fter 6 weeks in our small campervan in New Zealand, where the weather had quickly descended into a windy winter, we felt it was time to relax a bit in warmer climes. While we enjoyed our trip through New Zealand immensely (more about that later) and our campervan was the closest thing to having our own house in the past 2 years, a little bit of extra living space and better weather seemed like a good idea.
So what is slightly bigger than a campervan? A tiny island in the middle of nowhere. Now that we had made it to the other end of the world, we decided to spin our globe a bit further and head for Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Straight into the Polynesian Pacific, perfect! And while we were there, we would celebrate our second wedding anniversary, even more perfect! Second honeymoon, here we come!
With our backpacks full of snorkelling gear, New Zealand wine left over from our many cellar door visits (more about that later) and our carry-on rucksacks full of chocolate and cheese (read why in a later blog) we leave for Rarotonga on a Sunday night! And after crossing the date line, we arrive on Sunday morning… Is this Groundhog Day? Who does not want to do over a day once in a while? Perfect yet again! In the miniature airport we retrieve our luggage accompanied by live ukelele music and we get a super warm welcome from Sam and Donna with an enthusiastic “Kia Orana” and a fragrant flower garland. The repetitive “perfects” might be a bit boring by now? But you get the picture.
In Rarotonga (“Raro” to its friends) we stay in the holiday home of Sam en Donna, with a view on a garden full of coconuts and passion fruits, our house dog, our own private beach and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Behind the house we have a view on an orange red sun, setting behind the lush green mountains that dominate the centre of the island. This must be Paradise. Our scooter is already parked in front of the house, so we can spin around the full 32 km ring road of the island. We end up doing this several times a day, first in one direction and then, to spice it all up, in the other direction.
But really, it doesn’t get old as there is always something to explore: a new place to snorkel, a temporary stall next to the road where you can buy exotic fruits (unless the store has closed for the day, in which case they often give it to you for free), a little market here, a little side road heading “inland” there, somebody who is selling homemade cookies (unless you order only one, then you get it for free), somebody zealously trying to convert you to their religion, fresh fish sold from the back of a pickup truck and so much more (relatively speaking).
We immediately ease into the relaxing “Island Time” and start our days with lazy tropical fruit breakfasts accompanied by the sound of the waves crashing into the reef. While we are there, we catch up on some reading and writing with an amazing view. In the afternoon we go snorkelling among the beautiful coral and tropical fish of the fringe reef, after which we take our scooter for a spin around the island to dry our hair. By night time we visit a food market here or there and take a sip from our self-imported wines. We could get used to this! On our wedding anniversary Sam and Donna go above and beyond to make our day even better. When we come back from snorkelling, our table is beautifully decorated with flowers and candles. In the evening they return with a gigantic tray of fresh fish, seafood and fresh fruit! This works perfectly with the bottle of bubbles that we stacked away in our backpack. Pure bliss!!
Add a daily portion of incredibly fresh ocean fish and we could not be happier! Freshly caught tuna for about 15 EUR per kilo, anyone? Or rather some swordfish or mahi mahi? On top of that delicious coconuts literally fall from the trees here! The locals put them in drinks, curries and a cornucopia of pies and cakes. They also use them in traditional dishes such as Poke, a type of steamed banana pudding soaked in coconut milk, and Ika Mata, which is raw fish (usually tuna) cooked ceviche-style in local lime juice and fresh coconut milk! Amazing!! You might have already noticed, Cooks Islanders love to eat!
If you need more action, you can explore Raro’s surrounding reef and its motu (tiny islands) by kayak or paddle board. We end up snorkelling every day, swimming out to the islands, and we also do two dives to explore the deep blue and its reefs around Raro. While there are surfers here, this requires some balls as hitting the reef at the end of a wave is probably not an enjoyable experience. We also cross the island on foot and climb through the tropical jungle all the way up to the Needle, a massive rock piercing out of the centre of the island. As it had been a bit wet lately, we did have to more or less (mud) slide the way back down on our ass…. Really great fun… NOT!
