In the Pacific, there is life beyond the boundaries of the resort, says Peter Calder
Do New Zealand pigs have the same dexterity as those in Rarotonga when it comes to stripping the meat from a coconut? I got to wondering about this as I watched our neighbour, Tiaki, split the nuts with a machete and drop them, one half at a time, within reach of his half-dozen pigs.
The squealing, snorting animals were living rotary hoes. Presented with half-coconuts, they used their angled incisors to ream the white flesh from the shells with remarkable efficiency.
We got to know Tiaki's pigs quite well during our week-long stay as we approached them - gingerly - each day and shared food scraps among them. It's not an experience package-deal tourists in a resort normally enjoy. But I've never wanted to book a package deal in a resort.
I can understand their one-price-fits-all appeal, but their rooms typically do not have kitchens, so you don't have the option of knocking up a tuna steak and salad for dinner. Likewise the on-site restaurants commonly serve bland buffet food that you may also find in Tauranga, Tamworth or Toronto and charge you a couple of hundred bucks a day for three meals. But anyone with an internet connection can land something much better in a few minutes.
On Rarotonga, the main island in the Cooks, we were limited in our choice of accommodation since we wanted to be within late-night lurching distance of a house that our mate, the peanut butter mogul Pic Picot, had rented to spend five days celebrating his 60th birthday. As it turned out, we rented the place right next door.
It was a modest, perfectly serviceable, stand-alone studio unit, right on the water, and it cost $105 a night. The blazing dawn silhouetted the coconut palms in our front yard, and it had a magnificent view of the humpback whales that cavort and breach spectacularly just beyond the reef at this time of year. We parked the motor scooter at the door and used it to shop for the makings of a decent barbie or ika mata. This salad of raw fish marinated in lemon juice, with coconut milk and coriander, was a staple and a massive bowl for the communal table cost barely as much as a single serve at a cafe.
Armed with the duty-free (Rarotonga Airport has the best prices in the Pacific), we made our own drinks, rather than paying over the odds for the ones with little umbrellas in them from the at a poolside bar. Even with the ruinous price of tonic - $5 a big bottle - it was a no-brainer.
The obvious objection - that such cheapskate behaviour denies the local economy the stimulus of your spending - holds little water. The Pacific's larger resorts tend to generate foreign profit and, in any case, we always had our hands in our pockets. We ate once at the Flame Tree, a pale shadow of its once-glorious self, but the fish shop (Ocean Fresh is the best), grocery stores and the scooter-hire place all benefited from our custom, as did the little family-owned shop across the main road.
Pic shouted everybody a lagoon cruise with Koka Tours that was memorable, too: we had a stunning display of athleticism by a man from Pukapuka, another island, who scampered up and down a tall coconut palm in 6.3 seconds.
Perversely, few shops stock beer from the local brewer, Matutu, whose pale ale is very pleasant, though it was easy to run it down at the liquor centre in town. And Neil Dearlove's freshly roasted coffee at the Cook Islands Coffee Company at Matavera is equal to any in Auckland.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to the Cook Islands six times a week, with airfares starting from $265 each, one way.
Further information: Koka Lagoon cruises do a three-and-a-half hour scenic trip for $75.