In the moments when the tyranny of geographical proximity must be challenged in order to disengage completely from the demands of overzealous bosses, the Cook Islands provide a superb hideaway to let life as we know it melt into a distant memory.
Without a doubt, there are tropical islands right here in this hemisphere that offer fine accommodation in pretty places where the waves of a limpid sea wash away waves of stress. Why, then, go all the way to the Cook Islands for a holiday? Simply put: because you can and because they are well worth the journey.
Often overshadowed by the mystique of French Polynesia immediately to the east, the Cook Islands offer a similarly languid existence enhanced by a decidedly more enthusiastic welcome. Cook Islanders are a genuinely warm and welcoming people who successfully bridge the traditional with modern in culture, language, and business practices.
All citizens of New Zealand, Cook Islanders share that country’s sense of honesty and integrity in their daily lives. For example, there are no large, sprawling internationally-branded resorts despoiling the landscapes — this is a place where nature and humans exist as partners instead of adversaries.
Nowhere is this reverence for nature more evident than on the tiny islands of Aitutaki, whose lagoon is the Cook Islands’ top attraction. Beautiful both above and below the water, Aitutaki’s scenery is fantasy come true. Bishop’s Cruises offers private excursions to the most significant islets of the lagoon and can personalise island-hopping tours to include romantic dinners on an uninhabited island.
On terra firma, local historian and preservationist Ngaa Kitai Taria puts his degree in anthropology to good use by providing insight into local Cook Islands Maori culture through his company, Aitutaki Culture Tours. Single-handedly opening the eyes of visitors to island life as it was before its decimation at the hands of 19th-century Christian missionaries, Ngaa is helping locals rediscover the logic of their ancestors in maintaining a balance with the island’s fragile ecosystem.
Ngaa is extremely committed to preserving the physical vestiges of the past, having cleared ancient sacred grounds, the marae, long lost to the jungle. His daily morning tour ends with a delicious umu lunch, which is cooked the traditional way in earth ovens covered by hibiscus leaves that impart their own flavour into the food.
Leaves, flowers, and plants play highly important roles in Cook Islanders’ lives. The Cook Islands’ history of traditional medicine continues in contemporary society and now extends to more generic health products rather than just medicines; a line of remarkably effective skincare lotions is made by local company Te Tika. Aitutaki’s Secret Garden is a great place to learn about the cultural and economic value of plants in the Cook Islands.
The Secret Garden is the life’s work of Swiss Bill Tschan, a decades-long resident of Aitutaki, whose agricultural background in his own country has stood him in good stead here on a tropical island where he has cultivated a huge assortment of botanical specimens.
The only transplant in the garden, though, is Bill himself; due to strict regulations regarding the import of plants, every single plant and tree in the Secret Garden was grown by Bill from seeds. Anyone with even the faintest interest in plants should take a tour of the garden with Bill, who is an authority on the application of medicinal plants to modern-day illnesses. Who knew a few soursop leaves under the pillow ensures a good night’s sleep for even the most accursed of insomniacs?
Not that sleep is a problem when enjoyed in beautiful surroundings. Pacific Resort Aitutaki, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, offers unexpectedly luxurious accommodation in a wonderful setting at the edge of the lagoon. Happily, Pacific Resort Aitutaki reaches the level of service required by discerning travellers; perhaps this can be attributed to an estimable leader, resort manager Jason Strickland, who applies his experience working in the Gulf on ensuring operations here run smoothly. The spacious villas with separate living and sleeping rooms suit the location very well; showers are similarly large and built to be enjoyed à deux. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one.
On the island of Rarotonga, whose own lagoon figures among an array of attractions, Rumours provides premier accommodation with sublime two-bedroom oceanfront villas to make you feel totally at home, with full hotel services if desired. Rumours’ Ultimate Villa, with its swimming pool in the private front garden and the Pacific Ocean off the back verandah, brings the outdoors to your door.
Inside, there’s a screening room and a computerised film library for indoor entertainment. Nearby is Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, whose tour, dinner, and show make a perfect Cook Islands send-off before the midnight flight back to LA.
Air New Zealand flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga, meaning travellers from most parts of the world can reach the Cook Islands with just one change of planes. Domestic airline Air Rarotonga takes passengers onward to Aitutaki and the other islands in the Cook group in smaller aircraft; the airline also offers private flightseeing tours on demand.
More traditionally, Te Vaine Toa Enterprises offers overnight excursions from Rarotonga to Aitutaki aboard Marumaru Atua, a classic vaka or outrigger canoe, crewed by expert sailors led by captain Tua Pittman, who explains how to navigate with the stars. The same vessel can also be hired for private tours around Rarotonga’s lagoon, an option also available on simpler craft through Koka Lagoon Cruises.
Most precious of the special souvenirs to be found in the Cook Islands are the stunningly beautiful black pearls cultivated in the lagoon of Manihiki. Renowned for their deep lustre and exceptional, blemish-free surface quality, the Cook Islands’ black pearls are among the world’s rarest.
Several companies create unique jewellery pieces to complement the strands of flawless specimens shining in the display cases. Artisan Tokerau Jim goes one better by painstakingly carving designs onto the surface of the pearls themselves. Designs can be made to order for a completely personalised gift.
Though much has changed in the years since Captains William Bligh and James Cook and their brethren clippered their way across the vast Pacific Ocean, much has also —thankfully — remained the same. In the Cook Islands, named for a Captain who sighted them and rushed by without really stopping, the balance of past and present culminates today in the South Pacific Ocean’s most interesting society. Don’t make the same mistake as the hurried captain and bypass one of the world’s most beautiful travel destinations.
THE GOLDEN BOOK
Pacific Resort Aitutaki
Tel: +682 31720
Tel: +682 22551