We really enjoy cruising around the island on our little scooter. However, a scooter license is mandatory, so Maarten has to pass a theoretical and practical exam to get a drivers license (read more about that later). Basically it is just a bit of fun and mostly for show and this tourist attraction costs you 32 dollars and a few hours of your time. Traffic is pretty relaxed here, there is only one main road, 2 roundabouts and no traffic lights on the entire island. The only ones stupid enough to go over the speed limit of 50 km/h to overtake you are the (still) stressed-out tourists. Where do they think they are going?
There is also a very pleasant atmosphere on the island and great low key evening entertainment. Almost every night there is a little market here or there where you can eat your fill (more about that later). Surprisingly, the islanders have a thing for mushroom cream sauce… don’t ask us why, because it is definitely not a local ingredient. To set the tone there is often a local hipster cover band and/or some Polynesian dancing girls with archetypical coconut bikinis and straw skirts with hip ornaments, flower garlands and flower crowns, shaking their hips out of their sockets. Shakira has some strong competition here! Swaying hips and traditional wooden percussion music and you only have to eat and enjoy! Not too bad! And if you have not had your fill of island dancing yet, you can go to one of the many Island Nights dinner shows.
You can also visit the Pa Ariki Palace, where you can learn something about the island and its culture. We could not miss this as Sam, the owner of our holiday home, is also the crown prince of this side of the island! So we are hanging out with highnesses! Another unusual treat is the ghost hotel that Sheraton decided to plonk down on the island and abandoned during its construction phase. A massive resort half finished and left to the elements … pretty spooky.
On Sunday, you can also participate in the most important event of the week and, next to the markets, the only thing going on: CHURCH. Unless of course you are a Seventh Day Adventist, then you go to church on Saturday and keep your shop open on Sunday to raise the revenue. We join Sam and Donna to the mass of the local Born Again Christians. The mass is called Celebration on the Rocks and feels more like a rock festival with religiously inspired songs. There are a lot of local youngsters, Filipinos who work on the islands, and even a couple of Western expats who all join in to sing and praise the Lord with outstretched arms. After that you can have a great cup of coffee and a nice chat. Choosing a religion is not easy in Raro. This tiny island is the perfect place if you are on a spiritual quest as almost every religion has a hardcore following here (even the Baha’i).
And we have kept the best for last: the people of Rarotonga! These are definitely some of the most friendly, kind, happy, open and relax people in the world. They teach us how to open up husked coconuts (free coconut water!), select the freshest passion fruits, papayas, star fruits and custard apples, and even get us to sample fresh cacao beans (the trick is to only eat the white outside coating of the beans). And if you are not paying attention, they will start giving you stuff for free. While this is a place where you really want to pay, because they have the coolest coins in the world. On top of this the women often wear the most enchanting handmade (plastic) flower crowns and we are tempted to have one (or three) crafted for ourselves.
There is no need to go on special tours to get to know the locals, they are always up for a chat. Kate was almost converted to Mormonism, we learned a lot about Rarotongan culture and we exchanged ideas about the rhythm of life “overseas” with these surprisingly worldly and well travelled people. Of course everything here is “overseas”, you have to imagine living in the middle of the Southern Pacific, a 4-hour flight from New Zealand and a 7-hour flight from Australia, let alone the rest of the world.
But those flights are also one of the other attractions on the island! No really, you are allowed into the “jetblast area” where the airplanes scoot over your head, back to a faster pace of life. You can even walk up to a few dozens of meters behind the jet planes as they get ready to take off, but we do not have to tell you this might not be the best idea. “Take of your glasses and hold on to the fence” said a local spectator. But why? We soon found out why this is not allowed anywhere else. As soon as the jet engines start turning, the hot air carrying little stones and debris starts flying into your face at great speed, a few seconds later you have to hold on to the fence for dear life while trying to keep your clothes from flying of your back… This was definitely not our brightest idea… But, since we survived unscathed, pretty fun (says Maarten…).
You can also take a small propeller plane from AirRaro to an even more relaxed pace of life on the outer islands. And that is what we decide to to do next. You can read more about our Aitutaki adventure in one of our future blogs.
Would you like to be swept away by more blue island bliss, have a look at our pictures here.