Nestled between Fiji and French Polynesia, the thrillingly remote Cook Islands are an unspoiled tropical paradise: stunningly beautiful, incurably romantic and, above all, wonderfully friendly. Named Tumutevarovaro by the first Polynesians settlers a thousand years ago, Rarotonga is the largest and most populated of the 15 unique and equally beautiful islands that make up the Cook Islands.
Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy, was the first European to explore the islands extensively. Remarkably, Cook never sighted the largest island, Rarotonga. The mutineers on HMS Bounty were the ones who landed on Rarotonga in 1789 during their escape to Pitcairn. Cook had named the group the Hervey Islands after a British Lord of the Admiralty. However, they were renamed Cooks Islands some 50 years later by the Russians in honor the great English explorer and navigator.
Sprinkling over two million kilometers of the South Pacific, Rarotonga is a land where time stands still among palm-fringed beaches and unbelievable turquoise lagoons. Expect to lose all sense of time, what day it is and what’s going on elsewhere. Its tranquil lifestyle makes falling into island time effortless.
Sunday Church Singing
To get a taste of local culture, we visited a church on a Sunday morning which was such a wonderful and enlightening experience. Oscar, our loyal friend and constant companion, made sure we took the right path following us all the way to the white coral limestone church.
Cook Islanders are devout Christians and most islanders are associated with the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC). Sundays are sacred in the South Pacific, and are regarded as a day of rest, of food and, of singing. Islanders of all ages dress up in their finest clothes up for the occasion. With their beautiful flowery hats adorning their heads, women are especially beautiful.
Rito hats are artistically and intricately woven with the use of coconut leaves. Apparently, this craft began in the Cook Islands after local men visited the Gilbert Islands (Republic of Kiribati as it is known today) in the 1800s and brought back with them wives who had skills in plaiting.
Ngatangiia Cook Islands Christian Church filled with the soaring songs of worship of the congregation. The singing was unexpectedly moving that tears came into my eyes. The choruses were divided into two groups. Men and women had separated lines, sometimes overlapping. One of the songs was dedicated to us which made us feel extremely welcomed. Although some parts were translated into English, the service was held mostly in Maori.
At the conclusion of it, we were kindly invited by the pastor to have some fruit and light refreshments in a meeting hall near the church. The church community was lovely and utterly generous. Thanks to all our new friends who made us feel like home!
SHOPPING IN RAROTONGA
There are numerous places in Rarotonga to take truly unique souvenirs back home. Cook Islands way of selling is very relaxed, in fact, retailers are extremely friendly and helpful. You will rarely find pushy sellers trying to get you inside their shop and bargaining is not an accepted custom in the islands.
As we explored the island, we met women of all ages peacefully making fresh flower garlands and crowns. I remember being struck by the sweet perfume of the white tiare and frangipani as we passed them by.
We discovered beautiful shops all around the island, especially in Avarua. Shopping hours are normally from 8am to 4pm during the week, and from 8am to noon on Saturday.
My Favorite Shop: Raina Trading SL
Located in Avarua, or the Town as locals call it, this shop sells exquite flower crowns, fine grass skirts, leis, handmade feather bib neckaces, rito hats, vintage fabrics, feather hip belts, and many other beautiful items. After browsing around and talking for a while with the adorable woman from the shop, I couldn’t refrain myself and ended up buying a gorgeus flower crown to take back home.
Punanga Nui Market
The unmissable Saturday morning market has a good selection of stalls and small huts offering local delicacies like rukau, espinach-like taro leaves and ika mata, marinated raw fish dish with coconut sauce, clothing and souvenirs. Island tropical fruits looked absolutely beautiful. Tantalizing pawpaws (papaya), pineapples, lemons and limes, oranges, bananas, oranges, star fruit…I tried them all in a delicious smoothie!
Muri Night Market
With cheerful atmosphere and mouth-watering local food, Muri Night Market is an excellent alternative for a casual night out. When the weather is fine, some mats are provided to sit on the ground so you can enjoy dinner while being entertained by local singers. The popular market started out as a Thursday night market but has now expanded to include Tuesdays and Saturdays.
The Southern side of the island features the iconic Muri beach. Situated right on the icing-sugar beach, our hotel conjured feelings of seclusion and escape. During our stay, we spent the days swimming in the cerulean waters, gazing down into the clear turquoise water below and riding our canoe out to a secluded motu where we relaxed and imagined ourselves castaway on our own desert island.
Every night, we dined under the stars and sipped exotic tropical cocktails against the backdrop of crimson sunsets with the beat of the drums in the distance.
Only 32km in circumference, it took us less than an hour to drive. For just NZ$20 you can get a driver’s license in Raro. Taking the bus is a great experience and an afforadable way of getting around.
The bus going clockwise around the island, depart from the bus stop at Cook’s Corner in Avarua every hour on the hour. Buses going anti-clockwise depart at 25 minutes past every hour. The ultra-friendly bus driver will stop anywhere along the road, you just have to wave him down.
TRIP TO AITUTAKI
If you have time, you shouldn’t miss the opporunity to visit the island of Aitutaki. We absolutely fulfilled our escapist dreams with unforgettablenexperiences and unique discoveries in this slice of heaven. For NZ$493, Air Rarontonga’s Day Tour is a great option for those who are in the Cook Islands for a week or so.
Click here to read about our adventures in Aitutaki.