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Mark explores Cook Islands...

Mark&eric

It didn't seem long after takeoff from Auckland before I was landing in Rarotonga, but it could have been another World entirely - wet weather and winds in New Zealand turned in to glorious sun and blue skies in the Cook Islands. The greeting was warm and equally friendly with 70yr old Jake Numanga  serenading visitors with his ukele-folk at the airport.

Cook Islands-May news

And there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air, for visitors and locals alike, for tomorrow marked the start of 'Sevens in Heaven', the Cook Islands International Rugby 7's, now celebrating its 25th year. Players, coaches and fans alike pour in to the country on a pilgrimage to watch Rugby 7's how God intended it  - in perfect conditions, on firm fast grounds, surrounded in coconut palms, a crowd exhaling a cacophony of laughs and cheers, and played out by the rugby Gods of Pasifika from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand and, of course, the local village teams. And for starry-eyed fans like me, a chance to meet a Legend of the 7's game (Eric Rush). It was 3 days of sporting and cultural bliss, enjoying delicious island cuisine from the countless caravans surrounding the field and keeping the cooling system in check with regular top-ups of the local Matutu premium beverages.


The sense of pride that Cookies feel for their island paradise was not restricted to the athletes on the field of play. A visit to the wonderful Punanga Nui market in Avarua finds the locals mixing with the tourists and enjoying all the resident treats - maybe drinking a chilled Nu (green coconut) through a straw; appreciating the craftsmanship of handmade Pareu quilts; cheering on the children as they performed cultural dances in stunning costumes or maybe finding a bargain in the beachside huts selling black-pearls.

akura

My accommodation for the week was a gorgeous modern apartment at Te Vakaroa Villas with its large rooms designed in contemporary island-chic, overlooking a large palm-surrounded pool and situated right on the stunning Muri Beach. If Avarua is the centre of island activity, then Muri Beach feels like its heartbeat - stunning turquoise waters of the lagoon dotted with idyllic island Motu's, a pristine white sandy beach and a selection of cafes and restaurants nearby including Rarotongas best eatery, at Sails, serving dishes of local favourites and undoubtedly the best coffee on the island.


Leaving Muri beach it was quickly evident that Te Vakaroa Villas was not the only luxury option on Rarotonga - within a few minutes' drive there many options for the discerning traveller; exclusive villas at Rumours; the whitewashed idyll of Little Polynesia Resort  or the new kid on the Rarotonga block at Nautilus Resort, with its dedication to luxury, eco-tourism and a dedicated focus on Polynesian cuisine.

It was no surprise to learn that Rarotonga is a mecca for big game fishing and no bigger, or more successful, local fisherman than George Koteka's Akura Fishing Charters. If you want to chase Marlin, land a Wahoo, snare a Mahi or catch a Tuna, then George seems to hold the Record for the biggest and best of them all. And if your sea-legs aren't up to it, then waiting at Trader Jacks for the Akura to come back in to port, hardly seems like the worst way to spend some time. And, hey, the pizza at Traders is worth the visit alone - yum !

It would be forgivable to ease in to a life of island bliss here on Rarotonga, with its local charm, gorgeous beaches and most of the luxuries of modern life all at your fingertips. aerialaitutaki

The first time you see Aitutaki from the air is a bequiling sense of sheer beauty of this atol paradise. Relatively flat and lacking in the thick forest of mountainous Rarotonga, the lagoon enveloping Aitutaki is the home to crystal-clear waters, gorgeous Motu's, perfect white beaches and an island life mostly untouched by the developed modern World. The journey from the airport impressed that these people lived from the land and sea, in simple homes but with the ever-present beaming smiles that had already become commonplace in the Cooks.Before long, I arised at Pacific Resort, a 5-star jewel that sparkled with its beachfront bure (huts), lush gardens, lagoon-views from the fine-dining restaurant and its dedication to 1st Class service. And, again, it was not too far along the road that a variety of boutique resorts and self-catering apartments reminded me that there was something for everyone on Aitutaki.

It was time to take in a spot of snorkelling and no better place or clearer waters than the incredible lagoon that had been bewitching me since I flew in only hours previously. And - wow - it was worth the wait ! Was it the Giant Clams or swimming so close to huge Trevallys or the shock of rainbow colours in the coral beds? How about we head to that Motu for a kite-surfing lesson ? Or try my hand at SUP-paddleboarding ? Perhaps I can ponder it from yonder hammock as I contemplate this island life with a Papaya smoothie in my hand ? Aitutaki left me wanting more of its charm and natural beauty - little wonder that visitors I spoke to insisted that they wanted to keep it "all for themselves".

Sadly it was now time to return to Rarotonga in time for the home leg for one last supper at a (now) favourite eatery on the outskirts of town. The Tahiti Café is a simple establishment barely recognisable amongst the neighbouring  fashion and black-pearl shops. The cuisine, however, is seafood at its very best - fresh, simple and oh so incredibly delicious ! On those cold dark Winter days at home, I will survive on the memory of the Fishermans Platter of mouthwatering sashimi and large selection of local catch.

sunsetaitutaki

It's time to return home and farewell this welcoming Pacific paradise until the next visit, for the Cooks' leaves you with not a 'hope' of returning, but an expectation that another visit is essential. The Cook Islands - easily accessible from neighbouring New Zealand and Australia - at times seems to be from another Planet and time will not pass quickly enough before Jake Numanga is welcoming me again, enjoying a nice cold Nu and another meal at the Tahiti Café…

Aere Ra, Cook Islands, until we meet again.

Mark Wood.


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