RAROTONGA COOK ISLANDS - They span an area the size of western Europe, but the Cook Islands may seem like the ends of the Earth when viewed from Japan — an 11-hour flight away south to New Zealand, followed by a four-hour “local hop” to the capital, Avarua, on the main island of Rarotonga.
Home to about 17,000 Maori, this former British colony comprising 15 islands was ruled by Australia and New Zealand from 1901 until independence in 1965. It now hosts around 100,000 tourists per year, mainly Aussies and Kiwis. During my three-week visit in the January high season, I saw only one Japanese traveler, two Chinese, a handful of North Americans and a few Europeans studying or traveling in New Zealand.
Many people I met were asking: Where are the Japanese tourists? And indeed, the Cook Islands have so much to offer one and all. Safer than Guam or Saipan, it is more affordable than Tahiti, which Japanese commonly think of as a dream destination, albeit distant and expensive.
For sure, visitors from shopping-central Japan would love the Saturday-morning market on Rarotonga, which is home to all but about 4,000 of the nation’s population. Just at it teems with sarongs, ukuleles, pearls, masks and handwoven hats and mats, the islands have resorts a-plenty, with many set up to marry star-crossed lovers in a Christian church — in the traditional Maori way.
The main island, Rarotonga, a volcano rising 4,500 meters from the ocean floor — or to 658 meters above sea level at the summit of Te Manga — has the cooling breezes of Hawaii, spectacular scenery to rival Bora Bora in Tahiti and a technicolored lagoon reminiscent of Guam or the Marshall Islands. Here, coconuts quite literally fall from the trees (beware!), and wherever the gaze falls it seems to happen on a cornucopia of avocados, papayas, mangoes, breadfruits, pineapples, starfruits and passionfruits.
But thanks to the strength of the New Zealand dollar, which is the islands’ currency, a loaf of bread will set you back $6, and it’s $7 for a box of crackers and $8 for Pringles. Even the cheapest fast-food eateries offer greasy hamburgers for $5 or fish and chips for $10, while many main courses start at $20 — the usual less mendacious alibi being that lots of ingredients are imported from New Zealand or even Indonesia.
Nonetheless, Rarotonga generally feels like the old-time South Pacific, with women wearing flowers in their hair and big-boned men sporting tattoos. Instead of tight security at the airport, a ukulele player greets new arrivals with song.
Sometimes, however, the main island can get more than its fair share of rugby-loving Kiwi youth there to stagger on and off the Pub Crawl truck circling the island before heading for Whatever Bar or Rehab, where foreign women are a big draw for local boys eager to spoil them. For many Kiwi families, it’s like Hawaii Down Under, replete with cheesy lagoon cruises by day and “cultural” shows at night featuring muscular chaps in feathery head-dresses and sweaty young maidens wearing coconut bras.
Yet the inquiring visitor can’t help asking: Why is it that, if this is such a paradise, there are roughly 85,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia?
The answer is complex. One high school grad, selling carvings at the open-air Saturday market, said she was desperate to get away from a future of minimum-wage ($6.50 an hour) hotel jobs and the boredom of being stuck on an island 32 km in diameter, where all the residents know each other. A 50-something butcher, who blasted blues guitars riffs at his neighbors, said he’s worth more in Australia, and besides, he can’t stand his own island’s music and culture, which remains centered around Christian churches whose devout worshippers sing glorious multipart harmonies on Sundays.
Since Cook Islanders have New Zealand citizenship, they’re naturally drawn to the higher wages and better education there, and the diversity of cities such as Auckland and Christchurch. Besides, the Maori have a proud tradition of migrating across the ocean, and just because they may work far away doesn’t mean they’re any less proud of their rich heritage and sacred traditions, best displayed at the Highland Paradise cultural feasts on Rarotonga.
Many hope that a developing tourism industry will induce more Maori to stay closer to home. And certainly, European backpackers, who have, since the 1960s, been blazing trails across Asia that multinationals have followed, are starting to discover the Cook Islands. They can easily find dorm rooms for $25 a night, or singles for $50, and use the communal kitchens that come with them to cook up instant noodles or canned food. For their sightseeing, two buses — one going clockwise round Rarotonga, the other anticlockwise — are good deals at $4 per ride or $25 for 10; while a plethora of shops rent out scooters and small motorbikes for $30 per day or $100 per week — with rates for mountain bikes or electric push-bikes that are often less.
