By Steve Hartridge - February 2018 – 8 minute read
Not just a stopover, the Cook Islands offer plenty to attract longer-stay visitors, including 15 tropical islands with archetypal azure lagoons, a strong Polynesian culture, abundant watersports and plenty of chances to escape the sandy beaches and explore dramatic mountains and fields of fruit.
“I assumed the Cook Islands would be similar to Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles, that is, largely more resort based... but it is not like that at all. You can really get out and about here and getting around is very easy”
KATHRYN REARDON, FIRST CLASS HOLIDAYS
Whale of a time: Between July and October humpbacks come so close to shore they can be viewed from the beach
Party bus: Join the al fresco ‘party bus’ and dance/bop as you tour Rarotonga. The bus makes several bar break stops
On your bike: See Rarotonga by pedal power. A complete loop of the island will take around three hours. There are plenty of bars, churches, markets and other places of interest to stop for
Going down: Snorkel in the lagoon with the aid of a ‘scuba scooter’. Island company Ariki Adventures offers lessons and tours out to the edge of a reef inhabited by schools of colourful fish, manta rays and green and hawksbill turtles
Under canvas: For green and environmentally-minded clients suggest the upmarket African safari-style tents on offer at Ikutangi Eco Resort. It’s not on the beach, but the mountain views are spectacular
Sea views: For that archetypal beach bar with dreamy views of the Pacific, drop into Wilson’s at Castaway on Rarotonga. It has a rustic theme inspired by the Tom Hanks movie
Get it fresh: You’ll see ‘FOB’ (Fresh off the Boat) a lot in the Cook Islands. For a fish sandwich to beat all fish sandwiches suggest lunch at The Mooring Café near Muri Lagoon
Top nosh: Try to book clients in for a special dinner at Plantation House. It’s essentially a private house, but Louise and Minar Enoka serve up home-made island food at its very best. You work up an appetite doing a pre-dinner tour of the property’s fabulous organic plantation
Praise be: Clients travelling on Air New Zealand’s Saturday night service from Los Angeles can start their Cook Islands experience with a colourful and soul-rousing Sunday church service
Strike a deal: Prices are lower during the UK winter (November-May). For example, at Sunset Villas on Rarotonga, 20% discounts are available, with prices around NZ$340 per room, per night, including breakfast
Islands in the sun
For those flying directly from the UK, getting to the Cook Islands is undeniably an undertaking. But the moment you enter the immigration area, to be greeted by the gentle ukulele chords played by islander ‘Papa’ Jake Numanga, who for the past 30 years has been welcoming every international flight to Rarotonga, the discomfort of those 24 hours getting there quickly melts away.
Visitors will likely spend most of their time on Rarotonga, perhaps taking a day trip or overnight to one of the other islands such as Aitutaki, Atiu or Mauke.
Rarotonga is small, just 32 kilometres of road rings the island, there’s not a single traffic light and barely a building taller than a palm tree. And whether you discover its many charms on bike, taxi or take one of the two island buses that tour on a loop – one clockwise, the other anticlockwise – you can’t get lost.
A secondary road takes visitors inland. Cross-island walks are available – weather permitting – but the closest most get to the island’s verdant mountainous spine is visiting the pretty Papua Waterfall.
Away from the coast you discover what you imagine is a fair take on the Garden of Eden: there are pineapples, star fruit, watermelons, avocados, mandarins, papayas, chillies, taro (like a carrot) and fields of broccoli, cabbages, spinach (which you will likely get to taste dressed up in coconut cream) and many others.
In fact, there’s so much fruit and veg in the Cook Islands that everyone just helps themselves. Breakfasts are a particular treat, with the freshest, juiciest selection of fruit you will ever taste.
Rarotonga has its share of attractions away from the beach: there are evening cultural shows, sunset cruises, a golf course and two breweries where you can sample island beers.
For shoppers, the tiny waterfront capital of Avarua has perfume shops, factory outlets selling the islands’ famous black pearls, gift shops aplenty, overflowing with sarongs and shelves of coconut oil and Punanga Nui Market, which comes into its own on a Saturday.
The variety of activity options impressed Discover the World’s Naomi Cole, who was on a recent fam trip to the islands.
