Catriona steps foot on the largest, most populated islands of the lush Cook Islands in the Pacific.
Fifteen tiny islands make up the Cook Islands. They are sprinkled across 1.83 million square kilometres of the South Pacific but have a land area of just 240 square kilometres. Between them, they cover just about every type of oceanic island high volcanic, middle-aged volcanic, uplifted atolls, some with low rolling hills and a couple of flat ones. The Cook Islands are a geologist's paradise!
It is believed the first people arrived on the islands in 800AD from what is now French Polynesia. Pukapuka in the north was discovered by Europeans in 1595. Captain James Cook sighted several of the islands between 1773 and 1777, but they were free of European settlement until the 19th century when missionaries arrived.
In 1901 the islands were annexed to New Zealand but in 1965 a general election gave the Cook Islands self government.
The author James A. Michener said that if he had to choose just one South Pacific Island to visit, it would be Rarotonga.
Rarotonga, in the southern group of nine, is the main island and, along with Aitutaki, attracts more visitors than the others which enjoy a more peaceful village life. It has jagged peaks, valleys and a flat coastline which is covered with tropical trees and flowers. A leisurely cycling trip around the island takes about two hours on one of two roads. Along the way you pass colourful gardens, paw paw plantations, orchards and friendly, smiling locals. There are no snakes, wild animals or poisonous insects on Rarotonga, so you can enjoy a comfortable outing.
With a circumference of 32km, Rarotonga is covered in lush green jungle with dense tropical rainforest and a centre of majestic mountain peaks providing good hiking and trekking.
The Aroa pony trek is one particularly popular activity. You ride inland, passing taro, orange and paw paw plantations before heading to the beach. Then it takes you inland again to see Te Rua Manga The Needle which towers above at 413m. From there you take the trail to the south coast, starting at Wigmore's Waterfall, the island's only waterfall.
A visit to the Cultural Village is where you learn about the island's history, Maori medicine, costume-making, cooking, arts, weaving, crafts, dances and traditions. The three-hour program includes a luncheon of local delicacies.
A typical island feast of fish, pork, chicken and vegetables is cooked for several hours over scorching hot stones in a deep pit. Another delicious local treat is raw tuna marinated in lime juice and served with coconut cream.
There is a good variety of restaurants featuring continental, Italian, Indian and Chinese cuisine, as well as bars and dancing spots which are particularly popular on Friday nights.
Diving, fishing, snorkelling, canoeing, sailing and windsurfing are excellent. Clear azure lagoons lie between the beautiful white beaches and the reef. Rarotonga is known for its magnificent black pearls and there are many farms and shops where visitors can make purchases.
The Reef Sub collects passengers at the harbour and heads out to the wreck of Maitai, a steamer which was wrecked in 1916. The sub has a viewing chamber which gives you a good look of the wreck, the colourful fish and corals.
You can hire scooters to get around on the island, but you will need a licence to ride one. Just go to the police station with your driver's licence and you will be issued with a Cook Island licence in about 15 minutes.
There is a good variety of accommodation. The Pacific Resort Rarotonga on Muri Beach is set amongst 2.5ha of tropical gardens and a very large lagoon. There is a pool and 64 rooms made up of one or two bedroom apartments and villas with garden or beachfront outlooks. There are self-catering beachfront units in real Polynesian style and you can dine on the sand by candlelight. The Barefoot Bar serves delicious cocktails and juices and Sandals Restaurant hosts Pacific Island nights.
Lagoon Lodges have one, two and three bedroom fully self-catering bungalow and villa accommodation, suitable for single guests through to families or small groups. They are set in 1.6ha of tropical gardens and have two pools (one for children), snorkelling gear, kayaks and an indoor/outdoor cafe.
Capital of the Cook Islands.
Pacific Resort Rarotonga beachfront units start at around $510 per night.
Lagoon Lodges two bedroom villas start at $290 a double a night.
Aroa Pony Treks cost around $45 for adults and $25 for children.
Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga seven times a week, via Auckland. They have five night holidays to Rarotonga including Return Pacific Class airfares, five nights' twin share accommodation at Lagoon Lodges, return transfers, tropical breakfast each day and all taxes when departing and arriving in Australia. Per person prices start at $1399 ex-Sydney; $1385 ex-Melbourne and Brisbane; $1909 ex-Adelaide and Hobart; $1649 ex-Canberra; $2009 ex-Cairns and $1993 ex-Perth.
Per person prices including accommodation at Pacific Resort Rarotonga start at $1599 ex-Sydney; $1585 ex-Melbourne and Brisbane; $2109 ex-Adelaide and Hobart; $1849 ex-Canberra; $2209 ex-Cairns and $2193 ex-Perth.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.
Cook Islands Tourism
Ph: (02) 9955 0446, Fax: (02) 9955 0447www.cook-islands.com
Air New Zealand Holidays: Ph: 1300 365 525
Pacific Resort Rarotonga
Box 790, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Ph: 0011 682 20 427, Fax: 0011 682 21 427www.pacificresort.com
Box 45, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Ph: 0011 682 22 020, Fax: 0011 682 22 021www.lagoonlodges.com
The Reef Sub: Ph: 0011 682 25 837www.jasons.co.nz
Cultural Village Tour: Ph: 0011 682 21 314
Aroa Pony Trek: Ph: 0011 682 21 415