Rarotonga is Like Tahiti Was 30 Years Ago

A few hours later, at a Rarotonga churchyard . . . “Would you like me to pose for you? No problem, mate,” said the man with the long beard. “But do you think you can squeeze my beard into your picture?” Mati’s cigarette-stained, yellow-ochre beard tapered below his belt buckle.

Everywhere I went in the Cooks Islands, everyone–from custom inspectors to children on the beach–had a ready smile. While the Cooks come with all the requisite South Seas attractions, the hospitality and the friendliness of the Cook Islands Maoris alone can justify the long flight to these Polynesian islands, north of New Zealand.

When the missionaries laid down the law in the last century, they tried to restrain the hospitable natives not to race to sea, in their dugout canoes, to welcome the white sailors, whalers and copra merchants. The Maoris saw the strangers as instant friends. The Maoris were spiritually still in the Garden of Eden. It took the pinched-faced missionaries a long while to teach them the facts of life outside their earthly paradise.

While the archipelago includes 15 islands scattered over an area the size of Western Europe, for most visitors the Cooks mean the islands of Rarotonga and its much smaller neighbor–Aitutaki.

Rarotonga has a population of around 9,000 while the total Cook Islands population is close to 20,000. The archipelago is just south of the equator, slightly east of the International Date Line, midway between American Samoa and Tahiti.

Secret Refuge

Rarotonga is a compact, volcanic island covered by lush vegetation and dense jungle. The 32-km around, coconut palm-fringed island is surrounded by a protective coral reef. The aquamarine waters between the reef and Rarotonga, are full of colorful tropical fish. The waters around Rarotonga, as elsewhere in the Cooks, are so pristine that you can see bright blue starfish, sea cucumbers and other sea life with the naked eye. Although Captain James Cook “discovered” the islands in 1783, he never saw Rarotonga. It was the HMS Bounty mutineers, in 1789, who first landed here. However, they didn’t tarry too long and soon sailed to Pitcairn Island in search for a more secret refuge from the long arm of the British Navy.

Although British missionaries soon followed the navy, it wasn’t until the 1840s when the islands were named after Captain Cook. Of all the people, it was a Russian cartographer, Admiral John von Krusenstern, who decided that “Cook” should be the obvious name for the islands. After his atlas was published, the new name became accepted around the world.

The history of the islands in the 19th century is mostly a narrative of a missionary-run theocracy. From 1835 to the 1880s the killjoy missionaries ran a religious police state, trying to eliminate all traces of Maori culture. They also enacted the “Missionary Blue Laws” which attempted to control all aspects of Maori life.

Pagan Idols

While the missionaries did a great deal of damage to the aboriginal culture, much was saved by the Maoris–their language, art, cuisine, pagan songs, and particularly their easy-going, trusting ways and friendly attitude. In their zeal to demolish the old religion, the missionaries destroyed all images of the old gods. But now the old gods are back–particularly chief god, Tangaroa, who also doubles as fertility god. You see Tangaroa statues, exhibiting oversized genitalia, all over the islands. The god has become a mascot, a symbol of the islands’ history and heritage. Tanagaroa images are on scarves, on sarongs (called perue), key chains, T-shirts, postcards…

Perhaps the largest Tangaroa statue on the island is the one in front of the Perfume Factory, near Avarua, the main city on Rarotonga. The larger than life-size wooden statue stands proud in the water-lily covered pond. Inside the Perfume Factory you can buy liqueur in Tangaroa-shaped bottles, perfumes, shampoo, coconut-based skin toners, soap made of frangipani, jasmine, and gardenia.

Like many other retail outlets, the Perfume Factory sells black pearls of varying quality. However, for the best black pearls, shop at specialist black pearl and jewelry stores. When purchasing the pearls, consider size, color, clarity, and shape. Other “must-buys” are wood carvings, batik, applique work, perues and beachwear.

In a recent news story, Fijians blamed TV viewing for their hefty size. Cook Island Maoris like to make the same accusation. It’s a canard. Cook Islanders love to eat, and the fact that food is plenty and the cuisine inventive, doesn’t promote gustatory discipline. About fifteen years ago when a David Bowie-starring movie (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”) needed slim people to pose as World War II Japanese prison camp inmates, the producers couldn’t find Maoris who could fit the physical bill. Actors had to be imported from far-away New Zealand.

