Chris Daniels climbs aboard a bike to explore a different side of Rarotonga.

Lying on a sunny beach doesn't usually count as much of a culturally rewarding experience - it's relaxing and warm, but there's an extra dimension to even the most touristy destination that's worth seeking out.

In Rarotonga for the annual triathlon I was able to experience an aspect of Cook Islands' culture that can't easily be transmitted via an afternoon on the beach or a morning snorkelling.

Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours aims to share some of the islands' culture with tourists on the back of a bike, in small groups guided by a local.

I spent a few hours on the Discover tour - three hours plus lunch - which is perfect for those with limited bike skills or those who prefer a more sedate afternoon. We meandered about the back roads of the island, checked out a farm, taro plantations, met a big fat pig called Christmas and visited a local ukulele maker.


As we rode, we heard stories about the tribal warfare that swept the area over the centuries - along with information about the more bucolic side of Rarotongan life.

The bikes were modern and easy to ride, and those with even a basic level of biking ability could easily keep up with the pack.

It wasn't all pretty tropical fruit trees and taro plantations - one of the highlights of the trip was a ride through the abandoned hulk of the derelict Sheraton hotel, which was designed to be the island's first five-star hotel, but was never finished.

Looking now more like a suitable setting for a zombie film than a tropical resort, the Sheraton was a perfect backdrop to hear more home-grown Cook Island perspectives about respecting the environment and sustainable tourism.

Merging sustainable tourism with Cook Islands culture is also part of the ethos at the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre.

The hosts describe the story of a formerly fortified village that lay unused for the best part of 150 years.

Arrival of the missionaries in the Cooks in 1821 changed the culture dramatically - inter-tribal conflict died away. The 600-year-old village site was once the home of the Tinomana Tribe. The marae high up in the hills was eventually abandoned, its easily defended position swapped for the easier - and now safer - location down near the sea shore.

Over the past few decades it's been slowly dug out from the jungle and developed into Highland Paradise, a cultural and educational centre that hosts students and locals while also running a tourist-focused business.


A night at the Highland Paradise begins with the serious stuff - a dusk walk through the restored village, followed by a prayer and an explanation of how a traditional Cook Islands marae works. There's an unexpectedly quiet, spiritual aspect to the setting - night is falling just as the more mystical (and decidedly non-missionary) side of Cook Islands history is on display.

Inside the main hall tourists are again regaled with tales of great battles and historic massacres of neighbouring tribes, accompanied by a rollicking good evening of traditional singing and dancing. The show we checked out was called Drums of our Forefathers - a chronological depiction of the history and development of Cook Islands' music and dancing.

As a first-time visitor to the Cooks I'm hardly the best to judge the authenticity of the work, but (aside from a few cabaret-style cheesy jokes from the MC) for this tourist expecting little more than a swim in the lagoon it offered a brief, but fascinating glimpse into the cultural life of one of our closest Polynesian neighbours.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Rarotonga.

The writer travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.