Is this the ultimate Island Paradise?
THE welcome envelopes you the moment you have passed through immigration at Rarotonga airport in the Cook Islands. Uncle Jake is on the ukulele singing an island song and Aunty Nane is waiting with flowers and puckered lips.
There's a lot of greeting kisses in the Cook Islands and, along with the omnipresent fragrance of gardenias and frangipanis, it's most agreeable.
Aunty Nane, from Cook Island Tourism, welcomes most planes and is the epitome of island hospitality with her Ei Katu (flowered headband) and vibrant mu mu skimming fabulous curves. Anyone over a certain age is automatically referred to as Aunty or Uncle as a matter of Cook Island fondness and respect.
As South Pacific tropical utopias go, the Cook Islands is right up there.
Just a five-and-a-half-hour flight from our east coast takes you to this Eden of cheek-kisses and perfumed flowers and white sand and gin-clear water and, perhaps best of all, not a high-rise in sight (nothing taller than the palm trees).
A coral reef encircles the island like a white daisy chain to create a calm lagoon of turquoise water that not only beguiles but also ensures safe swimming and endless water sports. The entire island is a snorkeller's wish come true. Just don flippers and mask and step off the beach into coral and colour. Or if you want more, Kave and Julie Tamaariki of Ariki Holidays will take you further out with a sea scooter to whiz you speedily through coral canyons, over giant clams and iridescent fish.
Beachfront resorts are as plentiful as the activity options and the dining choices are profuse.
Sitting on a beach bean-bag on the clean sand at the luxe Pacific Resort Rarotonga with its 2.2ha of tropical gardens on the Muri lagoon is an option that is hard to beat. So is sitting at a table at the resort's beach restaurant, toes in the warm sand, icy gin-and-tonic to hand, wondering whether to take a (free) kayak out for a paddle or just let Pacific Resort's glass-bottom boat glide you to the underwater magic.
Rarotonga is one of the few places on earth that likes to boast "size does matter and small is best".
The island is 69 square kilometres of verdant tropical growth with one main road that takes half an hour to traverse. Nothing is far away, but getting there can be slow. You'll want to stop every 10 minutes to marvel at sea vistas, take photos, or sip a drink of coconut water (straight from the real thing) at one of the laid-back bars.
An 8-12 kilometre leisurely bike ride with Dave and Uncle Jimmy of Storyteller's Eco-Cycle Tours through the back roads of the lush hinterland with its mist-shrouded mountains will open your eyes to another side of idyllic island life.
Ride through taro plantations so green and pretty you forget their purpose is to feed the locals who can't get enough of this tuberous vegetable. Stop by avocado and mango trees, banana and papaya plantations and crops of mysterious root vegetables while Uncle Jimmy tells you of the healing quality of the myriad plants. It's a glorious way to get to know Cook Island terrain and culture.
When the sun goes down (and it does spectacularly) there is night-time stand-up paddling off Pacific Resort's beach where LED lights under the board light up those crystal waters to show you another aspect of underwater life.
The operator, Ariki Holidays, will have you standing on a board within minutes, even if you are the most nervous beginner. You are certain to love it so much you'll front up early next morning for a spot of stand-up-paddle yoga.
Rarotonga is your first stop for a Cook Islands holiday, whether you want discovery, adventure or just relaxation.
Other articles by Ann Rickard on the Cook Islands: