One Foot Island in Aitutaki Lagoon is one of the most famous motus in the South Pacific.

Pearl of the Pacific

Pristine lagoons and glorious scenery
beckon from these unspoiled islands,
just 2,900 miles from Hawaii

Cook Island facts
Things to do

By Tim Ryan

RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS >> Sitting on the picnic table bench outside the bright yellow-and-blue Saltwater Cafe in Titikaveka along Mairenui Drive, I'm sipping a cup of steamy, flat, white, New Zealand-style coffee and indulging in a bit of daydreaming.

This is my first trip to the Cooks -- 2,900 miles south of Hawaii -- and having heard about the provocative indigenous dances, I kept thinking what it must have been like for English sailors a few centuries ago to have landed here after months at sea and experienced the seductive native dances.

Aitutaki lagoon's crystal-clear water, coral bottom and brightly colored tropical fish make it a popular snorkeling area.

I observed at the show at the Rarotongan Beach Resort, where I'm staying, that, like the hula, the Cook Island hura highlights swaying hips. The dance is performed to the beat of drums and the dancers' voices. Thank goodness the dances survived years of missionary zeal.

"Kia Orana, where you from?" a sturdy looking man asks. "You look like someone from Hawaii."

Mike Sheehan, also of Hawaii, and president and owner of Hanalei River Inc. and Hawaiian Orca Boats, boldly suggests I forgo a breakfast of bacon and eggs for fresh mahimahi.

He's here to set up a sport fishing business with Junior Ioaba, owner of Big J's Game Fishing Tours & Charter. From an ice chest in his truck, Big J removes a 40-pound mahi, one of 12 he caught a day earlier outside the barrier reef, using only a harpoon.

"Meet your breakfast, Tim," a smiling Sheehan says.

The cafe's owner, Carey, a transplanted Australian who's married to Cook Islander Ake, takes the fish into the kitchen to fillet and broil a thick slice for me. After breakfast, Big J invites me to his beach home, followed by a ride in his 15-foot boat docked at Ngatangiia Harbor. It's too rough to venture outside the natural bay, so Ioaba zips back and forth near the channel entrance to show how he steers with one hand on a joystick and one on an 8-foot harpoon.

At the Saltwater Cafe, owners Carey and wife Ake serve fresh fish.

"I follow the birds; they find the fish," he says.

JUST 5 1/2 hours from Honolulu, I feel like my Aloha Airlines flight was a time machine transporting me to the Hawaii of a century ago or more: friendly, clean, safe, innocent, vulnerable.

Before I left Honolulu, someone who'd been here told me the Cook Islands are "undiscovered." He's right. I feel unsettled by the genuine friendliness of the people. But I learn that friendliness is a characteristic of Cook Islanders.

The Cooks were named after Capt. James Cook, who in 1733 became the first European to see them, though he missed Rarotonga.

In 1901 the Cook Islands became part of New Zealand, a good link for American travelers because our dollar is worth about twice as much as New Zealand money. Bungalows on pristine lagoons can be rented for less than $200 a night, including the Rarotonga Beach Bungalows at Titikaveka, operated by a former manager-director of the famous Hotel Bora Bora in French Polynesia. The Kiwi influence has also helped keep the islands' environment pristine; several lagoon areas are nature preserves.

When I later spent the day walking around Rarotonga -- just 20 miles in circumference -- I rarely saw any litter. Around the mountainous area is a narrow band of agricultural terraces encircled by a ring of taro patches.

In Tupapa on Raro's north shore, I experienced with a Cook Island family one of the locals' favorite pastimes: eating.

Useful words

Kia Orana: hello
Aere ra: goodbye
Meitaki: thank you
'Ae: yes
Kare: no
Tane: man
Vaine: woman
'Ura: to dance
Matora: happy
Kai: food
Teia ra: today
Apopo: tomorrow
Ra: sun
Marama: moon
Moana: ocean
Papa'a: foreigner/European

"Kai-kai" (food), a man sitting with his family yells, then motions for me to join them for lunch. I watch Mitaero remove the "umukai," food that's been baked in an earth oven: succulent pork surrounded by potatoes and carrots.

"Tourism is my country's primary source of income, so we are courteous and friendly to visitors but never subservient," the retired government worker tells me. "No plantation mentality in the Cooks."

