|The Cook Islands
Our transit time in London was exactly measured. No hurry, neither time to waste or time to have a quick lunch. We have to get onboard our Air New Zealand flight for the first intercontinental leg of our journey.
The Boeing 747 was packed but the meals, considering it is airline food, is in one word delicious. I've been flying a number of different airlines were most of the time I simply skip the meals unless I'm really starving but certainly not this time. We had two great meals during our 11h45m flight to Los Angeles. At LAX the transfer to our next leg for Papeete went easily through US customs and quick enough.
36 hours and 7 airline meals later we finally reached our first destination on sunday, march 28.
The Cook Islands greeting "Kia Orana" means exactly that, "may you live long." It is a unique first gesture of friendship from a special Polynesian people, renown for their hospitality and warmth. On arrival in Avarua airport - Rarotonga, a hotel representative was waiting for us to be greeted with a fresh flower lei.
Our first impression of the Palm Grove Resort was pretty good. As we had requested a beach bungalow, our accomodation was very large with a decent bathroom, a kitchen with all the tableware and stuff. Literally everything was here. Microwave, toaster, coffeemachine, a large refrigerator and more. We had complimentary fresh milk, drinking water, instant coffee and tea + fresh fruit. However the nicest surprise was when we opened the screenings (to protect for mosquitos) to the huge verandah with a handy outdoor shower. No TV in our room, no airconditioning, but that is exactly how we want it to be. Who comes to paradise to watch the troubles in the Middle-East on CNN ? A ceiling fan right above the bed in combination with the seabreeze, makes the bungalow nicely cool. It was never too warm inside.
The view over the blue lagoon of Rarotonga is unforgetable. The construction of the bungalows are entirely made of natural materials which gives it an extra dimension to the peaceful environment.
Cook Islanders have their own Maori language and each of the populated islands a distinct dialect. It has a population of around 15,000. The Cooks has been self-governing in free association with New Zealand since 1965. By virtue of that unique relationship, all Cook Islanders hold New Zealand passports. The Cook Islands Parliamentary system is modelled on the Westminster system of Britain. The Queens Representative is Head of State. This is a delightful Pacific country where the main island of Rarotonga offers a wide range of activities. On arrival, I could'nt resist of checking out the coral gardens, located in "our frontyard" footsteps from the shore. The lagoon is shallow and safe for swimming here. Although I met about a dozen tropical fishes, I was'nt really impressed since I had expected more. Perhaps the snorkeling is better somewhere else on the island.
This afternoon, I booked a 4x4 safari tour to the interior of the island. Remember, if yo have a back problem, don't participate as the drive can be really bumpy. The highlight of this trip was a short stop on top of a hill with great views of the 4 motu's (small islets) who are laying just off Muri Beach. Actually this trip was'nt really my cup of tea, but since it was impossible to book any other activity on a sunday, we thought it is alright for today. The main attraction of Rarotonga is its beautiful lagoon.
For some reason known as jetlag, I woke up at 5.00am. 36 hours of traveling without any sleep to speak of, has made me tired last night, very tired. At 8.30pm we had switched the lights off and the combination of jetlag and early sleep yesterday made us up this early now.
I decided to start the day somewhat different compared to back home. I made myself some coffee and sat outside on the verandah watching the stars, writing the first notes of this review listening to the sound of the waves not too far away from where I sat. I witnessed a great natural phenomen - falling stars - and made a wish.
A little later, when the first rooster announced the coming up of a new day, I went for a walk on the beach while the sun started to rise. The loosy sand made a good excersize to my recently broken ankle. I was still revalidating from an accident which happened last december during my previous trip in Thailand. I would not be able to do such activities back home in the hectic world of West-Europe. I truly enjoyed the start of a new day in paradise when the darkness made way for bright sun-sparkles shining on the mirror-like calm lagoon.
We had tropical breakfast at the Palm Grove's restaurant: The Yellow Hibiscus. There are tropical fruits, cereals, toasts, peanutbutter and jams available included in your roomrate, but also eggs, bacon, sausages and more available at an extra cost. Good food for what you pay.
Today, I decided to make a lagoon cruise with Captain Tama. This trip includes good snorkeling and a Barbeque on a motu. The boat has a glass bottom. If you ask my personal opinion, I would rate this trip 7/10. It makes a good day out lasting about 4 hours.
The beaches are public everywhere and for different watersports, I can recommend Muri Beach. The best snorkeling is on Fruits of Rarotonga (watch out for the sign). The beauty of Rarotonga is just awesome.
An easy way of traveling around is by the local bus. There is a very simple bus system on the island. One bus runs clockwise, another anti-clockwise. Although they are scheduled to bus stops at times, you can flag them to stop at any place. Hiring a moped or a scootcar (see cruise chapter) is also a great way to circle the island. Avarua, the main town of Raro houses some great shops for your souvenirs or black pearls. We had a drink at Trader Jack's but that was just during the afternoon. We heard it is a lot of fun on friday nights. The place looks pretty cool to be at during the night with its open seaside. However, we had heard lots of good things about the famous Cook Island nights, and paid 170 New Zealand Dollar (two people) for an Island Night at the luxury Rarotongan Beach Resort. It includes a few drinks and a truly wonderful buffet. This evening is a must ! The Island Nite consists of a great show with exotic male and female dancers moving their bodies to the rythm and drums of the musicians. We were happy that we've done this tonight.
