Liam Dann

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Cook Islands: A rocky road to Raro

Despite having to adjust his expectations of an island idyll, father of three Liam Dann manages to have a good time in the Cook Islands.

Edgewater Resort Rarotonga. Photo / Cook Island Tourism
Edgewater Resort Rarotonga. Photo / Cook Island Tourism

In the thick of chaos lie the remnants of my dream.

It was a dream of warm breezes, a romantic evening at the beach bar of an upmarket resort, watching the waves break on the distant reef with my wife by my side ... plus a couple of pina coladas, white trousers and old songs by Dragon and Little River Band.

The vision was so powerful that as the time approached for us to head off to the Cook Islands - first time to the Pacific Islands, not counting the one I live on, which is way too cold in July to count - I could almost taste the pineapple and coconut cream.

Sure, we were taking the kids, but we were staying at the child-friendly Edgewater Resort - there's a pool, a kids club and we have a self-contained villa. How hard can be it?

We're not even on the plane before I get the answer.

So, I'm watching my dream fade fast out the rear window of an ambulance as I try to calm my screaming daughter, scalded 20 minutes before take-off by boiling water from a Zip in the airport's baby changing rooms, with its tap bizarrely in reach of a curious 5-year-old.

Its not just her pain that's upsetting me. It's her heartbreak. For the past two months no one in our family has been as excited about this trip as Ellie. It has been infectious.

She has planned and packed and repacked. She's even had 2-year-old Theo hyped for a journey he can't possibly know is coming.

"And it's all my fault," she screams as she relives the moment the paramedics told us we weren't getting on the plane. Even she can't believe that it is not usual suspects, Theo or 9-month-old Casey, who are to blame for this calamity.

Now I'm torn between fears for Ellie's physical safety and her emotional hurt at not making this trip at all. But the risk of tropical infection is serious. It's a call that a doctor will need to make.

An hour later at Middlemore Hospital, the doctor does just that and I break it to Ellie - now heavily bandaged from fingertips to her forearm of her right hand.

"Ok the good news is we can go to Rarotonga tomorrow. The bad news is you are not allowed to swim."

"Yay!" and "okay." She takes the swimming ban well and agrees to follow the doctor's advice. Of course she'll later forget that part of the conversation.

So 36 hours later - thanks to a helpful Air New Zealand rep - we're on the plane. It's the late flight and we're all exhausted from the accident and from having to do the worst part of any big trip - packing, parking, checking in and all - twice.

And so, of course, it's the flight from hell.

I'm a financial journalist and have travelled on some flash corporate junkets. On planes I revert to a character not dissimilar to George Clooney in Up in the Air. I'm obsessive and compulsive, but it's not a disorder, it's a treat. Every aspect of life comes luxuriously contained in its own little packet.

And you look around at those with kids and their messy, screaming, clambering world and you just wish they would shut up.

Well next time you look, just remember, it could be a lot worse. They could be yours.

None of ours sleep and neither of the older two will watch their little TVs. When we touch down, Jenn and I are completely shattered and starting to wonder what we're doing.

But then we step out on to the island. Wow. I've arrived from winter to tropical heat before but I'd forgotten what a powerful feeling it was.

Our children are literally gobsmacked. Even little Casey's jaw has dropped. He's spinning out to the sight of the big fans on the customs terminal ceiling. The rest of us are calmed by the floral night air, the guy playing the ukulele and the post-midnight warmth.

For the past 48 hours we haven't really had time to think about why we're taking this trip. Suddenly it's flooding back.

We are greeted by the charming Papatua Papatua from Cook Islands Tourism, draped in flowers and whisked to one of the Edgewater's spacious beachfront villas where we - eventually - all sleep.

In the morning, still a bit dazed, we get a chance to wander down to the seashore and up to the pool. It is as we had dreamed. Balmy temperature in the late 20s, gentle breeze, blue sea, palm trees. We even watch a right whale frolic in front of the resort just outside the reef.

Too bad the kids are still struggling. Theo won't take his regular afternoon nap and after we agree to let Ellie wade along the shoreline she won't wear her reef shoes - a must in a coral reef lagoon.

It's hard to believe she can be such a little madam. But we expected some of this.

The first couple of days away with kids are always a mess. Their routine is blown, they're excited and, unlike adults, they don't have a built-in "holiday mode" they can switch on. Looking around the resort, it's clear that the childless couples sipping on colourful cocktails by the pool do.

But there is no time for regret. Travelling with children, especially little ones, is adventure tourism. Some people climb mountains or bungy.

