Southern exposure to a small, slow, pacific life

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Bloom
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2003

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands -- For anyone who considers Hawaii too modern, too big, or just not quite far enough, there are the Cook Islands.

These are so far -- in the South Pacific, west of French Polynesia -- that the distance has to be part of the appeal. You should have to fly halfway around the world to find a place so different from your everyday life. If you could find the same old tropical lagoons and white-sand paradise here, why come? Just think about all the frequent-flier miles you will accrue. Plus, you can combine the Cooks with a trip to New Zealand. Air New Zealand allows travelers to Auckland a lengthy free layover in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cooks.

Rarotonga is far enough off any beaten path to have retained its isolation and laid-back Pacific style. There are no McDonald's, Pizza Huts, or 7-Elevens (although there is a 6-Eleven). If locals wear shoes at all, they are rubber sandals. Yet Rarotonga also features modern comforts -- clean drinking water, plenty of electricity -- that some of its more rustic Pacific neighbors do not.

Then there is the size of the place. In trying to describe how small the area is, you sound as if you are telling a joke. The Cook Islands are so tiny its navy has one boat (it is self-governing, in free association with New Zealand, which handles defense), it has five-digit phone numbers and four-digit license plate numbers.

On Rarotonga, size 26 square miles, there are no traffic lights and no addresses. When asking directions to, say, a restaurant, you get vague descriptions and the name of the area. You can't miss by much -- it takes less than an hour to drive around Rarotonga.

The island's size means many visitors forgo cars for scooters. But be careful, as locals warn that they see far too many cases of "Rarotongan Tattoo," or road rash. Renting a car is safer, but much more expensive. Whether scooting or driving, you'll need to both drive on the left (it is the British Commonwealth) and obtain a Cook Islands driver's license (at the Police Department, for $10).

The license process is one of the few annoyances on the island, but if that's one too many, stick to the Circle Island Bus. It's a cheap way to see the island -- $1 will take you around the whole thing. There are two routes: clockwise and counterclockwise. Unfortunately, the bus stops running at around 5 p.m. on weekdays and there are no buses on Sunday. There are a few thatched-roof bus stops, but you can flag down the bus anywhere on its route.

Life is definitely lived at a slower pace here. The first mandate in the "Cook Islands Rules of the Road" you are given with your license is: "Drive at a leisurely pace. Relax and enjoy the magic of our beautiful island scenery and unhurried lifestyle." They deem that more important than telling you to drive on the left.

While we all have heard about "island time," don't underestimate just how laid-back things are. When my friend and I were five minutes late to meet a hiking guide, we were worried he might have set off without us. Fifteen minutes later, he drove up, a smile on his face. The Cross Island Trek, which ascends the interior highlands, is four hours well spent. Hiking with Pa as your guide is worth it for his stories alone. The healer/hiker/hostel operator is a local legend who guides treks barefoot every day.

As one would hope after a 7,130-mile journey, Rarotonga has amazing beaches. In addition to white sand and few people, they are all lagoons. Waves break offshore thanks to the coral reefs surrounding the island, creating a vast, natural swimming pool. While surfers may be disappointed, snorkelers come out victorious. The waters are filled with butterfly fish, parrot fish, blue fish, and wonderfully healthy coral.

After the third or fourth day of water fun, you might be ready to head for town. There, you could stop at the Philatelic Bureau to pick up interesting stamps and currency. There are triangular $2 coins and the ever-rare $3 bill, now out of use. The Perfume Factory, meanwhile, has more conventional gifts: amazing perfumes, soaps, lotions, and shampoos. While the coconut oil tanning solutions don't provide much sunscreen, the coconut shampoo is a must. And for a quick bite, drop by T-Shayla-J Cafe/Coffee Shop/Bakery. Owner Sharon Carter, an Irish Samoan who came to the Cooks via New Zealand, creates edibles as interesting as her personal history. Try the creamy apricot and custard rolls or the tropical pineapple and coconut muffins ($2.50 each).

For those with a bit of intellectual curiosity, the Cook Islands Cultural Village ($54 per adult) is a good starting point. A sort of Pacific Plimoth Plantation, visitors learn about the culture and practices of the Maori, the islands' first settlers. As we shuttled from hut to hut, we learned about various aspects of traditional Cook Islands life, from clothing to music to medicine, and picked up a few sociological lessons: Wearing a flower behind the left ear means you're available, behind the right ear means you're taken, and behind both ears means you're desperate.

After hearing about the approximately 10,000 uses for the coconut, we learned about the umu, or earth oven. In the umu, food cooks atop layers of volcanic rock and coconut fronds with banana leaves keeping in the heat. The tour concluded with a traditional meal and musical show. The meal was delicious, with chicken, ground taro leaves, and pawpaw (papaya). The song and dance, however, left a bit to be desired, as it was mostly a bring-everyone-up-on-stage embarrass-athon.

To enjoy a real Cook Islands show, you have to attend an Island Nights feast, or luau. The Rarotonga show has it all: the earth oven, the ukulele-backed songs, and the (Tahitian) coconut bra-clad dancers. While the unveiling of the umu was a bit disappointing, what with the tarp replacing the traditional banana leaves, the oven's contents more than sufficed. The spread was a real feast, but make sure to save room for dessert. The poke, a creamy, jellylike mixture made from papaya or banana, was a treat. The dancing and music was top notch, with a group from the outer islands performing on the night I attended.

There are three resorts on the island, all situated on pristine beaches. But thanks to Cook Islanders' reverence for tradition, there are no private beaches. So backpackers, locals, and resort guests share the sand at Muri Beach, one of the island's nicest. In fact, that mix is encouraged by having a hostel, Vara's Beach House, next to the spiffy Pacific Resort. On a tight budget, Vara's is the place to stay. When $12 buys you the choice of a dorm bed in a hillside villa with ocean views or a beachside locale, you cannot complain. Minutes away is the Pacific Resort's Barefoot Bar, with its sand floor and no walls. Lagoon Lodges are a nice midlevel option, where $100 gets you a self-contained bungalow opposite a nice stretch of beach.

If you feel like splurging, the Rarotongan Beach Resort is for you. With its poolside bar, health spa, and nightly entertainment, there are no rough edges. The best part is that anyone who has breakfast, lunch, or even a Coke at the bar is treated like family, or better yet, a paying guest. It's like Club Med without the wristbands, and youare entitled to use the pool, snorkeling gear, or sea kayaks.

Despite the ban on kava, the blinding Pacific concoction made from the plant's roots, Cook Islanders still like to drink. Friday night is the big night on the town and for some, the Saturday morning market marks the end of Friday night. I was told that many Cook carousers will go all night, then catch an early feed at the Punanga Nui Market (outdoor market) before heading home to sleep it off. That explains the dense plates of roast pork leg with gravy, potato salad, and greens for $4.

For those starting their day at the market, there are breakfast foods, too. Who can argue with a freshly fried doughnut for 30 cents? Then again, with the smell of roast chicken chop suey filling the air, maybe you should just go with the flow. For something a bit more Pacific, try the rukau, a creamed-spinach-like concoction made from cooked taro leaves. Or be adventurous; pick up a liter of noni juice ($6), the Pacific panacea made from noni roots.

The market features equal parts produce, crafts, and clothing. Locals do their weekly shopping there and gab with friends. And there are plenty of souvenirs for tourists. From colorful pareus (the local version of a sarong) to woven flax bags, it's one-stop shopping for everyone on your gift list. You can also find the Cook Islands version of the aloha shirt at the market, but you should probably bring back something else. After all, you don't want them to think you only went to Hawaii.

Jonathan Bloom is a freelance writer who lives in Brookline.

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