I visited the most beautiful tropical island I've ever seen for a quick holiday from Australia
Rarotonga - the largest of the Cook Islands - has breathtaking beaches, jungle-like terrain, spectacular turquoise lagoons and coral reefs filled with marine life.
At large, the Cook Islands of 15,000 people remain untouched - no traffic lights or huge intersections, no McDonald's, and no sky-high infrastructures. In fact, not a single building is taller than the highest coconut tree.
While thousands of Aussies flock to island getaways like Bali and Fiji, they're truly missing out on something special.
The little-known luxury oasis is only five and a half hours away from Sydney with Jetstar flights direct - a route that hasn't been flown by an Australian airline in three decades.
FEMAIL visited Rarotonga and Aitutaki to find out what all the hype was about.
Rarotonga is bursting with vibrant scenery in every direction, making it the perfect winter escape for Aussies who don't want to spend a fortune on a quick holiday.
Everywhere you turn there's a cascading palette of evergreen blues as far as the eye can see. The lagoon waves ripple onto shore where dogs play on the sand and hermit crabs scurry away.
The greenery continues to the top of the highest mountain where an oceanic volcano sits silently.
Unlike other popular island destination, there's no hecklers trying to sell you something for a few dollars. Instead locals greet tourists with a welcoming 'Kia Orana'.
Time is spent swimming in the inviting blue lagoons, sunbaking, relaxing and exploring all the island has to offer. The luxurious paradise is ideal for couples, families and newlyweds alike – with activities including outdoor experiences such as snorkelling, whale watching and hiking.
In the middle of June, the temperature teeters between a top of 25 to 28 degrees Celsius, with the sun glistening onto the shimmering clear waters.
A single 32km road runs around the outer edge of the island, making it easy to get around but a rental car is a must. Similarly, a SIM card is also essential as Wi-Fi is limited and ATM machines are scarce, so bring cash.
All 15 islands make up just 240 square kilometre which have been self-governing in free association since 1965.
COOK ISLANDS MUST-DO ACTIVITIES AND SIGHTS
Naturally tourists will be eager to swim in the inviting lagoons - and why not look a little further by diving with sea turtles.
Ariki Adventures offer a unique sea turtle snorkelling experience where guests are handed a 'sea scooter' to use while swimming - a fast underwater device making it quick and easy to move around in the water.
During the two-hour tour visitors will have the opportunity to get up close to countless turtles, tropical fish, starfish, and even manta rays.
Humpback whales also tend to swim in the area and can be spotted on the odd occasion if lucky.
However, due to the nature of the tour and sea scooters, this activity ideal for adults and teenagers only, particularly those with an adventurous side.
Those with young children may wish to consider a Koka Lagoon Cruise across the stunning Muri Lagoon. Guests will have the perfect view of Rarotonga from the water and are offered a 40-minute snorkelling session, delicious BBQ lunch, and entertainment on board.
Once on shore there's also a coconut climbing show to demonstrate how coconuts are collected from the tall swaying trees, along with a fun coconut husking show the whole family will enjoy.
Alternatively paddle boarding and jet ski tours are other options.
Every Saturday morning on Rarotonga the Punanga Nui Market is open to host more than 130 food and craft stalls, giving visitors the opportunity to take home a souvenir, try local produce and interact with locals.
The market is truly a sensory overload of colour, vibrant music, and excitement in the air.
Aitutaki - the second most popular island - is another picture-perfect destination that shouldn't be missed. Just a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga, Aitutaki is best seen from the water on a full-day cruise to snorkel and visit postcard-perfect beaches.
This island is abundantly smaller compared to Rarotonga but has some of the clearest waters in the world and is known to be a world-class honeymoon destination.
WHAT MAKES RAROTONGA DIFFERENT?
There's no McDonald's, and the closest equivalent is a fast-food hotspot called 'Super Brown' offering similar menu items of burgers, hot chips and drinks.
It's common to see white graves in front yards of homes. Locals who pass away are buried quickly in the gardens of their family's property as there's no morgue on the island. This has to do with both the law and tradition.
Rarotonga was 'what Hawaii used to be 100 years ago'. Metua Mitchell, 27, a local born on the island, told FEMAIL Rarotonga doesn't compare to other commodified islands of today, because it's barely been touched.
Foreigners usually have to jump through hoops to buy property on the Cook Islands. The land can only be purchased by those who live on the island, and they can choose to lease the property out if desired.
Nearly everything is shut on Sundays. The dominant religion on the Cook Islands is Christianity and majority of the population attend church on Sundays then spend time with family rather than working.
Though similarly to Bali and Vietnam, don't drink the tap water - bottled water only.
WHAT DO THE LOCALS THINK?
Locals were thrilled over the news that a direct flight is now flying from Australia, as the island heavily relies on tourism.
However, others expressed the importance of maintaining the 'balance' between generating tourism dollars and maintaining the beauty of the island.
One local told FEMAIL: 'How will this affect our land? Our oceans? Our people? Will this change things?'
Another said: 'It's really exciting to see more tourists around on the island. It was eerie during Covid and some families had to give up their pets to save money. But now the island is bustling with people already.'
Metua Mitchell, 27, a local born on the island, told FEMAIL Rarotonga doesn't compare to other commodified islands of the world, because it lacks giant infrastructures and well-known brands.
'A lot of people say Rarotonga was what Hawaii used to be 100 years ago, and it's true,' Mr Mitchell said.
WHERE TO STAY IN RAROTONGA:
During my visit I stayed in Manuia Beach Resort, which is rated 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor. Other prime locations include Edgewater, Pacific Resort and Muri Beach Club Hotel.
I began each day by having breakfast at the resort and gazing upon the beachfront.
Most of my time spent on the island was filled by jumping into the stunning lagoon, going snorkelling and soaking up the sun.
Be sure to also make some time (at least a one night stay) at Aitutaki - it was the highlight of the trip and I can't believe it's a real place. The scenery continuously took my breath away.
Jetstar's Chief Customer Officer, Alan McIntyre was at Sydney Airport to farewell the first flight.
'This service will make the Cook Islands the next hot holiday spot for Australians seeking a tropical island escape to relax and unwind, especially during cooler months,' he said.
Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown, said the Cook Islands is the ultimate tropical island destination.
'The island is renowned for some of the world's most incredible crystal-clear waters, and Aitutaki lagoon is recognised as one of the most beautiful in the world,' Mr Brown said.
Read Daily Mail's full article HERE...