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Why the Cook Islands should be included on everyone’s vacation bucket list

Palm trees and pristine beaches abound on Rarotonga's sparsely-populated south shore.

WALTER NICKLIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By WALTER NICKLIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 17, 2020

The Cook Islands — a cluster of very tiny atolls and reefs in the vast expanse of the South Pacific — have never been on my bucket list of travel destinations. Their image as a tropical island paradise conjures up endless (and therefore boring) white sandy, palm-lined beaches with nothing to do but soak up the sun.

Yet here I am now — sipping coconut juice in a lounge chair overlooking a pristine aquamarine lagoon. How did this happen? And why am I now so happy here that I’ve extended my stay to almost a full week?

The answer to the first question — I must admit — is fear. I so dreaded the prospect of a 13-hour flight to New Zealand (my ultimate destination) that I sought solace in breaking the flying time up into more manageable segments. The Cook Islands would be my lily pad: 10 hours from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the largest of the 15 Cook Islands) and then, after a couple of relaxing days recovering from jet lag, four more hours to Auckland. For the first leg, Air New Zealand offers the only direct flight linking the U.S. mainland to the Cook Islands — departing LAX every Saturday a bit before midnight.

When dawn breaks through the airplane window over Rarotonga’s volcanic mountains rising spectacularly out of the surrounding sea — to answer my second question — I sense immediately that I won’t be bored here. It’s my kind of place: There are no stoplights or fast-food joints, and no building is taller than the tallest palm tree.

Waiting patiently at the tiny airport for the roughly 250 passengers are rows of friendly taxi drivers sent by the respective lodgings we have booked. One driver holds a sign that reads “Wallace,” and I rightly guess that must be me. The three-mile ride to my Airbnb, a cottage just outside the town of Avarua, comes to 15 New Zealand dollars ($11 U.S.). The nightly rate at the Airbnb is not much more ($50 U.S.).

Compared with the wailing baby on the plane, the crowing roosters and clucking hens outside my window are like a lullaby as I get some needed rest before setting out to explore the contours of what to me is a genuinely newfound land. Not unlike Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, my landing here is serendipitous, on my way to somewhere else — confirming that the “final destination” is seldom travel’s most valuable reward.

Until now mapped on my consciousness hardly at all, the 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls of the Cook Islands meant idealized images of noble savages and tropical Eden-like paradise as portrayed by Paul Gauguin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The geographic facts on the ground are thus: Located near the Tropic of Capricorn, the Cook Islands are on about the same latitude as Australia’s Northern Territory and Chile’s Antofagasta region. Though less than 100 square miles in land area, the tiny islands are spread out over an area of roughly 700,000 square miles in the South Pacific. Tonga, French Polynesia and American Samoa are the some of the nearest neighbors.

The resident population, mostly native Maori, numbers about 9,000. Tourism, with annual visitors numbering over 150,000, drives the economy. The islands are a self-governing parliamentary democracy but coordinate with New Zealand in international affairs. The New Zealand dollar is the islands’ currency.

It’s easy to find an ATM to withdraw some of that currency, but finding a place to eat is another matter. It’s Sunday, and Cook Islanders, having been converted to Christianity by 19th-century missionaries, are especially observant. It apparently blended well with traditional faith; one islander tells me that the lineage of Maori chiefs can be traced directly to the Bible’s Adam and Eve.

When I finally find a cafe that loudly proclaims it indeed is open on Sundays, I learn the meaning of a “Long Black.” I also learn to love it: a double shot of espresso poured over 3 to 5 ounces of hot water. But most especially I get a taste of the islanders’ well-earned reputation for genuine friendliness and warm hospitality.

The next morning I rent a bicycle to explore the rest of the island. Had I booked a motor scooter or a car, I would have had to get a special license from the local police. The procedure is cheap and easy, everyone tells me, but to offset sedentary air travel I want some good, hard exercise.

The very hardest part, however, is getting used to riding on the left side of the road, as in New Zealand or Britain. No one yells at me when I get confused at roundabouts and almost cause a couple of accidents. Instead of road rage, I’m met with sympathetic smiles.

