After a month of charging around South America at what now seems like warp speed, we were glad to finally get a chance to stop and recharge our batteries over Christmas. After a short stop-off in Auckland (which we again managed to cram a load into – thanks Courtney!), we caught the four hour flight out to Rarotonga. I’d always been keen to go having been to Fiji before and knowing that my Grandad had visited many years ago on his way to New Zealand. We booked into the Muri Beach Club Hotel on Muri Lagoon which meant we had seven nights in one place for the first time since we’d left the UK.
For both Sue and me it was our first ‘hot’ Christmas (although my Mum will no doubt correct me now and tell me I had one in Hong Kong when I was little) so the whole build-up to Christmas was a bit weird. We’d started seeing Christmas decorations when we were in South America (including the beautiful Christmas grotto below from Foz de Iguazu) but the whole concept still seemed very alien to us. It was particularly strange in the Cook Islands where it was probably hot enough to cook the Christmas turkey just by leaving it out in the sun.
We did our best to make things Christmassy: we picked up a few gifts in Auckland for each other; made paper chains and a ‘Christmas tree’ to decorate the room; put on a YouTube open fire video and sourced some particularly apt wrapping paper of Santa and Rudolph hanging out on lilos. It still didn’t work though – it just didn’t feel like Christmas hanging out on a beach when it’s over 30 degrees, about 80% humidity and you’re battling sunburn!
The hotel also served a Christmas buffet with live music (think Christmas tunes on top of a tropical midi loop backing!). The food was actually really good and gave me a chance to try Oysters for the first time (I’m not a great fan now though!).
As you’d imagine, the island is absolutely flourishing with plants and bright colourful flowers are everywhere. From the moment when you step out of the arrivals gate and are handed a flower garland (or two if you’re Sue!) through to just walking down the street. Rarotonga really is bright and colourful.
Pretty much the whole island is surrounded by a reef which produces a lagoon full of coral and sea life (although strangely after Galapagos everything feels a bit sparse!). We’d based ourselves on the Muri lagoon and had picked a hotel with free watersports (snorkelling, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding) so we were able to make the most of the lagoon. In the end, we made most use of the kayaks as it was quite shallow and the risk of falling onto rocks or coral from a standing position were a bit too high! We did get out and explore a bit with the snorkels too so picked up some cool fish pics!
The Rarotonga that my Grandad visited must have been so different to the Rarotonga of today. When my grandad visited there would have been no airport (it was first built in 1974) and so much of the tourist infrastructure that exists today would not have been there. Looking at his photos and comparing them to mine (admittedly I couldn’t quite get in the same position!), it definitely is a lot more built up now.
Some of the character is still there but it really does seem like everything is quite set up just for tourists. This was particularly evident when we visited the Cultural Show and ‘Village Tour’ at Te Vara Nui. I’m not knocking it as it was a really enjoyable night out but the whole thing is constructed and a bit like a Polynesian zone at Disneyland. The ‘tour’ is really interesting though as it gave us a load of info about the Cook Islands that we hadn’t been able to visit any of the local museums as they were shut for Christmas.
I think we did well to get out to the Cook Islands now as it feels like over time the islands character will change even more. I’d definitely like to come back out and head to one of the more remote islands too like Aitutaki to see what that’s like. I could be wrong though and any of the developments could end up being like the abandoned and apparently cursed Sheraton development on the island!
Quirks – Family Land and Funny Coins
There’s a few little quirks in the Cook Islands which catch your eye when you arrive. The first one you notice is that nearly every home has a grave in its front garden! It really is nearly every house and you even find them in other places like the local rugby club. Apparently all the land on the whole of Rarotonga has been split between the various families and can’t be sold (only leased – which is how the airport, hotels etc. are built). The rules are that you can do whatever you want with your land so people are allowed to bury their family members on the plot in the knowledge that the land will always be in the family!
Polynesia used to have a fair bit of cannibalism too and whilst (I think) it’s now stopped in the Cook Islands, there’s a good few references to the past. There’s plenty of jokes about it when you’re going around the Te Vara Nui but this, very straight to the point, memorial stone for one of the missionaries credited with bringing Christianity to the Cook Islands who was eaten on one of the islands he tried to convert!
The other unusual thing about the Cook Islands is the coins. The Cook Islands use New Zealand Dollars, however, whilst all the notes are the same, they issue various coins of their own. Although New Zealand coins are legal tender in the Cook Islands, the Cook Islands coins are not legal tender in New Zealand (thankfully we only got stuck with a few of these in the end). The coins are really quite cool though – particularly the one dollar – a kind of frilly edged coin – and the two dollar, a nifty triangle shape.
I think every hot country in the world has a saying to describe the fact that things don’t always happen with the timing you expect (or often need!). It’s ‘mañana’ in Spanish, ‘inshallah’ in Arabic and in the Pacific it’s definitely ‘island time’. Most of the time it’s fine as there’s not really any critical timings on the island – no-one really cares if the bus is late on the island!
We did discover ‘island time’ can be pretty frustrating if you’re flying with the ‘wonderful’ Virgin Australia. It was inevitable that when you’re flying around the world and taking over 20 flights, one will go wrong but this was just frustrating. Let’s just say the flight was delayed by 16 hours, communication was naff and we lost out on a night in New Zealand. We made it though!