“So how’s your day going?” asked the post office lady as I bought some colorful Cook Islands postage stamps (I’m very analog and love sending postcards on my travels rather than posting to Facebook).
Funny thing was, the way she asked I had a feeling that she would have lent an ear were I interested in sharing the details of my day, which by the way had gone splendidly. I was in the Cook Islands, after all.
When you ask a Cook Islander what the one reaction visitors have here, they invariably answer “the people are so friendly.” Of course, the Cooks have the sun and sand and aqua waters you’ve always associated with the South Pacific, as do Tahiti and Fiji. But there are several ways the Cooks stand out from those other destinations.
First, it’s the cheapest to reach by air. Air New Zealand flies here every Saturday on a Boeing 777, a 9- or 10-hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles, and frequently offers airfares around $899 round-trip, or even less with their occasional $400 off coupon codes, which bring the price down to a ridiculous $499-$598 round-trip. (The country subsidizes the flights, if you’re wondering. Airfare to other South Pacific hot spots are usually $1,200 round-trip or more.)
Second, the main island, Rarotonga, with its large lagoon, is a continuous land mass. Whereas your resort on Fiji or Tahiti might be isolated on its own island, the ones here are all on the same island so you can easily explore different resorts, restaurants and attractions. The small airport is just a few minutes' drive from most resorts. Once you land, you’re there.
There are no high-rises, no chain stores, no McDonald’s, not even a stoplight. This is, as they say, Hawaii like it was 50 years ago. Here's how to make the most of your visit.
Things to do
Take a sunset cocktail cruise on the lagoon. Several resorts offer these.
Visit the Whale and Wildlife Centre and Cafe. Ask them to let you feed a minnow to their resident rock fish and enjoy some excellent coffee in the cafe.
Take a Tik-E electric tuk-tuk tour with Karl Jackson, a New Zealander expat. Anything you ever wanted to know about the Cooks will be revealed.
Attend a Sunday church service. Sunday services are colorful events where women sport elaborate Polynesian head dresses and the choirs are uplifting.
Take a BBQ lagoon cruise with Kia Orana Cruises and enjoy just-caught charcoal-grilled fish and other treats while you visit empty, white-sand beaches and snorkel among the reefs. Unlike some of the lagoon cruises here, this one accommodates just eight guests so it’s much more manageable and intimate. $125 per person or $800 for a private charter up to eight people.
Obviously, snorkeling and diving are popular here. Plan your excursion with The Dive Centre in Aroda. Also of note: Cross-island treks, Jungle Quad Tours with Coconut Tours, and the Te Vara Nui Village with its “Legends of Tongaiti” show featuring island dancers and musicians.
There are over 50 cafes and restaurants on Rarotonga, operated both by the native-born and New Zealand expats. Fish and other seafood are the thing to have here. You eat what was caught that day.
Reserve dinner at Tupuna’s Restaurant for fresh coconut crab and the creamiest, most decadent cheesecake you will ever taste. Moorings Cafe offers fresh fish sandwiches and addictive smoothies. If you think you don’t like fish, it may be because you haven’t eaten it here.
If you go
When to visit: November to April is rainy season, so resort prices are lower, and November to March is cyclone season, although the country hasn’t had a serious storm in several years, and July to October is “whale season” during which cavorting whales and their offspring are visible from the shore.
Getting around the island: Many resorts offer shuttle service, and you can rent cars and mopeds (drive on the left). A public bus circumvents Rarotonga every 30 minutes and costs NZD$5 per ride, $30 for ten rides, or $16 for an all-day hop-on, hop-off pass.
Where to stay: The three most luxurious resorts on Rarotonga, according to TripAdvisor.com, are Rumours, Te Manava (13 self-catering villas) and the recently opened Nautilus with 20 stylish villas and apartment units. There’s no government tax on rooms (yet), however resorts add a surcharge to use credit cards (typically 4%). On Aitutaki, the other most-visited island,the 27-room Pacific Resort is the place to stay.
Shopping: Stores close around 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and noon on Saturday. Everything is closed on Sunday. Jewelry designed from highly polished shells, carved by local artisans, makes a beautiful gift.
Excursions: A 50-minute flight to Aitutaki, the other major island in the Cooks, is a popular option. All resorts here snuggle the beach or water. The many other smaller islands worth exploring scheduled air service.
Etiquette: Go with the flow if you’re greeted with a kiss on the cheek instead of a handshake, even on a first meeting. These people really are friendly. People speak their minds, even to strangers, so feel free.
Tipping: Not customary.
Currency: The New Zealand dollar (currently equal to 69 cents U.S.)
Connectivity: This is an interesting aspect of any visit to the Cooks, and there’s good news and bad news. There is no such thing as “free Wi-Fi” here because all data is transmitted by satellite rather than less expensive undersea fiber optic cables and there’s only one provider. Check rates at bluesky.co.ck (100 megabytes start at NZ$10, or 20 cents per megabyte). The good news: While you can get online if you must, you end up asking yourself how much it’s worth it to pay to sort through email and read all the depressing news from back home. Instead of Insta-bragging your trip, send a postcard (about 70 cents to North America). Or read a book and relax on the talcum powder-sand beaches. Costly Internet connection rearranges your thinking about what’s really important.
Fun fact: The country will most likely reach 100% renewable energy ahead of any other on Earth. The current goal is 2020, although the Prime Minister told me on my recent visit that it will happen sooner.
Passports and visas: Stays of up to 31 days with a valid passport and return ticket, with extensions up to five months.
One word to know: kia orana. It means hello, may you live long, and many other things.
More info: cookislands.travel