Australian House & Garden
A visit to the islands of the South Pacific is all about winding down by degrees, one tiny nation at a time, write Vanessa Walker and Katrina Breen.
There’s nothing quite like leaving the hustle and bustle of Sydney, flying over thousands of kilometres of unbroken ocean, then coming in low over white sand and coconut palms, and taxiing to a small terminal where the melody of a gentleman playing a ukulele greets you.
But the really special thing about Rarotonga, capital of the 15 islands that comprise the Cook Islands, and the launching pad for several island hops, is the speed at which visitors can slip into authentic island life.
I arrive at 6am and before long I’ve passed my scooter driving test – by wobbling down a road under the gaze of a rental company man – and am heading, bareheaded like the locals, for the Punanga Nui market. On the way I pass wandering hens and pigs, and goats tethered to hibiscus bushes. The wind is barely ruffling my hair, because speed limits around the island are 30-50km/hr, but I can smell and see the sea from the main road that, conveniently, does a loop around the 32km isle.
When I arrive at the market, many of the islanders are in little clusters, eating ika mata (raw tuna marinated in lemon, ginger, coriander and coconut cream). Open-sided huts do a roaring trade in pawpaw and mango salad, hula skirts and timber carvings of Tangaroa, the Polynesian sea god.
While it seems like the rest of the world is speeding up, a visit to the Cook Islands is all about slowing down. There are few rules other than to observe the conduct of the mainly Christian islanders: treat elders well; if you’re sharing a meal with the locals, say grace; and the rest of the time, go with the flow.
While it seems like the rest of the world is speeding up, a visit to the Cook Islands is all about slowing down.
This is an island of huge churches and little general stores; a place of five-digit telephone numbers and fish and chips on the beach. In the shops, I find many of the brands remain the same as when I last visted, in 1977. It’s like stepping back in time to see Raro juice powder, plastic containers of Clover honey and castor oil on the face-cream shelf.
On Sunday morning I join locals at the Ngatangiia Cook Islands Christian Church. In the congregation are women wearing pandanus leaf hats with flamboyant displays of artificial flowers, men in suits and children in their Sunday best. After the minister’s sermon, a man starts up on a synthesiser and the people break into a deafening rendition of Oh God Almighty. It’s an uplifting service, with open windows that look out onto pawpaw trees, fans blowing, children lying on the pews with New Testaments beside them. Afterwards, when everyone goes to the house next door for egg and cucumber sandwiches, the ladies of the church politely enquire about how long I’m here and where I’m from.
That evening I join a group of locals aboard the SV Southern Cross yacht for a sunset sail. It’s glorious out on the ocean as the sun descends behind the clouds. My island companions regularly break into song as the outline of the island dims to black. When the lights ashore come on, there are surprisingly few – just those of the larger resorts and the huts selling food on the beach.
Dinner is sesame-encrusted tuna on the lawn of the Tamarind House restaurant, the lovely renovated colonial home behind me and breaking waves in front. This is the life, I think. Then… early next morning, I hop on an Air Rarotonga plane and arrive in paradise.
A mere 50-minute flight from Raratonga, the fabled almost-atoll of Aitutaki comes into view and it has a unique beauty. The islands – one large and 14 scattered motu, or islets – are in crescent moon formation, with the huge lagoon in the centre a wonderland for tropical fish.
Getaway host Catriona Rowntree has nominated Aitutaki as her favourite destination in the world; it’s also where Rarotongans go for holidays. It’s a hunker-down kind of place that has honeymoon written all over it. From my room at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa I can walk down a few steps and into the water, to wade among striped humbug dacylus, long-nosed butterfly fish and trevally. That afternoon I take a cruise with Te Vaka and snorkel among coral. Later, a hawksbill turtle swims past our boat as we move between several of the motu, feast on barbecued tuna then head back, sunburnt and happy.
