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. [Read more…]