“There is a bit of a misconception that the Cook Islands are all about beaches, but there is plenty more to do. We went to church, we saw the cultural side of the destination, we learnt all about the medicinal values of the herbs and spices, enjoyed shopping and discovered Rarotonga by electric bike.”
Of the outer islands, Aitutaki is the most popular and has enough accommodation to make it a viable single-centre in its own right.
The island – location for the TV show Shipwrecked – has a vast lagoon encircled by coral reefs and small, sandy islets. A popular afternoon option is taking a cruise out on the lagoon, where you get to snorkel – keep an eye out for the giant trevally fish - and stroll among hermit crabs on the sands of One Foot Island. One of the novelties of the island is that it has its own passport stamp.
Many hotels on Rarotonga offer day tours to Aitutaki. Priced from around NZ$450, it includes a flight (around 45 minutes) with Air Rarotonga.
Once seen mainly as a stopover on the way to or back from New Zealand, the Cook Islands are beginning to attract more travellers adding on a longer stay. And for British travellers, a once-a-week direct London-Los Angeles-Los Angeles-Rarotonga flight, which operates on a Saturday, means they don’t have to visit New Zealand at all.
Most of the islands’ diverse range of accommodation is set on or close to the beach. These range from large resorts to smaller chalet-style self-catering options, apartments and backpacker-style rooms. And whether your clients are honeymooners, families with kids looking for their own activities and a dedicated ‘club’ or just romantics in search of a genuine tropical escape, the Cook Islands can deliver.
It is day three in the Cook Islands and I have already ticked off most of the anticipated attributes of a tropical island.
I have learnt a native greeting: ‘Kia Ora Ana’ (meaning ‘have life, be well/healthy’), walked barefoot on a white-sand beach, drank straight from a coconut and swam in a Byzantine-blue lagoon – but what I was not expecting was to be offered the very elixir of life itself.
But here I am, just off the main road that rings walnut-shaped Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands chain, taking sips of a maroon-coloured juice.
Freshly squeezed from the tropical fruit Morinda Citrifolia, which looks like a retarded custard apple, this is a pinched-nose experience. It smells and tastes like rancid strong cheese but any fleeting discomfort will be worth the price if even half the health benefits claimed of noni juice are realised.
Noni has long been used as a natural remedy in the Pacific Islands. It is said to promote overall health and aid the body’s own healing process for a whole range of conditions that include mild depression, high blood pressure, migraines and diabetes. It also lessens your chances of getting cancer and heart disease and boosts one’s sexual performance.
Here, in a factory owned by Australian expat Brad Stafford, who is planting 12,000 trees on the island – that’s 30 tonnes of juice a month – the noni fruit is big business.
With my health hopefully in the early stages of repair, and two large bottles of NZ$15 juice in my rucksack, I am back on my bike, zipping past fields rich with pineapples, trees slumping under the weight of breadfruit and shrubs heaving with bananas.
Avoiding the chickens running freely on the road ahead of me, there is a definite spring in my pedal and my thighs have stopped burning. Perhaps the noni juice is already working.
What the experts say
“We are probably the most cultural of all the Polynesian destinations but our branding tagline ‘Love a Little Paradise’ captures the vibrancy, fun and enjoyment of life in the Cook Islands”
“We underlined our ongoing commitment to the trade by undertaking a major fam trip last November, taking out 12 operators on a trip to Rarotonga and Aitutaki. We do one trade trip a year and in May it will be the turn of frontline travel agents
“Although we are still seen mainly as a stopover to New Zealand, we are starting to be considered as a destination in our own right. For clients who can’t afford Tahiti, we are a very decent option.
“Visitor growth for us is measured by a slight shift of the dial. We ended the last financial year – July 2016 to June 2017 – 7% down (from the UK), but that was better than our neighbours who were running more like 20% to 25% down. From July on we saw an impressive 50% growth a month, year-on-year. We had a boost from those on the British Lions tour of New Zealand, who stopped in the Cook Islands.”
IAN GRIFFITHS, UK MANAGER, COOK ISLANDS TOURISM
Where to book it
Ten nights at the three-and-a-half-star Moana Sands Beachfront Hotel and Villas on Rarotonga, staying in a beachfront studio on a B&B basis, starts from £2,029pp with Gold Medal. The deal, valid for travel between November 1-30 2018, includes flights with Air New Zealand and return transfers.