Back to Raro

By Rose Garratt

It's hard not be impressed by Rarotonga - from the dramatic landscape and stunning lagoon to the carving of Tangaroa, the god of the sea and creation.

This deity, with its prominent privates, is a popular symbol of the Cook Islands and you'll get used to seeing him around the island, even if at first it can be a bit of shock to be confronted with his giant genitals, as we were at Highland Paradise on our first morning.

Highland Paradise Cultural Centre, on the slopes of Maungaroa, was the site of a Tinomana tribe stronghold before missionaries came to the islands. It provides a fascinating insight into Cook Islands culture, and fantastic views.

Rarotonga has only one main road circling the island, so it's virtually impossible to get lost. If you follow the 32km Aru Tapu Rd long enough you're bound to stumble across your accommodation, sooner or later. This is a good thing, especially if you're tempted to frequent some of the bars.

Trader Jacks is probably the most well known, being in a prime harbourfront position in Avarua, but one local, who looked like he would know about these things, also suggested Hidies (or Hideaways) or the Staircase as a place to go on a Friday night.

There's a sense of familiarity about the place - the currency is New Zealand dollars and you can buy your regular breakfast cereal in the supermarket. The azure ocean and white sand beach is enough though to remind you that you are indeed in a paradise.

If you're near the southeast corner of the island, try the snorkelling. One of the best places is Tikioki Beach opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga store. The raui (traditional ban on fishing to ensure conservation), ensures the lagoon is packed with a variety of brightly coloured sea creatures.

For an enjoyable excursion try Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes, at Muri Beach. During the half-day trip, which included lunch, we snorkelled above giant clams and were approached by inquisitive fish who luckily weren't keen on feasting on humans.

Our tour was told that the last time a shark was in the lagoon, it was killed and hauled on to the glass-bottomed boat to protect the snorkellers.

It seemed an unnecessary death, but was nothing compared to our guide's tale of being employed during Survivor: Cook Islands to keep the lagoon in neighbouring Aitutaki clear of sharks - 50 of the animals were killed during the three months of shooting to "protect" contestants.

Fortunately for whales, the Cook Islanders are much more welcoming to large mammalian visitors with the islands' territorial waters being declared a whale sanctuary in September 2001. The sheer drop formed by the reef surrounding Rarotonga means the beasts can come in close to the land, making for unbelievable viewing from July to October.

If you tire of water-based activities, go for a trek in the rainforested interior, or if you're feeling less active, hire a scooter to buzz around the island. A $20 driver's licence (compulsory if you want to ride or drive) can make a great souvenir and - from the queues at the central police station in Avarua - must also be a nice little earner for the police department.

The Cook Islands last month declared themselves a recession-free zone - citing business growth and increased tourism as the reasons they are "not taking part" in the financial woes affecting the rest of the world. There is certainly a positive air about the place and flights into the region have increased at a phenomenal rate.

It is Air New Zealand's number one Pacific Island destination, and the warm reception you receive - from ukulele-strumming Jake Numanga who has been greeting and seeing off flights for more than 15 years, to the shop assistants and resort staff - it's easy to see why.

Watching an "island night" at the Crown Beach Resort, it was hard not to feel that these performers loved what they were doing.

From the trance-like beat of the wooden drums to the energetic hura dancers, their enthusiasm was infectious.

Part of the joy of travel is the people you meet, and top of the list was a man who crawled around the floor after dinner trying to catch a cockroach, which is what you get when dining with Ruud Kleinpaste, the infamous "Bug Man".

He is part of Air New Zealand's Environmental Trust and was in Rarotonga to conduct "green" workshops with airline staff.

My actions the following night would have brought tears to Ruud's eyes as I drowned two very large, unwelcome visitors with roach spray, which was thankfully provided in my well-appointed beachfront studio at Sunset Resort.

I discovered in my too brief trip that the Cook Islands has big bugs and big bits on its carvings, but more importantly it is big on friendliness and hospitality.

Rose Garratt travelled to Cook Islands courtesy of Air New Zealand and Cook Islands Tourism

- Herald on Sunday

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