Slabs and stones in Rarotonga
Guidebooks promised an unrivalled honeymoon destination — an island ringed by passionate seas and bathed with a love as fierce as the green mountains at its core. The only problem was, the girlfriend and I weren’t even engaged.
The Cook Islands are one of two places on Earth that naturally produce black pearls (the other’s Tahiti) and upon landing in Rarotonga it was clear the trip would be a gentle nudge toward matrimony. The shiny black stones are everywhere — from the athletic finger of the wedded Montanan yoga instructor who’d arrived for a month-long trip seven years ago and never left, to the bountiful jewellery store windows that dot the handful of streets comprising the island’s sleepy capital, Avarua (population approx. 5,000).
Romance aside there was an ulterior motive behind our destination. A speck in the South Pacific, the islands are lashed with swell year-round, and reef passes (not for beginners) fashion swells into dream-like waves. Thankfully the Colgate-blue lagoon inside the reef offers unsurpassed snorkeling — the perfect antidote to a morning of walking balmy streets. Google “Flame angelfish” or “Moorish idol” for examples of guys you’ll bump into on any given dip.
Our primary base was a furnished bungalow (similarly priced to resorts) in Muri Beach on the south-east coast, and its azure lagoon offers some of the island’s best snorkelling. But it’s not just underwater where you’ll get your kicks. Stand-up paddle board companies pull in a roaring trade, and if you don’t fancy a traditional yoga session, why not join a SUP yoga class? Thankfully the girlfriend gave me permission to scour the coast for waves while she enjoyed the luxurious wellness mashup, and therein lies the beauty of Rarotonga — everything’s a (shiny black) stone’s throw away. You can easily round the 32-kilometre island on your scooter in 45 minutes along the sleepy 40-kilometre-per-hour Ara Tapu road, even factoring in surf checks.
There’s a way through the middle of the island, but you can’t do it on wheels. The aptly named Cross Island Trek (three-to-four hours) takes you through the heart of Raro’s imposing Jurassic-Park like peaks, around which the entire island’s life orbits. Starting off on wide grassy roads bursting with banana, papaya and mango trees, the trail ascends steeply into a narrow vine-tangled track with seemingly no end. About an hour in, however — with calves screaming “no more” — you’re greeted by sweeping views of the island’s striking southern coast and a finger of prehistoric rock called The Needle. Don’t climb it. A local surfer told me a New Zealand tourist had, the week earlier, begun climbing the almost vertical path that runs alongside it. He slipped, losing hold of the rusty chain attached to the rock, plunging 80 metres to his death — not an uncommon occurrence.
After a week we’d ticked off the countless cafés and world-class beachfront watering holes we’d zoomed past and yelled, to whoever of us happened to be driving behind, “that looked nice!” Raro’s surprisingly cosmopolitan. Some of it’s due to the New Zealand expats who’ve left the chilly mainland for island paradise, but the genial and family focused locals are also NZ passport holders too, so many are worldly well-travelled folk themselves. If you count on a decent flat white each morning never fear, put it that way (check out LBV in Muri or Avarua for a great brew and a pastry), and there’s enough restaurant variety to satiate even the fussiest of eaters. Rent a house with a kitchen like we did if cooking’s your thing, but keep in mind Raro’s a long way from anywhere so grocery prices are similar to back home. Definitely visit the laidback Punanga Nui Market next to Avarua Harbour on Saturday to stock up on cheap food and gifts for envious relatives back home.
Aitutaki (population 2,000 or so) is the second most visited island and it’s a 40-minute flight north. Jump on Google again and type “Aitutaki lagoon”. Understand why the girlfriend warmed to the Cooks, despite her suspicion I’d spend every waking hour surfing? I won’t add to the millions of words written about the place in “Top Ten Island Escape” type posts, but rest assured it is the South Pacific jewel everyone riffs about. Add it to your itinerary if your trip’s more than a week, but stock up on memory cards — your camera finger may develop repetitive strain injury.
For the more intrepid traveller, the party doesn’t have to end there. The Cooks comprise 15 diverse and idyllic islands, some of which are uninhabited (or close enough) and are only serviced by supply or research ships intermittently, or cost thousands to fly to on chartered planes. But for the wave-hungry, those with warmth addiction or couples looking for a quick island escape away from the well-trodden Aussie holiday paths of Bali or Thailand, a Raro jaunt with a dash to the cartoonishly beautiful Aitutaki is just what the doctor ordered. If you’re not ready to take the next step in the relationship, however, you may want to reconsider, lest you arrive home with a shiny black rock on the brain (or ring finger).