By the end of 2 weeks in the Cook Islands I was undoubtedly bored. Upon returning home, I’m surprised that I miss that idleness and look at it with an entirely different light. The chaos of LAX airport and the high anxiety with long customs line when we landed, coming back to work as a flight attendant and seeing how impatient and rude the general public is, and rushing through my coffee in the mornings to actually put on makeup and get dolled up for the ‘real world’. Now that I’m home, our time on the Cook Islands was a dang retreat. It was full of unintentional self reflection, actually relaxing on a vacation, and a reminder to disconnect from our electronics and take in all that’s around you.
I found my version of paradise there as well, and I’ll jump straight to it. Flying into Aitutaki you walk straight off your little plane through an open air ‘terminal’ and pick up your baggage claim in the parking lot, all in one fell swoop. We chose to stay in the affordable Paradise Cove beach bungalows, and our host kindly offered to take us by a grocery store before we checked in. A block of cheese was like $8, and the selection of food was mere basics and junk. Our $55 bottle of whatever cheap brand of vodka they had was probably the best purchase we made.
But, back to the paradise part. We loved our little thatched hut beach bungalow. Andrea and I stayed across the sand path from Shane but wandered over for breakfast of fresh island fruit, toast, and coffee served everyday and later having sunset cocktails chatting with the neighbors, who are very close by on their own beach front balconies. Kiwis were the majority of the tourists, and they are very friendly people. We’ve been invited to stay with 2 different families within the first 10-20 minutes of meeting them. They also seem to like to drink…
Paradise came in the form of the lagoon surrounding Aitutaki and the small islands dotted in it. With names like honeymoon island and one foot island, these white fine sand beaches were the perfect end of the road from the long sandbar trails that gracefully rose above the shallow turquoise waters. We snorkeled in a spot that had giant clams that I was unaware the Cook Islands are even known for. Maybe it was the surprise factor, but I’ve never seen anything like them. I couldnt tire myself out from free diving down and seeing the psychedelic colors inside their open mouths. One would be shades of blue, the next orange, and it seemed so bright and colorful that they would surely glow in the dark. When I got close and created a current of water towards them they would start to close up. I should mention these clams were anywhere from 1 foot to 3-4 feet across. Sooooo cool. We came up from the ocean drop off we snorkeling at and could simply walk the long distance to the island closest to us (though we chose the quicker route and got on the boat).
We had delicious fresh fish lunch that was prepared in a hut on one foot island. Also there’s a post office that sells beer, postcards, and you can get your passport stamped for $2. We gladly had a semi/chilled Heineken in paradise (the only option) and marveled at how far the turquoise stretched. I’ve seen a lot of the best beaches in the world, and this place takes the cake. I’m just going to stop typing and insert photos.
We happened to visit during their Constitution Day week long celebration and caught the tribal dancers one night in Aitutaki. It was similar to what you see if you do one of the restaurants ‘island nights’, but much more authentic. The dancers from each tribe practice all year for this event and it was clearly important as I’m pretty sure everyone on that tiny island attended. The same was going on in Rarotonga during the last week of July into the first week of August.
Rarotonga, the largest of the 16 Cook Islands, is a whopping 32 km around on one main road. There are a couple of small roads that run parallel, but that’s it. The buses run ‘clockwise’ or ‘anti-clockwise’, and don’t really operate on too much of a schedule and could very well be full of tourists when it arrives.
In terms of what to do, there’s not a ton of options. We floated in the ocean a lot knowing we would never float too far as there is a reef surrounding the entire island that waves are constantly breaking on. But really, we brought tubes from home and it was the best thing we packed.
Activity wise, we did the cross island trek. It was recommended to start on the north side and end on the south. This was perfect as we just caught the bus to the north side, ran into Charlie our driving who picked us up from the airport in day 1, and he happily drove us to the trailhead cutting a little time off the trek. We ended and just walked to Moana Sands Villa where we were staying.
When we reached the top, we met 3 old men, the oldest being 82. They were in a ‘walkers club’ in New Zealand but provided the inspiration for us to actually climb ‘the needle’. Ya see, Shane and I, the more adventurous of the 3 of us took one look at the chain mounted onto the side of the needles cliff face and decided ‘nahhh we don’t need to go up any higher’. But then as we are sitting and taking in the views one of the old men took the chain and made it up halfway to the stopping point.
