Kia orana! We left off last week just after touching down in the tropical Cook Islands. If you’re interested in an affordable South Pacific getaway for families and honeymooners, then you won’t want to miss the island of Rarotonga. We also have pictures from jetBlue’s celebration last week at LAX, where they have just begun twice daily service to New York’s JFK and Boston (rates from $109). You also won’t want to miss William Darrow’s weekend in Newport, Rhode Island.
THE COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands, named after Captain James Cook who first sighted them in 1770, are comprised of 15 small islands (total land area of 240 square kilometers or 92.7 square miles) in the South Pacific: 620 miles south of Bora Bora, 1,870 miles north of Auckland and 1,500 miles east of Fiji. The two main islands are Rarotonga (it’s been compared to Tahiti minus the French) and Aitutaki (an exclusive island like Bora Bora). They both have peaks and valleys that are surrounded by beaches, a blue lagoon and a reef. Many Tahitians and Cook Islanders are related.
- The Cook Islands used to belong to the British, then New Zealand but in 1965, they became a self-government in “free association” with New Zealand.
- The total population is just under 12,000 but in New Zealand, there are over 58,000 Cook Islanders.
- The official language is English but many speak Cook Islands Maori as well. One phrase you’ll be sure to learn isKia orana. It’s the standard greeting and is the Cook Island license plate – it translates to: May you live forever.
- The main industries are fruit processing, tourism, fishing, clothing and handicrafts.
- There is no tipping in the Cook Islands as it’s considered contrary to the Polynesian way of life.
- You can drink the tap water on Rarotonga but not in Aitutaki. I bought bottled water just to be safe.
- The Cook Islands are on our side of the International Date Line so it’s just a two- or three-hour time difference from Los Angeles. There’s no Daylight Savings here, same as Hawaii.
- No need to worry about poisonous insects or snakes here — there aren’t any.
- There’s one streetlight in Rarotonga and it’s the only one in all of the Cook Islands.
- For the cheapest deals, book directly with the hotel or go through a wholesaler.
ARRIVING IN RAROTONGA
The international airport is on the main island of Rarotonga. After exiting down the plane stairs, it was just a short walk through Rarotonga’s thick warm frangipani-fragranced air to immigrations. I was one of the first off the plane, there was no wait. Working were about six friendly agents who quickly stamped passports and welcomed passengers to their islands. It was so quick I didn’t even get to enjoy Papa Jake, their famous singer, singing local songs to welcome all the international arrivals and departures.
COOK ISLANDS: MONEY
Next stop was customs and the agent didn’t look at my bag so I was in the main arrivals hall in no time. The first thing I did is what I always do; I hit the airport ATM to get some local currency. In the Cook Islands, they use New Zealand Dollars, which means our money goes far. Currently, 1 NZD = $0.64 USD or $1 USD = 1.55 NZD. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, our dollar has been sagging because it was even more of a bargain when I was there.
INA AND THE SHARK
Once in a while, you may get one of their own colorful local bank notes, which I kept for a souvenir. My favorite is Ina and the Shark. The back story goes something like this: In ancient times, there was a beautiful woman named Ina who asked a shark to take her to a neighboring island so she could hang out with her boyfriend who lived there. During the journey, she got hungry and decided to open one of the coconuts she’d brought for the ride by – get this – cracking it open on the shark’s head. As you may have guessed, it was bad idea! The shark didn’t think that was too cool. He shook her dumb ass off his back and ate her. Legend has it that this is the reason sharks have dents on their heads. For more Cook Island legends, click here.
When Papatua, my 10-minute late (island time, I know) tour guide arrived, he greeted me with an incredibly fragrant welcome lei (photo by Peter Zaremba). It smelled like flowers and basil but it was a local mint. If it weren’t so scratchy, I’d still be wearing it.
CELL PHONE RECEPTION
Attention all you CrackBerry addicts: My T-Mobile BlackBerry had a strong signal but the data portion didn’t work. But I use Skype when I call home.
