Music Track – Heavy Hands by The Pixiekills
Up until a few weeks ago, the crystal blue waters and blinding white sand of the Cook Islands were something I’d only seen on my slightly optimistic and definitely pre-emptive ‘When I Grow Up’ Pinterest board, along with gorgeous little babies dressed head-to-toe in Balenciaga.
Apart from that, and if I’m being honest, I really had no idea where they were. Somewhere near Bali? Noumea? It kinda looked a bit like Tahiti also…so when Tourism Cook Islands got in touch with me, inviting myself – and my good friends at Pedestrian.TV – to their beautiful capital, the island of Rarotonga so that we could show their best-kept secret off, I couldn’t pack my 27 bikinis fast enough.
Fast forward to a month or so later and Oscar Martin (Pedestrian.TV Co-Founder), Natalia Parsonson (uber talented photographer) and Sophia Vandoros (hair and make up artist and coincidentally, my best friend) were hopping a super quick 5.5 hour Air New Zealand flight to Rarotonga, the island’s central hub. The next seven days were a blur of the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever seen, some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten and friendliest people I’ve ever met. Below, I take you through the cyan Cook Islands.
WHERE TO STAY
Club Raro: pitched as one of the best ‘budget friendly’ accommodation options on Rarotonga (or ‘Raro’), we were a little apprehensive as to just how basic the rooms and amenities would be. We shouldn’t have worried. There was a pool, there was a view, there was a thatched roof and air-con. It is worth noting however we were staying in the hotel’s best offering, the ‘Premium Lagoon Front Room’ which included our own little hutted table and chairs overlooking the lagoon. Not so much in terms of a restaurant or bar vibe but in terms of a bed to sleep in and a pool to sunbake by, you’re doing alright.
Crown Beach Resort & Spa: on the other end of the scale was Crown Beach Resort & Spa. Sophia and I were lucky enough to be allocated one of their ‘Courtyard Pool Suite’ which was basically a luxury villa with our own private pool and alfresco dining area. The room was absolutely beautiful, comfy ginormous bed, lounge area and my personal favourite- the bathroom. Claw foot bath, double sinks, double showers- you heard me. We could either have a boring normal shower or use the ‘monsoon rain shower’. It was as good as it sounds. The villa’s aren’t beach front but that’s okay because the Crown’s bar and restaurant is literally on the sand, overlooking the water and perfect for a sunset cocktail. The Crown also have a weekly ‘Island Night’ which showcases the traditional dancing of the local ‘Cookies’- including the standard forced audience participation/public embarrassment. Actually a LOT of fun after a few Pina Coladas.
Little Polynesian Resort: after something a little quieter, more romantic or ‘boutiquey’? This is the place for you. Situated a little further away from all the bars and restaurants, the Little Polynesian feels like a secret slice of heaven. Their uninterrupted views, pool and restaurant feel very expensive and we couldn’t help but wish we all had a loved one to share them with. This place is as close to 5 stars as you’re going to get on Raro.
WHERE TO EAT
Waterline: the crew and I had such a good night at Waterline, we had to fight the urge not to eat here every single night. We sat out on the balcony, the warm balmy air blowing through our hair as we looked out over the water. The menu sounded SO good, we ended up grabbing a few dishes (plus desserts) and sharing them.
Palace Burgers: this is one of the local’s secrets. Hands down the best burgers on the island- think big, juicy and cheap- just like your favourites from the old milk bar on the corner. Best of all, on Wednesday nights (one of the biggest party nights on Raro) they have happy hour and these delicious babies are just $3.50!
Mooring Café: quite possibly the best fish burger on the island, Mooring Café is a casual little café with water views. Grab a healthy fruit smoothie or cook something you’ve caught yourself as part of Captain Moko’s Fishing Charters.
Le Bon Vivant French Bakery: Raro’s little slice of Sydney, this French inspired café felt like something you’d find in Palm Beach. AMAZING French pastries and donuts, good coffee and freshly made baguettes. We may have made ‘LBV’ our local.
Coco Putt Ale House: who doesn’t like burgers and putt putt golf? Rock up just before sunset, put your burger or steak order in and hit the mini putt putt green for a game as the sun goes down.
