Rarotonga: You'll never want to leave

By Michael Wayne

A curious mix of colonialism and local custom intrigues Michael Wayne in Rarotonga.
Muri Beach Club is Rarotonga's premier adults-only resort.
Muri Beach Club is Rarotonga's premier adults-only resort.

Visitors to the Pacific island of Rarotonga - the largest of the Cook Islands and the land of the long, white beach - never want to leave. For the locals, though, it's a different story.

By law, land can't be sold to offshore buyers, so the tourism industry isn't what it could be. A 1980s attempt at a Sheraton on the island's northwest coast stands eerily abandoned as a testament.

Rudy, the softly spoken Hawaiian-born custodian of my bungalow, provides an insight.

"I love it here. It's not so American," he says. "But the young people don't stay too long any more."

Pae, a local pool shark, was once a chef at one of the resorts. "Just got sick of it, hey," he explains, as he pots the 8-ball on the best of Raro's three pool tables. Now he works as a bricklayer, supplementing his income in other ways.

Ken runs a nondescript store along the main road that runs around the island. "I'm actually a chief," he says, as he wipes his moist forehead.

It's hot, even in the dingy little shop. It's the kind of thick humidity that makes you want to run down to the nearest beach and wash it off.

Fortunately, that's entirely possible from almost any point along the main road, Ara Tapu, a 32km round-trip that passes the villages, resorts and beaches so vital to the tourist experience.

To city slickers it's a dream: no gridlock, no traffic lights, and peak hour comes when there are more street dogs wandering across the road than usual.

It's a novelty that is lost on Ken. "I moved to New Zealand when I was young," he says.

"And I was glad to leave." It's a familiar tale. For every tourist eager to spend a fortnight soaking up the sun and leaving life behind, a local heads to the nearest country of opportunity, usually New Zealand, in search of a life.

"I had to come back in the 70s after my father died, because he was a chief. And his father was a chief. And now ... "

He gestures around the shop; his fiefdom.

Still, it beats an office. There are offices in Raro. And a court. And a landfill. Most tourists get off the plane thinking it's a tropical paradise untouched by the western world.

They're not entirely wrong, but between the bars, the nightclubs, the surprisingly modern cinema and the ubiquitous Party Bus, Rarotongan society remains a curious mixture of colonialism and local customs.

"If I wanted to cut your head off," Ken says, "I'd have to have about five tribal meetings. By the time we'd all voted, you'd have already run off with your head intact."

I step out of the shop and into the shrill afternoon sun as two holidaymakers zoom past on one of the scooters preferred by the islanders. I knock back my drink and look across the road to the cool, inviting, impossibly blue water of Muri lagoon.

It's got to be worth risking your neck for.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga six times a week from Auckland. airnewzealand.co.nz. Flights to Aitutaki and the other Cook Islands from Rarotonga start at $375 per person return. airraro.com

STAYING THERE
Tropical Sands offers five self-catering beach houses. It's five minutes from Muri Beach. Prices start at $170 a night for a beach bungalow.tropicalsands.co.ck. Muri Beach Club is Rarotonga's premier adults-only resort. It has a pool, a restaurant and a spa. muribeachclubhotel.com

PLAYING THERE
Snorkelling, scuba diving and glass-bottom boat tours are available. Bicycle and scooter hire is also widely available. For other activities in the Cook Islands, check out cookislands.

- AAP

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