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Scenery so seductive it inspired a mutiny. “Over there …” Katu Moturakau, the captain of the Vaka Cruise catamaran Titi-ai-Tonga, points to a cove across the sapphire waters. “That’s where the HMS Bounty anchored in 1789. The crew mutinied a few days after they sailed.”
I’m in awe; seeing where the ship that inspired the 1932 novel and several movies, Mutiny on the Bounty, was anchored. Looking across the expanse of gleaming liquid turquoise, ringed by Robinson Caruso-like islets, it’s easy to side with the mutineers.
But this isn’t Tahiti, where the mutiny occurred. It’s the Cook Islands. A South Pacific nation composed of 15 islands, 717 miles southwest of French Polynesia. Close enough by ocean standards that the Cook Islanders and Tahitians consider themselves “cousins.”
I’m on Aitutaki, the second largest island, on a day-sail across Aitutaki Lagoon. It’s little changed since 1789. The few breezy holiday homes and Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa are hardly noticeable amid the lush foliage and expansive waters — leaving the lagoon so unspoiled it’s considered one of the world’s most beautiful.
We stop at deserted motus (islets) to snorkel above healthy coral reefs teaming with colorful fish, and leave our footprints on sugar-white sands looking for shells. Back on board, we enjoy a lunch of freshly caught grilled fish and icy Cook Islands’ Matutu brand beer. A South Seas dream come true.
Undiscovered by mass tourism and frequented by more Australians and New Zealanders than Americans, the Cooks are a best kept secret. The islands are refreshingly small — you can drive around Rarotonga (the largest island, affectionately called “Raro”) — in an hour. Best done in a rental convertible, like I did. And they’re packed with pristine beaches and lagoons, tropical forests, ancient culture, and friendly locals. The nightlife, inspired by expat New Zealanders, would make Jimmy Buffet proud. The shopping is great, especially for prized black pearls.
If you’re thinking this is a distant adventure, it’s a nine-hour flight from LAX, it is and it isn’t. I first flew to the Cooks to visit a girlfriend I grew up with here in Alhambra (we went through Park Elementary School together). She ended up owning a travel agency on Raro! And one of her island friends is Gwen, who grew up in Glendale. Gwen owns the Muri Beach Cottages — cozy accommodations overlooking Muri Beach, Raro’s most beautiful lagoon. Small world indeed!
I returned to Raro from Aitutaki on the 45-minute Air Rarotonga flight on Friday night. Time for drinks at Trader Jacks! Located on the waterfront in Avarua, Raro’s only town, Trader Jacks has been the favorite Friday night watering hole since 1986. On the Rocks Bar & Eatery is another happening nightspot. Raro’s night life is so hot there’s even a bar-hopping bus tour: Rehab’s Raro Pub Crawl.
I only had one mai tai though, because like everyone on Raro, I was getting up early for the Saturday Morning Market in Punanga Nui Market Square. Live music, singing, vendors, and great food and drink make it the place to be. Most of the island’s merchants have booths from handicrafts to black pearls and carvings to clothing, so it’s fun and convenient for souvenir enthusiasts. I bought a decent-sized black pearl pendant for $12.
Dipping the paddle into the transparent waters of Muri Beach, I spent the afternoon kayaking across this beautiful lagoon. The smooth, clear water was only about four feet deep. Easy to watch the yellow-and-black sergeant majors and other tropical fish darting between me and the white sandy bottom. Just off-shore, five coral reef motus — one so picture perfect it’s a screen saver photo — shielded the lagoon from the Pacific Ocean.
I took the Storytellers Eco Cycle Tour on another day, pedaling along the back roads with an island elder as the guide. Raro’s velvety green landmark peaks rose high above as we passed taro patches, jungles, and local and expat homes learning about the flora and fauna. We even tasted noni fruit he plucked from a tree. Touted as a miracle fruit to stave off aging, it tasted like gelatinous limburger cheese. “Yuck.”
And climbed the peaks. Stepping over tangled tree roots, trekking under forests of Alice-in-Wonderland-sized ferns, and discovering ancient Polynesian marai (sacred gathering spots) on the Pa’s Treks’ Cross Island Tour, led by legendary island herbalist and historian Pa Teuruaa. Sitting on a rock at the base of the Needle, the natural granite spire that defines Raro’s landscape, Pa pointed out the beach far below, where ancient Rarotongans set sail to colonize the Tahitian islands. (Pa has recently retired and his nephew now leads this tour.)
“All the other Cook Islands are eroding; but we’re rising. We have a fresh water lake. And thousands of rare birds, yet only 475 residents.” “Birdman George” Mateariki, another Cook Island legend, was showing me around Atiu, the third-largest island.
Being an avid birder, I was thrilled to take his Island Eco (birding) Tour. “Atiu is home to birds so rare they live only on this island and to Polynesia’s only remaining wild coastal forest,” he explained, as we rumbled down the island’s single road in his open jeep. George has made it his career to study and preserve Atiu’s precious avians. University of Oxford ornithology students travel to Atiu to learn from him during their post-graduate studies.
We spotted bright red lorikeets, green fruit doves, and the dusky Pacific wood pigeon among others. “Look! There’s a whale,” he exclaimed. We’d stopped along the windswept, treeless northern beaches on the way back to my lodging. A Humpback whale was breaching in the sunlit waves. Visitors need to overnight due to the schedules of the 45-minute flights between Raro and Atiu. My choice was the Atiu Villas, full-service A-frame cottages in a garden setting. On Raro, I stayed at the upscale Pacific Resort Rarotonga on Muri Beach and at the family-friendly Edgewater Resort.
Raro’s food is excellent. At stylish beachfront restaurants like Nautilus and marina hang-outs such as The Mooring Fish Café, the locals say you find “the best fish sandwiches.” And fabulous fudge at Cook’s Fudge Factory in Avarua. “Can I buy these at the airport duty free shop?” I asked the cute multi-tattooed sales girl. “Oh no. If we sold them outside the shop, that would defeat our purpose of being truly fresh, home-made confections.”
Retail is equally genuine and tempting. Britain’s Kate Middleton wore a dress by Cook Island designer Ellena Tavioni on her visit to the Solomon Islands. I admired Ellena’s Polynesian-style wear at her TAV Pacific flagship boutique and the fine black pearls at Bergman & Sons jewelers. My purchase was a locally made floral fragrance by Perfumes of Rarotonga. A heavenly reminder of my time in paradise.
To learn more, visit www.cookislands.travel.