We are booked for our first cultural experience that afternoon at the Te Vara Nui Village. It is an awesome experience, fantastic location - recreating a traditional village with incredibly dressed performers telling stories, dancing and singing - and Ellie is enthralled by it all. Unfortunately Theo has lost the plot. He wants to go home to his own bed "now" and he's letting the entire group know.

So - while the rest of the guests finish the tour with an island dinner and prepare to drink cocktails through an evening of exotic dance on a stage surrounded by water - we ring Papatua to rescue us and get the kids home to bed.

In the morning you'd think the kids would sleep in, but they don't.

Not that it worries me as it gives us time to organise breakfast. There is nothing I like more about staying at a nice hotel than the breakfast buffet. At the Edgewater it is simple but it doesn't disappoint. I feast on fresh local pawpaw, coconut and yoghurt. It's not quite the exotic cocktail of my dream but it is a small slice of the decadence I'm craving.

The next few days are more leisurely. The kids settle in and we enjoy the sun and sand. We bend the rules a little for Ellie and she hits the pool with her arm bandaged heavily in Gladwrap.

We get out on Captain Tama's glass bottom boat cruise and enjoy the barbecue lunch on a sandy island in Muri lagoon. There we relax Ellie's swimming ban further and she is thrilled to get in the sea for a snorkel. It's a fantastic day. We're starting to get into the swing of island life.

Saturday morning we hit the colourful local markets at Rarotonga's only town, Avarua, and even on the crowded bus the kids are in good form, charming the other tourists.

But nothing's simple with little ones.

That afternoon spots start breaking out all over Ellie's skin and we start to worry that she has a serious infection. She's still chirpy but we make some calls to be sure we can see a doctor and get antibiotics if her temperature rises.

That night we are gratefully distracted by a traditional buffet dinner and cultural show at the Edgewater Restaurant. The food is great. Umu-cooked lamb, raw fish salad, octopus, with side orders of the delicious taro leaf spinach and coconut. The older children are happy at the Kids Club's evening movie session long enough for us to eat and they watch a bit of the show.

Later Jenn takes the two little ones back to bed while Ellie's dreams of being a dancing island princess are fulfilled as she is invited up on stage to dance with the performers. She doesn't look like a girl with a bad infection either.

You can't see the spots in the stage lights but I'm still fearful we may be facing another day of doctors and trauma tomorrow. Tired but still ecstatic, I carry her home where she sleeps like a dead thing.

On Sunday morning the spots are better. It's a huge relief and we head to a date at a local church with host Papatua and his son Daniel.

It's an uplifting experience. The singing is spectacular and even though I'm not religious, I'm glad we came. When the choir belts out a Cook Island Maori version of an old spiritual standard, I'm moved to tears.

Yes, I'm over-tired, but I am being reminded by these people of the importance of giving thanks.

While our baby stares longingly at the ceiling fans and the older kids play out the back I am struck by the revelation that a family holiday like this is about so much more than my preconceived notions of relaxing by the beach.

Later we have an umu lunch at Papatua's home. It's nice to visit a real home and meet some of his family.

As a sideline he runs a business offering progressive dinners, which lets tourists visit a few local homes over the course of the evening. It's proving popular and I can see why.

From here the rest is easy. Our routines are settled and we have nothing to do but relax by the beach and pool. It's starting to feel like a classic Kiwi beach break - with added amenities. Ellie is loving the activities at Kids' Club - there's crab racing, and she wins.

Feeling confident we make plans for a romantic dinner on our last evening. We drop Ellie and Theo at the Kids' Club evening movie session and it all falls into place. I can see the waves breaking on that reef. We talk bravely of future family travels over cold beers and fresh seafood.

And perhaps, with Casey asleep at our side, there's time for dessert ... or that dreamy island cocktail. Rum, coffee and coconut liqueurs, lashings of cream, a bendy straw and little umbrella arrive.

Then so does Theo, carried by the kind Mariah from Kids Club. The dinosaurs in Ice Age 3 were too scary (what? he loves dinosaurs!).

But it's all okay. He's dreamy too and he snuggles into Jenn's arms.

And so I sip and stare out to sea, soaking up this precious moment, while Theo quietly eats the little umbrella.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to the Cook Islands. Airfares start from $290 per person, one way. Call 0800 737 000.

Where to stay: The Edgewater Resort .

What to do: Te Vara Nui; Captain Tama's cruise.

Further information: For ideas about what to do and where to stay check out CookIslandsExperience.com.

The Dann family visited Rarotonga courtesy of Air NZ, Cook Islands Tourism and Edgewater Resort.

- NZ Herald

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