Rarotonga: The ultimate tropical getaway

By Mike Yardley

Yearning for a tropical getaway is what daydreams are made of; it bobs over the computer screen and floats in the bubbles of a sink full of dishes. A proven performer in the winter-escape stakes, the Cook Islands warms and soothes the coldest of cockles.
Scattered over a section of ocean the size of Western Europe, the Cooks' 15 islands are a castaway's dream come true. Home to less than 15,000 people and 16,000 pigs, tourists generally outnumber residents on a headcount of five to one.
A thousand years of Polynesian culture sits side by side with some of the South Pacific's most spectacular scenery. And the largest island, Rarotonga, like a gleaming jewel in the sapphire-blue Pacific, serves up a bewitching brew of craggy mountains, Indiana Jones-like jungle, and soothing white sands encircled by a cerulean lagoon.
What I love about "Raro" is she's not just a pretty face. Starting off in the capital of Avarua, the bustling main street radiates with Polynesian charm and character.
The Punanga Nui market is the grand dame of traditional open-air markets, climaxing on Saturday mornings with an extravagant assortment of goods on sale, including fresh fruit and veges, craftwork, souvenirs, inexpensive jewellery and authentic Rarotongan sarongs (pareu).
If you're after fresh fish, set your alarm early as it sells out fast. The Cook Islands Cultural Village is an essential stop for serious sightseeing-hounds, offering regular guided tours around the village's traditionally built huts, demonstrations in fire making, coconut husking, weaving, woodcarving, costume making and dancing.
The tour concludes with a hearty cultural show and sumptuous feast.

It's remarkable how much you can absorb about Rarotongan culture within a few short hours, and I found that children in the tour group were positively engrossed.
Put on your walking shoes and set out on Rarotonga's classic cross-island track. Local guides can be hired to lead you across the island's mountainous heart, which features thick forest, drooping vines and vast jungle.
The geologic rock star is unquestionably "the Needle", which rises 413m above sea level.
If you're doing the walk without a guide, check the weather forecast before departing: some stretches of the track become perilously slippery in wet weather. And pack mosquito repellent.
If a flat-on-your-back holiday escape with read-me books and rub-me cream is more to your liking make a beeline to Muri Beach. Pamper yourself on the broad arc of soft white sand that overlooks a wide, gin-clear and bath-warm shallow lagoon, replete with technicoloured fish and cheerful coral. Muri is also home to the Rarotonga Sailing Club and the fabulous Sails restaurant.
* One of Rarotonga's top resorts, the Little Polynesian, has a range of special winter packages on offer. You can book direct on its website. www.littlepolynesian.com
* If snorkelling, kayaking and diving is your idea of fun in the Pacific sun, Dive Rarotonga offers expert advice, equipment and instruction.
* Muri Lagoon offers some of the best snorkelling experiences, especially in the deep water out towards the coral reef. www.diverarotonga.com
* For comprehensive information on the vast array of attractions, dining, accommodation and transport options in the Cooks, check out the official tourism website. www.cookislands.travel

- Bay of Plenty Times

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