Cook Island, Faraway but so Endearing

Betty has to pick up the bride and groom. Actually, they are the plastic finishing touches for the heart-shaped wedding cake she has baked for her friend. This duet has to be delivered. No problem since it’s on our way to the capital Avarua on Rarotonga – one of the Cook Islands.

It’s Saturday just before noon and the rush is on. Ara Maire Nui, the main road of Avarua, is where Foodland is located and where the line at the cashiers is just like any other city on a weekend except this is a volcanic island – a dot in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. By midday Saturday, the island closes tighter than the area’s well-known black pearl producing, Pinctada Margaritifera oysters, and doesn’t reopen until Monday morning.

Across the wide well-paved boulevard, Betty and I cross to Punanga Nui, the open market. Today is special. The produce is fresh in a country where just about everything is imported which means expensive. She suggests, Lorna’s Yummy Cakes, a bakery stand. Lorna, a former Canadian, has a group of people vying for the last of her baked goods. We’re late and lucky to get the last few buns.

So what, I ask Betty, do you tell people when they ask where Cook Islands are. Her answer seemed perfect. “It‘s the place on the map where the fly made a mess,” she laughs.

Actually, Rarotonga is 1,630 nautical miles north east of Auckland, new Zealand, has a population of about 11,000 and is 76.2 square kilometres (approximately 46 miles). With all 15 islands in the nation, there’s a total of 240 square kilometres (aprroxmiately114 miles) spread over two-million square kilometres (120,000miles) of southwest Pacific Ocean. The Cook Islands are divided into the Southern group and the Northern group of islands.

Since the residents of the Cook Islands are known for their friendliness, it isn’t a surprise with all her obligations, that Betty feels she must show me some more of the island. We bump along semi-paved back roads past pretty wooden houses sitting on large properties, and we arrive at the sacred grounds of the Marae, Arai-Te-Tonga. A plague points out that this was the gathering for the pre-Christian Polynesians community. Betty warns me not to walk on the sacred site as she points out the investiture pillar, a high square-shaped column.

It’s time to return to Sokala Villas in Muri Beach on the Southeast part of the island, where I’m staying. And where just hours before , I had my first glimpse of this grouping of luxury villas.

Air New Zealand leaves Papeete, Tahiti, where I have been for a few days, at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. arriving at 5.30 a.m. in Rarotonga. This is both good and bad. You do get the entire day for sightseeing. But when Bob, the drive, left me off in the still dark early morning in this wooded area, I wasn’t too so sure that this is where I wanted to be at that moment. However, with flashlight in hand, one of the owners, Lawrence, was waiting and led me through a short path over a wooden bridge. Even at this iniquitous hour I was stunned to see seven self- contained, natural wood villas located on a small sandy beach..

Sunday. The roosters start to crow about 5 a.m. enough time for a quick swim, walk on the beach, then head to church, the most important social event of the week. Fifteen minutes away is the small Cook Islands’ Christian Church, one of the eight religions on the islands and the most popular. Although the singing seems spontaneous, it isn’t. These are tried and true churchgoers and know every song by heart, their voices beautiful, albeit untrained.

“Everyone goes to church for fun,” says the woman sitting beside me wearing a “rito” hat (white, finely woven from bleached pandanus leaves). The minister acknowledges the visitors, there are about 10, and thanks us for coming. He then apologized. He’s giving the sermon in the “native language”, Cook Islands Maori. This is a good introduction to the culture and tradition of the pretty islands.

Since there isn’t a lot of activity outside sports, the Cook Islands’ Cultural Villages are on most traveler’s itineraries and like others in the world, these “contrived towns” are somewhat touristy, but informative. The tours include stations of historical interest, costumes, fishing, Maori medicine, weaving, carving, cooking and an entertainment center. When it becomes very “interactive”, I find an excuse to leave and discover another non-participant. A New Yorker has also ducked out, not wanting to take part in the native dancing lesson. Quick friends, we later meet at the favorite Avarua watering hole, the Blue Note in Banana Court, near the main street’s traffic circle. Everything is expensive here. Expect to pay about $10 for coffee and cake. Refills of coffee are extra. Dinner at The Flame Tree, considered one of the best on the island and a short walk from Sokala Villas, has a prix-fixe dinner for about $60 a person.

A worthwhile and exciting side trip not to be missed, if you can afford to shell out about $400 for the day, is to Aitutaki (pronounced I-too-taki), certainly a contender as one of the most beautiful island with a population of just over 2,000 . The 18 seat Air Rarotonga’s Bandeiaante flies fairly low but at times it feels as tough we’ve hit a good upper New York State old pot hole in the clouds, as we bounce unmercifully. One New Zealander, Frank, has white knuckles from clinging to the armless chairs. Most of the 10 on board have come to snorkel in the hook-shaped triangular lagoon.. A motor boat picks us up at the beautiful Aitutaki Lagoon Resort. In 40 minutes, we’ve arrived at Tapuaetai (One Foot Island). Unfortunately, the weather changes and it’s far too windy and overcast and the snorkelers are upset. However, over the barbecue lunch of freshly caught fish and fruit, a few of us decide to walk as far as we can around the sandy beach island.

The flight back to Avarua has its ups and downs but even with all the day’s glitches, we all agree, it was great experience another of the beautiful Cook Islands.

If you go. For further information on the Cook Islands or other destinations in the South Pacific, the Tourism Council for the South Pacific is at Box 7440, Tahoe City, CA 96145. Phone 916 583 0152