"Kia Orana," said Cook Islands tourism ambassador Nane Papa, meeting my husband Nevil and me at Rarotonga airport. "Get in that queue," indicating a shorter line.

So began a five-star five-day trip to the Cook Islands, visiting the main island of Rarotonga, then flying 250km to the legendary Aitutaki, long on a must-do list after reading Paul Theroux's inspirational The Happy Isles of Oceania.

This was a welcome October break, escaping a cool Auckland for the islands where the temperatures were in the late 20s during the middle of the day. The Cook Islands are visited by around 130,000 people annually and are a favourite of Kiwis who make up the bulk of visitors.

Air New Zealand left mid-morning on a Friday in late October, crossing the International Date Line and taking only 3 hours, arriving at Avarua at 1.30pm, most convenient timing, the plane packed with holiday-makers and honeymooners.

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Polynesian Rentals is inside the arrival terminal and gave us the keys to a Suzuki Swift.

The island is small but we enjoyed the freedom of being able to travel when we wanted to, better than motorbikes, we thought, air conditioned and room for our bags and fellow passengers who we met along the way.

Exploring the Aitutaki lagoon.
Exploring the Aitutaki lagoon.

The two-bedroom Rumours Luxury Villas & Spa room had a private entry courtyard with our own pool, waterfall and spa leading to a vast wood-floor high-ceiling living/kitchen/dining room with an internal stream. Full-height glass doors led onto a deck above a white-sand beach where crabs left tractor-like marks in the night. This is breath-taking, luxury at a level for the wealthy or fortunate, a 20-minute drive from Avarua.

Dinner at Vaima Polynesian Bar and Restaurant, set on the beach, south side of Rarotonga in the village of Vaimaanga, was a unique dining experience, enabling us to wiggle our toes in the sand.

Punanga Nui Markets in Avarua are a must on Saturday mornings, with about 130 stalls selling pastries, fresh fish, vegetables, flowers, coconuts, ukulele, featuring dancing and drumming performances - a sensory overload but still with enough shade to make the 28C day seem perfect.

Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours allowed a more authentic side of the island, pedalling the former coral road Aru Metua with stops to take in the mountain scenery, yet at a relatively relaxed pace, biking about 12km, ending with a river swim then cocktails at a beach bar.

Saturday night dinner at Flambe Restaurant, Crown Beach Resort, Arorangi, had chargrilled exotic meat dishes: ostrich, venison, kangaroo, duck and steak, complete with a fire dance show.

On Sunday morning, we went to the 10.30am English Mass at St Joseph's Cathedral, Avarua, an enriching cultural experience with harmonic hymns, a huge cruise ship moored just offshore.

Ariki Adventures has a sea scooter tour, starting with a safety briefing, offering wetsuits, and enabling an exciting 90-minute adventure, leaving the beach quick-smart for the guided tour of the fascinating clam cages and the coral caves, swimming alongside giant trevally, near glass-bottom boat tours. Ariki's party invite, celebrating its new sales office, made us feel like locals. Hey, and it's only day two.

Dinner on Sunday night was at the beachfront Nautilus Resort Rarotonga, a 4.5-star resort, hosted by operations manager Tim Meyer and restaurant staff spotted a whale off the reef just after our arrival. Magic.

Air Rarotonga, the Cook Islands' airline, departed 10.30am Monday for Aitutaki, 250km away, and the first glimpse from above was of the crystal lagoon with jewel-like islands.
Pacific Resort Aitutaki is a boutique resort with luxurious beachfront villas.

Bishop's Cruises offers a half-day lagoon boat tour, including Honeymoon Island and One Foot Island, enabling us to snorkel, see four turtles, the coral and enormous fish.

Tamanu Beach Resort's Nick and Dianne Henry hosted the final night's dinner, starting with cocktails on the sand. He is the grandson of the Cook Island's first prime minister, Albert Henry, and the couple are hands-on at this stunning yet relaxed beachfront resort, set on the west coast midway between Arutanga Harbour and Aitutaki Airport.

Aere ra e kia manuia. We'll be back.

CHECKLIST

Getting there
Air NZ flies to Rarotonga from Auckland with one-way fares from $297.

Online
feelraro.co.nz