New things to see and do in Pacific paradise

“Life was very busy before COVID,” Maunga Tours owner/guide Bruce Goldsworthy tells me as we tiptoe along slippery rocks above a stream. “Then the island went into hibernation. We could sit and smell the roses. Well, the frangipani. Rarotonga doesn’t have many roses.”

Goldsworthy and I set out to climb Rarotonga’s highest mountain, Te Manga, on a Sunday morning when a good percentage of the population was either in bed or at church. I could have made his tour easier tomorrow – a walk across the island with gently sloping, better cut paths – but Goldsworthy assures me that this summit is worth the scrapes and bruises.

“No one has been on this trail for two years,” he tells me. “I had to come yesterday with a machete to clear a path for you.”

It’s an ordeal: I’m climbing on ropes laid 35 years ago by a botanist determined to study the plants that grow here and nowhere else on Earth. We are among the largest expanse of cloud forest in the tropical Pacific. At the top, I stand on a narrow ridge line above a wide, green, uninhabited valley with Rarotonga stretching out in all directions below my feet. You won’t get a better view anywhere in the Cook Islands. However, I am the first traveler here for two years.

There are lots of new things to discover now that the Cook Islands are once again open to Australian travellers. In March 2020, the country’s international borders were closed in an effort to stop COVID-19. In May 2021, the New Zealand government created a quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand tourists and Australian travelers not included. It was not until April 13 this year that Australians were allowed to return. Traditionally three times outnumbered by New Zealand travellers, lately it’s more like 20 to one.

When I return to ground level, I ride my scooter along the oldest road in the Pacific, Ara Tapu, towards the south side of Rarotonga. Local Charlotte Piho is waiting. She began swimming excursions with turtles just before Rarotonga was put in lockdown by COVID-19. Now she is firmly reserved.

“Since people could go back to Rarotonga, no one wanted to stay in their hotels,” she says. “People just seem grateful to be out. I get a lot of families who want to hang out and share something unique together.”

We swim across the lagoon to a gap in the reef at a passage called Ava’avaroa. Underwater, a community of green and hawksbill turtles awaits you.

“They are there every day in the same places,” says Piho. “We have names for all of them. We give them a lot of space, but they never wander away. The Cook Islands makes me feel like I’m in Moana. I have traveled all over the world but I don’t know of any other country where you can connect with sea creatures like here. I saw 20 eagle rays swimming together, I swam with humpback whales a few meters from the reef. Everything is fair… here.”

Meanwhile, on the west side of the island, tourism veteran Temu Okotai has developed a tour during the lockdown that shows a side of Cook Islander life that was not previously shown to outsiders.

“Being closed made me look around to examine what makes us unique,” he says.

“I think people who weren’t able to visit love to see how we lived and what we went back to while we were isolated from the world.”

The Reef Man Tour allows guests to spend an afternoon on the reef, in the lagoon and on the beach with a local while they fish and fossick for dinner. Although this is strictly catch and release, I am learning to harvest food from the reef and catch fish in the lagoon. We end the tour with an umu (earth oven) that we helped build earlier, eating fish, chicken, pork and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves, cooked for hours over coals.

At night I sleep in a new resort which is now the most eco-friendly accommodation option in the Cook Islands. Solar-powered, with potable water collected on its roof, and with a swimming pool that pumps seawater from a lagoon 30 meters away, Ocean Escape Resort & Spa caters to a discerning type of traveler .

The dream of an Australian couple, Barry and Jade Weizman, who ran away to Rarotonga, fell in love with the island and came back to live here. Barry says customers tell him the green offerings are the reason they choose to stay.

Completed in January 2021, the Weizmans’ first guests were locked down during the resort’s stay as a quarantine hotel. I’m lying in a hammock stretched between coconut trees, listening to the waves crashing on the reef, contemplating the prison life here.

“They all had COVID,” Barry says. “So they didn’t have to socially distance, they had bonfires on the beach at night, they swam all day in the pool. This could have been the nicest COVID quarantine hotel on Earth. “

Karla Eggelton of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation says people want different kinds of attractions after two years of lockdown.

“I think people want to feel more connected now than they ever have,” she says. “We need to deliver diverse experiences, people demand connectivity and sustainability.”

One Cook Island where Australian visitors outnumber New Zealanders is Aitutaki, a 40-minute flight north of Rarotonga. Famous for its equilateral-shaped triangular lagoon five times larger than the island surrounding it, I landed here on a cloudless winter day.

I booked a three hour Hobie Cat lagoon tour with only the wind to get me around. There are 15 small islets in the lagoon – only one is inhabited. Captain Ted Tavai has the helm, but 10 minutes from shore he puts it back, and I use a gentle southeasterly breeze to guide me to the far reaches of the lagoon.

Tavai gave up a job at a top Cook Islands resort to organize sailing trips. Times were tough during the Cook Islands’ enforced lockdown, but since the islands reopened, Tavai says his bookings have remained steady. “What could be more ecological than that?” he asks.

“I found that people have been craving it and moving away from other tourists since they started coming back. No one seems to like being around other people.”

The next morning, I take a half-day charter with local boat operator Quinton Schofield. For 350 New Zealand dollars, he takes me wherever I want to cross the 70 square kilometer lagoon and throws me on the back of his boat on a rope to wakeboard.

When we’re done, he invites me over to his house for sunset beers: I can’t imagine getting that anywhere else for such a price.

Dinner is a local affair of sorts, at a newly built open-air restaurant in the center of the island, opened by a local who returned from Australia with his wife before COVID-19.

They opened on March 12, 2020; a week later, the Cook Islands closed its international borders.

“We were devastated,” said co-owner Karin Wilson. “But now we’re just trying to keep up with the influx of people coming back. Although I haven’t seen too many Aussies yet.”

Its restaurant, Avatea Cafe, epitomizes Aitutaki’s South Seas charm. Locals and travelers sit at tables under a corrugated iron roof with chickens and their chicks wandering in between. Outside, the sky turns crimson and locals pass by on mopeds shouting greetings.

Thirty minutes earlier, I was sitting in a tree house restaurant and watching whales burst in just beyond the lagoon at the most luxurious accommodation in the Cook Islands, Pacific Resort Aitutaki. This has long been the appeal of the Cook Islands: luxury and connectivity with locals are never two separate entities.

Aitutaki and Rarotonga are just the start of a Cook Islands adventure – there are 13 other Cook Islands you can visit.

All but five of the Cook Islands have traditionally been quite expensive to visit and some had flight schedules once a month. But since the end of the Cook Islands’ enforced isolation, tour operators have been devising ways to bring visitors to the remote northern group of the Cook Islands on air tours with homestay accommodation.

“We make sure it’s a non-intrusive way to see our most remote communities,” Eggelton said. “These will be some of the most remote places people can visit in the Pacific.”

THE DETAILS

AFTER

ilescookis.voyage

traveller.com.au/cook-islands

FLY

Fly from Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane via Auckland with Air New Zealand, airnz.com.au or Jetstar, jetstar.com.au

Non-stop flights from Sydney to Rarotonga are expected to resume later this year.

STAY

Pacific Resort Aitutaki is one of the most awarded resorts in the Pacific, pacificaitutaki.com

Or stay at Rarotonga’s brand new eco-friendly resort, www.oceanescaperesort.com

DO

Hike the mountains of Rarotonga, maungatours.com, learn how locals use the reef for a living, cookislandstours.co.ck swim with turtles, charlottepiho.com cruise the Aitutaki lagoon, sailaitutaki.com take a boat private on the lagoon, wetnwild-aitutaki.com

The writer traveled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism

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