It becomes obvious that on Aitutaki there are 100 ways to laze the day away. An activities hut offers pastimes such as crab racing or joining the resort driver on his town run (town being a marketplace, a bank and a police station). I visit Stephanie Joseph, who makes jewellery from recycled glass. The locals drop off the bottles after finishing their drinks – the blue glass is from gin bottles, green from Heineken and clear from windows smashed during Cyclone Pat in 2010; it’s recycling local-style. What could be better than this island, I think, as I embark on another 50-minute flight – to Atiu.
And here I find an island I could easily run away to. There are 26 vanilla-sand beaches strewn with exquisite shells and bright white coral, from which to access endless blue water. It’s not as pretty as Aitutaki but it’s completely unadulterated. The lush interior of the island is heavy with wild pawpaw, coconut, pandanus, noni and huge trees among which rimatara lorikeets, chattering kingfishers and Rarotonga flycatchers flitter in the dappled sunlight.
On Aitutaki the only sound is the buzz of small planes flying in. Here it’s bird calls and the sea. There are only two kilometres of sealed road on this island, which is home to less than 500 people. The rest of the ‘roads’ are dirt tracks. I count five huge churches anda few shops. One, the Jumbo Bakery, reveals its priorities: opening hours are 5-7am, and the remainder of the time the owner is out fishing. In the village is a bell that calls the elders together to discuss island affairs. It’s rung at least once a day.
On Aitutaki the only sound is the buzz of small planes flying in. On Atiu, it’s simply bird calls and the sea.
The island people are deeply connected to their past and culture.
My guide, Birdman George, shows me the cove where in 1777 Captain Cook had the Endeavour wait while Joseph Banks and his team came ashore. George paints the scene as though it were yesterday. When I need insect repellant, he forages for some fermented noni fruit; later he picks wild basil for my bites. He’s 53 and blithely shimmies up a palm to gather coconuts for lunch. On the beach, George weaves a basket from coconut palm leaves, uses a noni leaf as a cover and serves pawpaw with grated coconut. The only souls we see are two boys on a mud-crab hunting expedition.
During my stay, there are nine tourists on the island. Some of us go to an island night, where locals sing while playing drums and dancing. One man husks a coconut with his teeth. Children, dressed in fresh flower ‘ei, perform. It’s not overly scripted – at one stage the lead drummer jumps out of his seat to go and tell off the kids outside – but it’s all heart.
The next day I meet Andrea Eimke, a fibre artist. She and husband Juergen visited the island for two days some 28 years ago, got hooked and moved here for good. They set up a coffee plantation and now export organic, sun-dried Atiun coffee around the world. Andrea also runs Atiu Fibre Arts Studio with a local woman, Moana, and together they sew tivaevae, traditional appliquéd bedcovers. One hand-sewn bedcover takes them 10 weeks and sells for several thousand dollars. And there’s surely no better place to sit, sew and watch the passage of time than on Atiu.
Paradise, on our doorstep. All we need is the time to explore it.
HOW TO GET THERE Air New Zealand offers direct six-hour flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and via Auckland from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney six days a week; www.airnewzealand.com.au. Air Rarotonga flies daily from Rarotonga to Aitutaki, with fares from $142 one way. Flights link Aitutaki to Atiu three times weekly, from $164; www.airraro.com.
WHAT TO DO IN... RAROTONGA Take a four-wheel drive tour with Raro Safari Tours; www.raro safaritours.co.ck. Join a sunset cruise with Sail Rarotonga; www.svsoutherncross.co.nz. For delicious dinners, eat at Tamarind House; www.tamarind.co.ck. For high-quality accommodation, try Little Polynesian; www.littlepolynesian.com. For family stays, try Muri Beach Resort; www.muribeachresort.com.
AITUTAKI Take a Te Vaka lagoon cruise; www.aitutaki.net. Try mud crabs at Tupuna’s; email@example.com. Get pampered at Pacific Resort Aituktaki’s spa. It’s about to introduce noni-based products developed by an island-born doctor; www.pacificrestort.com. Stay at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa; www.aitutakilagoonresort.com.
