Cook Islands

Hugs not Handshakes

Long a favourite with New Zealand holidaymakers now, thanks to direct flights from Sydney, Aussies are discovering just how friendly the Cook Islands are, reports Tracey Spicer.

An inky black eye stares out from an orange mass, clinging to purple coral in sea of turquoise. It’s a technicolour dream – until I remember I’m awake. And the creature is moving. The giant octopus is undulating in less than a metre of water. I snorkel around, marvelling at this monster of the deep lurking in the shallows, while the kids are a couple of metres away, splashing amidst angel and butterfly fish. We are in a marine sanctuary off Rarotonga in the remote Cook Islands. It’s long been the ‘choice’ destination for New Zealand holidaymakers, but a new direct flight from Sydney now makes it accessible for Australians as well.

Lassoed by reef
Our five-hour flight culminates in a stunning sight – a verdant, volcanic island surrounded by a ring of reef. The water is the impossible blue that’s characteristic of French Polynesia. According to folklore, when the original settlers arrived in boats from Tahiti, the warriors continued on to New Zealand while the party animals stayed in the Cooks. This would explain the joie de vivre: we are invariably met with a hug not a handshake. The first surprise is the size of Rarotonga, the most populous of the 15 islands. You can drive around it in 40 minutes. The next surprise is the lack of commercialisation: not a Coke or McDonald’s sign in sight. And there are no traffic lights. The best snorkelling is along the south coast, so we decide to stay at the self-contained Moana Sands Beachfront Villas. These modern, two-bedroom apartments are perfect for families, situated right on the sand. There’s even a handy banana stem hanging by the back door, for a sugar hit before a day of kayaking, windsurfing or swimming. A supermarket is across the road if you want to self-cater, but there are also dozens of cheap restaurants and cafes serving fresh seafood.

Food, glorious food
An often-heard criticism of Pacific Islands is that the food doesn’t meet western standards. This could not be said of the Cook Islands. While the service appears relaxed – staff at Trader Jack’s in Avarua wander around barefoot – it is fast and efficient. Choose from tuna, mahi mahi, wahoo or marlin, combined with coconut milk, pineapple, pawpaw or mango. A highlight is ika mata – raw fish marinated in lime juice, blended with tomato and onions then mixed with fresh coconut cream. The best place to eat is Tamarind House, a restored colonial homestead nestled in lush landscaped gardens. At Waterline and Vaima Restaurants, you can sit with your toes in the sand while the kids play on the beach. Also check out the weekend markets, with everything from the immune-boosting noni juice to pareos (sarongs) and pretty shell jewelry.

Captain Smack Sparrow
It’s time for a little adventure. The staff on Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruises are famous for their idiosyncratic humour. Captain Smack Sparrow, Captain Amazing and Captain Fantastic begin by asking crowd, “What day is it?” When we all answer “Tuesday” they reply, “No. This is the best day of your life!” We’re taken out to a reef known as Fruits of Rarotonga, where damselfish, trevally and parrotfish dart around colourful coral. One of the Captains throws bread in the water to attract more fish, leading to one trevally tasting my torso. I leap back on the boat, leaving four-year-old Grace among the hungry fish. “Erm, don’t worry darling, it’s all right, mummy’s going to get the camera,” I lie, in a scene from a bad parenting movie. One Captain hand-feeds two huge moray eels, stroking them under the chin, while another pops an octopus on his bald head as a makeshift wig. The kids think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Taj sighs and says, “This is the best day of my life!”

Thigh pleasure!
Cannibalism, feminism and eroticism are just some of the themes explored during the terrific cultural experience at Te Vara Nui. It’s a fascinating tour of a replica village, exploring the history of the Cook Islands. We learn that the brains, eyeballs and tongues were eaten first, to humiliate the victim. Then we discover that men did all the cooking until the missionaries sent the women into the kitchen. Boo, hiss! The eroticism is evident in the spectacular over-water fire dancing. There’s something for everyone: coconut-clad boobies for the boys, muscular manly thighs for the girls. Grace is captivated: “I can’t take my eyes off those men. Why, Mummy?” she asks. I change the subject by leading her to the buffet, heaving with delights like umu – cooked in an earth oven – purple yam, sushi, beef curry and lasagne.

The Rarotongan
We end our journey watching the sun set over the marine sanctuary at the iconic family resort, The Rarotongan. This has got it all: an Olympic-sized trampoline in the kids’ club, a waterfall in the swimming pool, giant chess set, table tennis, drumming lessons and, of course, the beautiful beach. I spot a man riding a horse, neck-deep, through the water. “It’s a seahorse,” he yells. It’s not just the marine life which colours theCook Islands – it’s the wickedly wonderful humour displayed by its delightful people.

Thumbs Up
Te Vara Nui is a must-do.
The Dances of Legends show is simply spectacular, while the cultural tour is extremely educational.

Hot Tip
The best coffee is at the Deli-licious Café.

Don’t Miss The kids loved the Yellow Submarine tour, even though hubby insisted on singing the Beatles song ad infinitum! www.raroreefsub.com

On the cheap
Visit one of the many churches for a Sunday service. Local ladies, dressed in their finery, raise their melodic voices to the heavens. Afterwards, they provide refreshments for a small donation.