Raratonga's buses take 40 minutes to circle the paved rim of the Cook Islands' main isle, passing through tiny coastal villages. Jump on the wrong bus and the worst that happens is that you arrive slightly late.

It isn't easy to board the wrong bus in Rarotonga. Only two routes exist and signs clearly identify them as "Clockwise'' or "Anti-Clockwise''.

Tourists love taking the bus for shopping trips to Avarua, the small capital. Alternatives are rented beach buggies, scooters and bicycles.

Bus routes are one of quirky Rarotonga's many pleasant surprises.

My first comes moments after I emerge from the aircraft. The nice immigration man tells me I should go to jail. What's more, his shift is about to end and he'll drive me there.


Somehow we're talking about ukuleles (it's that sort of place) as he thumbs slowly through my passport. He mentions that the best of these musical instruments - the Cook Islands' most popular souvenir, stocked by many a tourist shop - are crafted in the local prison.

I promise I'll take his advice and go to jail, though politely decline his offered lift. I insist I'll find my own way. Travel teaches that you never argue with an immigration officer.

When I arrive I'm told there are only six prisoners. A warder says speeding, public drunkenness and occasional burglaries are "usual'' crimes - generally committed by people who've spent time in developed New Zealand where they've learned "bad habits''. Less footloose Cook Islanders are quickly "put right'' by their families.

Prisoners have various chores - with ukulele-making among them. Customers are tourists, turning up at the front gate, and souvenir stores.

Tourism is the Cook Islands' biggest industry - more important than fishing, pearl-farming and agriculture.

Wherever there are tourists, there's demand for souvenirs. Visitors who don't buy ukuleles usually opt for cheaper alternatives: $3 notes or eight-sided coins.

Except for this wacky folding money and coinage, the Cook Islands uses New Zealand currency - easing life for Kiwis, the majority of visitors. Australians come second, with other nationalities far behind.

An independent South Pacific island nation, the Cook Islands is in "free association'' with New Zealand. Wellington is responsible for defence and most foreign policy.

It's unusual and laid-back. But something's missing: this is a country completely without traffic lights.

Mind you, it doesn't shun modernity. Almost everyone in Avarua totes a mobile phone, connected to a local provider called Kokanet.

Then there's the matter of the head of state. He's called the Queen's Representative because New Zealand has a Governor-General. Matters of protocol are taken very seriously.

The country has only 14,000 people - with more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than at home. Their language is closely related to New Zealand Maori - though on my travels I notice English is understood almost everywhere.

On one island, Palmerston, a strange-sounding time-warp English is spoken, unchanged since the 1800s.

Fifteen small isles, with a combined land area of only 240 sq km, comprise what's actually a big country: 1.8 million sq km that's almost all water.

Outer islands are served by ferries and Air Rarotonga services. Tourists with tight time-frames confine themselves to Rarotonga (perhaps adding Aitutaki and Atiu).

Beaches are the main attraction: powdery white-sand expanses better than those in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.

Many resorts are located on Rarotonga. Pretty Avarua, itself, is small despite the presence of ministries clustered amid coffee shops, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, beachwear outlets, internet cafes and a colourful market.

Besides Rarotonga, tourists most commonly visit Aitutaki (day trips, using 40-minute flights, are available but don't do it justice). Several resorts are at Aitutaki's edge.

Bird-watchers often head for Atiu (with flights most days). It's a coffee-cultivating isle where residents visit skeletons in burial caves and traditional beer is brewed from oranges.

Only visitors with no timetables make it to distant paradises such as Penrhyn, with weekly flights and a cultured pearl industry, or Palmerston which is reached only by sea.

Palm-fringed islets dot Aitutaki's lagoon. The longest of its multitudinous white beaches stretches far towards the horizon. A sandbar, it's submerged at high tide. I get there by catamaran, with garlanded crew members' songs accompanied by ubiquitous ukuleles. My companions hand-feed fish or stare open-mouthed at giant clams.

Our skipper tells me it's almost lunch-time. From the sandbar I walk for 100m through warm, shallow ocean to step ashore on tiny One Foot Island.

Before lunch I snorkel across a coral garden that's home to thousands of multi-hued tropical fish.

Lunch is one of those memorable outdoor island meals. At the water's edge we gather at an umukai - "earth oven''.

Fish, pork and vegetables (pumpkin, cassava and kumara (sweet potato), wrapped in banana leaves, are cooked on hot coals in a hole covered by palm fronds. While we wait, watching smoke rise, we eat ika mata (raw fish, marinated in lime juice and coconut milk).

Back in Rarotonga I join a half-day car tour - gazing out to sea from scenic look-outs, cooling off at a jungle waterfall and - since it's Sunday - briefly joining the faithful in village churches.

Alongside the resort pool I decide to write a few postcards. I'm lost for words and decide it's a chore that can wait until tomorrow.

The Cook Islands is that sort of place. And, after the developed world's hustle and bustle, that's a plus.

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand to Rarotonga from Auckland.

STAYING THERE: The Rarotongan and Edgewater are the best-known upscale resorts but there are many others from bare-bones backpacking lodgings to opulent boutique options.

Aitutaki has a similar wide choice from basic to luxurious. Outer islands - reached on Air Rarotonga domestic flights - have small family-run lodgings.

Day trips from Rarotonga to Aitutaki are popular. Some tourists split holidays between the two. Most visitors are on travel-and-accommodation packages (including transfers), which don't involve group activities (unless you want them) and are considerably cheaper.

See Cook Islands Tourism for more information.