One of the great things about living in New Zealand is your proximity to the South Pacific. Just after Easter, the first term of school ended for the boys, and Deb and I somehow managed to get a week off work during the boys’ two week break between terms. Hmmmmm, where to go? The Cook Islands are a 3 1/2 hour flight from Auckland, with daily departures flying Air New Zealand, so it didn’t take long to pull the trigger and book our flights. So, Friday evening after work/school we headed to the Dunedin airport and boarded a flight to Auckland, where we would stay the night before our flight to Rarotonga the next morning.
The Cook Islands, we learned, are spread out over thousands of km in the South Pacific. There are 15 different Cook Islands you can visit, but the only international airport is on the island of Rarotonga, an island with a population of about 9,000 people. About 80,000 people visit Rarotonga each year; we added four to that number. We boarded our flight Saturday morning, and stepped off the plane in Rarotonga on Friday afternoon (crossing the international date line). It was inspirational. The airport, as you would imagine, was small and you stepped out of the plane into the open air….ahh…but what warm tropical air it was! We were met by a driver from our lodge who offered Deb and I champagne and the boys chilled water. A good start. We drove to our lodge, and within minutes were in our swim suits heading to the beach with our masks and snorkels in tow, to catch the last bit of sun. The water was soooooo warm! (about 80F). The sun set about an hour later, and this was our first sunset (not altered at all by any photoshop). Yes, we thought, we are going to like it here.
That night, after basking in the glorious sunset, we set out for dinner. We didn’t have a car yet, and our lodge had said there was a restaurant just a few km down the road that offered a pickup and drop off service….well, that seemed like an easy choice. Another easy choice for Debra was deciding what to order first…..
This started the intensive and exhaustive comparative study of who makes the best Mai Tai’s on Rarotonga. Such the researcher, Deb is. That night Ryan and I had the catch of the day, which was broadbill (swordfish). It was amazing, and a good introduction to outstanding fish dinners to come.
Our next day, Saturday, coincided with the weekly market day in town. The boys wanted to stay and chill in the room (we had our own deck and plunge pool, so who wouldn’t?) so Deb and I rode the lodges’ bikes into town.
There is one road around the island which is about 22 km in circumference. Our lodge was exactly at the half way mark around the island, and that meant about a 45 minute bike ride into town. Most of the island people drive scooters and it’s not uncommon to see two people on a scooter, or one person carrying a bag of groceries in one hand and driving the scooter with the other. The island had many mountains, but fortunately the road near the ocean is all flat. At the Saturday market, there was all sorts of food, clothing and knick-knacks.
And fresh fish!
Yep, you’re reading that right. $20 for a fresh yellowfin tuna!
In the afternoon, after we returned from the market, it was back to the beach.
The water, for us, was like a magnet. On Rarotonga, like many of the Cook Islands, the island is surrounded by a coral reef (you can see the waves breaking on the reef in the distance). The reef keeps the lagoon waters calm, and I think you can appreciate the lagoon is also quite shallow. In Rarotonga, in particular, the water inside the lagoon is shallow, and rarely more than 6 feet deep. Since we went snorkeling almost every day (and many days we went twice a day) I’ve decided to post another (whole) blog on the underwater life (and pictures) of the Cooks.
Saturday night, after our first whole day, it was back to more exhaustive Mai Tai research….
It’s a hard job, but as the saying goes, someone has to do it.
On Sunday, the boys and I went out on a charter fishing boat to try and catch some tuna. The seas outside the reef are not calm. We were all sporting scopalamine patches, and we didn’t get seasick, but was that water rough! We were tossed around like a Cesar salad at the Ritz. But in the end, we got a yellowfin and two skipjack tuna. They filleted the yellowfin, and we had about 5kg of fresh yellowfin filets…..the best tuna we have EVER eaten!
Since the minimum age for driving a scooter is 16, we decided to rent a car for the remainder of our trip (also, it was far cheaper….only $35 a day to rent a car, compared with $25 a day per scooter). You definitely want some mode of transportation on the island, since there are great snorkeling spots at several different locations (remember you have bring all your gear, too), and when going places after dark it gets a bit dicey unless you’re in a car (they don’t want people riding bikes, or scooters after dark because of the high rate of accidents).
