It’s a familiar notion that travelling to a tropical getaway is what daydreams are made of. There’s a reason white sand, crystal blue water, palm trees plus island feasts, albeit sometimes a cliché, equals our collective definition of a relaxing but remarkable escape. The Cook Islands truly reflect this definition, but in this case, it’s more than just a formula.
A true secret of the South Pacific, the real appeal of the Cook Islands is in its untouched magnetism, warm people and pace of living that is unsurpassed for peace. So how does one measure what’s ‘real’ on a tropical island? If it’s by quantifying the palm tree to infinite-beach ratio, water views that actualise the pretence of a postcard, or by the seamlessness to which one blends in with the locals, the Cook Islands may be as real as it gets.
Once stepping onto the tarmac, the vegetated volcanic mountains colour the horizon in a green hue that can only be found in the Pacific. This calming colour is the first instance of a seemingly endless list of permission slips for visitors to leave their everyday preoccupations behind.
If, like me, you’re impartial to a lifestyle where the hardest decision of the day is whether to climb the summit of the island’s volcanic peak, make friends with the tropical fish while exploring the lagoons or recline on the beach drinking multiple pina colada’s, the main island of Rarotonga is the must-see of the Islands.
Located halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii in a position that takes just enough travel time to validate its remoteness, the island of Rarotonga is the most populated of the 15 islands (the big smoke of the group with approximately 13,000 residents). But the seemingly infinite sandy white beaches (32 kilometres of beach to be exact) provide plenty of space for both the locals and the visitors to have their own secluded corner of the island if that is what they choose, making that flight you took with 300 other passengers a distant memory.
Almost like one big resort with its own rules for living, Rarotonga has no traffic lights, seatbelts or fast-food restaurants (not including the myriad of fresh seafood shacks). Traffic direction on the island is measured in a clockwise vs. anti-clockwise mentality, which really epitomises the pace of living and laid-back nature of this melodious culture. It takes just 45 minutes to drive around the entirety of the island, which makes the opportunities for exploring every beach, café or garden in depth that much more achievable.
The interior of the island is comprised predominantly of eroded volcanic peaks cloaked in dense vegetation. There are paved and unpaved roads that allow access to the valleys, including a trek that is not for the faint-hearted (or anyone with even a trivial fear of heights). Due to the forbidding terrain and lack of infrastructure, the mountains are uninhabited, their only official use being the official tsunami evacuation point (a surprisingly reassuring feature when confronted with the idea of a 1,700-foot wave). The highest mountain, Te Manga, reaches 658 metres. It’s these mountains and the adorning vegetation that really differentiates this island from the other fourteen islands.
Although Rarotonga is a relatively small island, there are quite noticeable sub-areas or suburbs on the island. Located on the south-eastern coast of Rarotonga, one of the most beautiful and trendy parts of the island is Muri Beach. Characterised by its extra white sand that’s married with arching palm and ironwood trees, Muri is home to the lagoon that surrounds four uninhabited islands (two of which that can be reached by foot during the daily low-tide). Snorkelling at Muri is made even more enticing with the Raui’s (a protected marine reserve that means the fish are plentiful).
Depending on the level of your caffeine addiction, the search for good coffee and general refreshments is bound to arise at some point of your first day on the island. The Maire Nui Botanical Gardens is the perfect place to explore the beautiful tropical gardens of Muri (which could quite possibly pass as a modern-day version of the Garden of Eden with all the hibiscus’, pandanus and flowering gingers). Served in the café is decent coffee, luscious island desserts and well-made café eats. The price point for food on the entire island is fairly high, especially because all packaged foods on the island are imported, but the constant warm service definitely justifies it.
Unequivocally beautiful, Rarotonga’s core selling point rests on its ability to appear unapologetically understated. Although the island ticks all the boxes of a tropical island getaway, don’t expect to come across any high-rise beach hotels or apartments. There are no chain hotels or resorts and no building is higher than the tallest coconut tree – allowing the whole island to retain an unpretentious beauty.
One of the newest places to stay on the island is Nautilus Resort, Muri Beach. Officially opened in October 2014, the 4.5-star boutique resort exudes a simple elegance with true Polynesian style. There are 18 premium luxury ‘Are’ (Māori for ‘home’), each with their own saltwater plunge pool and private beachfront deck areas. You can take in the unrestricted views of the lagoon and ocean beyond the reef during your private dip or during your swim in the beachfront infinity pool.
The most popular feature of Muri Beach is its extensive number of very good cafés and restaurants, with Nautilus resort restaurant a well-known island favourite. One of my best meals of the entire trip was from the dinner menu, with highlights including the fragrant steamed parrot fish and crispy skinned mahi-mahi.
Although a relatively new resort, Nautilus’ facilities are perhaps second to none on the island. It ticks those all important boxes: it houses a Polynesian-influenced spa facility that indulges you in a range of traditional treatments (aromatherapy, body treatments and beauty treatments), environmentally friendly facilities (in-house recycling and nursing systems and 100 per cent solar powered buildings), and it’s both family and couple friendly.
If you’re after something that’s a renowned hotspot for couples, the Royale Takitumu located on the pristine Titikaveka Lagoon is an all-Villa property well-known for its weddings, honeymoons and babymoons. Takitumu has the isolation that only a small, premier beachfront accommodation can provide, making the experience that much more intimate. Genuine coconut-thatched roofs add an authentic touch to the desert island experience, as do the snorkelling and kayaking activities available. There are no large hotels nearby so this beach is virtually your own.
The official greeting of the Cook Islands, ‘Kia Orana’, translates to ‘may you live long’. It’s not often when visiting a foreign land that you can boast of being extended such a unique first gesture of friendship and warmth upon meeting. In many ways, the real paradise of these islands is in the seamlessness to which one instantly feels a sense of belonging to a lifestyle most of us can only dream of. The photographs made possible by the “I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-photo-shopped” crystal blue beaches, tropical gardens and luxury stays are why you’ll go there, but it’s the warmth of the people that will bring you back.