First stop: the hotel. The drive from the airport was less than 10 minutes. There’s one main road on the island, which is flat and it takes only 50 minutes to go all way around doing the speed limit (40km = 25 mph). There are taxis (for a list of them, click here) and it’s best to negotiate a price before getting in if the driver refuses to go by the meter. But the easiest public transportation is to take one of the two buses (one runs clockwise and the other counterclockwise — how funny is that?) They leave from the Cook’s Corner shopping center, basically every hour and passengers can hop on and off. When I rode, it was half filled with locals, tourists and school kids. The one-way fare is NZ $4 (US $2.56). There’s a discount for round-trip, one-day passes or a 10-ride book of tickets.
COOK ISLAND’S DRIVER’S LICENSE
If you prefer to be in control, you can rent a car or a scooter; this is the best and most fun way to get around the island. The most reputable companies for both are Budget Rent-A-Car and Avis. In order to drive, you need to get a Cook Island’s driver’s license, which requires a trip to the modern police station, where you’ll have to present your current driver’s license. If your license doesn’t have the correct class for motorcycles, you’ll need to take a short practical test; the whole thing takes about an hour and costs NZ $20 or US $12.84. Minimum age to rent is 21 years. Unfortunately, when I was there it was pouring and on top of that, the one day I went to get my driver’s license as a fun souvenir. their computer system went down and I never made it back.
Driving in the Cook Islands is on the left-hand side of the road and can be dangerous. Just be careful of slick roads and be on the alert for wild dogs and other animals darting out. I was told that the trick is to just keep going straight at them and they will move, instead of you swerving and playing the guessing game.
CROWN BEACH RESORT
I stayed at the Crown Beach, which is one of Rarotonga’s best hotels. It has three types of accommodations: 1 bedroom villa (NZ $340 per night); Courtyard pool suites (NZ $475); and a beachfront deluxe and spa (NZ $525). I was in the courtyard pool suite, which was really sweet. These don’t have a view of the water but they have private furnished patios with a plunge pool(they clean it every morning).
The interiors have been recently remodeled with marble floors, a fully self contained kitchen, lots of closet space, a separate bathtub, shower, and toilet. There’s a 31-inch flat screen TV with one channel. However, there’s a DVD player but who’s going to watch TV in paradise? The bed was comfortable even though it was two twins pushed together. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t seen the dip. What I loved was the fact that the windows all had screens so I could sleep with the ceiling fan on, air conditioning off and I didn’t have to worry about bugs coming in the room.
If you like your room really dark, bring safety pins since the curtains don’t close all the way.
There is a phone in the room but don’t rely on the front desk for your wake-up call. I didn’t receive mine nor did one of my friends. Heck, you should never ever rely on the front desk for wakeup calls so always have a backup. I use the alarm on my cell phone.
If you’re a light sleeper, keep earplugs nearby because the chickens start squawking around 5:30am.
The rooms come with an oversized desk but no chair. There’s no Internet in the room but a wireless signal is available in the Ocean’s restaurant, main lobby and the business center, where there are two computers. I was in the business center a lot and don’t know how the receptionist thinks straight. Every day, they played the same CD with ABBA, Hanson, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton over and over (the pool restaurants plays all kinds of funky music like club music). Internet cards are sold at the front desk for either NZ $15 for 50 MegaBytes or NZ $35 for who knows how many MBs. Depending on your Internet habit, it could be to your advantage; one of the guests was just using it for email and one $15 card lasted her the whole trip. I was constantly uploading pictures to the website so I had to purchase one every day. Note: Internet only works when reception is in, from 7am to 10pm.
The hotel has two restaurants. Ocean’s is between the pool (with a rock waterfall) and … the ocean. On a sunny day, there are marvelous views and the beach looks like a great place to lay out or go for a swim. Ocean’s offers breakfast (it’s included in the rate) and lunch. Breakfast is okay as they have cold pancakes, inferior maple syrup, muffins, toasts, juice and fresh fruit like coconut, papaya (they call it paw paw), and bananas. Lunch is average too and I had a burger (choice of beef, fish or chicken teriyaki strips). The chicken burger tasted like fish and the French fries weren’t French. But the ketchup that came in a little plastic jelly-like container was surprisingly quite good.