One of the unique things about Rarotonga (and I’m sorry I didn’t get any pictures of this) was all the dogs we met. The dogs rule the island. They are everywhere. They stand in the middle of the street and just look at you when you’re heading towards them in a car. Fortunately, the maximum speed limit on the island is 50km/hour, so it’s easy to stop, but the dogs there just have no fear of cars. Or anything really. But, they were also so friendly! We made many, many dog friends during our visit there. One time, while Matt and I were fishing in the shallows for bonefish, a couple of dogs followed us. Fishing for bone fish is a sight fishing kind of thing…..and as soon as we spotted a bonefish and started casting to it, one of the dogs ran and jumped in the water to chase the fish. It turns out that for certain dogs, this was a favorite past-time. Chasing fish. Well, Matt and I never hooking a bonefish, but we made a lot of dog friends….
About a 45 minute flight from Rarotonga is the island of Atutaki. The lagoon of Atutaki is huge, and the snorkeling is supposed to be even better there than on Rarotonga, so after talking with some of the locals about all this, we decided to do a day trip there. Oh, and this year, for the 50th Anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, all the photography for the models was taken on the island of Atutaki…but that had NOTHING to do with our decision. Interestingly, Air New Zealand’s safety video (the one you ignore when the plane is taxiing for take off) this year uses the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models and was filmed in Atutaki. But again, this had nothing to do with our decision.
Here is the bustling Air Rarotonga desk at the airport.
We boarded the plane early Wednesday morning for our trip to Atutaki. The Rarotonga airport is a metropolis compared with the Atutaki airport. Our day on Atutaki was a water-themed day. We went from the airport to a pontoon boat, on which we would spend most of the day.
We headed offshore, out towards the reef and the islands surrounding Atutaki. The deep blue color indicates the deeper water of the lagoon, and then the water turns turquoise as it gets shallow. Our first stop was honeymoon island (we were thankful to be the only boat there, as I feared the boys might explore the island, only to find honeymooners there seeking solitude…). On the island were the largest hermit crabs we’ve ever seen.
And, some of the most beautiful water we’ve ever seen.
It was a bit of mixed day weather-wise at the beginning of the day. It was actually raining a bit when we first boarded the boat, but as the day progressed it got more sunny. The dark clouds provided a very cool contrast with the water colors.
For lunch, we motored out to One Foot Island, and there saw water colors I’ve only dreamed about.
The boat driver (boat owner) employed his whole family in this business. His wife drive a little bus, which picked us up at the airport and took us to their house where the boat was docked. His kids did a lot of the cooking and preparation for the lunch on One Foot Island, and the food was so authentic and tasted amazing…especially after snorkeling all morning. There is a shack on One Foot Island which also doubles as a post office, and you can (for $2) get your passport stamped there (we did). After lunch, we snorkeled for another hour and half, and no one wanted to get out of the warm (82F) water……. but, we had a 4:30 flight back to Rarotonga, and at 3:30 we were still in the water. Our boat driver knew we had the flight to catch, and where we were snorkeling was a 40 minute boat ride from his dock, which was a 15 drive from airport. So, at 3:35 he got us out of the water. Don’t worry, he said. We’ll be there in plenty of time. We tried not to worry (it’s difficult to do, even in paradise), but sure enough we arrived at the airport at exactly 4:30, in ‘plenty’ of time to walk onto our (awaiting) plane. No worries, mate.
It was an easy flight back to Rarotonga, and by the time we landed we were already wanting to go back to Atutaki.
In Rarotonga one day, we spotted this sight, which we were fortunate enough to capture…..
I wonder if the chicken sensed the irony.
There is one minigolf course on Rarotonga, and it was great fun.
The rest of our time on Rarotonga was spent snorkeling, eating amazing fish, and completing our exhaustive beverage research. We enjoyed all being together, off work and out of school…it was good to relax. I wonder if that’s something I can learn to put on my CV ? ….”He’s a guy who really knows how to relax.”
Our last night in Rarotonga was memorable for it lingering sunset and, again, more liquid research.
As the evening progressed I saw one of the most unusual sunsets I’ve ever seen….to the left, where the sun was setting the sky was a deep blue, and to the right the sky was pink, reflecting off the high clouds above the island…so in one picture there is both a blue and a pink sunset….wow!
The flights that leave Rarotonga are interesting. For example, our flight left Rarotonga at 2:30am. Ouch!. We were able to sleep for a few hours before our flight, and all in all, it wasn’t as trying as we thought it was going to be (we got into Auckland at 5:30, and boarded a plane for Chirstchurch and then one more plane to Dunedin). How could we tell we were nearing Dunedin?
The dark clouds gave it away.
But, firmly lodged in our memories is this..
Next- the underwater world of the Cooks.