Where the heck are the Cook Islands?
After crawling around in tiny caves in even tinier wetsuits in New Zealand, we flew from Auckland, NZ to the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. When we planned our global jaunt, we decided to end it all with a couple of relaxing weeks on the beach and the Cook Islands fit the bill since we could get a layover there as part of our Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Los Angeles. Just over a year ago, I discovered the Cook Islands while researching honeymoon destinations in the South Pacific.
The Cook Islands are northeast of New Zealand relatively near American Samoa, Tonga and French Polynesia (Tahiti). Keep in mind, the South Pacific is really spread out and "near" often isn't very near at all. Due to the Cook's proximity to New Zealand, and their use of New Zealand currency, they are a popular vacation destination for Kiwis and Aussies. Not many Americans or Europeans make it to the Cooks, probably because they head to Fiji or Tahiti if they travel that far. Fiji and Tahiti have the bigger global hotel chains like the Sheraton, etc. whereas the Cooks have more low key boutique resorts and many unique, simple freestanding bungalow lodging options.
Scooting on Rarotonga
We started our two weeks of BS - Beaches and Scooters, what else? - on the largest island, Rarotonga (population 8100). At just 67 sq. km, Rarotonga is only large in comparison to the surrounding islands. There's a two-lane road that goes around the outer perimeter of the island and takes about 50 minutes to drive at the leisurely speed limit of 40 km/hr. The center of the island is very mountainous with scenic peaks and dense forest so there aren't any roads through the center of the island. It seemed to me that at any given moment, a third of the locals and well over half of the tourists were toodling along the perimeter road on scooters. Island time reigns supreme and there aren't many things more exciting than poking along the beachside road watching the waves roll in and the world go by.
Cook Islanders are large people much like Samoans and their language is related to the Maori language spoken by New Zealand's indigenous people. Life moves slowly on the island and no one seems too rushed or bothered by anything. Just when we'd started getting accustomed to the first world again, the Cooks were more reminiscent of our third world travels where things weren't as rushed and didn't always work the way Westerners think they should.
Upon arrival in "Raro", we stayed in a fancy hotel room at the Edgewater Resort. My mom's friend's niece's husband, Ian, works there. (Got that? It'll be in the quiz at the end.) As it turns out, we got to spend quite a bit of time with Ian Williamson and his wife, Emma, and daughter, Rebecca. Throughout our travels, we've found it feels odd looking up someone you've never met, but it's well worth it once you get to meet face to face. We've met so many great and welcoming folks along the way. Ian and Emma are New Zealanders who moved from Auckland to Raro 7 months ago for Ian's financial job at the Edgewater so it was fun to hear about their decision to "go island" and their experiences thus far.
Although through the miracle of clever editing, none of our photos show clouds or rain on Raro, in truth we had a few cloudy or drizzly days which gave us time to curl up with some books. Our somewhat frenzied pace through Australia and New Zealand in rental cars or vans didn't leave much time sitting around reading so I finally had the chance to finish Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections". Snow's Dime Store Review: Franzen writes beautiful, densely crafted prose about messed up, depressed (and depressing) Midwesterners. Read it for the writing, not as a "pick me up". I then read two quick thrillers that were far more fun, but seemed to be written using magnets on the fridge in comparison to Franzen's eloquent prose.
In the end, it sure is fun to read page turners that have passages like, "Chapter 1: I left the bar in the rain at midnight and nearly stepped on a stray black cat. An evil man in a trench coat approached me, and I could see he was hiding a shiny black gun splattered with blood. My detective instincts told me the man might be a suspect but, before I could ask a few questions, my cell phone rang with the most disturbing news of all. Chapter 2:..."
For the majority of our days on Raro, the sun came out and lit up the ocean and lagoon turning them a beautiful reflective turquoise color. The sand is fine and nearly white and the waves break a ways out from the shore making the beaches calm and beautiful.
While on Raro, we rented scooters a couple of times and explored the island's beaches and inner roads. We had lunch several times in Avarua, the main harbor town on the island where all the tourists converge to watch each other trying to drive their rented scooters, Miatas, and Suzuki 4x4s. The town had a bookstore, travel agent, and the usual smattering of internet cafes and T'n'T (trinkets n trash) shops. Course island-style T'n'T shops were selling some pretty darned expensive black pearl jewelry in addition to sarongs and flip flops. Black pearls are by far the largest export for the Cook Islands but I didn't think a black pearl stud earring was what I needed to complete my post round-the-world fashion look. I went for the black pearl "Superman" neck pendant instead.