The Windjammer is the hotel’s other restaurant and it makes up for Ocean’s mediocrity. It’s located in an octagonal pine building next to the side of the main road and their full-service spa. Chef Daniel Forsyth and his mate, Maire are both of Cook Island descent and offer the best food on the island. Their specialties are top-grade lamb, aged steaks and fresh local fish. I went out of the box and had the pork dumplings (NZ $14), the chicken tequila salad (NZ $27) and tried my friend’s cinnamon banana mars spring rolls for dessert with vanilla ice cream. All three dishes were outrageous. TIP: When the wait staff at any restaurant don’t recommend a dish – don’t get it. Foolish me, I ordered the chocolate pudding even though Maire said it was just okay but my heart was set. She was right. Windjammer is only open for dinner but it’s so good that Jim Marurai, the Prime Minister, is a regular. Mr. Marurai was there the night I was and I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was where his security detail was. He said he doesn’t have any because it just draws attention. The other notable part of our conversation was that he’s been to the U.S. four times and he doesn’t like our entry process, especially when he’s just transiting to Europe. Join the club.
The Crown Beach is owned by a cowboy from Idaho named Rondo who made his money in ranching. I asked a local if they like him and he laughed. He said, “Rondo lets everyone know he’s a cowboy.” What’s interesting is that Rondo has a real love for making jewelry out of black pearls. I know … a cowboy who makes jewelry … isn’t that an anomaly? Half the year, Rondo lives in the Cook Islands in one of the courtyard villas and a good portion of his patio has been taken over by his pearls and tools. He actually does really nice work and I bought some from him as he charges a fraction of what others do. A pearl that would cost $600 at one of the local shops and over $1,000 in the U.S. can be yours for $100 cash. I was told all pearl owners buy huge bags of black pearls – paying about $30,000 in cash. If between 10 and 15 per cent are useable pearls, it’s considered a good deal.
Crown Beach Resort is primarily an adult resort and children under 12 years are accepted by request only. If you forget to bring something from home (like me) there are a few shops directly across the street from the Windjammer restaurant. I bought bug repellant (NZ $12.50), a Mach razor with three blades (NZ $18.50), a bottle of water (NZ $2.50), postcards, a shot glass and a magnet (NZ $12). There are also ATMs. The Crown Beach, like most of the hotels, have coin-operated laundry machines. Crown Beach Resort, P.O. Box 47, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Tel: (682) 23953
If you’re looking for an affordable family-friendly hotel, the Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa should be considered. They have 156 rooms decorated distinctively in a Cook Islands style, with local artwork and locally produced furnishings. The rooms have tile floors, air-conditioning, private verandahs, TVs with a DVD player and eight channels of satellite. There’s a basic bathroom with water pressure that was only okay but the view of the ocean from the shower was fantastic. The best part about the Rarotongan is that it’s right on Aroa Beach — one of the island’s best snorkeling spots. They provide free snorkel gear and I saw all kinds of colorful fish. There’s plenty to do for everyone; there’s a huge pool, a game room for kids, restaurants, laundry, bars and Internet access near the pool. However, the service is just okay. There were some little bugs in the room. They also don’t provide bottled water, just filtered tap water in a mini mug in the mini fridge.
HIGHLAND PARADISE CULTURAL CENTRE
From the hotel it was an eight-minute drive to The Highland Paradise Cultural Centre. The 205-acre property is one of the Cook Islands’ most important historic sites. It’s located up in the rugged mountains of Rarotonga and has incredible views of the aqua lagoon and valley. The center was created by the late Raymond Pirangi Senior, a sub-chief from the prominent Rarotongan Tinomana Tribe, to allow visitors to relive Polynesian heritage through self-guided or guided tours. My tour began with a welcome from Raymond’s beautiful daughter(now the owner) and a couple of short videos for background information.
Then it was time to meet our tour guide who was all dressed up like a native warrior. Just as the tour began, it started to pour rain (they provided us with ponchos and bug spray). It wasn’t much fun walking around in the rain but it was interesting to learn about cannibalism. I had no idea it was a sacred event and only a few people with high-ranking titles could do it. They would sacrifice enemies or criminals just a few times a year and then after crushing their head with a single blow from a large rock, they would put them in the earth oven and eat them to get their mantra (power). The beautiful lush grounds are filled with many fruit trees (be careful of falling coconuts), replica ares (houses), and sacred rocks. Our guide was an expert in local crafts, legends, local tribal history and flora, and fauna. I tasted the Noni fruit, which is gaining popularity all around the world, but it tastes and smells really nasty. The centre is open from 9am to 3pm Monday through Saturday. The daily two-hour guided tour begins at 10am and costs NZ$79. On Wednesdays they have a Sunset Cultural Show and feast. I wasn’t able to attend but I did sample some of its food (mild fish, taro, breadfruit, sweet potato served with chili sauce) and it was all really good. For more information, visit The Highland Paradise Cultural Centre website.
