What trip to the South Pacific would be complete without a visit to a remote island that tourists never really hear about? The often overlooked, tiny South Pacific nation of the Cook Islands had always been somewhere that I’d wanted to see. With under 30,000 visitors a year from outside Oceania, it’s one of the South Pacific’s best-kept secrets. The captivating Cook Islands are about as close to paradise as you can get on this earth.
Travelling to the Captivating Cook Islands
As amazing as the Cook Islands are, their remoteness makes them a bit of a challenge to get to. The only option to get there from Samoa, a mere 900km away, was to fly 3250km to Auckland. Nearly four times the distance! From there I had to fly another 3000km to Rarotonga, the biggest of the 15 islands of the Cook Islands Chain. That’s over 6 hours flying to get to islands that should only be an hour’s flight away.
Booking a flight from Auckland to Rarotonga requires a little more planning than normal. There are only 12 flights a week. Those flights are split between Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. If you want to fly out of Auckland on a Monday, you’re outta luck. On Sunday, a morning flight with Air New Zealand is the only choice. But Tuesday to Friday you’ll have a choice of a morning or afternoon flight. Saturday is the busy day as all 3 airlines fly the route that day. There are also flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and Los Angeles, but they only run once a week.
To make matters even more complicated, flights to Rarotonga cross over the international date line. That means that most flights land in the Cook Islands the day before they left Auckland. Conversely, flights back to New Zealand land two days after they left Rarotonga. Are you confused yet? Things can get quite complicated so extra vigilance is required to make sure you don’t end up cutting your time on the Cook Islands short by mixing up your days.
Arriving in The Cook Islands
The displeasure of all that extra planning fades away as soon as you land in the Cooks. Who could help but be captivated by the cute little neon sign that welcomes you the islands? Immigration officers greet you with ‘Kia Orana’, the local way of saying hello, then quickly and painlessly process your entry into the tiny country. When you enter the baggage reclaim area, you notice a man in the middle of the luggage belt. He’s performing a slightly upgraded version of the serenade received on other South Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga; with laptop accompaniment instead of guitars.
The Captivating Cook Islands At Night
On the way to the Cook Islands, I had crossed the international date line for the third time during my pacific adventure. That meant I had once again gone back in time, to land in Rarotonga on the eve of the day that had just passed. Of course, everything was closed and there were no transport options besides taxis and airport transfers. I’m not a taxi kind of person and hadn’t booked an airport transfer with my accommodation because I thought that NZ$15 was a bit extreme for a 5 minute drive!
My accommodation was just behind the airport, a mere 200 metres away from where I stood. Unfortunately, I had to walk all the way around the airport perimeter to get to it. That made the walk a little bit longer but also gave me time to really take in the awesomeness of my surroundings. I was awed by just how dark things got once I hit the suburban road that would take me to my lodging for the night. I must admit that I stopped many times to admire the amazing amount of stars in the night sky. It was actually an exhilarating feeling knowing that just a few minutes walk from an international airport had taken me far enough away from all light sources to see the full glory of the heavens after dark.
It’s Christmas Time Again!
After a good sleep, I woke up to Christmas Day, for the second time! The Cook Islands are a majority Christan country. So as you would expect, Christmas is a big deal there. With an island twist..
Most places on the island were closed for the Christmas holiday, so I’d decided to hire a bicycle from my hostel, (NZ$10 for 24 hours), and ride around the island. The island of Rarotonga, or Raro as it’s affectionately known locally, is only 32km in circumference. You can circumnavigate the island comfortably in less than four hours on a bike. Additionally, it’s an easy ride because the road around the island is completely flat. The middle of the island, on the other hand, is not so flat.
Cycling Around The Captivating Cook Islands
The main road around Raro hugs the coastline, so you are guaranteed spectacular views no matter where you stop along the road.
Even the dead get great views!
Cycling around the island is a great way to get a feel for island life. You’ll also learn that islanders are not only a caring bunch, they also have a great sense of humour. The only ‘stop’ sign on the whole island is a shop sign!
And obviously this is a joke, right?
There are no busy roads in Raro! In fact, there’s a good chance you won’t see another person on the main road for hours. But you’ll see plenty of this.
And maybe even a bit of this.
Seafood With a Side of Safety
After a few hours of cycling around the island, I had decided that it was time to escape the heat and grab a bite. Seeing as it was Christmas Day, my only option was to eat at a resort. I felt like I was the centre of attention when I walked in. All the staff were waiting to serve me. I was given the option of dining inside or outside. The decision was easy.
Owing to the season, the tables were looking quite festive, in that island kind of way.
I’d opted to try a local dish called Ika Mata. It consists of raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut milk.
To be honest, I wasn’t holding high hopes for this dish as I’m not a huge fan of fish, but it was actually quite delicious. Once I’d finished my feed and admired the beach for a bit longer, I headed back to the main road where I saw this sign
Interestingly, the law on the Cook Islands when I was there only required people between the ages of 16 and 25 to wear helmets when cycling or riding scooters/motorbikes. I could probably guess why that was the particular age group chosen but it’s still a little weird that it wasn’t applied to everyone.
