Firstly, you see the glistening ocean, the lagoon and the reef.
Then there's the island hospitality, the slower pace of life. An abundance of tropical fruits, fresh fish marinating in coconut cream. Lingering sunsets, sandy feet. A holiday in the Cook Islands is many things, and they are all beautiful things.
With Australia now off the travel cards for the next couple of months, let's steer our focus to our South Pacific neighbour and soak up the island vibes.
If you're looking to plan a trip to the Cook Islands, here is your inspiration and guide. These are some of our top stories and reviews from Rarotonga since the bubble opened.
A guide to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
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.
The Rarotonga resort where Kiwis can give back
At first glance, you'd never know this particular resort in the Cook Islands was anything other than a gorgeous luxury escape on a daydream-perfect tropical island.
It has the well-appointed villas on the beautiful beachfront location, the small but lovely swimming pool in case you tire of the turquoise lagoon, the swaying hammock under tall, swaying palm trees ... so far, so Rarotonga.
This is all perfectly lovely, of course, and more than enough to ensure you have a wonderful escape from normal New Zealand life. But scratch a little deeper and you'll find a stay at Motu Beachfront Art Villas is also a way to give back to the local community.
Getting back to nature at the Ikurangi Eco Retreat
Ikurangi Eco Retreat is in the Matavera District of Rarotonga, on the northeastern side of the island.
The landowner, still living next door, started Ikurangi with three wooden ares, Polynesian-style studio rooms. The property was bought and expanded before the current owners, Alan and Vicky, took over in 2019, revamped the organic gardens and added zhoosh.
Ikurangi is a glamping experience so guests have a getaway that doesn't compromise the environment.
Beyond a deep, partially covered veranda with table and chairs, it's a large tent. A large, very comfortable tent with solid decking floor, equipped with bed, storage, fridge, a small safe and a yoga mat.
Awesome days at ease in Rarotonga
Captain Awesome is halfway up a coconut tree. "See!" He calls to the watching crowd. "It's easy!"
My daughter looks at Captain Awesome, then she looks at me. "Is it really easy, Dad?"
By the time the words "It's probably harder to climb a coconut tree than he makes it look" have left my mouth, Captain Awesome has got to the top of the tree, plucked a coconut and descended to the ground. Mrs Awesome's boy did real good.
"Could you do it?"
"He's had a lot of practise, sweetheart."
It's true. The Koka Lagoon Cruises crew are a pretty slick operation. A couple of dozen tourists gather beachside at Muri Lagoon before slipping into the glass-bottomed boats and heading out on the water for a day of snorkelling, eating a barbecued lunch and raw fish salad and hearing — firsthand from Captain Awesome himself — just how awesome Captain Awesome is. (Spoiler: very.)
The legend of Shipwreck Hut
If you can't travel just yet, but still want to keep dreaming about the Cook Islands, then listen back to our Trip Notes podcast 'Rarotonga and the legend of the Shipwreck Hut'.
The episode based on an article by Steve Braunias was released during the March/April lockdown in 2020, but the vibe of the piece tells you everything you need to know.