Pacific-style hustle and bustle attracts Pamela Wade
Rarotonga doesn't really do bustle but Avarua on a Saturday is as close as it gets. At the western end of the town is Punanga Nui market, stalls and huts spread out beneath shady trees. Here tourists buy colourful pareu (sarongs), gaudily-painted ukuleles made by detainees at the prison, or coconut bras, all sizes; but it's also a real market where the islanders come to buy fish, fruit and flowers, slabs of goat meat, huge stalks of green bananas, striped aubergines and sinister-looking brown noni juice, credited with curing everything from boils to arthritis and ensuring a long life. Far more appealing are the food stalls, where spicy satay sticks sizzle, icecream is spooned on to hot waffles, candyfloss twirled.
On the other side of town, the women in a dim, airy hall have their heads down, concentrating hard as they sit crammed on to benches around tables. Others who can't fit inside are clustered around doorways so they can hear. The hush is broken only by a man's voice from inside. It's like church, except that it's not words the women are hanging on to, but numbers: the weekly Housie session is very serious fun.
The calls of "legs eleven" and "sweet sixteen" seem out of place in this tropical setting.
Across the road, it's all about lean fitness on the rugby field as the teams run in the baking sun, long socks and all. On the bank, fans crouch under striped umbrellas or shady flame trees, cheering the players on. The goal posts are dwarfed by the island's central highlands beyond, all but the highest rocky peaks thick with jungle. The game finishes, and the thirstiest folk head for Trader Jack's, a bar and cafe with its own infamous All Black associations.
Barefoot staff bring beer and crumbed gurnard, passionfruit tart and whipped cream, while out on the lagoon vaka crews strain over their paddles. Along the shore, dogs flop in the shade and chickens scuttle past elegant Bergman & Sons, where inside there's a long rope of gleaming pearls farmed in the northern islands, a snip at $28,000. Tomorrow it's Sunday, and Pacific languor will rule again.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to the Cook Islands six times a week.