IT'S 2 P.M. by the time I reach tiny Avarua town, Rarotonga's capital. I find an Internet cafe to check e-mail, then visit the National Cultural Center, which shares a compound with the National Library and Museum, to see displays of the islands' history and handicrafts. Next, I hit the open market on the waterfront, where I buy locally woven purses, place mats and shell necklaces and bracelets.

Tepaeru Taneiiau, an 81-year-old beauty, gives me free fruit and a plastic spoon. She says she comes to the market every day with her produce because she enjoys meeting people.

At Avarua Harbor, a dozen preteens dive from the sea wall into the sand-bottom water. When I start to take a picture, three boys swim to an anchored sailboat, climb its 20-foot mast and jump in simultaneously, cannonball style.

At nearby Trader Jacks, I drink some local coconut rum and get acquainted with Taran and Claudia, graphic designers from London. Claudia complains that she can't go topless here because it's considered disrespectful to the local culture.

"I feel your pain," I say, finishing my third drink.

THERE REALLY IS no dry side on Rarotonga. Its central mountains are eroded remains of volcanic peaks -- the highest is 2,140 feet -- and ridges now covered with tropical jungle, separated by streams running down steep valleys.

I have to cancel a trip called "Pa's Trek" that would take me to the island's highest point and through dense rain forest to the other side because of two days of heavy rain, which also eliminates water activities and scenic flights.

Rarotonga's best stretch of sand is Muri Beach, which wraps around the island's southeastern corner. It even faces little islets out on the reef. There's kayaking, windsurfing, snorkeling and, like most beaches on Rarotonga, safe swimming.

When the weather does clear two days later, I take the 35-minute Air Rarotonga flight north to Aitutaki, a triangular "almost"-atoll consisting of three volcanic and 12 coral islets, known as motus. By the time the plane descends over the southern end of the lagoon, I can see brilliant, Disneyesque colors: cobalt ocean, turquoise lagoon, shimmering white beaches.

George Brown is a tour guide on Aitutaki, 35 minutes by air from Rarotonga. He takes visitors on the catamaran Titi-ai-tonga to visit coral islets, known as motus, in the lagoon.

I'm taking a day tour of Aitutaki, which includes snorkeling, aboard the catamaran Titi-ai-tonga -- Mist of the South. Guide George Brown meets my group at Aitutaki Airport.

Aitutaki has just three policemen, a 15-mph speed limit and no public transportation. The few markets in Arutanga sell pareos, T-shirts, bottles of coconut oil and crudely carved artifacts.

The high point of any Aitutaki visit is a lagoon cruise, with a stop at Tapuatae, known now as One Foot Island, at the lagoon's southeastern corner.

Our first stop is Moturakau island, where Brown says the first survivor-style program was filmed. Then it's to the middle of the lagoon for snorkeling.

Underwater visibility is about 100 feet, with colorful fish similar to Hawaii's: Moorish idols, tangs, triggers, angels, wrasses. The current carries me into deeper water, where I see something startling: giant clams. There are a dozen or so, 4 to 5 feet across, attached to a ridge of coral.

These Tridacna gigas have neon blue lips along the shells' openings, where I can see the great creature sucking water in and out at a rhythmic pace.

THE LAST STOP is One Foot Island, where there's a combination eating area, bar and souvenir shop that doubles as a post office, and a weekend cabin. You can even have your passport stamped here.

To get away from my shipmates, I walk the quarter-mile-long, knee-deep sandbar from the island to a tiny motu where three palm trees stand, barely 2 feet high.

The motu is known as Nude Island -- a reference not to clothes, but to a lack of vegetation.

The trek takes 15 minutes, and my reward is a 360-degree lagoon view and the sound of surf crashing on the reef. I lie down and dose, feeling fortunate to have visited two of the Cook Islands but sad that I'm unable to see the others: Mangaia, Mauke, Atiu, Mitiaro, Manuae, Takutea, Palmerston, Suwarrow, Nussau, Pukapuka, Rakahanga, Manihiki and Penrhyn.

I promise I'll be back, but not just for the beauty. I've enjoyed the friendliness, with generous doses of island humor -- and those dances.


Cook Island facts

Population: 19,990

Area: 95 square miles

Capital: Avarua, Rarotonga; population 16,000

People: Polynesian, 80 percent; mixed Polynesian and European, 8 percent.