Umakai Banquet

The major Cook Islands staple foods are fish, arrowroot, sweet potato (kumara), taro, rice, coconut, and breadfruit. Raw fish is also popular. To experience a traditional Maori banquet, called umakai, attend an Island Night which various hotels and resorts present year-round. The food is cooked underground in an oven called umu. The various meats (suckling pig, chicken, fish) are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with the heat of burning volcanic rock. The result is an unforgettable buffet. Dessert, in addition to pineapple-pawpaw-mango-passion fruit and western cakes, includes banana pudding, various coconut cakes and coconut-sauce laced Maori delicacies.

While enjoying this Polynesian “grande bouffe”, you will be entertained by dancers. Some 30 dancers and musicians, in native costume, perform various traditional acts, including several drum dances. The warriors are all energetic and muscular, while the garlanded women are beautiful, lithe, and lissome.

One of the best places to see an Island Night banquet-show is at The Rarotongan Beach Resort. Its “Legends of Polynesia”, featuring drum dances, umakai feast, two different shows (Wednesday and Saturday nights) should not be missed. The umakai starts at 6:30 p.m. with the opening of the underground umu oven. The buffet opens at 7 p.m., followed by the pulsating dance and music show at 8 p.m. The electrifying show has received plaudits from as far as Christchurch in New Zealand. “Riverdance, eat your heart out!” the “Christchurch Press” art critic has enthusiastically reviewed. The New Zealand press was not exaggerating. The best Polynesian dancers and singers come from the Cooks. The dancing girls supposedly swivel their hips-pelvis faster than their more commercial Hawaiian sisters, according to one terpsichorean aficionado. The wonderfully suggestive dances of the Cook Islanders gave more than an upset stomach to the 19th century London missionaries. The erotic nature of the dances is not surprising since they are often in honor of Tangaroa, the old satyr.

Award for Excellence

For a better understanding of the Cook Island Maori culture, visit the Cultural Village near Avarua. The guided tour covers the history of the islands and includes demonstration of native costume making, fishing, medicine, weaving, coconut husking, cooking, carving . . . and tips on Maori dancing. The tour culminates in a traditional banquet accompanied by a song and dance show. The Cook Island Cultural Village recently won the Tourism Council of the South Pacific cultural award for excellence.

While Cook Islanders are proud of their pagan traditions, they are also devout Christians. Rarotonga closes down on Sunday as practically everybody heads to the neighborhood church. The congregation is dressed in white dress, white straw hats, white shoes for women; white suits and white shoes for men. Although the Maori service is a translation of English service, some tunes are rooted in pre-Christian religious songs. Sometimes when there is a large contingent of tourists attending Holy Mass, the pastor will switch to a bilingual sermon, which can be of the fire and brimstone variety.

Even if you are not Christian, it’s worth attending Sunday service–for the fantastic baritone of the men and the trilling sopranos of the women. Their faith and spirituality are almost contagious.

The outdoor market, called Punanga Nui, in downtown Avarua is another “must visit” site. Maori women in colorful perues and garlands around their heads, sell fruits, vegetables, handicrafts, batik, shirts, perues, perfumes and soaps from makeshift stalls.

Since most of Rarotonga is jungle, many tourists like to hike in the dense forest. In addition to the various coconut palms, you can see the nutritious nono plant, the mildly narcotic kava plant and a leaf which reputedly can induce cancer remission. One of the more popular tracks is the hike to Te Rua Manga, also known as The Needle. The 413-metre sheer rock sticks out like a Gargantuan index finger in the middle of the lush jungle. The profile of an unknown goddess is carved on the monolith.

A word of caution before you decide to take the Needle hike: it’s arduous. The four-hour hike-climb through the dense forest, often grabbing tree roots and tentacles to maintain your balance, is no picnic. It’s also advisable to take along mosquito repellent and a bottle of water.

