The day miracle turtle Ponu returned to Rarotonga lagoon, Jonathan Milne and his family were fortunate enough to swim with her.
There is a childlike excitement in freediver Charlotte Piho's voice as her head breaks the surface of the lagoon. "It's Ponu, she's back!"
It's nearly two weeks since my family and hundreds of others watched the little green sea turtle with the miracle survival story being released into Rarotonga's Ava'avaroa Passage.
Ponu swam out into the ocean – and we all wondered if she'd ever be seen again.
"I always hoped and thought she would come back into the passage," Piho says.
A tourist found little Ponu in the harbour in 2019, pale and desperately sick and injured. Volunteers from Te Are o te Onu turtle society spent months nursing the small, sick and injured green turtle back to health, then slowly reintroduced her to the lagoon, swimming with her on a purpose-made leash.
Now, back feeding in the shallows of the lagoon, Ponu seems quite friendly, not at all unnerved by being around us.
"I feel that she's maybe a bit like a baby who's been wrapped in cotton wool; she may not feel confident to go too deep yet," Charlotte says. "I think in time, she will gain that confidence."
Charlotte Piho, like a real-life Moana, grew up diving deep outside the reef. Now she's a renowned marine photographer (charlottepiho.com) who used to split her time between the Cook Islands and Sydney. When the borders closed last year, it was home to Rarotonga that she returned.
That confidence. It's something we too gained a little of, me and my wife Georgie and our three boys, living in Rarotonga, becoming friends with its people and discovering their stories and experiences.
Like Ruta Tangiiau Mave. She tells us her stories, her family history, over a drink on our shady verandah in the evening. But she also tells that story to visitors at Te Vara Nui dinner and island nights in Muri (tevaranui.co.ck).
This is where locals take their families visiting from New Zealand. And this is the Cook Islands, so there is nothing Disney about this so-called Pacific princess. Here, many of the ariki and other traditional leaders have, for generations, been women.
"Most Kiwis don't know the seven vaka came from here, so when New Zealand Maori say they feel like they have come home, they have," Ruta tells me.
"Many New Zealanders and Māori wonder how we could be their ancestors, when Cook Islands Māori are perceived as more peaceful and happy-go-lucky.
"The reality is, we were not always a peaceful nation. Continuous war and cannibalism existed here. We let Christianity change us, for a better lifestyle, for longer lives – we know how to make the best of a situation. But, still waters run deep.
"Threaten the core fabric of who we are and where we come from, and then you see the new weapons come out in voice, in print, in protest marches."
The dances of the ancestors, the drum beats, the haka, that are performed on stage at Te Vara Nui, are also a driving force in daily life on these islands, she argues.
Te Vara Nui's buffet of ika mata (raw fish in coconut cream), sashimi, poke and fresh tropical fruits is just one of the many mouth-watering dining experiences in Cook Islands.
You can try the elegant menus created by Phillip Nordt at On The Beach restaurant (otbrarotonga.com), like a chimmichurri seared tuna whose South American zing might have been brought all the way across the Pacific on the voyaging vaka a millennia ago. Watch the lights out beyond the reef: a couple of fishermen seducing the maroro flying fish to leap into their boats.
Or you can go out fishing yourself from Avana harbour at dawn, with Captain Moko – then relax in the sun as his wife Jillymae Kavana and her Mooring Fish Cafe team cook up your freshly caught yellowfin tuna in their trademark fish taco (themooringfishcaferaro.com). If you're lucky on a Sunday, Captain Moko may bring out his friends and their ukelele string band, while you eat.
Best of all, though, is the fresh produce. The sweet milk of the young nu coconuts, the passionfruit, the starfruit, the soursop, the pawpaw with a dash of lime juice and, in season, the abundant mangoes that are said to be the best in the world.
In part, it's learning to respect some of these things that are integral to this place. Respecting the traditional produce and lifestyle. Respecting the faith – go to a service at one of the big white coral Cook Islands Christian Churches in Rarotonga or, better still, Aitutaki, to experience the reverent worship and deep choir singing.
Respecting the values (no, you can't buy alcohol on a Sunday, deal with it). Respecting the mana tiaki of Cook Islands Māori over the mountains, lowlands, lagoons and 1.9 million sq km of ocean in their exclusive economic zone.
And, I think, respecting the pace of life. A friend of ours, Chantal Napa, runs a local business (chantalsconcierge.com) providing experiences like fishing and snorkelling and scuba-diving. She says tourists sometimes come in saying they need to do this and this and this. She'll say, "Woah, you need to slow down, you're stressing me out.
"Some of our visitors when they arrive, they are used to everything at their fingertips, drive-through fast food, drive-through ATMs, drive-through bottle shops, faster unlimited internet providers, the choice of 57 different cheeses in the supermarket, whole aisles of breakfast cereal choices," she laughs.
"When they pile into the office, they start tapping their feet in exasperation that we islanders are moving too slowly for them.
"Last time I drove in New Zealand on the motorway, my cousin said to me, 'Chantal you're driving too slowly, 70kph, you need to go faster.'
"When we travel overseas, we realise as Islanders that we have to speed up to city pace, and when they travel here to Rarotonga, they need to slow down to our island pace. You know my line about Raro: mountains, coconut trees, potholes and chickens."
"You come to Rarotonga for what we don't have: no traffic lights, no traffic jams, no big fast food chains, no casinos, no shopping malls, no busy beaches."
If you're rushing, she says, you're doing Raro wrong.
So find yourself a table on the balcony at Trader Jack's in the evening, order a local lager and look out beyond the reef.
Or pack yourself and your loved ones a picnic and make your way down to Black Rock at dusk, where the spirits leave on their return home to Havaiki.
Watch the sunset over the Pacific, and it's whale season so if you're lucky a humpback whale will swim by, breaching just over the reef, as if just for you.
* Cook Islands uses New Zealand dollars, so spending them couldn't be easier!
* Power plugs are the same as New Zealand's so there's no need for adaptors.
* Some tourists bring over chillers of food. Don't. Rarotonga has great fresh produce, good markets and supermarkets, and outstanding restaurants.
* If you want to post smug holiday pics on social media, buy a $49 visitor SIM card on your way through the airport or in Vodafone's offices in Avarua, Muri or Arutanga (vodafone.co.ck). Turn off the background syncing on your devices and that 3GB should last you a week easily.
* Use plenty of insect repellent at dawn and dusk.
Getting to Rarotonga from NZ
From Monday, May 17, New Zealand has a two-way travel bubble with the Cook Islands. Air New Zealand (airnz.com) will fly Auckland to Rarotonga and Air Rarotonga (airraro.com) will take you a further hop to Aitutaki or other southern group islands.