In paradise, though, the best things are often free. Stunning flame trees decorate the asphalt roads with red petals, while yellow and red hibiscus poke out of bushes and await their place in women’s hair. With your own snorkeling gear, you can marvel among the reefs off the Fruits of Rarotonga shop or the Dive Center near the Rarotongan Resort. You can stroll out of the cozy Muri Beach Resort and kayak, swim or walk at low tide across the peppermint-colored lagoon to an islet to call your own — a “motu” as such idyllyic spots are known.
Then, just slightly removed from nature, there’s fantastic local music to be heard everywhere: from the giant men and ladies with puffy fingers strumming ukuleles at the resorts, or the Tropical Sounds band at Hidie’s bar, which is a funky hangout on Wednesday and Friday nights and a food court daily at noon.
While there may be no such thing as a true paradise, travelers can find slices of it here. I found it snorkeling among a giant flounder, three moray eels, giant trevally and schools of other fish, who benefit from the traditional “raui” prohibition on fishing in the lagoon. Then paradise beckoned again during “island nights” held at Highland Paradise and the Muri Beach Resort, where top local dancers sway their hips to the frenetic rhythms of some impressive drummers.
For me, though, it just didn’t get better than playing basketball with local guys at the Seventh Day Adventist church, then rinsing off in the lagoon as sunset daubed the sky in the colors of the reef and its fish.
Like Okinawa, the Cook Islands boast healthy seniors typically living well into their 80s and 90s. On his plantation high above the lagoon, 85-years-young Joseph Marsters tells a stream of great stories as he goes around picking papayas, bananas and pineapples for his visitors. Then, after cutting down a length of sugar cane — also useful as a walking stick — he replants the leafy head to yield a new crop. Then, after he demonstrates how to hack down and husk a coconut, we drink the milk — with a dank and fermented taste similar to fine Japanese sake — as he hands out bottles of homemade coconut-oil for sunburnt, sea-dried hair.
Later, though — and yet again — as I sat in his little mountain hut overlooking the wild blue Pacific where he used to face down his fears on rickety boats for days on end, my mind wanders momentarily back to Tokyo’s concrete jungle, and I wonder what can possibly account for the notable absence of Japanese tourists on these islands.
This question lingers as I hop on to the 40-minute Air Rarotonga flight to Aitutaki, aka Araura Enua (about $200 each way), which is a much safer inter-island travel option than the hulking cargo boats that go every month or so and are apparently often delayed or run aground.
The warmth of Aitutaki — with perhaps the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific and fantastic cruises to spectacular reefs and uninhabited islands — reminds me of Sri Lanka or rural Thai islands in the late 1980s. As I cycle, everybody passing on motorbikes smiles or waves. Matt Ruta, who runs the Payless store, which sells salty “Island Fries” of taro, arrowroot and breadfruit for $5 a pack, says: “We have just the right amount of tourists. Not too many, like in Rarotonga. We want to keep it this way. Everybody friendly, like a big family.”
I find the same “outer island” vibe and hospitality at the 27-bungalow Pacific Resort Aitutaki, where general manager Julian Moore greets every arrival. “Every single guest who leaves here talks about the staff. It’s really a treasure of the Cook Islands,” says Moore, who has run resorts in the Maldives, Dubai, Phuket (Thailand) and his native Australia. “They are really focused on caring in a family way. Even the best luxury hotels in other countries don’t get that feel, because there it’s a trained nurturing, not a natural one.”
Even more than Rarotonga, Aitutaki is a step out of time. Not long after checking into my bungalow, I begin to lose my last traces of stress as I sink into the luxury of my bed, sofa, two hammocks and four beach loungers. Time is no longer calibrated by a ticking clock organized into divisions of 24, 60 and 60. Here, it moves with the ebb and flow of the tides — two high and two low per day — and the rise and fall of the sun, moon and stars.
