The islanders are not only friendly and gracious to visitors, they are also for the most part healthy, content, educated and even sophisticated in their knowledge of the world.

One morning we took a walk along the narrow shore road that circles Rarotonga, the main island in the sprawling South Pacific archipelago.  We came upon a simple, open-sided shelter where a sixty-ish woman with coffee-colored skin sat on a bench and waited for a bus to Avarua, the island's only real village.  She sported one of the elegant, hand-made and lavishly decorated coconut-fiber sun hats that are a flourishing local art form. We nodded and bade her good morning.  "Where are you from?" she asked with flawless diction and a slight New Zealand accent. "British Columbia," we replied, and began to describe the coastal area where we lived.  "Ah, yes, it's a beautiful part of the world," she swooned.  "I've been there.  I have friends near Seattle, and I absolutely love Vancouver Island."

After nearly two weeks in the Cook Islands, this kind of response no longer surprised us.  Although remote--situated between Tahiti and Fiji--the Cook Islands have been connected to the rest of the world through maritime commerce ever since Captain Bligh and HMS Bounty stopped at the smaller island of Aitutaki just weeks before the infamous mutiny.  While on Aitutaki ourselves for a few days we met Josie Sadaraka, an amazingly spry 88-year old who ran a guest house and whose father was a Norwegian ship's captain. Josie had recently traveled to Norway to visit distant relatives, and to Utah to trace her genealogy.  Although all the Cook Islanders still spoke their native Maori language among themselves, nearly everyone was articulate in English as well.  Most had traveled at least as far as New Zealand, their former
colonial "power," and many had been educated there.

"I went to New Zealand for three years of education and to get my trade certification in carpentry," said Mokoenga Ratu, a tall, distinguished-looking former woodworking teacher who now ran the only taxicab on Aitutaki as a retirement business.  But that experience had not cut him off from his island heritage and ways.  He had built many traditional dugout canoes by hand, mainly using an adze.  Nearly every day after school, he would take his canoe out on the lagoon to catch parrotfish with a net, or to spear huge moray eels while skin diving, a skill passed down to him by his grandfather.  He still tended a sizable plantation of arrowroot and sweet potatoes and went out fishing whenever he could find a stand-in to drive his cab.

We also met Jake Numanga, who sings and plays guitar and ukelele at some of the top island resorts.  For most of his working years, though, he worked as a firefighter at the Rarotonga airport, which had required extensive travel and training in modern technology and security methods.  During that time, he had sent four of his seven children to university in Hawaii.  On his property, he raises papayas (locally called paw paw) and taro.

Now, we had come to the Cook Islands to relax and have fun, not to do research for a sociology thesis.  Still, our everyday experiences kept reinforcing these first unexpected impressions of a vibrant society with intact families still living on their ancestral land, a place with efficiently functioning public services and a nice commingling of the traditional and the modern.

We began our holiday with the excellent half-day Raro Safari Tour, in which a Land Rover took us up into the steep volcanic mountains of the interior. It was time and money well spent.  Our driver and guide, a personable raconteur named Kumby, showed us remote areas that only the most intrepid hikers would otherwise get to see.  The lush jungle and sugarloaf peaks were fringed with small, tidy papaya plantations and individual family homesteads, where chickens, pigs and the occasional goat wandered freely.

Kumby also took us to ancient shrines and regaled us with tales of the island's history.  (It was from Rarotonga that the Maoris had departed in a flotilla of canoes to settle distant New Zealand.)  Like most islanders, he was simpatico and helpful.  Annie had recently had hip surgery, and so had Kumby.  She casually mentioned that she was still having muscle pains.  Back at the tour office, Kumby phoned a physiotherapist and set up an appointment at the island's small modern hospital.  Annie received superb private treatment for the equivalent of just over ten dollars per session.  The physiotherapist turned out to be a highly trained sports medicine expert who had accompanied Cook Islands teams around the world.  Even the smaller outer islands have their own hospital, and everyone enjoys free public medical care.

With its single sea-level perimeter road, Rarotonga was easy to get around. There was no need for a car, although many visitors rented motorbikes.  We just hopped on one of the inexpensive buses that left Avarua every hour in opposite directions around the roughly circular island, picking up anyone who flagged them down.  The drivers were friendly, and the bus was a great place to meet both locals and other tourists.  There were even special buses on Sunday to take people to church.

We are not church-goers at home, but attending services in Rarotonga was a treat.  The Cook Islands Christian Church in the hamlet of Arorangi was a gorgeous structure of coral limestone and heavy wooden timbers built in the early 1800s, but the real attraction was the marvellous a capella hymns sung in both English and Maori by the elegantly dressed choir.  Visitors are welcome as long as they wear modest, respectable clothes.  And, in general, bathing suits, short shorts and skimpy tops are unacceptable, except at resorts or the beach.

We stayed at high end resorts, with good restaurants, on both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but sometimes we just wanted a simpler meal.  Fortunately, there were lots of little roadside Ma and Pa places where we could get things like fish and chips, curry and rice, New Zealand meat pies or delectable pies with a filling of smoked tuna baked right on Rarotonga.  Our best discovery, though, was ika mata, a dish of raw yellow fin tuna marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk, a bit like Mexican ceviche.  Another fine specialty was rukau, or taro leaves cooked in coconut milk, which tasted like pungent creamed spinach.  Often we just ordered these dishes as takeout and ate them on the veranda of our hotel room.

