“Kia Orana, my darling!”
I’m greeted warmly by my guide, Aunty Nane, at Rarotonga Airport. Her mood is bright and her demeanour friendly and welcoming, even though it’s about 3 o’clock in the morning. She hugs me like I’m an old friend coming home, despite the fact that we met less than five minutes ago and I’m wearing a weird combination of hoodie and harem pants.
I’ll learn in the coming days that that’s just how people operate in the Cook Islands. Lots of people – locals and visitors – tell me it’s just like Hawaii was 25 years ago, but the recent uptick in tourism certainly hasn’t affected the warmth with which visitors are received.
An archipelago of 15 islands scattered across the South Pacific, the Cook Islands are around eight hours’ flying time from Sydney, though it’s surprising how few Australian travellers have yet to discover them. Rarotonga, the largest island and host to Avarua, the Cook Islands’ capital, is easily accessible, comfortably familiar, and a great launch pad for exploring its neighbours to the north and east.
Most of the islands, including Rarotonga, are surrounded by dense coral reefs, making them perfect for swimming and snorkelling. It’s novel to see schools of fish swimming less than a metre off the shore and, if you’re a diver, there are ample opportunities to mingle with sea turtles, giant trevally and dozens of species of parrotfish.
But while there’s no doubt the island is perfect for a relaxing tropical getaway, it’s also brimming with rich cultural experiences not to be missed.
Food in the Cook Islands – and on Rarotonga, particularly – is heavily influenced by Australian and Kiwi cuisine, so you’ll be pleased to see a whole lot of pavlova on menus around town (though I’ll leave it up to you guys to argue over who invented it).
And while it’s nice to treat yourself to familiar foods, you’d be silly not to sample what makes the local cuisine unique. Fresh seafood (and when I say “fresh”, I mean “caught this morning”), coconut everything, and the vegetable and the big, elephant ear-type leaves of taro – a root vegetable that grows abundantly on the islands – are readily available around town.
But if there’s one dish you try when you visit the Cook Islands, make it ika mata. It’s a raw fish salad, kind of like ceviche, made with white fish (usually marinated tuna), onion, tomato, cucumber, capsicum and – most importantly – coconut cream, and it’s tasty as hell. You’ll find it on the menu at pretty much every establishment in Rarotonga and on the table in every home (more on that later).
To sample ika mata and all manner of homemade dishes and desserts, head to the Muri Night Markets. Cheap, cheerful, and brimming with island hospitality, vendors at family-run stalls operate alongside live entertainment four nights a week (5pm and 8pm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday). It’s BYO and cash only, so come prepared and settle in for a chilled evening.
For one of the best fish sandwiches in town, make your way to Charlie’s Café. Constructed from shipping containers and perched on the beach in Tikikaveka, Charlie’s wouldn’t look out of place in Sydney or Melbourne. Staff serve up fairly standard café fare (try the Bounty milkshake), though the fish sandwich is the standout – just make sure you bring someone to share it with, because this thing is huge.
And I say it’s “one of” the best because Charlie’s has got some pretty stiff competition down the road at The Mooring Café. Perched on the beach at Avana, the mahi-mahi sandwich is simple but delicious, and is best enjoyed perched on one of the white deck chairs scattered about the place.
It’s probably best to try both, just so you can make an educated decision.
If you’re celebrating something special – like a birthday or honeymoon – on your visit to Rarotonga, book in for dinner at Vaima Restaurant and request that you be seated on the beach. From here, you can enjoy the modern Polynesian-style food (and a cocktail) while you watch hundreds of small crabs emerge from their holes on the beach and make their way towards the water. At times, there are so many it looks like the beach is moving.
Just remember your Aeroguard, because – being so close to the water – the mosquitos tend to come here for dinner, too.
One thing you’ll learn upon arriving in Rarotonga is that food and music go hand-in-hand. The Overwater Show at Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, for example, is an incredible display of Cook Islands Maori culture, with traditional dances and customs performed on floating stages throughout the venue’s gorgeous waterfall garden. (Bookings for the Overwater Show and dinner cost $102/NZ $109 per person.)
Many of the island’s resorts, like the Edgewater Resort in Arorangi, also host cultural nights, where you can enjoy a meal while local entertainers perform traditional songs and dances in full cultural dress.
If you’re looking for something closer to home, don’t miss the Cook Islands Tours progressive dinner tour. For $92 (NZ $99) per person, you’ll enjoy an entrée, main, and dessert in the homes of three local families as part of a small group. It’s quite unusual to eat this way in the Cook Islands – typically, courses are ditched in favour of big, buffet-style set-ups where dessert sits beside more savoury dishes – but way the tour’s structured means you can make the most of the time you have to get to know your hosts.
And the hosts are as hospitable as they are great cooks. Dishes like ika mata, curried papaya salad (just try it, trust me), crispy taro chips, and coconut pudding are all lovingly prepared, and the whole thing is accompanied by a travelling band of ukulele-players who serenade them as they enjoy your meal. Just try to top it.
For a modern look at the nation’s unique and, at times, tumultuous history, Te Ara: The Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise is unmissable. Just back from Muri Beach, the exhibits at Te Ara provide incredible insight into the Cook Islands’ cultural, political and environmental past. Some of the things this tiny island nation has seen and been through will blow your mind and give you a greater appreciation for the warmth of its residents.
If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into Te Ara owner, Stan, when you visit. If you’re luckier, he’ll give you a guided tour of the place – his knowledge for the Cook Islands history and passion for sustainability is unmatched anywhere else on the island.
You can also pick up some truly unique and 100 per cent locally designed and made souvenirs in the gift shop. The museum is open 9am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Getting to Rarotonga couldn’t be easier. Jetstar flies to the island via Auckland — out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane — three times per week.
And the only thing that’s easier than getting to the island is getting around it. The main road runs 32km around the perimeter of the island, meaning you can drive it in less than an hour. It’s nigh-on impossible to get lost, unless you deviate to the island’s inner roads, but even then you can easily find your way home by heading towards the water.
Public transport on the island is sparse and pretty expensive (the local bus charges around $3 per kilometre and only runs clockwise or anti-clockwise once an hour), so it’s best to hire a car for the duration of your stay. Polynesian Rentals offers a range of vehicles and scooters for around $65 (NZ $70) per day, but it’s worth noting that you’ll need to hold or apply for the correct licence if you plan on hiring a scooter or motorbike.
For a truly unique look at the island away from the beaches, book a buggy or quad-bike tour with Raro Buggy Tours. A rare activity that’s best just after rain, visitors motor around back roads, up hills, and through mud on a tour around Rarotonga’s picturesque mountains and plantations, peaking at spectacular Wigmore’s Waterfall.
The tour is led by professional guides and lunch The Mooring Café is included in the morning package ($140 / NZ $150 per person). All you need to bring is your full licence, a towel, and your sense of adventure.
How To Get There
Kristen Amiet was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Jetstar.
(Lead image: David Kirkland / Cook Islands Tourism)