Nautilus: the island’s latest ‘luxury resort’ offering, Nautilius had just opened mere days before our visit so was feeling a little un-finished however has huge potential. Sit by the pool, order a cocktail and grab some seafood.
Tamarind House: Tamarind had been recommended to us by the guys at Tourism Cook Islands as a ‘swankier option’ and it definitely had that feel. Situated in a beautifully restored heritage colonial house with 2.5 acres of lawns which lead down to the beach. We headed down to the sand with our glasses of wine while we waited for our mains to arrive which made for a really nice evening.
Kikau Hut Resturant: these guys bent over backwards to find us a table, even on a very busy night and we were super grateful- especially after tasting the food! Huge portions and beautifully cooked, definitely recommend popping in for a visit.
WHERE TO PLAY
Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours: for those playing along at home, lounging by a pool and drinking cocktails is kind of ‘my thing’. Hopping on a bike and traipsing through forests isn’t exactly ‘my thing’ but my god it was awesome! The crew at Storytellers are made up of two Aussies who fell in love with the Cook Islands and relocated not too long ago, and three or so locals who are the one’s with all the stories. All bikes and equipment are provided and there are three different tours available, based on experience and your thirst for adventure. We chose the middle one- ‘Explore’ which was a 12-16 km ride, 4 hour tour all up including lunch and a swim. The tour is littered with lots of breaks at some beautiful spots, including a secret waterfall, pineapple plantation and the home of a famous local ukulele maker. An awesome way to explore the island and definitely worth dedicating a day to.
Captain Moko’s Fishing Charters: before going into our cute little ‘fishing trip’ I should make a note of the fact that I A) get very sea sick on boats and B) due to a near-drowning when I was younger, am petrified of waves. I had imagined Captain Moko’s Fishing Charter to be us, lounging around on a big boat somewhere quiet in the lagoon, kicking back with a local beer. In reality, it was something out of my nightmares. Imagine a scene from ‘A Perfect Storm’ and add in a lot of me screaming “FUCK” and clawing onto Sophia for dear life. I didn’t last long- I got the boys to drop me off at the closest port but the rest of the crew braved the rough seas, only to come home empty handed. Definitely not for the faint hearted.
Workout On Water: considering I struggle to do a ‘Downward Dog’ on stable land, my expectations for standup paddle boarding PLUS yoga were not high. Our afternoon with Charlotte however ended up being possibly my favourite activity of the week. Super cruisey, fun and actually not as hard as you would imagine- the weather was amazing and it felt good to stretch out and do something good for the soul, surrounded by such picturesque views.
Music Track – The basic principle byLiz Macnaught
Koka Lagoon Cruises: you would be amiss to visit the Cook Islands and NOT do a glass-bottom boat lagoon tour. This one in particular is a favourite on the island, mainly due to the cheeky and playful crew on board. After a bit of on-board entertainment (a ukulele sing-along), we jumped in the crystal clear water of the Marine Reserve for a snorkel with the hundreds of brightly coloured fish, before hopping back on board and heading to a nearby island for lunch. Here, we chowed down on fresh fish, papaya and barbequed bananas. By this point we were well and truly on ‘island time’ so Oscar relaxed with a beach-front massage and the girls and I witnessed the coconut tree climbing show. The Koka crew then gave us a quick lesson on the different names, uses and benefits of coconuts- before a few of us attempted to crack open one of our own the old fashioned way. A quick post-lunch sunbake and we were back on the boat for more singing and dancing- the boys now treating us to a fashion show, showcasing the 101 ways you can wear a sarong. An awesome way to spend the day and the Koka team do a fantastic job of making you feel at home. Must do!
The Dive Centre: scuba diving was one of those thing’s I probably should have attempted before (at almost 27 years old) however as mentioned prior, I’ve got a bit of a fear of open water/waves/anything rougher than a lake. Lucky for me, The Dive Centre came to us at the Club Raro pool, where we were taught and taken through every step of scuba diving. Sabine took diving and safety very seriously, and made sure we had mastered the breathing apparatus fully before even letting us wet out hair. It was a lot of fun, easier than I had imagined it to be and I couldn’t wait to hit the lagoon for the real deal! Spa Ariki: another one of Crown Resort & Spa’s offerings is their day spa, Spa Ariki. Sophia and I have been craving a bit of girlie pampering time, so decided to book in a quick half an hour massage on our last day in Raro. It was totally worth it and definitely recommended.
