How to Spend 4 Days in Rarotonga

Vision of Love, the Cook Islands Edition.

It has been two months of dead silence on this blog. I am alive, but life got in the way. Or to put it another way, I was not motivated enough to write. March was a busy month, and I spent the better part of April in New Zealand and Cook Islands. The good news is now I have a lot of stories and photos to share with you guys, and this time I will not repeat the mistake I made with the Tibet series—always drafting but never completing. I am full of shame whenever I look at those unfinished drafts.

I visited New Zealand for the first time in April ’16 and fell head over heels in love with the country. When I left after criss-crossing the South Island, I was not sad. Instead, I felt happy because after 20 countries I finally found a place that I love with all my heart. I decided the moment I arrived at the airport on the departure date that I would return as soon as I possibly could in 2017.

And I did.

On this second visit, it was all about the North Island, coupled with a quick jaunt to the Cook Islands, 4-hour flight from Auckland. Sounds easy-breezy, but getting to Cook Islands from Vietnam was genuinely taxing. First I had to fly to Singapore (3 hours), then to Auckland (10 hours), and then to Rarotonga (almost 4 hours). 17 hours in the air, but more than 30 hours in total with all the waiting.

However, it was worth every hassle and penny.

Love the way the pink house and blue trash can interrupt an otherwise perfectly verdant, lush scene.

I wish I could find the words to express the intensity of my love for this sequestered place. It is just inexpressibly beautiful! I have never felt more physically, mentally, and creatively nourished anywhere else during the last few years roaming the world than when I was in Cook Islands. The most wonderful thing is that there was no expensive resort, Michelin-stared restaurant, Internet (well, there was some WiFi, but it happened, like, every 3 days), or any hedonistic shenanigan. I stayed among the locals (and passed by a lot of tombs every night on my way home!) and slowly got to know them. Days passed by languidly; they consisted of reading, writing, yoga-ing, gazing lovingly at the sparkling Pacific ocean, driving a scooter around and letting the sun beat down upon my face and the ocean breeze fill every corner of my lungs, flowers hunting, sunset chasing, and trying to absorb every tiniest detail of the slow yet fascinating island life.

In his book “Me’a Kai: The Food & Flavours of the South Pacific,” which I had to buy because it is so stunning, the award-winning chef and author Robert Oliver describes Cook Islands as “the last frontier of friendliness.” His words hit the nail on the head. The Cook Islands has all the hallmarks of paradise- feel-good climate, drop-dead gorgeous beaches, extraordinary fauna and flora, and an conspicuous lack of tourist traps and bad tourist behaviors, but what truly distinguishes it from all other advertised “paradises” around the world (at least all the ones I have been to) is its people. Cook Islanders are gorgeous both inside and out. Their looks and cultures couldn’t be any more different from mine, but they all made me feel like I was coming home, not an outsider from a far-flung country many of them had very little idea of. They waved, smiled, hugged, said Kia Orana (Hello) and Have A Lovely Day Darling, bought me drinks, and stopped whatever they were doing to help me when I needed it. Their hospitality made me feel good about everything.

*****

For those of you unfamiliar, Cook Islands is a country with 15 islands spreading 850,000 square miles over the South Pacific. The islands are divided into the Northern and Southern group, with the former being more remote and thus sparsely populated. Its capital and biggest island is Rarotonga, which offers you the greatest number of accommodation and activities options.

The nation’s history, for the sake of brevity, dates back to around 800AD when fearless seafarers landed on Rarotonga after crossing the vast South Pacific.

“The earliest records of the Cook Islands can be traced back to the 6th century CE, when Polynesians migrated to the southeastern islands from nearby Tahiti. However, the oral history of Rarotonga, the first island to be inhabited (and the most influential of the group) dates back 1,400 years. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, they followed a chieftain system, where power was inherited through mana kinship. Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted Pukapuka in 1595. However, the first recorded European landing on Rakahanga was not until Pedro Fernández de Quirós stepped foot in 1606, calling the island Gente Hermosa. The year 1773 marked the arrival of British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook, who called them “Hervey Islands.” The name “Cook Islands” was not introduced until the 1820’s. Missionary John Williams made the first written sighting of Rarotonga in 1813, but it was in 1814 that the first recorded landing on the island took place. Trouble brewed between the islanders and the sailors, and brought great bloodshed from the warring parties. The islands were freed from Europeans until 1821, when British missionaries arrived to spread Christianity, which was widely embraced and still followed today. Christian churches are well preserved and landmarks like the Takamoa Mission House (built in the 1830’s) and the hand crafted coral limestone structure known as the Cook Islands Christian Church (one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture on Rarotonga) still stand today. After the missions, the Cook Islands came to be a British protectorate. The islands were annexed by the New Zealand Government in 1901 and locals were provided New Zealand citizenship in 1949. Only a few years later, they were granted self-governing status. Islanders were given Cook Islander citizenship, though strong ties with New Zealand are still evident.”