Andrea, our self proclaimed last-in-line hiker decided we weren’t coming this far and not climbing the dang needle, and off she went without a word and spider monkey’ed straight across that chain and hauled herself up the ropes. Shane and I exchanged a look of, ‘well shit’, and were off behind her. This is the day we elected her Chief Wild Card, as it was a complete wild card move for her to not say a word and go rappelling up a cliff face. It was worth it though, and we were very thankful to our chief for leading us to a spot of great beauty afterwards. We thanked the old man as well. The trek was challenging, made more so by the mud and slippery conditions. We were pretty beat up & muddy by the time we made it back down (ahemmm… some more than others, I didn’t fall just had dirt caked all over my face and hair from wiping sweat away). It took us 4 hours total with plenty of photo breaks and relaxing at the top. A must-do on the island if you’re somewhat active (or in a walking club)!
We also did a deep sea fishing excursion, by far the most expensive thing we did on either island we visited, and didn’t catch a dang thing. We justified booking it by saying we would provide dinner for a couple of nights from it, but no such luck. We cruised around on a 50 ft catamaran that the owner turned into a fishing boat though, and it was enjoyable when the sun came out… until both Andrea and I stopped speaking to focus on not feeding the fish that were hiding from us. Maybe it would have brought them to the surface. Anyway, that was a big ol bust, but the other boats in the marina had brought back marlin & tuna!
In terms of markets, I found the Muri night market to be mehhh. We assumed there would be some trinkets and shopping but it was mainly food and much smaller than the Sat market in town. So, if you’re able to make it to the Sat market, definitely go! I love my sarong/scarf/blanket I bought and Andrea bought her mother a lovely black pearl necklace. The Sat market ends at 2/3, so go early! The Muri market happens Tues, Wed, Thurs, & Sun from 5-8 and is a good spot to grab a relative cheap dinner.
The unexpected highlight of the trip, aside from when a masseuse showed up at the house on my birthday thanks to my amazing friends, was meeting the neighbors. We stayed in a beach house with a big backyard that led up to a shed on the beach. Eventually we found out a family owns that part of the beach and anything directly behind it all the way up to the mountain. Land is passed down through the family and cannot be directly purchased or sold. Steve was the 33 yr old son of the family closest to our house and also lives behind us in a home with his 2 sisters and nephews. After chatting for a while we mentioned how cool it would be to have a bonfire on the beach and cook our fresh fish from our fishing trip that we had such high hopes for. ‘We can have a bonfire here,’ and plans were made.
We didn’t come through providing dinner, but they assured us no worries they can find something to eat here. A couple of days prior I was given a bowl of something they were eating from his sister, and I ate it without knowing what it was until the bonfire night. Steve explained it was shrimp from the little freshwater stream, some sort of urchin thing inside a straw looking coral and fermented ghost crab. When he said they can survive by eating what’s right in front of us, I didn’t take it so literally. Hundreds of little bitty transparent lookin crabs come out at dusk, and apparently that’s in the food group of the locals.
In fact, we toasted one on a skewer (aka a branch Steve ripped off the tree overhead) over our bonfire later that evening and he broke the legs off for us to try first then split the body with me. Just cracked the whole thing in half straight off the fire and handed it to me. Obviously I ate it. The little bit of meat in the body was pretty good!
I probably wore them out with questions, but I was so fascinated by these people who still live in tribes and have a chief. Their chief was a woman, and is elected by the tribe. She will be the chief until she dies. The 2nd in line is his mother, & while it’s a very conservative and Christian island, he claims she likes to party and dance on tables. The chief has to bite the ear of a hog to solidify becoming chief and has a posse of bodyguards to make sure no one else gets to bite the ear first and therefore becomes the chief before them. Maybe I should have asked for a little more clarification on this whole event, because that sounds pretty ludicrous writing it out. The tribal dances that we saw performed were/are war dances used to declare war between the tribes. The indigenous people were cannibals before the 1800s, and performed sacred ceremonies requiring human sacrifice. I’d imagine that needle we touched has looked down on lots of blood on this island over the centuries. While it’s not practiced the same way anymore, we drove past some sacred stone structures that are still in place. We were told the war dance was used to declare war between tribes not even 40 years ago. But not an actual violent weapons clashing kind of war.
