Cook Islands, the tropical paradise now a direct flight from Australia

Jetstar last week opened up a new direct route between Sydney and Rarotonga, the largest and most populated of the Cook Islands

Smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a tropical island so untouched by big tourism that the locals cheekily describe the place as “what Hawaii was 50 years ago”.

And now, it’s a direct flight from Australia.

Jetstar last week opened up a new direct route between Sydney and Rarotonga, the largest and most populated of the Cook Islands (at around 13,000 residents). Before now, holidaying Aussies – or some of the many Cook Islanders living in Australia – faced a taxing day of flights with a lengthy stopover in New Zealand to visit. Now, paradise is only five-and-a-half hours – and as cheap as $500 return, during a Jetstar sale – away.

Jetstar is the first Aussie airline to fly direct to the island nation in more than 30 years.

I was on that first overnight flight last Thursday, escaping Sydney winter for a few days in the sun (current average island temperature: 27 degrees).

The time change is a bit of a head-scratcher: Our five-hour 9pm flight sees us arrive in Rarotonga not at 3am but at 7am … the morning before we left. The Cook Islands is a few hours ahead, but a day behind.

This new flight arrives just on sunrise. Passengers jostle for the windows and gasp as Rarotonga suddenly comes into view, a blip in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that still packs a mighty punch, ringed by a clear-blue lagoon and covered with jagged green mountain peaks.

Once you arrive, you realise what the locals mean with that Hawaii gibe: There are no big chain resorts in the Cook Islands (Some have tried and failed in the past – a derelict, half-built Sheraton is a testament to that). Instead, the accommodation is largely small, boutique resorts, each with its own unique charm.

I’m staying at the 4.5-star Nautilus resort, where the focus is on water: A deep pool looks out to the lagoon in front, perfect for snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking (all on offer for hotel guests – just grab and go). My room is more of a private villa, surrounded by its own secluded fenced garden complete with a plunge pool.

There’s an ease about life on the island, helped by the fact there’s really only one main road, hugging the shoreline on a loop, that’s home to most restaurants, shops and hotels. You can hire a car or a bike, or catch the bus like the locals – it runs both clockwise and anticlockwise. No bus stops: Just hail it when you see it. There are no Bali-esque traffic jams here, and it’s very difficult to get lost when you’re driving in a big circle like Mario Kart.

Dogs, cats and chickens roam the island freely – the first two usually have owners, it’s just that nobody has fences or gates to keep them enclosed. The chickens? Everyone lost track a long time ago. Two dogs at our resort swim a few hundred metres out to a smaller island on the lagoon, spend the day sun lounging there, then come back by dinner. I wonder if they were waiting for someone to bring them a cocktail.

After a nap to beat that overnight flight jet lag, it’s time for the first experience, at Ariki Adventures on the south side of the island. This is where turtles gather in one of the ‘passages’, deep channel openings in the lagoon that rings the island, where currents are much stronger. The operators have enlisted an ingenious method to combat this: battery-operated ‘sea scooters’, which run at three speeds and propel you through the water against the current. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of, but then it’s like your powering through the water with your own personal jetpack.

I’ve snorkelled with a turtle or two in my time, but I’ve never seen anything like this. They’re everywhere we look – what at first appear to be large rocks among the coral are in fact turtles, sleeping. One wedges herself upside down in a crack in the coral, her favourite daily sleeping spot. Others linger higher, their heads breaking the surface as they take a breath. Deeper below us, eagle rays sweep the ocean floor, visible only as shadows.

The next day, we make the trip over to Aitutaki, a 50-minute flight away. This is old school, island air travel: We rock up to the airport shortly before the flight, are given a small piece of paper with our seat number, and are in the sky and back down on the tarmac before we know it. It can take this long just to clear security on a domestic flight back home.

Aitutaki is a series of smaller islands on a spectacular, huge lagoon – many tourists come here for a day trip out on the water, but the land has simple charms for those wanting to stay, too. If Rarotonga is Hawaii 50 years ago, Aitutaki must be Rarotonga 50 years ago.

We stay for a night at Etu Moana, a small, adults-only resort with self-contained villas in a beautiful garden looking out toward the beach. The well-stocked poolside bar operates on an honesty system: Help yourself, write down what you had and they’ll add it up when you check out. As resort manager Tiffany tells us proudly: “It’s very civilised, don’t you think?”

The next morning in Aitutaki, it’s time for the main event: local tour operator Wet and Wild take us out on the island’s expansive lagoon. From the moment we leave the dock, it’s clear we’re in for something very special: The water changes to the most vivid, azure colour I’ve ever seen. It’s as though someone’s running ahead of the boat and pre-Instagram filtering it.

Stopping at various coral-filled swimming spots and small, uninhabited islands, we take countless photos, paddle in the shallows and snorkelling above giant clams as massive trevally dart around us.

As the day wears on, the whole group feels a little giddy at our surroundings. As one of our guides says: Here, you can close your eyes, point your camera any which way, and end up with a perfect photo.

Sitting in the shallows after lunch, I spy something that momentarily jolts me out of the serenity: A small lolly wrapper floats by in the water. I realise it’s the first piece of rubbish I’ve seen since I got here. I scoop it up, put it in my pocket, and hope the Cook Islands can stay this untouched, even as these new flights bring more tourists.

A few minutes later, as I squeeze in one final snorkel, two turtles glide by serenely, on their way to find a nearby passage back out to the open ocean.

It’s hard to get back on that boat, knowing it will take me away from here.

After that short, spectacular flight back to Rarotonga, and on my last day in paradise, I decide to take on a new challenge and force myself out of the water.

Having never ventured more than 100 metres inland since I got here, I’m itching to do the ‘Cross-Island Trek’, a challenging 3-4 hour hike that leaves from the north side of the island, climbs steeply up to the base of the 413m-high ‘Needle’ rock formation, then carefully meanders down the south side.

It’s leg-wobbling work scrambling over knotted tree roots, with a few unavoidable slips in the mud along the way. Those who do it are advised to either hire a guide or attempt in groups of at least three. But it’s beautiful to see the island’s rainforest up close, and the walk has the most perfect ending at Wigmore’s Waterfall. If only every mountain hike finished with a cool dip to wash away the mud and sweat.

The next morning, it’s time to fly home – a little longer on the way back, at 7 hours, but at a more respectable takeoff time of 9 am (and it’s still early days for this new Jetstar route – our plane is half-empty).

Our group gathers for brekkie after check-in at The Islander restaurant across the road from the airport, sneaking in one last Cook Islands feed, when a humpback whale breaches the surface no more than 100m from shore, where the lagoon is at its narrowest. We race to the water’s edge and stand in silent contemplation as it passes the island, back out to the deep blue of the Pacific. Much like that whale’s migration, an annual visit here doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Read the full article and's Cook Islands Travel Guide HERE...