 *****

I spent 4 days in Rarotonga. It was not love at first sight; in fact, my initial reactions were along the line of Did I just travel for more than 30 hours for this?!? However, my affection for the island grew slowly and firmly, just like how the pace of life is on the island. I did not get greedy and try to squeeze everything in, but everything that I ended up doing was great in more ways than one. If you are headed to Rarontonga, I hope this guide will be helpful 🙂

(A lot of guides will tell you to do a lagoon cruise. I did not do it in Rarotonga because I stayed in Aitutaki first and did the cruise there. Once you do the lagoon cruise in Aitutaki, no other lagoon cruise will measure up. Even locals affirmed to me.)

1. Pa’s Cross-island Trek

I feel constitutionally incapable of handling the beauties of fern leaves.

This 3-hour trek would take the cake, if I had to rank my most favorite activity in Rarotonga. It was fun, adventurous, (moderately) challenging, educational, and eco-friendly. And judging by the unanimously great reviews the trek has garnered, I am not alone.

This guided trek, as its name indicates, takes you across the island through a lush, tropical landscape of tall trees and plantations, culminating at Te Rua Manga (The Needle), one of the the highest points on the island. Length-wise, it is easy- only 2 miles, but the trail includes some steep, narrow, and slippery ridges and streams that require scrambling and ropes to climb up/down and cross over. Also, since we hike through the jungle, the humidity and heat can be stifling. It takes a decent level of fitness, so if you want something more forgiving but equally interesting and educational, you can try Pa’s Nature Walk, which is about herbal medicines and native plants and led by Pa himself. He led the cross-island trek for many years but has handed it over to Bruce (his nephew) because of age. I wish I had done the Nature walk too, as Pa strikes me as being very interesting, but time was limited.

Bruce was friendly, enthusiastic, instructive, and essentially saved my life. When I called to book the tour, I talked to Pa and asked whether hiking shoes would be necessary. He said they are good to have but not mandatory, as he always does it barefoot. Reassured by his words, I went ahead with my flip-flop. When Pa’s wife picked me up, she was skeptical of them and then asked Bruce if he had any extra hiking shoes. Luckily, he had a Nike pair. I would never have made it if his shoes had not been on my feet, considering how wet and slippery the trail was. How could I be so naive to think that I could do what Pa does?!?

You feet will appreciate some cushion when they traverse uneven terrains like this. Wear your sturdy hiking shoes, guys. By the way, when going down using ropes, suck your belly in for maximum stability. Core strength! 😀

The trail is relatively clearly marked and maintained, so a lot of people prefer to do it on their own. For me, though, I’d still go with a guide if I did it again, as I have come to realize that I want more than just conquering the distance. I want to learn something new along the way, especially in a place teeming with life like jungles. And in the end I left with new knowledge and tidbits about the island and a deeper appreciation for the diversity and fragility of our ecosystems.

The trail starts at the power station in Avatiu Valley, 3km from Avarua, the center of town.

I had only hiked in the rainforest once 3 years earlier in Taiwan, so I was deeply thrilled to do it again in Rarotonga. Our day kicked off with hearty sunshine and pleasant air in a green and grassy landscape.

Ginger plant’s flowers. Such a beautiful shade of red!

15 minutes later, we were officially “in the zone”- under the canopy of tall trees and leafy branches. I love looking up at radiant sun beams slanting through the trees.

A giant 200-year old chestnut tree.

It feels apt here to quote what I have learned about trees from my favorite travel writer Bill Bryson: “For all its mass, a tree is a remarkably delicate thing. All of its internal life exists within three paper-thin layers of tissue–the phloem, xylem, and cambium–just beneath the bark, which together form a moist sleeve around the dead heartwood. However tall it grows, a tree is just a few pounds of living cells thinly spread between roots and leaves. These three diligent layers of cells perform all the intricate science and engineering needed to keep a tree alive, and the efficiency with which they do it is one of the wonders of life. Without noise or fuss, every tree in a forest lifts massive volumes of water–several hundred gallons in the case of a large tree on a hot day–from its roots to its leaves, where it is returned to the atmosphere. Imagine the din and commotion, the clutter of machinery, that would be needed for a fire department to raise a similar volume of water.”- A Walk in the Woods

After coming back from Cook Islands, I binge-watched the Planet Earth series, which is the most riveting and educational shows I have ever watched my entire life. One episode talks about rainforests, which only cover around 2 percent the total surface area of the Earth, but about 50 percent of the plants and animals on Earth live there.

