Captain Awesome helps Chris Daniels become his sons' coconut hero in Raro.
Kids can sometimes surprise with their eccentricities and weird obsessions — my elder son used to spend hours and hours drawing, cutting and organising dollar notes — his own varieties of personalised currency.
Thankfully that's subsided, but his unusual fascination with coconuts has remained for years. He once convinced his mother to buy a coconut from the supermarket so they could open it and eat it together.
It turns out they couldn't open it — we're not a machete-owning household. After the unsuccessful deployment of chisels and hammers, they moved on to a much cruder method — dropping it from a height on to the concrete driveway. Still no luck.
It wasn't until the end of a brief — but almost perfect — family holiday in Rarotonga that I could fairly claim to have been transformed from a useless, coconut-ignorant father to a fully fledged member of the coconut fan club.
Now, thanks to a man named "Captain Awesome" and the coconut crew of a glass-bottomed boat, I'm an accomplished amateur expert in the history, life cycle and myriad uses to which this fantastic life-giving tree can be put.
Because, a mere four days after arriving in the Cook Islands, I had the chance to impress my 6-year-old son, Gabriel. Certainly not with tree-clambering skills such as those we'd seen from the locals, but he'd found his own coconut outside and brought it to me for opening.
Tap, tap with the back of the knife and bingo! A father who may actually be of some use in a tropical island marooning crisis.
It was the conclusion of a friendly, low-key and almost stressless family holiday in Rarotonga. Air New Zealand's flight from Auckland lands at a convenient time of the day, the hotel was close to the airport (no surprise on such a tiny island) and the weather was a lovely warm change from the chilling New Zealand winter.
Chapter One of the family coconut odyssey began on a blustery, but warm evening at the CocoPutt mini-golf bar and cafe. Turned out it was "Muse, Brews and BBQ" night — which meant a friendly crowd and a good house band coupled with beer and a very high-standard of buffet dinner. Kids were able to come and go from the cafe throughout the night to play mini-golf under the lights.
While CocoPutt pays homage to that mighty tree in its name, it wasn't until the next day that we really hit the jackpot in our family coconut quest.
Chapter Two came courtesy of Koka Lagoon Cruises — a goofy, silly glass-bottomed boat voyage crewed by a young team of hilarious buff young men and a cute surfer girl.
They acted the goat, sang songs, played ukuleles, jumped in the water and fed massive fish under the boat — and made vaguely risque jokes with the other, mostly older, guests on the boat.
We snorkelled off the boat in the calm, warm waters of Muri Lagoon, before returning to the motu (island) in the lagoon for a delicious barbecue lunch. Then came the great coconut show, where the whole history, life cycle and local myths of the fantastic tree were shared with the crowd.
The boys were amazed — with the athleticism of the tree-climbing, the botanical and cultural information and the way this muscle-bound man (referred to throughout as "Captain Awesome") impressed my sons. They were the only kids on this particular cruise and were pretty chuffed to have Captain Awesome calling them "warriors" throughout the day. "Come here, young warriors — I'll show you how to open this coconut."
The genuinely interesting Coconut Show had just enough goofing off and laughs to hold the attention of two primary school-aged boys and at least 20 travelling New Zealand retirees. Awesome, indeed.
It's small but perfectly formed
I was concerned that such a small island may not contain enough to keep a young family occupied, but turns out there was plenty — here are a few ideas:
• Check out the Eco Storytellers tour — take a leisurely cycle around some of the backblocks of the island. The idea is to send my 10-year-old up a tree, scrumping mandarins for the rest of the group. I was worried there might be too much talking and not enough biking for his liking. But he was fascinated, learning about the role of the chiefs, the way Rarotongans used to live — even down to the the food kids get when they arrive home from school, growing taro, where it is sold and the medicinal properties of different plants. It wasn't all a sugar-coated idyll though, with a stop at the abandoned site of the Sheraton resort — once destined to be Rarotonga's first five-star resort but left derelict in the 1990s before even a single guest checked in.
• Check out the Raro Reef Sub trip. The boat leaves from the main Avatiu Harbour and takes a couple of hours to motor out past the reef and into the open sea. We're never far from shore, with the highlight a slow tour over the seafloor wreck of the SS Maitai that ran aground and sank in 1916. It's a cool little boat, with a submarine glass hull downstairs below the waterline where you can sit and watch the massive fish nose by. A marine expert told us everything about the sights (the kids weren't in for much of a lesson though — both got seasick as soon as we went out past the harbour).
• Stop and have a drink at Trader Jacks, a great spot on the harbour with fantastic views of the calm Pacific Ocean.
• Take in the sunset and dinner on the Western side of the Island at Castaway Resort.
• If you want something flasher than the hotel buffet then check out the Pacific Resort at Muri — they put a beautiful marquee out on the beach for dinner, lit by flaming torches reflecting off the lagoon. A perfect evening for a treat.
• Explore the Whale and Wildlife Museum in Avarua. It's an at times rough-around-the edges collection, but a great insight into what was once an exploitative industry, now centred on tourism and the work of local whale biologist Nan Hauser.
• Pop into the Islander Hotel after you've checked in for the flight home - you've got time for a few drinks looking out over the sea and there's even a nice deep pool for a last-minute swim.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Rarotonga, with one-way fares from $303.
Accommodation: We were at the Edgewater — Rarotonga's largest resort and ideal for families. The pool isn't huge but the lagoon has lots of fantastic fish and coral. There was always something fun to do, like Pacific Island drumming in the afternoon for the kids to try. A short drive from the airport, the resort is west facing so gets great sunsets.
Further information: See feelraro.co.nz.