Punanga Nui Market: the Punanga Nui markets is THE place to be on a Saturday. Whether you’re a stallholder, a keen shopper, tourist or local- everybody heads to the markets on Saturday morning. There were a wide range of stalls and really awesome performances by the local kids but the highlight for me was the beautiful, intoxicating traditional floral headdress or ‘ei katu’ that I bought off a gaggle of local women. Bright, colourful and full of gardenias- the floral adornments are worn to attract a suitor or romance: perfect for this single white female. I don’t think I took it off all day. (Yet, didn’t get lucky. Weird!)
Matutu Brewery: something a little different and definitely one of Oscar’s favourite parts of the trip was our visit to a local beer brewery, Matutu. We were given a tour of the brewery and got to get involved with each step of the brewing process – even discovering that each bottle of Matutu Pale Ale or Lager is hand sealed! Really cool getting a behind-the-scenes look at one of the local businesses on the island.
WHERE TO PARTY
Shipwreck Hut: nothing says ‘you’re on holidays’ like drinking stupidly large cocktails on the beach with the sand in your toes. Shipwreck Hut is famous for their jam-jar cocktails and infectious vibe and we left wishing we’d discovered this little beach bar earlier.
Raro Pub Crawl: if you only go out one night during your stay on Raro, make it a Wednesday and DEFINITELY book a spot on the Raro Pub Crawl. The party bus picks you up from your hotel, takes you on a tour of the best night spots on the island and drops you safely back home when everything shuts down at 12. There is a fully sick sound system onboard as well as a stripper pole (the further we got on the tour, the better my slut drop was.) The staff are fun and friendly and you get to smash it out on all the best dance floors in Raro without having to worry about how you’re going to get home. We had an absolute ball – hitting the waters pretty hard the next day. Rehab: Rehab is the number one bar for the young people on the island. There is a huge dance floor, dance comps, body shots and a lot of sweaty bodies. Hilariously- it all wraps up at 12am so most people get there at 11pm and hit it hard for their hour of power at Raro’s favourite night club. Trader Jacks: Trader Jacks is a restaurant first and foremost with a bar out the back down near the water. We were there a little early so the bartender came over, introduced himself and shouted us some shots. Before long, some Kiwi’s had asked us if we were up for a drinking game and pretty soon we were arguing over the international rules of Kings Cup, dancing to island music and taking in the moon’s reflection as it hit the water.
OTHER THINGS WORTH NOTING
Transport: the whole island of Raro takes about 45 minutes to drive around but nothing is close enough to walk to so I would recommend hiring a car or maybe a bike. Cabs are hard to come by and they’re SUPER expensive so it’s definitely worth sorting out your own transport.
Wi-fi: the Cook Islands are beautiful but the isolation from the real world isn’t just a feeling. The Wifi on the island is super, super slow (think dial-up speeds) and really expensive, ($25 for 500MB at Club Raro). So, just as a heads up, the struggle to share your beautiful beach selfies is real.
Update – I’ve since heard you can pick up a $49 SIM from Telecom in Avarua giving you 100GB internet, 20 mins international and local calls, plust text.
Aitutaki: our biggest regret leaving the island was that we didn’t get a chance to visit the island of Aitutaki. Every single person we met spoke about how beautiful, how quiet, how pristine, how unbelievable the smaller island was and we were gutted our itinerary didn’t allow for a visit. The place is full of all the 5 star resorts and restaurants and considered one of the most romantic places in the world. If you’re lucky enough to get to the Cook Islands anytime soon, make sure you put a Aitutaki on the list.
Once again, a huge thank you to the guys at Tourism Cook Islands (Tina especially), Air New Zealand for getting us there safely and Gaynor and her team at PEPR Publicity for creating such an insanely awesome itinerary. We cannot recommend the Cook Islands highly enough.
There are currently a number of sales happening for the coming summer months. You would be MAD not to visit. Click!
Air NZ has a special Cook Islands airfare salethis week until 24th October 2014
Words by Tully Smyth