Everything is shared between family. For example, Steve and his family started up a wedding business on the large sandy beach that’s part of their property. It’s closest to their houses, but the rest of the family demanded a share in the profit since it was family land. Both Steve and his cousin Paul discussed how difficult dating is on the island and having to find out if you’re cousins with the girl you’re making heart eyes at. Marrying cousins is pretty common, tho these guys said they wouldn’t date anyone closer than 3rd cousins.
It’s such a small laze lifestyle they have. Both went to New Zealand for a few years, learned a trade, but then came back. When asked why, their answer was of course simply stretching their arms out to display the beach in front of them. They speak of boredom and family disputes being the worst part of island life, but both made the decision to move back.
I get it. I already mentioned it, but for the first time ever I had reverse culture shock returning back home. Everything seems so rushed, and everyone so impatient and rude. It brings to mind the experience Shane had when putting gas into our rental car on Raro. He went inside to ask the cashier how to operate the pump and the guy while imitating a meditation pose and even giving an, ‘Ommmmm’, opened his eyes, smiled big at him, and said ‘I believe you can do it now’ with laughter in his eyes. Shane walked outside and lifted the pump, which was all that was needed to start the gas flow. That humorous exchange is just an example of the attitude of the locals, which was contagious. A woman overheard Andrea and I asking a cashier about finding a hike trailhead and offered to let us just follow them there as they were headed that way. I suppose on an island that size you don’t really have to worry about stranger danger.
We knew not to be in a hurry for anything, we spent many mornings drinking coffee on our balcony or patio for an hour or 2 talking, and floated in our tubes contentedly for long periods of time as well. I suppose when there’s nothing to do and we chose not to purchase and connect to the expensive WiFi hotspot, we were forced to slow down and watch the chickens run across the yard for entertainment and actually talk to each other.
I think what I’m trying to say is that it was a fantastic reset button. It made me aware of my own social media and cell phone addiction, and how easy it is to go on autopilot and not think about or appreciate your surroundings. Granted, it was easy to appreciate them as we watched the waves crash on the reef drinking morning coffee talking about lord knows what.
If you’re planning a trip, I’ll throw out a few tips and favorites. The Cook Islands and Cuba are the only places I’ve ever been that WiFi connection really isn’t available in any public places unless you purchase a card of hotspot by the gigabyte.
-we bought our bluesky hotspot by the GB, buying our first batch at the airport just outside of international arrivals. At this time (Aug 2019), it’s 4x the GB on Tuesdays, and I believe it was 1GB for $10 and 3GB for $20 normally.
-rent a car or scooter! It’s $15pp to go anywhere if you arrange transportation. On Raro you have to get a drivers license for the scooter, but to rent a car wasn’t much more and you just bring your drivers license.
-we never actually made it to the major grocery store in town because the hours. It’s closed on Sunday, any holiday, and I believe 530pm every other day. So check before ya head out!
-the local dogs are the sweetest, and they will adopt you for your duration of stay wherever you are.
-the fish sandwiches at Charlie’s really are the size of your head, Trader Jacks seafood pizza was really really good, and we ate at Vaimi on the south part of the island 4 different times lol. It was by far the best sit down dinner we had.
-if you do the cross-island trek there’s no need to hire a guide. There are little orange arrows directing you the entire way!
-reservations are recommended for dinner but you can use your landline at the accommodation for everything.
-Doing a the lagoon cruise is an absolute must. They’re all $125 despite what your hotels old information might say, I learned the hard way that false advertisement doesn’t mean much to them.
-We has a good dinner at the boat shed and would have returned for lunch one day as it seemed like a nice spot.
-we posted up on the beach by the Aitutaki lagoon villas as it’s all public except for the few chairs beside the restaurant. You can grab beers from the restaurant and drink on the beach, and the food wasn’t bad there either!
-do the little trek to the highest point on the island. The view of the lagoon surrounding the island is gorgeous!
-bring as much as you can from Raro, 2 liter sodas, booze, anything you can if you’re trying to stock a kitchen…. you wont go through security before the flight (in fact they don’t even check an ID) and it’s MUCH more expensive and limited on Aitutaki!
-they are religious islands, so pretty much everything except some restaurants that cater to tourists are closed on Sunday. While I’m on the subject, it’s recommend to dress conservative and not just wear swimwear out and about.
That’s about all I have in terms of advice. If you’re coming from the US like we did, Air New Zealand has 1 direct flight a week from LAX & I see flight deals regularly for the $600 rt price that we paid! In fact, I didn’t even know where the Cook Islands were until I got the flight deal notification! So glad I do now though!