Captivated by the Cook Islands
There was a fish swimming towards me. It was big. Very big. Human-sized in fact. And I’m not being funny but it appeared to have some rather sharp teeth...
But floating in the azure blue waters off Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
The area is home to one of the area’s most impressive tourist attractions, giant trevally – enormous silvery grey fish – and I was having the time of my life snorkelling with them among the coral. My partner Kenny and I had travelled to the tiny tropical island of Aitutaki from the main island of Rarotonga just a day earlier. After spending the night at the impressive five-star Pacific Resort Aitutaki in a premium beach-front bungalow overlooking Aitutaki Lagoon (the resort is for guests aged 12 and over), Kenny and I had headed off bright and early to join the much-talked about Vaka Lagoon Cruise.
A fresh coconut awaited us on board the traditional vessel, along with a ukulele band who rolled out cheerful tunes throughout the day and prepared a delicious barbecue for lunch.
And while swimming with the giant trevally was a highlight, we also got to see some seriously lush tropical islands – which you might recognise if you’ve ever watched the reality TV shows Shipwrecked or Survivor.
There’s one more must-do on the cruise. It’s practically mandatory to get your passport stamped at the world’s most remote post office located on the beach at One Foot Island, and the inky stamp serves as a permanent reminder of the time you stepped into paradise.
That’s precisely what the Cook Islands are – tiny slices of paradise dotted in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Arriving into Rarotonga a week earlier at 6.30am after a pleasant overnight Air New Zealand flight direct from Sydney, Kenny and I were serenaded by a ukulele player in a straw hat by the name of Papa Jake as we waited at the baggage carousel. No other airport I’ve visited has exuded the laid-back charm of Rarotonga.
We were enchanted – and our joy continued when our cheerful guide Auntie Nane greeted us with a beautifully scented garland of fresh flowers each.
On route to our accommodation – the delightful Moana Sands Lagoon Resort (guests must be aged 18 and over) – Auntie Nane proceeded to give us tips about our stay. One thing she didn’t mention, however, was falling fruit ...
That night, while tucking into the island’s speciality raw fish dish Ika Mata at the palm-fringed watering hole (and local snorkelling spot) Charlie’s Bar, Kenny and I had the first of two near misses with a coconut. A big brown ball detached itself from a tree, and plonked down alarmingly close to our heads. But that’s island life for you, right?!
We quickly realised that as well as falling coconuts there is also a thing called “island time”. It basically means everyone is cheerfully laid-back and in no hurry to get anywhere.
There are 11,000 people on Rarotonga, one main road that runs for approximately 30km around the island, no traffic lights and only two roundabouts, which frankly means it’s an absolute joy to navigate either by car or by electric bicycle (which we rented at Moana Sands Lagoon Resort).
Another thing to remember is that if you’re there on a Sunday don’t expect to be able to buy alcohol outside the resorts. To Cook Islanders, Sunday is a day for “rest, reflection and family” and there’s not much open.
One place that is open on Sundays, however, is the delightful Mooring Fish Cafe – a relaxed spot nestled inside a blue cargo container next to the lagoon. The friendly staff revealed the café began with just four tables 10 years ago and has blossomed into the place to go for an FOB – an epic fish sandwich, the name of which translates to “Fresh Off the Boat”.
The abundance of fresh food is a highlight of any Cook Islands holiday. We not only enjoyed a fabulous Progressive Dinner Tour during our time on the island – where each course was served at a different family home – but we also discovered the world’s best breakfast.
Ironically, we discovered it by accident when we missed brekkie in order to be picked up at 8am for a Storytellers Eco Cycle Discovery Tour.
Mentioning to our tour guide Uncle Jimmy that we were, in fact, a bit hungry, he happily led us on a gastronomic adventure that involved him cracking open fresh coconut and sharing the sweet flesh with us.
A fresh mango – picked straight from the tree – and a fresh guava followed. It was, Kenny and I agreed, the best tasting fruit we had ever eaten.
As we cycled along the ancient Coral Road – stopping to hear Uncle Jimmy’s stories along the way – we got a real glimpse into the tranquil pace of village life. “I love sharing the lifestyle,” Uncle Jimmy told us. “You can’t do any of this back home.”
And that’s beauty of the Cook Islands. It’s not like home. It’s a different pace, a different way of living. It’s a pace Storytellers’ Australian owner, Dave, embraced when he started his Cook Islands’ cycle tour business six years ago, after falling in love with the islands during a visit for a friend’s wedding.
Does he miss Australia? “Not really,” he says simply. And as another coconut thudded to the ground behind us, Kenny and I looked at each other and smiled.
This is island life. And it’s truly magnetic.