I’m not going to lie, I personally find Cook Islands’ cocks striking. HAHA!

Even dying ferns look like a work of art.

I was indelibly impressed by rolled ferns.

The beauty of these leaves is exquisite.

The earthy color of these touched the depth of my heart.

This is orchid, right?

And these are blueberries, if memory serves me right?

Just so you know, the captions of the next few photos contain nothing but adjectives. No useful information simply because I don’t know what these are. At a certain point during the hike I just stopped asking questions and collecting names, as there was just too much to absorb.

Romantic!

Beautiful and mysterious and strangely evokes the heart-pounding scene in the last episode of True Detective Season 1 in which the main characters hunt for the villain.

Christmas vibe. I guess they are some kind of conifer?

I saw this lying on the ground. Its beautiful fragility drove me a tad crazy!

This trek made me feel kind of like Tarzan…

as I climbed up/down the slops and crossed streams like this using all hands and feet. Despite sweating profusely, I loved every single second.

No hike is complete without some sensational panoramic views.

With Bruce when we reached The Needle.

2. Over-water Night Show at Te Vara Nui

I SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN THIS FULLY CLOTHED 😀

This show is for you, if you want to learn a bit about history through the art of dancing while having a sumptuous buffet dinner. It tells the legend of Tongaiti who traversed the ocean, landed in Rarotonga, tried to build a life for his family there, married off his daughter, and so forth. The show is action-packed and riveting. I always think of you guys so I made some short iPhone videos 😛

For me, the experience got a little more personal and memorable, as the following day I had the opportunity to meet Vara, who founded Te Vara Nui and helped create this show.

On the flight from Auckland to Rarontonga, I came across an article about Mama Vara Hunter, which opened with her recent accomplishment of receiving Cook Islands Tourism Award for Outstanding Contribution to Tourism and went on to talk about her life. It includes a lot of interesting tidbits such as her winning beauty pageants, her dancer past, and her being pursued by Marlon Brando (but she flat-out rejected. How cool!). Though I did not know anything about the show or plan to attend at that point, her story stayed with me.

Once in Rarotonga, I decided to go, since there is not much to do in the evening. (Book your ticket in advance, guys. The show only runs on Tue-Thurs-Sat, and is usually sold out.) At the end of the show, the host introduced Mama Vara to the audience. When she came out and bowed, I got a little carried away. I was looking at the cultural icon I had read about in the flesh! I waited until most of the guests had left and then approached her and told her I admired what she had accomplished and it would be a delight if I could come back at some point and take her portrait. Mama Vara was gracious and accommodating; she told me where and when I could find her.

I came back to Te Vara Nui (the show venue and where Mama resides) the following afternoon when she was in the middle of gardening. With a broad and charming South Pacific smile stretched across her face, Mama Vara said Kia Orana (Greetings) and gave me a warm hug that immediately put me at ease. She looked perfectly put-together and radiant in her flowery red off-the-shoulder dress and red-orange lipstick, but still apologized repeatedly for being unkempt and brought a few brand-new dresses and asked me which one she should choose for the photos.

In a raspy voice, Mama Vara began to recount stories of her past and, with a wistful look on her face, said she really missed the old days on the island when people still used horses and buggies. After spending a care-free childhood on the island, she moved to New Zealand when she was a teenager for her education. Then she spent the following decades working as a professional dancer, introducing the unique Polynesian dance to different parts of the world. Life was exciting and adventurous, but Mama told me Cook Islands never left her heart. She moved back after getting married and started contributing to the island through different business endeavors, from managing airport shuttle services, building one of the first budget-friendly hostels, to helping create the now unmissable cultural village Te Vara Nui . Now at 81, her biggest asset and source of pride, she told me, is her 7 children, 20 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren, all healthy and loving.

The one and only Mama Vara Hunter- one of the most, if not the most, inspiring characters I have met during my travels.