TANGAROA SAFARI TOUR
I had a choice: go scuba diving (this is the perfect place to learn), go on Pa’s cross mountain nature walk (NZ $60) or take a Tangaroa Safari Tour (NZ $70). I chose the latter because the forecast was for heavy rain (don’t go during the rainy season) and it was the sensible choice. Our driver, “Mr. Useless” was a very cool Cook Islander but he was a bit difficult to comprehend at times; New Zealand accents aren’t always easy to understand. He picked me up at 8:55am (25 minutes late) at the resort and we drove about 15 minutes to the Tangaroa headquarters, which is right next to a gas station with a convenience store so participants can pick up some drinks or snacks; they only provide lunch at the end.
EARTH OVEN LUNCH
We joined up with another tour group and the owner gave us a 15-minute spiel on the background of the island and then he and Mr. Useless demonstrated how to cook food in the earth oven or umu, which is how they cooked food in days gone by. They wrap the food in banana leaves. The bottom layer had chicken and lamb, on top they put plantains and vegetables like butternut squash (they call it pumpkin), sweet potato, breadfruit and spinach, or maybe taro leaves. When the tour was over, we went back to the camp and had a feast. The food was really good and it tasted even better since we ate with our hands-on giant leaf plates.
The 4×4 tour was in a 10-passenger Jeep. It holds eight in the back (no seat belts). I sat in the front most of the time since it was dryer for the camera. No worries about getting carsick – they don’t drive in the mountains enough for that. Our first stop was to see the Te Rua Manga (a needle-shaped rock in the center of the island) from afar, then some plantations and the Papua waterfall where the water is chilly. Be sure to wear bug repellant because the mosquitoes (mozzies) were ferocious. I had seven bites on my legs in just a few minutes. I didn’t have them on my head or arms since I was wearing a Tilley hat and my Insect Shield shirt. We basically drove all around the island and up three of the main streets (paths) for fantastic lookouts. The one by the hospital (appropriately called Hospital Hill) was so muddy and slick we only made it up halfway. We also drove around an inward circle road and stopped off at the perfume factory for a bathroom break, to try some bottled Noni juice (still nasty), coconut liquor and then visit a shop that sells pareu (colorful wraparounds) for women.
Like a good tourist, I bought some gifts: coconut soaps, three for NZ $13 and island coffee for NZ $15. The last stop was Muri Lagoon, which was the highlight and with the sun shining down, the water looked insane. People were swimming, kayaking and fishing. Tangaroa 4×4 Tours, Tel: +682 22200.
Without a doubt, my favorite tour was the progressive dinner which cost NZ $75 per person and operates on Mondays and Thursdays. It’s a fantastic way to meet local Cook Islanders, learn something of their customs and traditions and enjoy homegrown and cooked food. The host, Mr. Temu Okotai, picks up guests at 5:15pm in his comfortable mini-bus. We made one quick stop before going to the first house, a five-minute drive.
FIRST HOUSE (APPETIZERS)
The first house belonged to Danny and Jayne Kelly; they served the evening’s appetizers. There were about 20 participating and I thought it was very cool that Danny greeted everyone coming off the bus with a hug and a kiss for the ladies. Instantly you could tell he was a very sweet man. Danny is a former auto mechanic from New Zealand. He’s half Cook Islander and half Irish. Danny begins his portion of the tour by taking guests for a walk around his incredibly lush tropical property to show everything that grows in his yards. It was like a candy store for a fruit-aholic like me. We ate starfruit from the tree, coconut, guava, and papaya. We also saw lemongrass, peppers, curry, coffee, taro (it’s supposedly tastiest when it grows in the swamp) and lemons all growing wild. His wife had earlier cut up some starfruit and papaya with shredded coconut for one of the appetizers; the other was marinated albacore (like tuna) in lemon juice, coconut, and chili. We also had taro. After a few stories and songs, it was back on the bus.