Language: The local tongue is Cook Island Maori, closely related to New Zealand Maori and to the Polynesian languages of Tahiti and Hawaii, although English is spoken as a second language by virtually everyone. Although each island has its own dialect, islanders all understand Maori.

Food: Cook Island cuisine relies on local delicacies like coconut, papaya and fish. Popular dishes include raw fish in coconut sauce (ika mata), stuffed breadfruit (anga kuru akaki ia) and Cook Island bread pudding (poke).

Currency: New Zealand dollar, interchangeable with the Cook Island dollar, runs about 2-to-1 in favor of American dollar.

Visas aren't required; only passports, proof of onward travel and booked accommodations.

Time: Same as Hawaii

Festivals: The big dance competition is in late April. Cultural Festival Week (second week of February) features tivaevae quilt competitions and arts and crafts displays; Island Dance Festival Week (third week of April) has dance displays and competitions, culminating in the crowning of male and female Dancers of the Year. Song Quest, held over five weeks beginning in July, culminates in a finale during which performers throughout the islands gather on Rarotonga. Beginning the Friday before August, the 10-day Constitution Festival, the Cooks' major festival, celebrates independence with several sporting, dance, music and many other events. During the last week of November, floral float parades, a beauty pageant and flower arranging competitions mark the Tiare (Floral) Festival.Getting there

Aloha Airlines is the only airline serving the Cook Islands from Honolulu. Round-trip fare through Feb. 9 is $443. (There's an airport departure tax of about $12.50 when leaving Rarotonga.)

Motor scooters are the primary source of transportation in the Cook Islands for locals, and visitors find scooters easy to rent and ride. This scene is along Rarotonga's main road.

Interisland: The fastest way to get between the islands is by plane. On 18-passenger turboprop planes, Air Rarotonga connects the main island with most of those in the southern group and several in the northern. The longest trip takes about 4 1/2 hours; the shortest is less than one hour. You can get 30-day "Paradise Island Passes" for about $50 per sector.

Ground transportation: The airport on Rarotonga is a few miles west of the capital, Avarua. There are taxis and rental cars at the airport. There's a bus connecting the airstrip with town, and places to hire cars, motorcycles and bicycles around the island. Rarotonga is the only island in the Cooks with scheduled bus service.

Buses: There are only two circle-island bus routes in Rarotonga -- one clockwise and one counterclockwise. They go everywhere you would want to go.

The main terminus for buses is Cooks Corner in Avarua, although all hotels have a bus stop, and you can flag one down anywhere. Buses operate hourly in each direction between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. After 4 p.m. the service is less frequent, and after 10 p.m. you'd better start walking.

Taxis: Available on Rarotonga and Atiu.

Rental cars: Contact manual sedan, about $42; Jeep, $45; motor scooter, $13.50. You can rent a car on Rarotonga, Aitutaki and some of the other islands, but nothing would be more than a half-hour away. The advantage of using four-wheel-drive vehicles and sturdy motorcycles is the ability to reach some of the remote spots up steeper roads. You'll need a local driver's permit (available at the police station in Avarua for $10, and it makes a good souvenir). Driving is on the left. Keep your wits about you on Friday and Saturday nights, when heavy drinking goes on.

Motor scooters: Because all the islands are small, most people prefer to rent a small motorcycle rather than a car. Motor scooters are reasonable and easy to ride.

The maximum speed limit is 25 miles per hour. Keep an eye out for wild chickens and dogs crossing the roads.

If you're going to the other islands, it's a good idea to get your license in Rarotonga first. It can be difficult finding a police officer on the other islands to issue one. A Rarotonga-issued license is nicely laminated and much better than the piece of paper issued on the outer islands.

Bicycles: Available for hire at a few motels. A good way to get around and easily available.

Fisherman Junior Ioaba, of Titikaveka, Rarotonga, plies his trade alone, several miles from shore, using a harpoon, a favorite fishing tool in the islands.

Cook Island culture and arts

The dance

The Cook Islanders are reputed to be the best dancers in Polynesia. The Cook Island dance is notoriously sexy, traditionally performed in honor of Tangaroa, god of fertility and the sea.

The art of dance is taken seriously in the Cooks. Each island has its own special dances, and these are practiced from early childhood. There are numerous competitions throughout the year on each island.

The Hawaiian hula and the Tahitian tamure are probably better known because those islands have had more publicity, but the Cook Island hura is far more sensual and fierce.