A Saab 340 from Air Rarotonga flew us early today to Aitutaki, another gem of Cook Island's southern group. I was excited to visit this place. Actually, Aitutaki was one of the reasons why I decided to travel to Polynesia. While I had been reading lots about this island on the internet before, I was using my imagination, seeing myself swimming in the shallow lagoon of this gem, surrounded by colorful sea-inhabitants, very far away from the hustle and bustle of the daily traffic back home.
Ask for a leftside window seat. From the air Aitutaki has to be one of the most beautiful sights in the Pacific. The aerial view is simply breathtaking. This southern paradise is made up of a triangular-shaped reef encompassing a clear, aqua lagoon in which three volcanic and twelve coral islands nestle. Once at the airport terminal (a single thatched roof on stilts), you just pick up your luggage from the push cart outside. Nobody goes inside the terminal or whatever you want to name the rain-shelter. Most of the passengers are here for a one-day lagoon cruise and will fly back to Raro with the evening flight. For these people everything is organized and a colorful bus awaits cruisers at the airport to bring them to their boat.
Ourself, we are here for three nights. Supposed to have a pick-up transfer as agreed by e-mail on booking the Rino's Beach Bungalow, our accomodation for the next three days. A big Cook Islander (forgot his name) sent us to Rino's by a bus of which we were the only passengers. This guy really is a multi-tasker. Still at the airport, he has a security tag on his chest however for no reason. I don't see anything to be happens here in paradise where the total of people at the airport is about 40. That is at peak times when a plane comes in. Our all-round guy was at the same time the island's postman. He delivered the incoming mail from Rarotonga to the addressed people who seems to knew exactly his arrival as they were waiting outside to grab their mail as we were driven through town. There are less then 2000 residents on Aitutaki. Our big guy was waved by everyone we passed on our way to Rino's bungalows. All of this happened within the moment we stepped out of the plane till the time we arrived at Rino's.
Again, we were happily surprised when we checked in at room 7. It was a very spacious bungalow built on stilts (to protect from tropical stroms) with all imaginable items and amenities. A brand new bathroom, airconditioning, big frige, microwave, etc. The bungalow has a very large verandah facing the lagoon offering great sunsets. And I mean VERY large. There are two very comfortable soft padded hammocks, a table with chairs and even an outside bed for those wishing to sleep under the stars. Top of the bill was a complimentary motobike during our stay. There were berths on the beach for our use but since we were located so close to the water with our verandah, we never took use of them. We experienced our hosts as extremely friendly and helpfull. I forgot my European-Pacific adapter for charging my cameras in Rarotonga (note: you take a limitation of luggage with you to Aitutaki) and our hosts took immediate action to find one for me.
If you want to ride a motobike, bring your driver's license. Myself, I did'nt and had to go for a examination at the Police station to profe my driver's skills. After a practical test with my moped, which exists of crossing sort of a football field, you're passed if youre still sitting on the saddle. You pay 7 NZD (4 USD) and you're offered a one-year Cook Island driver's license of which is valid for the use of a car as well. I remember when I had to go to the driver's school back home in Belgium about 25 years ago, I had the toughest time to get a license. I lost about 800 USD before I was allowed to drive a car, and it took me about two months. Here in the Cooks, it tooks me just two minutes and 4 Euro.
To take advantage of my new license and complimentary motobike, we encircled the island within less then two hours (with stops) mostle on paved roads. The ride offers sometimes spectacular lagoon-views with the biggest danger coming from the palm trees. Every now and then we noticed coconuts on the roads. A helmet is not obligated, but because of the coconuts not a bad idea. After we explored the winding road, and lots of small tracks criss-crossing the main island of Aitutaki, sometimes entirely covered by the palm trees, I don't think we had passed more then 5 vehicles other then mopeds.
Today we want to please ourselves with a nice breakfast and decided to drive up to the luxury Pacific Resort. Try to imagine riding a moped under extremely low traffic while the sun is rising, on one side the turquoise colors of the lagoon and the other side the lush greenery of the mountains. An island where nobody cares what is happening in the west. I have'nt seen any TV and I bet only few people feel the need to have one. Our breakfast at the Pacific Resort was'nt really cheap but we were overwhelmed with food. Coffee was 4 dollars but what's expensive if it is served in a traditional coffee pressing can which holds about 5 cups.
Last night we attempted the island night at the Blue Nun which was so so compared to the two previous shows we had seen at the Samade Bar and the other back in Rarotonga. I remember the request of the singer at the end of the show asking the audience to tell the world that a place like Aitutaki exists. I understand that the commercial part of the people likes to see more visitors, but I'm not sure if I will spread the word. This is simply paradise and I hope that it will remains like this unlike Boracay in the Philippines for example. I was there first back in 1993 and again in 2000. It tooks only 7 years to take over tourism from former solitude.