It certainly took Mama Vara, or any woman and even man for that matter, steely determination and herculean efforts to successfully raise a family of that size and succeeding in businesses, YET she remains incomparably soft-spoken, gentle, and down-to-earth. Every now and then she would shift the focus back on me, asking questions about my life and my country. I realized then that truly charismatic people will still make you feel visible in their presence, even when the spotlight is on them.

My last question for Mama Vara was what made her happy because she was one of the few people I had met who exuded sincere happiness and satisfaction. Her answer included health, safety, and community. I then asked her to elaborate on health and community, as safety is self-explanatory. Her modesty manifested once again when she prefaced her response with “I don’t know if it works for everyone, but for me…” before sharing her simple recipe of coconuts, fishes, veggies, fruits, dancing, gardening, doing housework, and spending time with her family.

Our conversation lasted much longer than I had anticipated, but it was time well-spent. The world seemed altogether a peaceful place when being around Mama Vara.

3. Flower hunting

Cook Islands has awaken the flower lover in me. My version of taking it slow during my time there was wandering around looking for flowers, and I found them blooming gloriously in every corner. I will dedicate a separate post to all the flowers I saw there.

The name of these flowers is Gardenia taitensis. It is the national flower of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. The Polynesians usually have Gardenia tucked behind their ear. Which, besides serving a decorative purpose, conveys certain messages. Here is what I learned from my research: “Worn behind your right ear: you are single and available. Worn behind your left ear: you are married, engaged or otherwise taken. Worn behind both ears: you are married but still available. Worn backward behind your ear: you are available immediately.” (I’m highly doubtful about the both and behind ears, though.)

I also hunted for leggy coconut trees because I love them.

4. Raro Safari Tour

This tour was the first activity I did in Rarotonga. I did it before the cross-island trek so I did not know that the only difference between them is…the mode of transportation. The safari tour was still enjoyable and informative, though.

Our guide was a funny human being.

Velvety green.

Actually, the safari tour covers more of the island than the trek.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

1. Where to stay

In every aspect of their lives, Cook Islanders do NOT shy away from colors.

I stayed at two different places on the island, the first night before my flight to Aitutaki at Rarotonga Backpackers and the rest of my time at Aremango Guesthouse.

The former was passable. Its affordability is both its strength and weakness. A lot of backpackers stay there so it can be very noisy and not…spotless.

Aremango Guesthouse, however, was absolutely lovely. It is more expensive (though not significantly more) geared towards mature travelers and families and thus homey and spacious. The location is excellent, right in the heart of Muri Beach Lagoon. I heartily recommend!

Aremango has a garden that I covet with my whole heart.

confused dasher, how to spend 4 days in rarotonga, rarotonga 4 day suggested itinerary, how to travel cook islands cheap,aremango guesthouse review, what to do in rarotongaAnd Muri Beach is literally on the back.

It is the prettiest (and safest for swimming) and the center of activities in Rarotonga.

2. Where to eat

I consider myself inferior when it comes to food talks. Digestion issues, coupled with the fact that I am leaning more and more toward a vegetarian diet, make me tiptoe around food most of the times. But I try what I can, and in Cook Islands my all-time favorite dish is Ika Mata, a tuna salad with coconut cream. It’s light and healthy. I ate it almost everyday!

A lot of Cook Islands’ dishes use mayonnaise, which I try to stay way from. Ika Mata is one of the few that don’t.

For lunches, you can try Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise, which has good coffee and sandwiches. Nearby is Muri Beach Night Market, open at 5PM daily. Decent locally made cheap eats.

I told you about Cook Islanders never holding back when it comes to colors, right?

In Avarua, Café Salsa, as featured in Lonely Planet, serves good coffee and food as well.

3. How to get there

If you fly from New Zealand, Air New Zealand flies daily while Jetstar flies a few times per week. Round-trip tickets are not exactly cheap; they start at about USD 3-400. Definitely book early; this is not the place to try your luck with last-minute or stand-by booking. Upon arrival, you can get a taxi (usually about NZD 15-20), or take the bus for NZD 5, which runs every half an hour.

4. How much will it cost?

Generally speaking, Cook Islands and the South Pacific as a whole are not the most budget-friendly destinations, but they are not prohibitively expensive. And I’m speaking from the perspective of a frugal traveler. The big chunk of your expenses will go to airfare, since these places are remote. I spent around USD 2,000 in one week, everything included. It was more than what I spent in the Maldives two years ago, but it was a bang for the buck.

My heart belongs to the Cook Islands.

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