If there is one outstanding ability that appears to be shared by all Cook Islanders, it is music. Close harmony singing is highly developed in church music, and the power and emotional impact of chants and hymns at weddings and funerals are well known to visitors who attend.

There are numerous Polynesian string bands who play at restaurants, hotels and concerts, and they use combinations of modern electronics with traditional ukuleles fashioned from coconut shells.

Visual arts

In recent years, local painters and artists have begun to develop contemporary Polynesian styles.

The islands are known for producing ceremonial adzes with a stone blade and intricately carved wooden handle; woven fans, belts and baskets; and feathered headdresses.

The Cooks are also famous for their tivaevae (appliqué quilts), usually taking the form of colorful patterned bedspreads.

Rarotonga is known for its fishermen's gods and staff-gods; Atiu for its wooden seats; Mitiaro, Mauke and Atiu for local fiber arts and slab gods; and Mangaia for its ceremonial adzes and food pounders carved from the heavy calcite found in its extensive limestone caves.

Today, however, carving is no longer imbued with the same spiritual and cultural emphasis given to it by New Zealand's Maori people.

Rito hat making

The outer islands produce traditional woven mats, basketware and hats. Fine examples of rito hats are worn by women to church on Sundays. They're made from the uncurled fiber of the coconut palm. The Polynesian equivalent of Panama hats, they are highly valued and are keenly sought by Polynesian visitors from Tahiti.

Often, they are decorated with hatbands made of tiny pupu shells, which are painted and stitched on by hand. Although pupu are found on other islands, the collection and use of them in decorative work is a Mangaia specialty.

Cook costs

You can travel comfortably in the Cooks, staying at the top lodges and eating at the best restaurants, for $200 to $300 a day or more. Moderate travel will run $100 to $150 a day, although you can get by for less if you pick your accommodations with care. Budget travelers can squeak by for well under $50 a day if they stick to inexpensive accommodations and restaurants.

There's a value added tax of 12.5 percent. Tipping isn't a Cook Island custom, and haggling over prices is considered rude. Here's a guideline:

Meals: Budget $5 to $10 per person; midrange, $10 to 15; luxury, $15 or more.

Lodging: Budget $4 to $15 per night; midrange, $15 to $75; luxury, $75 or more.

Currency exchange: There are a few places to change cash in Avarua, Aitutaki and a few hotels. You're better off changing all your money on Rarotonga rather than waiting to reach the outer islands. The current exchange rate is about 2-to-1 in favor of the U.S. dollar. For best rates, stay away from the hotels.


Things to do

With all that water surrounding the Cook Islands, water sports are the most obvious activities, but you can have lots of fun on land as well.

Local kids make mud balls at Avarua Harbor, Rarotonga's main harbor and a favorite swimming and diving spot for island youngsters.

Swimming: The water's great, especially off Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Both have excellent snorkeling, with high visibility and varied marine life in their lagoons. Windsurfing boards, sailboats and catamarans are for hire at the Rarotonga Sailing Club at Muri Beach.

Hiking: Rarotonga's Cross-Island Track offers great views and takes just a few hours to complete. The best way to explore Rarotonga's mountainous interior on foot is in the company of a Cook Islander named Pa, of Pa's Trek (call 011-682-21-079). He leads mountain and nature walks and points out wild plants, such as vanilla, candlenuts, mountain orchids and the shampoo plant, and their everyday and medicinal uses. Pa's Cross-Island Mountain Trek or Pa's Nature Walk costs $27.50 for adults and $13.75 for children under 12. The nature walk takes 3 1/2 hours. Reserve at a hotel activities desk, or e-mail

Cycling: Popular on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, where you can rent bikes from most hotels.

Horseback riding: The Aroa Pony Trek offers two-hour rides through plantations to Wigmores Waterfall, returning along Rarotonga's beautiful beaches. The cost is $22.50.

Tumunu: Bush beer-drinking "schools" are still held on the island of Atiu. Descended from the Polynesian habit of kava drinking, the tumunu managed to survive in the bush, where islanders once brewed oranges. Now they use hops, creating a strong brew quaffed in an elaborate ceremony involving introductions from participants, music and prayer.

Dancing: The islands are famous for their dances. A night-life tour on Rarotonga departs from the Edgewater and visits a variety of bars in Avarua Town. Cost is $24.50.

