Rarotonga - the Little Island with a Big heart.
The more often I visit the Cook Island capital of Rarotonga, the more it occurs to me this is an island not to be taken lightly, or lazily. Forget any romantic notion of turning up and staying at a resort, cocktail in hand, poolside for a week without moving, you will not see the real Rarotonga, much less get the best from it. Island time is still just that in Rarotonga, but this tiny island of just 32 kilometres packs a big punch, and is more accessible, more manageable and more enjoyable than it’s ever been.
To my mind, this is an island that has grown up more in the last three years than in the previous 25 since my first visit, which coincided with Cook Island tourism truly beginning. We lived here then, in the early nineties, in the back-wop town of Muri, on the southern side, home to arguably the best beach on the island. Back then our local friends would rarely visit Muri for fear of using up precious petrol on the long haul trip, 15km from Avarua Township. We were Muri loners, forced to spend our days sailing the lagoon, walking at low tide to the deserted Motu’s and desperately trying to not miss the school bus for fear of having to use the family car.
Now, Muri is the island’s tourist metropolis, a thriving mini town with daily snorkelling cruises, cafes, a night market, stand-up paddle boarding and yoga, and a multitude of beachside resorts and restaurants to suit every taste. Even the coffee is superb. It is our third visit to the island in the last four years, each trip our needs have been different with varying ages and stages of small children. This time, we have two kids under four, and their three school-aged cousins and parents have joined us.
Picking the right kind of day trip to appease everyone can be tricky, but Captain Tama’s lagoon trip and island feast was an obvious choice. Our snorkelling spot is amongst a pristine marine reserve, minutes from the shore. We are spoilt with a healthy show of decent sized fish, giant clams and a playful moray eel, a display that easily rivals our diving trips beyond the reef.
This lagoon is stunning, and the locals tasked with sharing it treasure it. After we’ve worked up an appetite snorkelling, we head to the nearby Motu Koromiri, for an island BBQ, Freshly caught mahi-mahi, pawpaw and coconut. As our guide, Captain Chocolate dutifully demonstrates how to scrape the coconut straight from the bowl like he learned during his right of passage as a child, our own 2 year old stands before him, in front of 80 others on the cruise, and begs, much like Oliver Twist, “can I have some coconut please”, taking the Captain by surprise. Chocolate obliges and a delighted Jude shares his freshly grated produce around.
Some of the best money spent to my mind in Rarotonga is a car or scooter. Unlike other Pacific islands where you stay put at your resort, you are free to roam and visit almost anywhere here, and it’s easy. On this trip, we hire a local house. It’s a gamble, but this is a goodie: beachfront, private and simple. A sprawling green lawn off the large deck becomes a daily playground for the kids endless cricket games, the beach at the end of the property a perfect spot for a swim or hermit crab race. We use the outdoor fire for BBQ’s and marshmallow roasting by night, and look for lizards in the wood pile by day.
There’s a common misconception here that you need to BYO food. This may have been the case five or ten years ago, but not now. The Island is serviced well with four decent supermarkets. Now, you can buy virtually anything you need and at a good price. If you eat local, it’s cheap. We buy fresh tuna and mahi-mahi for $12 per kilo, fresh off the boat, and make Ika Mata or ceviche daily.
The local brew satisfies both my husband and brother n law’s palates, my sister n law is delighted to find her much-loved NZ Pinot gris, cheaper than at home. We purchase a daily Nu and pawpaw from the ever increasing number of roadside stalls manned by the Mama’s of the islands, where the kids peruse the various fruit; star fruit, custard apple, citrus, coconut, pawpaw and passionfruit.
We covert the local donuts which sell out long before morning tea, if you’re lucky the local shop keeper will part with “just a few, ” still warm in their clandestine cardboard box. There has been a real effort in recent years to grow and sell local. There are fruit and vegetable gardens everywhere, the produce for sale daily at the Punanga nui markets and roadside stalls. Avocados, hydroponic lettuces, silverbeet, the ground here is fertile, and the growers patient for their rewards and eager to share their garden successes.
I never tire of the fresh tuna, but there are too many good restaurants here to self cater every night, and we’re on holiday. For something completely different we ditch the kids and head for an adults-only meal at Tamarind house, the old British Consul. We feast on a seafood platter brimming with local fish and prawns cooked every which way, under the stars with the waves crashing nearby.
One of the most exciting things about to hit the island is the opening of a child friendly four and a half star resort. The Nautilis is on track to open here in September, but the owners already have the beachfront infinity pool and restaurant open for business. Built on one of the last prime pieces of real estate in Muri, we drink cocktails by pool, and snack on local fries. At night we dine on fresh fish and exquisite ice cream, home made with local fruit, a resort specialty. Once open, the Polynesian style units will be self-contained, each with their own plunge pool, and powered by solar. The nearby kitchen garden is open to all.
While many of the resorts offer their own island style night with local dancers, we head high into the hills on the northern side to Highland Paradise Cultural Centre. It’s here that you get a real feel for the history of the Tinomana tribe. The children are transfixed by the warrior welcome and cultural display high up on the hill with breathless views over the lagoon The feast that follows is of a style I remember from the nineties. The only chips on the buffet table here are the local breadfruit and taro ones, the Umu delivers pork & chicken hot from the ground, and the rukau and coconut milk are lapped up by all. This is true local feast, much like you would eat in a typical island home.
The cultural dance show is authentic, colourful, loud, and my heart skips a beat as I watch my own daughter tapping in time to the drum, mesmerised by the island dancers. I feel a tear drop down my cheek, happy my job of sharing this special place with my own children well on its way. There is something about the Cooks that gets in your blood, they say the coconut tree is the tree of life, but I think Rarotonga is the Island of life, a place to slow down, a place to still your heart, and a beautiful place to make memories with your family.
this article was published in the New Zealand Herald Travel Section, July 2014