A good place to head after your hike, or at any time for that matter, is to the laid-back Muri Beach, south-east of the island. It’s a mini-Waikiki without the giant surfs. Favored by honeymooners, the area is packed with excellent resorts facing four tiny islands. The baby-blue waters are shallow and clear. In high season, the Muri Beach becomes a small Ipanema–a mile of vacationers sunbathing, reading suntan lotion-stained bestsellers, swimming, snorkeling . . . Since all beaches are public, you don’t have to be a guest at the adjacent resorts to join in the fun. You will also come across large Maori families, often together with their pet dogs, picnicking alongside the tourists.

To say that Muri Beach is a good spot for snorkeling is redundant: Everywhere around Rarotongo and the rest of the Cook Islands provide fabulous snorkeling, both for the novice and the veteran.

Aitutaki Island-Atoll

After a few days of relaxation, shopping, trips to the beach, most tourists head to Aitutaki–an island-atoll 45 minutes by air. Although there are 15 islands in the Cooks, after Rarotonga, the most visited island is Aitutaki. Day trips to Aitutaki (population 500) are popular because of the island’s stunning beauty and turquoise lagoon. Some well-travelled people claim that that Aitutaki has the most beautiful lagoon in the South Pacific. The lagoon is like a large swimming pool, a shallow pond in the middle of the ocean, protected by a ring of reefs. The melange of various hues of blues and greens make you feel as if you are floating in a giant mint Jell-O.

This is snorkelers’ paradise. For added excitement, you can take along raw tuna when you dip into the blue waters. Schools of butterfly fish and banded sergeant-majors will circle you for a tuna morsel. They will swim calmly between your legs, around your head, across your nose, waiting for their chance for a nibble. It’s no wonder that for many tourists, the Aitutaki lagoon cruise is the highlight of their trip to the Cooks.

Another distinction of Aitutaki is the fact that the tiny atoll prints its own stamps. The colorful stamps can’t be bought anywhere else–not even in Rarotonga. These rare stamps are excellent souvenirs and valued addition to the collection of any self-respecting philatelist.

Captain Cook never saw Aitutaki. He sailed on towards Hawaii where he was killed by the natives. In 1789 HMS Bounty and Captain Bligh stopped here before heading to Samoa. Seventeen days later Fletcher Christian and his mutinous colleagues set the much-maligned captain adrift. Bligh and his small crew landed in Timor, near Indonesia, after sailing some 4,120 miles. Charles Darwin also stopped here (1835) during the famous voyage of The Beagle.

Unlike Hawaii, Tahiti or Fiji, the Cook Islands have not experienced mass tourism. The South Seas idyll of James Michener, R.L. Stevenson and Gaugin is still a reality in the Cooks. If you want to experience the best that the South Pacific has traditionally promised, the Cook Islands are the place to head this winter.

When You Go…Getting there: November to April Canada 3000 will fly weekly (Tuesday departures) from Toronto and Vancouver

Accommodation: The Crown Beach, on the west coast of Rarotonga, is a “boutique” resort with 15 cottages scattered between the beach and the jungle. The largest hotel is The Rarotongan Beach Resort. Other highly-recommended, hotels are The Edgewater Resort, Manula Beach Resort, Club Raro, Lagoon Lodges and Pacific Resort and Villas-all part of Canada 3000’s Cook Islands package. Through the Canada 3000 package, all of these hotels, except for the Manula Beach Resort, offer kids 2 to 12 free accommodation when sharing a room with two adults. At Manula the bonus is free rental of snorkeling equipment. Canada 3000 has departures starting November 16 to late April. A $100 Early Booking Bonus gives you additional savings on a selection of dates, and hotels if you book by a specific date. If you find a package identical to Canada 3000’s and with the same departure date at a lower price, ask the airline to do a price match.

  • Currency: The New Zealand dollar is $1.10 CDN.
  • Driving: On the left side of the road.
  • Language: The local language is Cook island Maori. Everyone also speaks English.
  • Documents: Valid passport.
  • Departure tax: NZ$25 for adults and NZ$10 for children.
  • Health: No inoculation is required. The tap water is potable.

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