Venetia Sherson discovers the true worth of hospitality Capital payback in Rarotonga.
A few years back, a team of British academics measured the economic value of a smile based on the premise that smiles are social currency people will pay money to receive.
They calculated each flash of the gnashers was worth one third of a British penny. A "genuine" smile (teeth, laugh lines and crinkly eyes) boosted the bottom line. Based on that calculation, if you smiled 300 times a day, you'd make a quid. For Brits, whose spirits are often duller than the sky above, the effort might outweigh the rewards. But in Rarotonga, where a surly face is as rare as a mute rooster, the dividends are real.
It's easy to get carried away in the South Pacific. A diet of splendid sunsets, carnival-coloured fish and cheerful ukuleles induces euphoria. "No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in The Marquesas.
But the Cook Islands charm extends beyond its natural beauty. It has more to do with social capital, which is defined as goodwill, fellowship and trust.
Example: Two friends go for an early morning walk, well after the roosters start crowing, but before roadside stalls are open. They are accompanied by five dogs, but that's by the by. They pass a stall that will sell pareu (aka sarongs), and pawpaw. They have no cash, but crave pawpaw for breakfast. On the way back, the stall owner has taken up her post. "Take the fruit. Pay later, when you're passing," she says.
The Cook Islands welcomed 125,132 visitors last year - a record. Chasing up non-paying pawpaw lovers would be fruitless. The same scenario unfolds when we hire fins for a day of snorkelling. There are a lot of cash transactions on Rarotonga, and we fall short by several dollars. "Take them and pay when you return," says the cheerful operator.
On a public holiday, businesses in Avarua are closed, stymying our last chance to visit a recommended shop before departure. As we peer through the windows, a woman asks if she can help. We explain our predicament. She rousts the owner from her day of rest and the shop is opened. We are given a generous discount, plus the offer of free coffee at her cafe next door.
The instances go on: At a church, members of the congregation invite us to lunch following the Sunday service; a stall owner at the food market hands me a flower garland, and when I offer to pay, waves my purse away. "You look like a nice lady."
I first holidayed in the Cook Islands when I was a wide-eyed cub reporter. While the rest of the invited hacks went off and got drunk, I religiously trekked around the island, talked to locals and filled my notebook with quotes and observations. I thought the island charming; the people unaffected. When I last visited, a decade ago, I was relieved to find the same unpretentiousness. Today, there are hundreds of resorts and thousands more tourists. You might expect a smidgen of world weariness and "have-a-nice-day" servitude to have crept in. Happily, not.
Rarotongans do hospitality well because they are hospitable. They even do rudeness well.
At The Mooring, where we gather to sample the world-famous fish sandwiches, the fisherman-turned-waiter, who caught our lunch while we were sleeping, delivers six plates of perfectly seared marlin and tuna. But one dish is wrong. He returns to the kitchen and brings out the docket. "It's right," he says triumphantly. Then, to stem further protest, he yells over his shoulder, "Just eat the bloody thing." Anywhere else in the world that would-be grounds for complaint. But he smiles as he says it. A full faced-grin with laugh lines and crinkly eyes. You'd pay good money to get that service.
Want more holiday inspiration? Sign up to our new Travel Insider newsletter here.