Laura Hutchins cherishes the easy-going pace of Cook Island life because she knows when she's home it'll be what she misses the most.

"That's where you get the cheap ukelele lessons," Captain V casually informed us as he pointed out to the left of the open-sided truck. My husband Jono burst out laughing, confusing the German tourists next to us. It was Rarotonga's local prison. The fence stood no more than 2m high and was constructed from some old posts and loose barbed wire. A little further on, the gate was wide open.

"It's okay, no one here does anything too bad. Just stealing, really," Captain V assures us.

He quickly corrects himself, noticing the three children on board.

"I mean, stealing is bad, too."

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The Cook Islands run on island time - laid-back living at its best.

Veroia, "Captain V", was our 4WD safari driver from Raro Safari Tours. A softly spoken man passionate about his homeland and well versed in the islands' cultural history, he took us off the beaten track to explore the old back roads that wind through plantations of tropical fruit and taro, giving us an insight into how the locals live. Modest homes had gravesites on their front yards. Captain V told us there aren't many graveyards in Rarotonga. They really only have them to house the bodies of those who have nowhere else to go.

The 4WD bounced along rocky back roads.

Captain V husked coconuts for us on the mountaintop to share while we enjoyed the view down over the ocean and up towards towards Needle Rock.

The unique thing about a destination like Rarotonga is that although there are a host of tourist-focused activities to try, the island offers a vast range of places to explore on your own.

Laura Hutchins tries coconut water from a freshly husked and opened coconut. Photo / Laura Hutchins
Laura Hutchins tries coconut water from a freshly husked and opened coconut. Photo / Laura Hutchins

It is the main island in the Cook Islands group, which is made up of 15 islands covering a total area of over 2 million sq km. It's small - the main road around the island is only 32km or a 45-minute drive.

There are no big cities and designer shopping malls to entertain you here - just the natural rugged beauty of the landscape, lush forest hugged by white sand beaches and crystal-clear water.

Jono and I are true water babies, so we were excited to spend the next day out with Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes.

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The operation has won numerous tourism awards and after a day out with the crew there was no question as to why. When we arrived at Muri Beach, a glass-bottom boat was waiting in the shallows of the lagoon. The crew helped us on board with outstretched hands and friendly smiles. As we headed out to the edge of the lagoon, they introduced themselves.

We had Amosa "Captain Awesome" Tatuava as skipper and Brown Apera Pori Makea or "Captain Chocolate" as our guide. Captain Chocolate stood barefoot in the centre of the boat. He was easygoing and you couldn't help but laugh at his jokes, even if some were a little un-PC.

He had a kind smile, a wicked sense of humour and was quite the gentleman, always insisting on ladies first.

Out on the edge of the lagoon the water was like glass, calm and clear.

I was a little intimidated by the large fish at first but before long I felt at home with them in the water.

Jono and I snorkelled along in the cool water, hand-in-hand, pointing out bigger and brighter tropical reef fish to each other. The lagoon floor is covered in coral with giant clams resting in between.

As well as a ride on the glass-bottom boat and a good hour snorkelling around the lagoon, we visited Motu Koromiri (which means "no touching") island where we were served up a traditional Rarotongan barbecue of fresh tuna steaks caught by the crew, Rarotongan vegetarian sausages (fried bananas), potato salad and a selection of fresh tropical fruit.

Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruize's glass bottom boat floats on the lagoon. Photo / Laura Hutchins
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruize's glass bottom boat floats on the lagoon. Photo / Laura Hutchins

After an educational and hilarious show of how to tie a pareu (sarong) and the many uses of the coconut, guests cooled off in the water while lunch settled and Jono made friends with some of the local boys who were working on the boat. The boys joked about life on the island and we admired how they seem to sustain an existence that is so laid-back and stress free.

As the sun set that evening we headed into the hills for a sunset cultural show and dinner at Highland Paradise. We started with a tapu-lifting ceremony at the marae where guests are involved in the experience. After a tour of the cultural site, including a re-enactment of historic life on the island, came a spectacular stage show complete with drums, dancing and beautiful costumes.

Our meal was a feast. Laid across multiple tables, it featured a huge range of traditional food cooked in an umu (underground oven). We rolled out of the venue with big smiles and bigger bellies.

The next morning we went for a drive around the island, stopping at heritage sites and beaches. In front of the Fruits of Rarotonga cafe just past Muri is a great snorkelling spot. The fish swim right up to the shoreline and the beach is full of sealife to discover.

On our way back we followed a woman on a scooter cruising along the main road with her young toddler strapped to her waist with a pareu. She weaved her way along the road to avoid potholes and stray coconuts while her small son waved a wooden racquet.

The locals couldn't be more relaxed about life. And that's a lesson for us tourists: unwind and enjoy the pace of life here because when you're back home again it will be what you miss the most.

Lovely staff make resort special

Club Raro pool and swim up bar. Photo / Laura Hutchins
Club Raro pool and swim up bar. Photo / Laura Hutchins

The Club Raro Resort is a little gem which sits in a prime position on Rarotonga's northern coast, five minutes from Avarua.

It's worth paying the little extra to get a lagoon-front room if you're travelling as a couple and looking for something romantic. These rooms enjoy a prime view out across the resort's sand deck and out over the South Pacific - all from your king-sized bed.

They're also tucked away from the noise of the rest of the resort but conveniently close to the pool bar.

Club Raro offers one of only two swim-up bars on the island, plus an on-site restaurant that we favoured over a popular eatery nearby. There's plenty of room to lounge in the sun and the cocktail list is enviably inventive. Make sure you try the Toblerone cocktail.

The staff here are locals and we all became fast friends. My husband spent happy hours at the bar chatting to Juita the barman about rugby while I happily made my way through the cocktail list poolside. Active relaxing at its finest.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Auckland six times a week.

Details: Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes leave from Muri Beach and include a trip on a glass-bottom boat, snorkelling (gear included), lunch, a show and transfers if needed.

Raro Safari Tours offers a guided tour which teaches you about the rich culture and history of the island. Includes lunch and transfers.

Highland Paradise put on a Cook Islands cultural dinner and show.

Further information: See FeelRaro.co.nz.

The writer travelled courtesy of Coconuts Travel Marketing and Club Raro Resort.