Cook Islands: A family holiday in Rarotonga

By Carly Flynn

Make the most of Rarotonga's thriving mini-town, which will steal your heart with daily snorkel cruises, cafes, markets, beachside resorts and superb local produce, writes Carly Flynn.

Kids love snorkelling with Captain Tama's cruise at Muri Lagoon, where they can spot giant clams and moray eels. Photo / Dave Flynn
Kids love snorkelling with Captain Tama's cruise at Muri Lagoon, where they can spot giant clams and moray eels. Photo / Dave Flynn

The more often I visit the Cook Island capital of Rarotonga, the more it occurs to me this is an island not to be taken lightly, or lazily.

Forget any romantic notion of turning up and flopping down at a resort, cocktail in hand, poolside for a week without moving - you will not see the real Rarotonga, much less get the best from it.

Island time is still just that in Rarotonga, but this tiny island (it's just 32km round) packs a big punch, and is more accessible, more manageable and more enjoyable than it's ever been.

To my mind, this is an island that has grown up more in the past three years than in the previous 25 since my first visit, which coincided with Cook Island tourism truly beginning.

We lived here then, in the early 1990s, in the back-wop town of Muri on the southern side, home to arguably the best beach on the island.

Back then our local friends would rarely visit Muri for fear of using up precious petrol on the long-haul trip, 15km from Avarua township. We were Muri loners, forced to spend our days sailing the lagoon, walking at low tide to the deserted Motu's and trying desperately to not miss the school bus for fear of having to use the family car.

Now Muri is the island's tourist metropolis, a thriving mini-town with daily snorkelling cruises, cafes, a night market, stand-up paddle boarding and yoga classes, and a multitude of beachside resorts and restaurants to suit every taste. Even the coffee is superb.

This is our third visit to the island in the past four years; on each trip our needs have been different, with the varying ages and stages of small children. This time we have two kids under age four, and their three school-aged cousins and parents have joined us.

Picking the right kind of day trip to appease everyone can be tricky, but Captain Tama's lagoon trip and island feast is an obvious choice.

Our snorkelling spot is in a pristine marine reserve, minutes from the shore. We are spoilt with a healthy show of decent-sized fish, giant clams and a playful moray eel, a display that easily rivals our diving trips beyond the reef.

This lagoon is stunning and the locals tasked with sharing it treasure this place.

After we've worked up an appetite snorkelling, we head to the nearby lagoon islet of Motu Koromiri for a barbecue of freshly caught mahi-mahi, pawpaw and coconut.

As our guide Captain Chocolate dutifully demonstrates how to scrape the coconut straight from the bowl, like he learned during his own rite of passage as a child, our own two-year-old stands before him, in front of 80 others on the cruise, and begs, much like Oliver Twist, "Can I have some coconut please?", taking the Captain by surprise. Chocolate obliges and a delighted Jude shares his freshly grated produce around.

One of the best ways to spend money in Rarotonga is on a car or scooter. Unlike other Pacific islands where you stay put at your resort, you are free to roam here and visit almost anywhere, and it's easy.

On this trip, we hire a local house as accommodation. It's a gamble but this is a goodie: beachfront, private and simple. A sprawling green lawn off the large deck becomes a daily playground for the kids' endless cricket games; the beach at the end of the property is a perfect spot for a swim or hermit crab race. We use the outdoor fire for barbecues and marshmallow-roasting by night, and look for lizards in the wood pile by day.

There's a common misconception that you need to bring your own food. This may have been the case five or 10 years ago, but not now. The island is serviced well, with four decent supermarkets. Now you can buy virtually anything you need and at a good price. If you eat local, it's cheap. We buy fresh tuna and mahi-mahi for $12 a kilo, fresh off the boat, and make ika mata (raw fish salad) or ceviche daily.

The local brew satisfies my husband and brother-in-law's palates; my sister-in-law is delighted to find her much-loved New Zealand pinot gris - and it's cheaper than at home.

The ever-increasing number of roadside stalls at the Punanga Nui Cultural Market is manned by the aunties of the islands, and the kids can peruse the various fruit: star fruit, custard apple, citrus, coconut, pawpaw and passionfruit.

We covet the local doughnuts that sell out long before morning tea. If you're lucky, the local shopkeeper will part with "just a few" that are still warm in their cardboard boxes.

There has been a real effort in recent years to grow and sell local produce. There are fruit and vegetable gardens everywhere, and the produce is for sale daily at the markets and roadside stalls. Avocados, hydroponic lettuces, silverbeet ... the ground here is fertile and the growers are patient for their rewards.

I never tire of the fresh tuna but there are too many good restaurants here to self-cater every night, and we're on holiday. For something completely different we ditch the kids and head for an adults-only meal at Tamarind House, a restored colonial building of the British consul. We feast on a seafood platter brimming with local fish and prawns cooked every which way, under the stars with the waves crashing nearby.

One of the most exciting things about to hit the island is the opening of a four-and-a-half-star, child-friendly resort. Built on one of the last prime pieces of real estate in Muri, Nautilus Resort is on track to open in September but the owners have already opened the beachfront infinity pool and restaurant for business. We drink cocktails by the pool and snack on fries. At night, we dine on fresh fish and exquisite icecream, home-made with local fruit, a resort specialty.

Once open, the Polynesian-style units will be self-contained and powered by solar energy, each with their own plunge pool. The nearby kitchen garden is open to all.

Though many of the resorts offer their own island-style nights with local dancers, we head high into the hills on the northern side to Highland Paradise Cultural Centre.

It's here that you get a real feel for the history of the Tinomana tribe. The children are transfixed by the warrior welcome and cultural display high up on the hill with breathless views over the lagoon. The feast that follows is of a style I remember from the 1990s. The only chips on the buffet table are the local breadfruit and taro ones, the umu delivers pork and chicken hot from the ground, and the rukau (taro leaf dish) and coconut milk are lapped up by all.

This is true local feast, much like you would eat in a typical island home.

The dance show is authentic, colourful, loud, and my heart skips a beat as I watch my own daughter tapping in time to the drum, mesmerised by the island dancers. I feel a tear drop down my cheek, happy that my job of sharing this special place with my own children is well on its way.

There is something about the Cooks that gets into your blood. They say the coconut tree is the tree of life; I think Rarotonga is the island of life - a place to slow down, to still your heart and to make memories with your family.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Auckland.

Further information: See cookislands.travel.

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