Brightly lit orange letters at Rarotonga Airport shout: "Kia orana!" You will hear these words many times if you are lucky enough to visit this tiny, lushly forested extinct volcano that is rising from the Pacific bed.
They mean "may you live long" in Maori and the etiquette is "kia orana".
Make sure you do the following: With bleak eyes after the 24 hour trip with three planes shortly before the international ban, I made the mistake of just saying "hello" to the happy immigration officer.
The Cook Islands are 15 small islands scattered over an area of 2 million square kilometers and home to 18,000 souls
"Kia orana!" He roared with a grin and didn't let me in until I said it too.
The trip to the South Pacific is one of the greatest travel experiences in the world. And the cooks – without touching wood, a single case of coronavirus – are in the heart of this region: 15 small islands on an area of 2 million square kilometers, on which 18,000 souls live.
Hawaii is 3,000 miles north; Australia the same distance to the southwest. Seclusion is part of their romance.
They are named after the English explorer Captain James Cook, who, although he never entered or even saw Rarotonga, stopped briefly in 1774 on an uninhabited atoll. You can drive around Rarotonga, the capital, in less than an hour. There are two main streets, the busiest one being the closest to the sea. This was paved by European missionaries in the 19th century and is encircled by two buses labeled “Clockwise” and “Counterclockwise”.
The older inner road was created by the seafaring Polynesians, who landed in unprecedented deep sea performance about 1,000 years ago: Stone Age tribes that navigate in giant & # 39; Vaka & # 39; canoes with the help of sun, stars, ocean currents and bird migration People.
Although there are now more islanders living in New Zealand than on the chefs, traditional culture remains strong, with an awe for flowers, a boundless love for music and dance, and a deep affinity for the sea.
The islands are named after the English explorer Captain James Cook, who, although he never entered or even saw Rarotonga, stopped briefly on an uninhabited atoll in 1774
Hawaii is 3,000 miles north of the Cook Islands and Australia is the same distance southwest
A local wore an "egg katu", a crown of flowers, and said to me, "We are people of water."
Of course it was once that they were enthusiastic cannibals.
Arerau & # 39; Ali & # 39; Maao, whom I met a few days after the trip and whose stocky, forward-looking physique is typical of his compatriots, told me that he once checked off a Chinese tourist for collecting sea snails, which Ali thought was cruel.
"I'm Chinese, we eat everything," chuckled the tourist and tried to ward him off.
Ali leaned forward and whispered, "I'm a Cook Islander, we eat Chinese."
The snails went back into the water.
Today the islanders are extremely Christian and apparently largely grateful to the Victorians who converted their ancestors. One Sunday I went to one of the oldest churches in Rarotonga, where the congregation, all in white, sang in a loud, penetratingly beautiful harmony that somehow reminded of the Welsh valleys.
How do i get here The fastest way is to fly to Los Angeles and then to Rarotonga with Air New Zealand.
However, due to the corona virus crisis, there will likely be question marks on this route. I would therefore recommend adding a few days with a trip to New Zealand or Australia and then taking the four or seven hour flight from there.
But why go when you can get sand and sun in the Canary Islands?
The answer becomes clear when you wake up on the first morning – I was at the Moana Sands Lagoon Resort – and see an empty beach of creamy perfection lined with coconut trees and blooming hibiscus.
Dancers talk in Rarotonga. The chefs have never had a single case of coronavirus
I found it best to find my way around early on a bike tour. It was mostly flat, with my only soundtrack, the buzzing of insects and the crack of breakers on the reef.
While we were on our way, the roadside was alive with bright Heliconia flowers that smell of intoxicating scents. Every other tree seemed to swell with fruit.
The avocados were almost the size of soccer balls. Mangoes with neon meat hung low. We stopped to try tooth-melting sweet guavas. And then there was the noni (or "cheese fruit"), smelly things that are very valued in Pacific medicine.
Eating in the Cook Islands is a pleasure. In the Mooring Fish Cafe, a hut where a rooster proudly struts between the tables, I enjoyed an excellent "FOB" (freshly baked from the boat) breaded mahi-mahi in a squidgy bap with lime juice and chilli.
In the evening you should take part in a "progressive dinner": not a left-hand supper club, but an opportunity to meet islanders and eat authentic food. Three families open their doors and give you a warm welcome. Ika mata is definitely on the menu: raw fish, often tuna, served with lime juice, coconut milk and chopped peppers.
One of the beach bungalows at the Pacific Resort in Aitutaki where Oliver Thring of the Daily Mail lived
IT'S YOUR DECISION…
- Rarotonga, the largest with 88 percent of the population.
- Aitutaki to explore its small motus (islands) by kayak.
- Mangaia, probably the oldest island in the Pacific.
- Atiu for rare birds and thriving traditional culture.
- Manihiki, home of the famous black pearls of the Cook Islands.
Music is everywhere. Ukuleles come out regularly. The hostess clicked at a dinner with spoons like maracas while our driver spent the time drumming on an upturned plastic bottle with a water cooler. When the sun went down, the rich, harmonious voices of Polynesia carried the lawn that smelled of gardenia. An unforgettable moment of vacation escape.
On a hot, windless afternoon, I hiked (almost) with "Rarotonga's Coconut Warrior" to the top of Mount Raemaru: an incredibly happy guide who assured me that he was 50 years old even though he looked half way.
"Warrior!", He called me generously. Near the summit with its wonderful view, we ate ripe papaya and the marshmallow inside of sprouted coconuts. But I don't think that a true warrior like me would have left the last part of the climb: to climb a steep cliff with ropes.
If I can give a tip for the Cook Islands, I have to fly to Aitutaki on a rickety 45-minute propeller plane. This atoll of 2,000 people, surrounded by orange corals, bathes in a lagoon made of supernatural turquoise.
The first European to look at Aitutaki was Captain Bligh of the Bounty, 18 days before his crew mutinied in 1789. He was fixated and didn't seem to notice the disagreement between his men. He called it "so charming, a small place".
Here I was in the Pacific Resort, with bungalows right on the warm water. I traveled to the Aitutaki Lagoon on a cocoa water vaka cruise and a big lunch. A Ukelele jingled and "Captain Bossa Nova" sang with his crew before stopping on Akaiami Island.
The Cook Islands are surrounded by crystal clear water filled with tropical fish
Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) offers eight nights in the Cook Islands at Pacific Resort Rarotonga and Pacific Resort Aitutaki from £ 3,599 per person including return flights.
B&B doubles at Moana Sands (moanasands.co.ck) from £ 239. More information at cookislands.travel.
On another island, we were snorkeling in a lagoon when huge, harmless mackerel fish, built like sumo wrestlers, circled us in the clear water. A huge shell gaped out of the sandy bed below.
Back on Rarotonga I rented a kayak and paddled alone to Taakoka, another tiny island with palm trees. With hermit crabs to society, I climbed over the rocks until I lost sight of a sign of civilization. The open sea, the breeze, and the noise of the rustling palm trees were all what they must have been for millions of years.
Finally, reluctantly, I paddled back.
One night I spoke to a full-time, endless travel writer, a woman who has seen and seen far more of the world than most others.
"The cooks," she said, "must have been Thailand 40 years ago." Quiet, no big hotels, just a handful of happy families coming to visit. The Bahamas, the Seychelles, the Maldives: They are all built up now.
"This has to be the last perfect island destination in the world – if you just make the trip."
(tagsToTranslate) Dailymail (t) Travel (t) Escape (t) Immigration