Despite a (relative) boom in tourism, the Cook Islands are returning to a pristine state, writes Mark Stratton.

It's just over 250 years since James Cook launched the first of his three Pacific voyages, in 1768 aboard HMS Endeavour. He didn't set foot on the Cook Islands until 1773 but what he did record throughout, besides unflattering observations of the natives, was a South Pacific idyll of swaying palms and turquoise lagoons.

Yet the paradise he first set eyes upon has come under threat in recent years, prompting the Cook Islands to declare one of the world's largest protected marine reserves — Marae Moana. It spans all 15 Cook Islands, and its inhabitants hope it will create a statutory framework to address concerns such as coral reef damage and foreign fleets ravaging fish stocks.

It also chimes with the Cook Islands Māori belief in guardianship of the land and sea. Equally admirable is a commitment to convert wholly to solar energy by 2020, which left me wondering whether this might become the greenest destination on Earth.

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There is of course a flaw in this supposition. The many daily flights to the gateway island of Rarotonga generate a sizeable carbon jandal print. And Rarotonga receives 150,000 visitors per year to beach resorts offering "island night" floorshows of tattooed warriors and dancers in coconut-shell bras. My first impression is that paradise feels a little overworked.

Yet it's easy enough to find the greener side. Islander Luana Scowcroft's green initiatives in no way compromise comfort and luxury at Ikurangi Eco Retreat, where the four African safari tents have king-size beds and outdoor showers amid a fragrant frangipani garden.

Rarotonga. Photo / Getty Images
Rarotonga. Photo / Getty Images

They also have composting lavatories, and all grey water is reused. Scowcroft's breakfasts feature passionfruit from the garden and pawpaw muffins.

From Ikurangi, in the spirit of sustainability, I take the round-island bus one morning — actually two services endearingly labelled "clockwise" and "anti-clockwise" — to the start of a three-hour cross-island hiking trail. I sniff wild vanilla in the mountain forests and pause at a rock pinnacle almost propping up the thundery sky for views over the whole of Rarotonga.

I'd also highly recommend the Storytellers Eco-Cycle Tour. Jim Mare, built like a rugby prop forward, hauls his frame on to a bicycle and guides our group along rural back roads he calls arametua ("roads of our ancestors").

"This is the Rarotonga tourists rarely see," he says, explaining the medicinal uses of fruits and island lore.

His grandfather could predict a cyclone by counting the breadfruit flowers on a branch. We also taste the superfood noni fruit. Shaped like a grenade, it is rich in anti-ageing compounds (although I acquire a few more wrinkles grimacing at its sour, blue-cheese taste). "That's the taste of dollar signs," says Mare.

There are better flavours, however. I sample home-cooked food at the thrice-weekly Muri market where I fall in love with ika mata — raw fish ceviche infused with coconut cream, served on a "rented" plate to cut down on packaging. For a truly indulgent feast, try the buffet at Louis and Mina Enoka's 1853 Plantation House. Mina's Asian-inspired dishes use garden-fresh organic produce and line-caught fish. Louis suggests Rarotonga is becoming organic again after the demise of the island's intensive fruit production of oranges and pineapples.

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My travels reduce to a snail's pace on the smaller atolls I visit. I'm told Aitutaki, 45 minutes away by air, is Rarotonga 20 years ago. The fishhook-shaped island has a bewitching lagoon of unnaturally blue water and sandbars the colour of coconut flesh.

"Blink and you'll miss town," quips the receptionist at Tamanu Beach Resort as I check in and receive a complimentary foot massage with a brown sugar scrub. "Town" consists of a fish-and-chip takeaway and a wharf where children somersault into the ocean. A formidable 1820s coral-walled church, founded by the London Missionary Society, is the Cook Islands' oldest place of worship.

There's little to do here, bar relax beachside and sip fresh coconut water. But do tear yourself away for Mr Teking's snorkelling safari around the island, to savour the marine diversity that the Marae Moana seeks to preserve. His tour involves spending a day in bathtub-warm water exploring constellations of tropical fish shoaling around purple brain corals and giant clams with wavy lips smirking skywards.

Of the Cook Islands, Atiu (again 45 minutes by air from Rarotonga) is where I sense the most palpable sustainability. This is partly because nobody does anything harmful besides damaging their livers with home brew.

 Cultural show at Te Vara Nui. Photo / Supplied
Cultural show at Te Vara Nui. Photo / Supplied

The island's population of 400 inhabits a raised coral massif that sprouts an impenetrable forest featuring lustrous ferns. Atiuans were living by the coast when Cook happened by during his third Pacific voyage in 1777.

When missionaries came and evangelised their chieftain, they gathered the new flock on the central plateau around a colossal church. Outside, where Sunday service intones sweet harmonies, pigs feast on fallen mangoes.

The biggest event on Atiu since that evangelical mission will be the completion of a solar panel farm to bestow energy self-sufficiency. Already sporting this technology is Atiu Villas, built by New Zealander Roger Malcolm and his Atiuan wife, Kura.

Their chalets overlook a garden of Eden with intoxicatingly sweet-scented wild ginger, and the coffee used is organic arabica, grown by Mata Arai, the Cook Islands' only bean-to-bag producer. "There was no electricity or running water when we arrived in 1978 with the island's first flight," says Malcolm. Atiu still receives only 1500 visitors each year.

Adventure is provided by several excellent nature-based tours. "Birdman" George takes me spotting endemic kura lorikeets. Their scarlet-red plumage was so coveted for ceremonial garments that the bird was plucked to extinction.

Fortunately, some had been taken as gifts to Tahiti where a surplus remained, allowing them to be reintroduced.

Next day, among craggy limestone pinnacles, I'm taken to Anatakitaki — a three-chambered cavern of stalactites, stalagmites and scuttling purple crabs — to see endemic kopeka swiftlets. With remarkable mimicry the birds behave as bats in darkness and fill the caverns with clicks to echo-locate and gorge upon insects.

The swiftlets covet darkness as much as Atiu's men, who would have little to do in the evenings if it weren't for their tumunu, or bush-beer drinking clubs. One of them is Te Po Nui ("Big Night Out"), little more than an open-sided shelter.

My fellow drinkers tell me how righteous missionaries drove this habit underground, so their ancestors hid their illicit hooch in tumunu — the hollowed-out bases of coconut palms — which give these watering-holes their name.

Guests are expected to leave a small contribution for ingredients, one of the best investments I made all trip. What can beat an authentic evening in a sultry palm grove, listening to island songs and beefing about politics — with not a coconut-shell bra in sight?

Underwater in Aitutaki Lagoon. Photo / Getty Images
Underwater in Aitutaki Lagoon. Photo / Getty Images

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Jetstar

flies direct from Auckland to Rarotonga, with six flights a week between July and October. One-way fares start from $169.

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