Because prices were in relatively weak New Zealand dollars, we found the Cook Islands to be very affordable.  A highlight for me was taking an intensive four day beginner's scuba certification course with Cook Island Divers, which had up to date equipment and well-trained instructors. Rarotonga was an ideal place to learn, with its clear water, dramatic coral formations, myriad colorful fishes, even small sharks and shipwrecks.  We dove outside the fringing reef in depths from 30 to 100 feet, and it wound up costing about half what a similar course would amount to in Hawaii or
California.

Another highlight was our side trip to Aitutaki, a 45-minute flight away. We stayed three days, but many visitors just make a long day of it and return to Rarotonga the same night.  For all, the key attraction is the huge, sheltered lagoon fringed by tiny fantasy islets, called motus, where you can sit under the coconut palms and mahogany trees and imagine yourself in a scene from survivor.  We took a day cruise around the lagoon on the large catamaran Titi-Ai Tonga, whose crew served a fine barbecued seafood lunch and serenaded us with their guitars, ukeleles and songs.  The shallow, clear water, full of tame and exotic fishes and giant clams, offered perfect snorkeling, especially for beginners.  The Aitutaki lagoon was once notable as a refueling stop for giant flying boats on the fabled "coral route" from Fiji and Samoa to Tahiti.  Not even that professional grump, Paul Theroux, could remain unhappy for long when he paddled around and explored the motus in his folding kayak.

Returning to Rarotonga, we spent one afternoon watching the sailing races at the yacht club, which was a bit of a misnomer, because with a shallow lagoon nearly encircling the island, there were no deep keeled sailboats.  But the club commodore, Thomas Koteka, had led a revival of traditional outrigger canoe building.  These elegant hand-crafted works of art competed against more modern sailing dinghies, sweeping around the markers through turquoise waters.  Club members were a complete ethnic mix of Maoris, white New Zealanders, and every shade in between.

By the time we left, we realized that the Cook Islands had escaped most of the ravages that the colonial era produced elsewhere.  Missionaries had come, bringing foreign religions and other values.  But the local people had never been pushed off their land or pauperized.  They had continued living and pursuing subsistence agriculture on their traditional family holdings.  With lmost unlimited fruit, coconuts, taro and fish to eat, and no big landowners lording it over them, real poverty was unknown.  Meanwhile, a trickle of outsiders had settled and intermarried with the native islanders, but never even came close to displacing or dominating them.  Nor was an alien ethnic work force ever introduced, as happened in places like Fiji, Hawaii and the Caribbean.  The Cooks were also spared the destruction of the Second World War and the poisonous impact of nuclear tests.

A major legacy of New Zealand's light colonial touch is that, if people seek a change of pace or just want to join the economic mainstream, they have the right to go to New Zealand to work and live.  (In fact, so many have done so that there are more Cook Islanders there than at home.)  So there is little true unemployment in the islands, although many people work only part-time for wages and spend the rest of their energy growing, gathering or catching much of their food.  With stable extended families, few people having to pay rent, and a relatively equal distribution of wealth, the Cooks have almost no crime, poor housing or drug abuse.

The surprising thing is that more foreigners have not yet discovered these most fortunate isles.  This may change, but in the meantime the quiet, laid-back and enjoyable ambience remain.  As for us, we will certainly go back the first chance we get.

ACCESS

We flew to Rarotonga on Aloha Airlines, which has twice weekly flights from Honolulu during winter months in the northern hemisphere, and once a week during the northern summer.  Aloha offers convenient direct flights to Honolulu from Oakland, Orange County and Burbank Airports in California, and from Vancouver, Canada.  see www.alohaairlines.com.

We stayed at two fine, large, low-rise oceanfront hotels on Rarotonga.  The Rarotongan Beach Resort and Spa features elegant air-conditioned rooms with balconies or verandas, cheerful decor and an extremely gracious and caring staff.  (www.rarotongan.co.ck) The Edgewater Resort offers very spacious air-conditioned rooms with balconies and in some cases Jacuzzis. (www.edgewater.co.ck)  Both have tennis courts, sizable pools and are situated on portions of the fringing lagoon that are deep enough (although just barely) for ocean swimming, which is not the case for all Rarotonga hotels.

On Aitutaki we stayed at the Aitutaki Pearl Beach Resort, a cluster of individual air conditioned thatched hut cottages in a magical location on its own small island bordering the Aitutaki lagoon.  (When we were there it was undergoing a change in ownership. www.pearlresorts.com)  Many of the less expensive hotels in the Cook Islands have fans in the rooms, but no air conditioning, which might be a problem for some people, since it gets quite hot and humid in the southern hemisphere's summer months (peak tourism season for visitors from North America.) Another fine and beautifully situated hotel is the Pacific Resort on Rarotonga, or its smaller hotel on Aitutaki. (www.pacificresort.com).

For information on inter-Cook Islands flights and package day tours to Aitutaki (including lagoon cruises) contact Air Rarotonga  www.airraro.com

For information on scuba diving and dive courses, email Greg Wilson at gwilson@ci-divers.co.ck or see www.cookpages.com/CookIslandDivers.

For further information on the Cook Islands, www.cook-islands.com

To request a complete package of brochures and maps, email the North American office of Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, cookislands@earthlink.net.

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Email:  koppel@saltspring.com (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)

 

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