Late in Raratonga and just loving it

By Jim Eagles

There was no one to meet us when we landed at the Cook Islands International Airport at 3 o'clock in the morning ... and who cared? If it had been anywhere else I would probably have been a bit uptight. But it's hard to get uptight in Rarotonga. It may even be against the law.

And the locals thought it was hilarious. "She must have slept in," giggled the woman behind the transport desk (in fact, the cause was a sick child). "You better see Harry. He'll look after you."

Harry was only too pleased to take over the role of official greeter. From nowhere he produced two beautiful, fragrant frangipani leis, then drove us to our hotel in his own car, all the while chuckling, "Oooh she's gonna owe me heaps for this."

Rarotonga is that kind of place. The atmosphere is so relaxed that people can't help being laidback. Well, there was one expat restaurant manager who looked as though he needed a shot of Prozac, but his performance served to demonstrate how silly it looks when you get uptight in paradise.

It's so casual, in fact, that in five days the only thing that actually ran to time was a church service.

The Air New Zealand flight over there was late. The flight home was even later. All three tours I took started late and a fourth was cancelled at the last minute.

But none of that mattered. We were too relaxed to care.

I did, however, have one little worry. I am not, I confess, the sort of person who can spend long periods of time doing absolutely nothing. After a couple of days of lolling in the sun, swimming, sitting under palm trees reading books, dozing, strolling on the white sands and sipping cool ales, I start to get a bit twitchy.

I enjoy a little of that relaxing stuff but after a while I need something else to do. So what does Rarotonga have to offer besides chilling out in the sun? Surprisingly, plenty.

You can uncover Cook Islands history and culture, discover the growing arts and crafts scene, tramp through tropical rainforest to Rarotonga's volcanic peaks, get a taste of the island's rich plant life, explore the beauty of the coral reefs, or sail the warm blue waters of the Pacific.

If you do find yourself displaying early symptoms of twitchiness then a good start point for all the other options is a trip round the island with Raro Eco Tours.

Our tour might have started a bit late but it ran three hours over time because there was so much to see. Our guide, Francis Williams, was so enthusiastic and we asked so many questions.

In a sense, the tour starts with the arrival of Polynesians from what is now French Polynesia 1500 years ago, taking us to places like an ancient stone marae, with stone backrests for each chief, and the Great Road of To'i, which still circles the interior of the island, built from stone slabs more than 1000 years ago. "The oldest road in the Pacific," says Francis proudly.

Then, like the Polynesians, the tour experience moves to New Zealand, to the memorial at Avana marking the area from which, according to tradition, seven of the most important canoes headed southwest for the Land of the Long White Cloud. Just to underline the bravery of those early navigators, nearby are two replica sailing canoes, the smaller of which was smashed to driftwood by Cyclone Nancy this year.

On the surface, you might think little remains of the society which arrived with the canoes, because Rarotonga looks to be very westernised, with all those bungalows, shops and hotels. But the island continues to operate on very traditional lines and you can see the palaces where the traditional rulers live, visit the meeting houses where most village decisions are taken, and hear about how plots of land are allocated strictly according to custom.

Perhaps the biggest change from Polynesian tradition came with the arrival of Christianity, which soon replaced all the old beliefs and which still plays a huge role in island life. Francis, who is descended from an early missionary, the Rev John Williams, takes a special pleasure in showing the stone from which Papeiha, a Polynesian missionary from Ra'iatea, first preached the word in 1823, plus the magnificent old churches and mission buildings, built to last from blocks of coral carved out of the reefs.

Finally, the tour embraces two icons of modern Cook Islands life: the grave of Albert Henry, the first prime minister, who lost his job and his knighthood after being found guilty of corruption; and the overgrown ghost resort of the Sheraton Hotel, abandoned in 1993 with debts of more than $100 million but now once again about to be finished - maybe.

In between all those landmarks, we stopped every few minutes beside another bush, usually owned by "an auntie," to pick and sample bananas, pawpaw, starfruit, noni ("the new wonder crop, but it smells terrible"), green-skinned native oranges, tamarind pods ("we're lucky to find these, usually the kids eat them like sweets"), mangoes, coffee beans ("smell that, it doesn't get the coffee smell until it's roasted"), basil, young taro leaves, breadfruit, cane sugar ... the offerings seems endless.

The senses are further stimulated at the Perfume Factory, where you can sample sweet-smelling lotions and essences made from local flowers, and delicious liqueurs produced from coffee beans and coconuts.

A shack by the roadside turns out to be where "a very old lady" converts windfall mangoes and cane sugar into bush beer - "very strong and it tastes of mango" - although, sadly, none is on offer.

We actually got to try some of the fabled noni juice at the Cook Islands Noni Marketing factory, where hundreds of big blue drums of smelly ripe fruit are left to fester for weeks in the sun until they are ready to give off a smelly black juice which is bottled and then shipped to eager customers in Japan, Australia, the United States and New Zealand. It reminds me of the old slogan for castor oil, "It must be good, it tastes so bad."

Finally, we called at the home of Eco Tours owner Paul Lynch, at Avana, for a demonstration of traditional medicine - including, most usefully, how to keep off mosquitoes and how to treat centipede or wasp stings - and a sampling of more of the island's amazing food supply.

Is there a traditional cure for twitchiness? "Just stay here a few years."

I'm sure it would work. But the bad news was that I only had a week. The good news was there were plenty of other things to fill those twitchy moments.

After that introduction, there are plenty more cures for twitchiness available and you'll know your away around well enough to do most of them under your own steam (see sidebar).

* Case notes

Getting there

The Flight Centre has packages to Rarotonga, including return airfares out of Auckland and five nights' bed and breakfast in a garden room at the Edgewater Resort from $1039 (plus taxes and fuel surcharges). Contact the Flight Centre on 0800 354 448 or visit their website (see link below).

Getting around

Budget Rent-a-Car can be contacted on 00 682 20895 or visit their website (see link below).

Accommodation

Edgewater Resort can be contacted on 00 682 25435 or visit their website (see link below). 

Things to do

Raro Eco Tours is at 00 682 21043 or contact them via email (see email address below).

Highland Paradise is at 00 682 28924 or or visit their website (see link below). 

Cook Islands Cultural Village is at 00 682 21314 or contact them via email (see email address below).

Further information

Cook Islands Tourism on (09) 366 1106 or visit their website (see link below).

* Jim Eagles visited Rarotonga as guest of Flight Centre, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation and Budget Rent-a-Car.

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