“Please join us!”

A woman’s voice, in the island’s distinct Maori-tinted English accent, calls from beyond the hedgerow. Amid what looks to be a garden party, she’s waving and smiling at me as I’m peddling back to my Airbnb. How can I say no? She explains she’s hosting the first course of a progressive dinner, wherein guests move (or progress) from house to house for successive courses. This particular dinner has been organized by local tourism authorities. (Her husband is a former member of the Cook Islands parliament.) So I join perhaps two dozen others in the first course featuring coconut yogurt mixed with one’s choice of locally grown Lady Finger bananas, star fruit (carambola), dragon fruit (pitaya), pawpaw, papayas and mangoes.

The guests, all couples, express surprise (tinged with undisguised concern?) that I’m traveling alone. After all, the Cook Islands — especially the Aitutaki atoll — are a favorite honeymoon destination. Without my wife, there’s no way I’ll take the 45-minute flight from Rarotonga that makes romantic Aitutaki accessible.

But if I weren’t alone, would I have been invited to join their party? Traveling solo, I tell myself, can pierce the married couple “bubble” that often insulates foreign visitors from natives. Or other travelers during my island stay, as I strike up delightful conversations with a retired French admiral sailing around the world, a German backpacker as well as a New Zealand sheep farmer vacationing with his wife.

Still, I miss my wife and — for a wedding anniversary celebration when we rendezvous next week in New Zealand — I buy her one of the legendary black pearls for which the islands are known. I can hear her laughter when one evening I order a sushi-like dish and don’t realize it. She loves sushi; I’ve never liked the idea of it. The elaborate menu at a resort restaurant on Muri Beach includes tuna, which I just assume is grilled. After a few bites, I realize it’s raw — marinated in lemon and coconut juice, then garnished with diced vegetables. Called Ika Mata, it’s a traditional Cook Island dish, and I must confess it isn’t bad.

The resort is one of many located on Rarotonga’s southeast coast at Muri Beach, where four coral islets form an idyllic lagoon for swimmers, snorkelers, kayakers and paddle-boarders. Or you can just lie on the uncrowded, sandy beach, sunbathe, sip a coconut smoothie and watch. That’s what I do, harnessing my energy for a cross-island hike the next day.

The trailhead lies not far from my Airbnb at the end of a country road that cuts through small farms with friendly dogs and grazing goats. Armed with mosquito repellent and two bottles of drinking water, I follow the narrow trail through tropical trees and lush vegetation, junglelike in entangled hues of green. But there’s no worry about jungle creatures, for the island is home to neither snakes nor poisonous spiders. Puffs of low-hanging clouds, which might at any moment let loose occasional drops of rain, are visible through the jungle canopy and glide against the island’s rugged, volcano-created mountains.

The trail crests at the base of a “volcanic plug” called the Needle, Mount Te Rua Manga, offering a bird’s-eye view of the entire island. Then, following a stream called Papua, I head downslope toward Wigmore’s Waterfall. Hot and sweaty, I’m tempted to jump in the natural pool beneath the falling water but will wait to dip in the ocean. The four-mile, hot and humid trek has taken me almost four hours.

Now on the opposite side of the island from my Airbnb in Avarua, I wait for a bus to take me home. The 20-mile coastal road circling the island is known as the Ara Tapu, and two buses come hourly. But their destination is never Avarua — or any other particular place. Rather, their signage reads either “Clockwise” or “Anti-Clockwise.” What a wonderful metaphor, I think, for island — as opposed to linear - time.

On the subject of time, the evening before I’m scheduled to fly away from the Cook Islands, I bike to a place on the island’s west side called Turou (Black Rock) for a final swim in the South Pacific. It is here, according to Maori legend, that spirits of the dead commence their voyage to Avaiki (the afterworld). The sun is setting as I plunge into the warm water and rewrite my vision of a tropical island paradise.

Low-hanging clouds and lush vegetation frame Rarotonga's mountainous interior; a cross-country trail takes hikers to the needlelike rock rising on the horizon known as Te Rua Manga.
WALTER NICKLIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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