After a few more roadside stops to look out into the mesmerising blue sea, I found my way to a small local shop where I’d planned to buy some refreshments. That should’ve just taken a few minutes, but I left the store three hours later.
Local Celebrities on the Captivating Cook Islands
You may be asking how I could’ve spent three hours in a small store. Well, part of the reason was that the lady behind the counter was a chatterbox. I also never shy away from a chat. Especially when it’s with a well known and respected local. Aunty Mei, who was the local lei maker, was happy to give me some insights into her life on the island.
Many are familiar with the Hawaiian lei, generally slipped onto the neck as a symbol of friendship when welcoming visitors. The idea is similar in the Cook Islands, but they also have many other uses. There are two main types, Lei Kaki, which are similar to Hawaiian leis, and Lei Katu which are wreaths placed on the head. Aunty Mei specialises in the second type. Locals will place orders with Aunty Mei for all kinds of events, like graduations and weddings.
Aunty Mei’s Leis
All flowers used for Aunty Mei’s creations come from her own lovingly tended garden. The impression I got was that Aunty Mei had enough lei orders to keep her going for several months at least. She did say she had noticed a slight downturn in business in recent years as the younger generation were becoming disinterested in traditions. That’s something that unfortunately seems to be a bit of a trend around the world.
Despite being busy making a lei at the time I had walked in, Aunty Mei stopped what she was doing to chat to me. That’s one of the things that make islands so endearing; everyone has time for everyone. It’s always enlightening talking to locals, but as it was getting late, I had to continue my ride. Aunty Mei said I was welcome to come back and chat any time, then offered some flowers from her garden as a parting gift.
The Cross Island Trail
After seeing the flat coastal parts of the island, I was ready to tackle the rugged, hilly interior.
I had asked around town about the Rarotonga Cross Island Trail and most responses indicated that I shouldn’t try it without a guide. Looking at the hills I had to scale, I didn’t think it would be too difficult. Plus with my experience trekking around the world, I was sure I’d have no problems.
At the beginning, the trail was more like a road. Quite flat and easy to walk along. The surroundings were very lush and green as well.
I even spotted a few animals just hanging around, trying to shade themselves from the harsh Cook Islands sun.
The trail stayed relatively flat for a while, then it started narrowing gradually.
The Challenge Begins
A little bit further along the trail, I entered the forest. It was there that the trail became considerably thinner and started looking a bit more like the trails I’m used to. I found this a little exciting as I was looking for more of a challenge.
Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for! It wasn’t long before things got decidedly harder.
Now I could see why everyone was suggesting that I do the trail with a guide. It was definitely not an easy hike. Even as an experienced hiker I was beginning to get annoyed with parts of the trail. It seemed to wind back on itself and cross streams a crazy amount of times. It was a relief when I finally made it to the mid-point of the hike.
From there you can take a side trip to The Needle, which is a rock jutting out from the hill. People think it looks like the eye of a needle. It can be seen from many places on the coast of the island.
From the mid-point, the trail became slightly easier, although there was one particularly muddy section where locals had tied a rope to a tree to help people on their way down. I was excited when I saw this sign
It meant that the trail was coming to an end and I would soon be able to reward myself with a cool-down at the Papua Waterfalls!
Getting Back to the Other Side of the Island
The Cross Island Trail had brought me out to the main road on the south side of the island, but I needed to be on the north side. Luckily there were buses that ran regularly along the main road. They run clockwise at certain times and anticlockwise at certain times. Unfortunately, I had looked at the normal schedule and thought they would run until 4pm. But as it was a public holiday, service stopped at 3pm. Whoops.
I still had several hours before my flight departed, so I started walking. It wasn’t long before someone stopped to pick me up. He worked at the next resort, a few kilometres up the road. He told me he’d take me there and I could get another lift into the town from there. I actually didn’t mind walking, so once he dropped me off, I continued along the road.
Friendly Locals of the Captivating Cook Islands
I had probably only been walking for 10 minutes when another car stopped and motioned for me to get in. They were a middle-aged Australian couple who had made the Cook Islands their home many years ago. They told me they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The island life had won them over and I can definitely see why. A short while later, they dropped me off at the pub across the road from airport.
I had left my backpack there before I’d done the Cross Island Trail. As most places were closed by 4pm, I’d figured that it would be a good place to hang out before my 9pm flight back to Auckland. I sat myself down to enjoy a local beer with a view, when some locals came to join me.
They insisted that I shouldn’t be sitting alone and that I needed to drink more. Once I mentioned that I was flying out that night, they tried everything in their power to convince me to stay. “Don’t worry, you can get a flight out tomorrow”, they said. As amusing as my new friends were, I knew what I had to do. Get myself on that flight back to New Zealand so that I could continue my South Pacific adventure in the French territory of Nouvelle-Calédonie.