SECOND HOUSE (MAIN COURSE)
Danny came with us the whole time, played his ukulele and sang songs with Mr. Okotai (mostly Australian and New Zealand tunes but some oldies like Elvis for the Americans). The second stop followed a 15-minute drive to Rohan and Adrian’s house. The house was very sweet and they timed it perfectly to catch the sunset. Although it was raining, it was still special. The food was even better and we enjoyed a buffet dinner of roast pork, Asian beef (Rohan lived in China for six years), tuna steak (which he’d caught that morning), spinach cooked in coconut cream, fresh-from-the-river prawns, roasted chicken, baked banana cooked in the oven, taro, breadfruit and potato salad.
The last stop was at Lorraine and Tom Masters’; a cute couple in a modest home. We sat on their veranda listening to the rain, music, and stories about how they met. Lorraine worked at a theatre and would have to seat the people who showed up late next to her so they wouldn’t disturb the others. Tom was one and she joked that she should’ve flashed the torch on his face before talking to him. For dessert, we had fresh fruit salad (bananas, guava, passion fruit), a lemon coconut tart, traditional banana cake, pineapple pudding cake with a caramel sauce, and ice cream from New Zealand. It was a long, memorable evening that I highly recommend.
Definitely go to the Punanga Nui Market. It operates Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm but the best day to visit in on Saturdays (from 6am to 1pm) since it’s a farmers market … but on steroids! Besides row after row of fruit and vegetable stands there are plenty of souvenirs with local craftsmanship, live music and performances and food stalls selling tasty eats. I actually had one of my best (and cheapest) meals from a street vendor. I had the sweet chili chicken dish over rice (NZ $8) and a fresh fruit smoothie (NZ $5). I felt like a fool when I asked what kind of fruit was in the smoothie and the man said, “Everything that’s on the table!” Duh!
Downtown has plenty of shops, supermarkets, banks, and restaurants. I had lunch at Café Salsa, which is popular with tourists. The food is good and one of their most popular dishes is smoked marlin hash (NZ $15.50) with chives topped with poached eggs and lime hollandaise (they serve breakfast all day). I enjoyed my individual wood-fire pizzas (NZ $15) but didn’t fancy the Thai noodles with chicken and prawns in a spicy coconut sauce. The service was good but not that friendly. What’s a trip is that for a laidback South Pacific island, all the waiters use Palm Pilots to transmit the orders back to the chefs. Also, three doors down is the Telepost (an Internet café) so I was picking up a strong signal on my laptop and Skype-ing friends and family back home (the same Wi-Fi card works from the Crown Beach). Minimum credit card charge is NZ $20.
TAMARIND HOUSE RESTAURANT
The Tamarind House Restaurant (Tel: 26487) is highly recommended by all the guidebooks. It’s a 15-minute drive from the Crown Beach, right on the water. It’s a beautiful peaceful setting and the palm trees with lights on them add to the atmosphere. The restaurant is huge but only a few tables were occupied the night I was there. I enjoyed the corn fritter cakes(NZ $16.50), northern Indian chicken curry (NZ $28.50) and the fresh fruit cup with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (NZ $8.50).
MORE TO DO
There’s plenty more to do on Rarotonga but I can’t possibly write about all of it. It’s best to get a good guidebook; I used Frommer’s South Pacific.
Here’s a five-minute Johnny Jet video of stay on Rarotonga including my trip down on Air New Zealand. We also have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube.
LAX: JET BLUE TO JFK & BOS
jetBlue’s award-winning service is now available from Burbank, Long Beach, and LAX. The airline just started twice-daily nonstop service from LAX and sale fares are as low as $109 between LAX and New York or Boston through June 26, 2009. At today’s announcement, JetBlue’s CEO Dave Barger made a (up to) $30,000 donation to support music education (www.VH1SaveTheMusic.com/JetBlue) in public schools in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Also on hand were fifth-graders from The Hooper Elementary School Mariachi Ensemble and when they sang La Cucaracha (The Mexican Cockroach Song) I almost spit my cake out. Another highlight, besides getting a tour of BetaBlue (their spacious Airbus A320 with WiFi), was carrying an oversize pair of scissors on the plane, making an announcement and meeting Los Angeles Dodgers legend Steve Garvey. For more info and JetBlue’s schedule of service to/from LAX, click here.
Next week: Aitutaki!
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Cook Islands Tourism &AirNewZealand.com.