The fastest Internet in town was at the Telecom office where people pay their landline phone bills so we spent a few hours there. I actually really liked it for 2 simple reasons 1.) air con!, and 2.) no thumping, rave techno music (most of the world) or 70s love ballads (ah, Asians love the teddy bear ballads).
Rarotonga had an extremely high density of churches, in particular evangelical churches. Sure seemed like a lot of churches for an island with only 8100 people but it makes sense when you think of missionaries arbitrarily picking a place to spread The Word. Why not start someplace sunny with delicious tropical fruit? There were two Mormon churches, a big 7th Day Adventist church and many Cook Island Christian Churches (CICC). The CICC churches were often interesting older structures in need of fresh paint that looked like they were as much a part of the island as the mountains rising behind them.
After 5 days in Raro, we flew to the smaller island of Aitutaki which Dana writes about and I will sum up with one word, "ooooh-la-la".
Bungalow bound at Muri Beach on Rarotonga
After Aitutaki, we returned to Raro for our final 4 days and stayed at an excellent self-catering bungalow just off of Muri Beach lagoon. Muri Beach is a shallow and relatively small lagoon with clear, turquoise water and a decent breeze for windsurfing and kite surfing. Our last day, a kite surfer was out doing mid-air flips over the lagoon. Someday when I have Popeye arms and a back so strong I can lift refrigerators over sawhorses all day, I'm going to try kite surfing. Wow, that sport looks strenuous.
While we were in the town of Avarua, a Chinese fishing boat was docked and roped off because it had been arrested at sea by the New Zealand navy and the Cook Islands for fishing illegally in Cook Island waters. The boat was allegedly full of millions of dollars of fish. Within a day or so, it was rumored that the government had reached a settlement with the boat rather than take the case to court. Apparently there is no transparency to this sort of settlement (i.e. how much cash exchanged hands and to whom). Also, apparently the current Cook Islands president lost the recent election but has somehow managed to regroup his party and stay in office longer. It all appears very sleepy and laid back but I can imagine that investing or doing business on the Cook's would be quite an eye opener. No foreigners can own land so businesses must have long term land leases. There's a huge unfinished Sheraton resort on the island which sits vacant though nearly complete because the government seized it back once it was revealed the developer was a mobster and planned to open a casino there.
Our final night, we borrowed a gas grill and had a BBQ on our bungalow's deck with Ian, Emma and their daughter, Rebecca. We'd managed to track down some Paul Newman's Italian dressing to use as marinade for our chicken and it tasted a bit like home. I once again confirmed that marinated and flame BBQ'd meat is superior to campervan hot plate meat. No need to confirm this yourselves. Trust me on this one.
The long flight home
We flew home on Air New Zealand leaving Rarotonga around 10 pm. We had a layover in Tahiti from midnight to 2 am. The Tahiti to Tokyo flight left just before ours so we sat and watched the young, slacker hipster Japanese honeymoon couples board their flight. Everyone was kinda slouching and sleeping in the airport lounge, and one by one, each Japanese couple would cuddle, then take an inevitably out-of-focus and overly-chinny picture of themselves with their camera phone.
From Tahiti, we flew to L.A. where we had 4 hours to kill before our Southwest flight to Seattle (via Oakland). We arrived home around 8 pm, tired and thrilled to be home to cold and damp Seattle where I could see the Space Needle looming on the horizon just like on Fraser's opening credits.
We've missed all of our friends and family and anxiously look forward to seeing you all again soon.
Hanging out with Fraser here in Seattle,
(This entry written in Seattle on my very own old-as-stone Windows 98 PC where I sat for hours upon hours doing very little, just because I could, and wasn't being charged by the minute. There was also a visible window, a nearby toilet and water, and no teenagers shouting at video game aliens - all things rarely found in the world's internet "cafes". By the way, there's almost never anything café-like about "internet cafes" unless being 3 blocks down from soda machine makes a room of computers a "café".)