In addition to the lagoon and the resort’s infinity pool and waterfall, I have five showers of my own: a beach-front nozzle for rinsing, with another spout for my feet; a private outdoor garden shower with high walls for privacy and mirrors for intimacy; and an indoor shower room with two shower nozzles meant for honeymooners.
In other countries, travelers explore temples or castles to absorb the local culture. In the South Pacific, one must study the hammock. Comforted by an invisible mother rocking me in the cradle, I sink deep into a state of relaxation not possible in a hard chair, and watch yellow hibiscus blossoms floating down from a tree.
To further my cultural studies, I go snorkeling. The lagoon is just the right size: big enough for a challenge, yet shallow enough to safely touch bottom. Currents do much of the swimming for me, ferrying me like an astronaut over clusters of coral as I follow the resort’s Aquatic Eco-Trail map through different reef zones of fish.
Then, high on endorphins, I doze during further hammock studies and awake in a daze. Putting my feet on powdery white sand feels like my first moment on Earth. In the middle of the great blue ocean, far from civilization, I am at this instant a flower blooming under the sun. A flock of white birds play high in the sky, highlighting the absence of planes overhead in this remote region of the vast ocean.
Refreshed, I hop into a kayak, with my camera wrapped in a towel, and paddle toward the late-afternoon sun searing the blue sky to the west. Just then, what seems like a large bird flaps its wings directly in front of me. But this bird is under the water — a spotted eagle ray. It takes my breath away with it as it glides majestically before me, seemingly clad in a flowing royal-purple robe studded with diamonds.
The sunsets here are works of art, evoking images of South Pacific painters such as Paul Gaugin and William Hodges. Clouds turn from white to pink and reflect on the mirror of the glassy lagoon. With nothing but water between my kayak and the sun, I feel as if I am somehow in the middle of the sunset, bathing in a fountain of molten gold. After the sun plunges into the sea, bands of green — yes green — emerge above the horizon, while clouds seem to parade like poodles at a dog show.
Instead of hurrying ashore, I watch the stars pop out one by one until I’m paddling back in a three-dimensional planetarium of darkness and starlight.
After a scrumptious meal of ika mata (raw tuna and blended fruit juices), I stroll back to my bungalow intending to have an early night after reading a bit of a book about the Cook Islands by Ewan Smith, a gifted New Zealand-born photographer and pilot who also runs Air Rarotonga. However, the moon calls me to kayak on the lagoon at midnight. Laying on my back, gliding over the calm water, I think of ancient seafarers crossing the South Seas in traditional vaka (outrigger canoes), navigating by the skies and the patterns of waves, winds and birds.
Like a man unable to read a map, though, I recognize almost nothing above me other than the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. No such problems, I reflect, afflicted the astonishing English seafarer Capt. James Cook (1728-79), who charted much of the Pacific before being killed in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Then Fletcher Christian and others in the crew staged their infamous mutiny on HMS Bounty near Tahiti in 1789 before also piloting the marine expanses to live out secretive lives of hardship and solitude on utterly remote Pitcairn Island.
Meanwhile, on nearby Palmerston Island in the Cook Islands, an Englishman named William Masters arrived in 1863 with a couple of Maori wives, acquired some more, and went on to populate whole swaths of the South Pacific with offspring named Marsters — a variation thought due to the way “Masters” sounds in his native West Country accent.
Similarly, the Cleveland, Ohio-born writer Robert Dean Frisbee (1896-1948) began a new life with the women of Puka Puka to the north; while legendary Kiwi hermit Tom Neale spent 15 years in total isolation on Suwarrow from 1952 to ’77, as is recorded in his book titled “An Island to Oneself.”
But the most amazing stories are those of the indigenous mariners — names now unknown — who voyaged around the so-called Maori triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui in the Easter Islands. Staring at the stars, I marvel at their achievements. They had almost no margin of error: one miscalculation, or lapse in judgment, and they would quite simply disappear without trace.
In contrast, I have a lighthouse in the distance — a lamp in my bungalow. It leads me home, where I sit on my hammock, breathing the cool night air, free from stress — and again, wondering where all the Japanese tourists are.