Today we went by fast boat with Bishop Cruises to Maina Island or Honeymoon Island as it is often reffered to. Together with just two other young couples, after 30 minutes of speedy fun, Captain Wonderful dropped anchor in the middle of nowhere where the water was about waste deep. As we jumped in the lagoon, immediately we were surrounded by different kind of tropical fishes who seems to know that they will be feeded shortly. We reached Honeymoon Island, where the area is truly surreal with sandbars and small islets with soft sand. It's like swimming in an outside warm bath.
We headed east to One Foot Island after that to enjoy a delicious barbecue right on the beach. One Foot Island is fringed with low hanging palm trees and soft sand. The perfect postcard-picture. For those who want completely solitude, there is one single bungalow available to spend the night. No electricity, no people around, just you and your partner. Food is brought in by the daily excursion boat who arrives around noon. You have the beach, the shallow waters and the fantastic atmosphere entirely for your own.
A family of beautiful yellow fishes (excuse me, I'm not good in fish names) gathered around a group of giant clams in chest deep water right in front of that bungalow. There were two big and one smaller who seems to enjoy teasing with me. Each time I want to take them a picture they were hiding behind the clams.
The Aitutaki lagoon is truly the most beautiful water scene I've ever witnessed so far. I try to imagine how Captain BLigh must have wondered when he first arrived here back in 1789, sailing on the Bounty. Bligh returned to Aitutaki and it is said that he had introduced the paw-paw, which, like other varieties of tropical fruit, grow in abundance all over the island.
I can't understand why only few visitors are here. Perhaps because of it remoteness ? We travelled 36 hours from the moment we shut the door behind us when we left home tilll we checked in at our first accomodation in Rarotonga. But for Aussies and New Zealanders it's not that bad.
Unfortunately, today will be our last day here in this island-paradise and since the best thing about Aitutaki is undoubtedly its lagoon, we wanna cruise her warm waters once again. There are numerous lagoon tours, which last almost an entire day. Possibly the most well-known is Air Rarotonga's day tour onboard Titi-ai-Tonga, a large double hulled vessel that cruises languidly in the lagoon. Sit down meals are served by friendly staff and after snorkeling in the lagoon, visitors are taken to One Foot Island.
Ok, this time we cruise the lagoon with the daytrippers from Raro. One big mistake I had made today. I took out my t-shirt. Later in the evening I was looking similar to a cooked lobster, sunburned all over and I can tell it hurts. I remember myself buying 60+ sunblock from the pharmacy back home. I wanted to have the best and was avoiding the supermarket stuff.
Apart from that, sailing with Paradise Tours, cruising the lagoon again, was perfectly ok. The crew had been very entertaining and again we had a perfect day in paradise.
We have to say goodbye to the very kind and symphatic owner of Rino's Beach Bungalows. Upon returning my complimentary motobike, Rino did'nt want me to refill it, although that was the agreement 3 days ago when I checked in.
I will always remember the smiling faces of the people of Aitutaki. After being here just three days, we felt a bit like being part of them. Just the way all Cook Islanders do, we were waved wherever we drove with our motobike. They raised their hands to us as if we lived on the island and knew one another for years. The policeman who gave me the driver's license. We had met him twice again after that and waved to us. The young lady who picked us up twice for island nights, she was part of one of the dance groups, she also ran a catering business to provide the organizers of Island Nights with buffets for their visitors. we got to know one another too.
Back in Raro for our last day in the Cooks, we took the clockwise bus to Avarua. The ride is fun while the driver is it all. He's interacting with the passengers and all of a sudden he stopped where he should'nt. There were two big women sitting alongside the road chatting. "Hi gals, can I help you with something?" Hilarity on the bus and we continued our trip. Then he turned his head inside the bus, asking if someone was willing to take over from him to drive the bus.
Tonight we fly to our next destination Papeete where we will arrive after midnight.
After checking in our luggage at Avarua airport there was one single anouncement. "Mr. Torremans, please contact the check in counter" I tried to make it back through carry-on luggage checkpoint but was stopped by an official telling me to wait for the officer who would come to look after me himself. Because I had collected some gorgeous shells earlier today on Muri Beach and in front of our bungalow, I thought this would be the problem. I had seen the signboard in the arrival/departure hall warning passengers for carry out food, plants, animals AND shells. As I could'nt think any other reason than that why I would being hold, I prepared myself for a big fine already. I was waiting long 20 minutes before the official arrived. Somewhat every possible scenario was spinning in my mind for the offence. Finally a well-build guy in a official costume appeared on the scene informed us that we were upgraded to business class. VIVA AIR NEW ZEALAND ! The flight went to quick. We had to kill 5 hours at Faaa airport in Tahiti before we could continue to our destination: Moorea.