ATIU Do a Birdman George tour; phone 33047. Go on a coffee plantation and fibre-arts tour with Andrea or Juergen; www.atiu-fibrearts.com. Atiu Villas is the place to stay locally; www.atiuvillas.com.
Just over 1000km from the Cook Islands is Tahiti, just as beautiful but, to the outsider, subtly different. The first thing I’m struck by is the smell. I never thought I would remember Tahiti by its scent, but when I’m greeted with a lei at the airport, it smells familiar. The blooms are a Tahitian gardenia, tiare, and over the next few days, its soft and sensual fragrance wafts past me at unexpected times and comes to represent the islands themselves.
Arriving at night, I miss getting a fix on Papeete, although I get the impression that it’s busy and built up. My morning ferry heads for the slower-paced Moorea.
As the boat nears the shore, a perfect idyll comes into view: roads lined with green foliage, jagged mountains and red bougainvillea set against a lagoon.
I’m staying at the Intercontinental Resort and Spa Moorea, a hotel with an environmental bent. Surrounded by 11 hectares of vegetation and fronting a 3500-square-metre lagoon with pontoons to protect its perimeter, it is a sanctuary for dolphins and injured turtles, andhome to the Moorea Dolphin Centre. Here, three dolphins – Hina, Lokahi and Kuokoa – are attended by guides who monitor their health and assist guests who want to interact with the dolphins.
Fish- and ray-feeding demonstrations are another adventure in the offing. It’s a sunny day and I wait on the resort’s pontoon for a lagoon excursion, not realising quite what I’m getting into. The boat is only a little way out when giant rays and black-tipped reef sharks start circling. After gestures from fellow travellers, I realise I’m meant to get into the water and feed them. I’m one of the last ones in and hit the water praying they can’t smell fear. Once in, I relax and am amazed at the way the rays crave attention, coming up so close their slimy skin brushes against my arms and back.
Next stop is Taha’a, a more untamed island renowned for its motu. After a short flight, I board a Monaco-esque white boat with navy leather seats and head for a tiny islet where my next stop, Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa, is. The journey, at sunset, is breathtaking. Behind the twinkling lights of the over-water bungalows, I can see the silhouetted peaks of the famed island of Bora Bora.
Le Taha’a is paradise perched on the Pacific. I’m particularly fond of the aquarium at the end of my bed and take bread back to my room to feed the fish. (I keep the freshly baked baguettes for myself, however; one of the advantages of being at the top of the food chain).
Next day, I tour Champon Pearl Farm. They show me how a grain of sand slips into an oyster that’s attached to a coral reef. Over time, the oyster wraps the grain in layers of aragonite, forming a rare pearl. The process was based on luck until the ’60s, when French Polynesia adopted ‘grafting’ techniques, inserting small pieces of pearl graft tissue into the oysters. They’ve never looked back.
Tahitian pearls take on a variety of colours, from aubergine to green, greyto black. I can’t resist and bring one home (on my ring finger). Exquisite.
HOW TO GET THERE Air Tahiti Nui offers twice weekly one-stop flights from Australia to Papeete. Go to www.airtahitinui.com.au.
WHAT TO DO IN... MOOREA Explore the island on a four-wheel motorbike, from pineapple plantations to the crater of the volcano where scenes from the film The Bounty were filmed. Travel to the top of Magic Mountain for panoramic views of Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay; www.atvmoorea.com. Motu picnics and ray feeding; mooreamahanatours.com. There are resorts and rooms aplenty but the Intercontinental Resort and Spa Moorea is a standout; www.intercontinental.com.
TAHA’A Take a tour of Taha’a, including Champon Pearl Farm; www.tahiti-pearl-online.com. Stay on a motu-based resort. I recommend Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa; www.letahaa.com.