Tandem microlight flights: Fly over Rarotonga on a microlight flight. You will sit behind the pilot for this 20-minute adventure ride for a bird's-eye view of Rarotonga. Cost is $55.

Cook Islands Cultural Village: Travel on the back road in Arorangi to a village of thatch huts, featuring the making of crafts, cooking and dancing. The cost is $27 for adults and $13.50 for children. Call 011-682-21-314 or e-mail

Raro Safari Tours: Rarotonga's ancient road was built and paved with volcanic slabs. A tour includes the eastern heights, overlooking four islets (motu); Papua Waterfall, also known as Wigmore's Waterfall; sacred site Te Arai-Te-Tonga Marae; and the Avatiu Valley, leading to a close-up view of the Needle (Te Rua Manga). Transportation to Rarotonga's highest accessible point is by four-wheel drive. E-mail

One-day Aitutaki Tour: Air Rarotonga offers daily flights to Aitutaki and tours of the island. One-day tours include air fares from Rarotonga, a guided tour and a catamaran cruise. Towels and snorkeling gear provided. Departs 8 a.m. and returns at 7 p.m. daily except Sundays. The cost for adults is $192.50; children ages 2 to 15 pay $95.

Avarua: Local arts, black pearl jewelry, crafts, wood carvings, needlework and colorful clothing are offered at bargain prices. An open market on the waterfront in Rarotonga's capital of Avarua features food stalls, drinks and crafts. There's often a competition for singers. Cultural shows and exhibitions take place throughout the year, and two museums and libraries in Avarua are open all week.

The town had a face lift prior to the international Maire Nui festival in 1992. The focal point is the traffic circle. Just east of the circle is the Seven-in-One Coconut Tree, a group of trees growing in a perfect circle.

Among the reminders of the missionary era of the 19th century are the Papeiha Stone, named for the first person to preach Christianity in the Cook Islands; and the CICC Church, dating from 1853. At the Library & Museum Society are an extensive Pacific collection of books and displays on basketry, weaving, musical instruments and photos.

Aitutaki: The original Blue Lagoon. This magnificent island, about 150 miles north of Rarotonga, is a triangular "almost" atoll, rising some 15,000 feet from the ocean floor, comprising three volcanic and 12 coral islets, known as motus. The first missionary to the Cooks, John Williams, landed on Aitutaki, and there is a coral block church in Arutanga that bears testament to his success.

The lagoon can be approached in outrigger canoes or in more sophisticated launches favored by anglers, who know its reputation for fly-fishing for the fighting bonefish.

The motus, mainly at the outer perimeter of the lagoon, are wonderful landing places for day cruises. The favorites are Akaiami and One Foot Island.

The lagoon itself is a wonder, dotted with sandbars, coral ridges and 21 motus -- and free of sharks. Among the motus worth visiting are Maina, which has great snorkeling and tropical bird nests, and Tapuaetai, popular with yachts, though you could get there by freighter.

Manihiki: The Island of Pearls comprises 40 tiny islets encircling a 2.5-mile wide lagoon. This body of water is the source of the island's greatest asset, black pearls.

It's hard to escape the Cook Islands without buying one of the homegrown black pearls. It's best to purchase black pearls and pearl jewelry from a member of the Cook Island Pearl Guild.

Like most atolls, Manihiki is flat and only a few feet above sea level. The island is rich in oral history and legends. Air Rarotonga flies to Manihiki each Thursday from Rarotonga with a stop at Aitutaki. Flight time is three hours, 40 minutes.

Wigmore's Waterfall: Near Rarotonga's southern coast is where the Papua Stream drops into a natural swimming pool. You can drive to it, although the last stretch calls for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, or hike from the coast road. You can continue on the Cross-Island Track to Rua Manga (the Needle), a 1,360-foot peak with great views. The cross-island trek takes about three hours, and there are buses at both ends.

Beaches: Muri Beach and Nagatangiaa are good sites for windsurfing. Sailing centers around the Rarotonga Sailing Club, at Avatiu Harbor (Avarua). Surfing is increasing in popularity. Black Rock Beach is worth visiting, just five minutes from the airport on the western side of Rarotonga. South Beach features an excellent snorkeling environment. Titikaveka Beach, on Rarotonga, has several walking tracks and bush hikes.

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