Inspired living

Journey to the Cook Islands

Cook Island beach

Credit: Megan Blandford

The sun’s golden reflection steps from the horizon over the waves to land. There, a couple wanders hand-in-hand. “I’m not happy in my job,” she begins. He rubs her arm with his spare hand. “Something has to change,” he agrees. They squeeze hands, smile at each other and look over the water in wonder, as though it’s only now that they can see the rays beaming over the streaky orange sky.

There’s something about this place that makes you reflect on life and connect with a deep desire for satisfaction, especially as the sun sets over what feels like the edge of the world.

Conversations like this are common among visitors to Rarotonga. There’s something about this place that makes you reflect on life and connect with a deep desire for satisfaction, especially as the sun sets over what feels like the edge of the world. We find ourselves wanting to be better people, living closer to our passions, and taking a little piece — peace? — of the Cook Islands home with us.

A backwards glance at Cook Islands culture

On a map, the Cook Islands are the size of a few grains of sand. And, like sand, this tiny spot is easy to brush away as insignificantly small, yet it’s a vital part of the Pacific.

The first Polynesians inhabited the Cook Islands in the ninth century, and there they lived happily — but not ever after. In the 1770s, Captain James Cook happened upon these 15 islands, soon to be grouped together and named for him.

But perhaps the most notable event for the islands since they were first settled came with the arrival of British missionaries around 1873. They changed everything: they converted the islanders to Christianity, outlawed cannibalism and got rid of rituals such as the kava ceremony after being subjected to the narcotic effects of the plant.

Life here isn’t quite as it appears at face value; look a little closer and you’ll see these people are just like you and me with pressures and challenges in their days.

All the influences of the missionaries remain to this day (“And that’s lucky,” one local told me, “otherwise I’d be eating you right now”), although the way tradition combines with this modern life is intriguing. For example, there are still tribes with chief leadership and hereditary hierarchy and land cannot be bought and sold — rather, it can only be passed down through families or leased to outsiders (which explains how resorts and hotels come to be there).

Modern Rarotonga is bustling in its own way. Its main town Avarua is often filled with cars and scooters, especially on Saturday’s market day, when music plays and tourists are pulled onstage to self-consciously shake their hips in dancing lessons. People wander around the stalls of fresh fruit, bright sarongs and black pearls, slurping coconut milk from a straw and taking in the fruity frangipani scent that hangs in the steamy humidity.

Cook Island music

The sudden loom of darkness changes the mood. “Batten down the hatches!” jokes a stall holder. “A storm’s on its way.” The dark grey rolls in over the ocean, rapidly hitting land with fat drops and a crash of waves, and people disperse with squeals, throwing plastic ponchos over themselves in a vain attempt at avoiding the rain’s effects. We run to a little cafe to dry off over coffee and indulge in a spot of people-watching, a must-do activity in any foreign country.

Five minutes later, the sky is blue once again and it’s hot — really hot. All the rain has done is provide further fuel for the humidity’s energy, which in turn takes away any verve we may have had earlier. We stay put, swapping over to cold smoothies, and contemplate life on this island where “the girls are pretty and the boys are handsome; that’s the Rarotongan way”, as their song goes.

While Cook Islanders are known for being funny, easygoing and über-relaxed, it’s too simplistic to assume life on Rarotonga is one long summer holiday. It’s an easy mistake to make but it’s actually just the mood we travellers project. Life here isn’t quite as it appears at face value; look a little closer and you’ll see these people are just like you and me with pressures and challenges in their days.

Things here run on island time. If a shop owner decides not to open that day, then that’s that; if the bus is running late, no one’s keeping KPI statistics and demanding answers; if you’re told you’ll be met at midday, what they really mean is “sometime today”.

Food grown & prepared with love

We do the ultimate tourist thing and book ourselves on a fabricated experience in order to see the “real” Rarotonga: a progressive dinner tour that takes us into local homes to eat homemade food. Once I realise the irony, I’m feeling a bit jaded as our ukulele-playing host serenades us on the minibus but by the end of the night I’m surprised. It quickly becomes one of the favourite parts of our trip.

Those who were around in the 1960s will remember progressive dinners; otherwise you may have heard the stories and regard them as retro cool. We’re put in a minibus with a dozen strangers and driven to the first house for a seafood entrée. As we’re welcomed with a tour of the Garden, the realities of island life start to set in as our host points out all the fruit trees and vegetable plants but, when asked about a beautiful flowery tree, simply replies, “That’s useless; you can’t eat or use anything from it.” These are resourceful people with a purpose to everything they do and a determined pride in their land.

The land is the main source of worry for many of them at the time I’m visiting — in the middle of a drought. Looking around at the lush green plants and recalling the previous day’s rain, I query this. “We haven’t had much rain in the past few weeks,” explains Danny, our host. I look at him with a question in my eyes — as an Australian, a few weeks of a little rain during summer could be considered normal, if not very wet in some parts of the country. As he patiently explains, there’s no freshwater storage, like a dam, on the islands. The Rarotongans rely heavily on the immediacy of their environment and the plants are so used to regular drenchings that crops can be affected by a lack of rain. It’s like going back in time but this is still a contemporary reality for them.

On this particular evening, there are no fire pits to cook with and no girls dancing in pearl shell bras: this progressive dinner isn’t about tradition or times past. Instead, we’re eating tuna in coconut milk, roast chicken, arrowroot chips, salad with papaya dressing, chocolate cake and guava crumble.

The tour’s founder, Temu, says, “It’s not about having a meal cooked in the umu [a traditional underground cooking method] or learning about our history; this is about seeing how Cook Islanders live right now.” While the history of the culture is important, it’s also vital to see life as it is in the present.

As the evening goes on, with two more typical Rarotongan families to dine with for main course and dessert, we’re made to feel truly welcome. My daughter plays with the household kids — multiple generations live in each of these houses, as is common on Rarotonga — with whom she appears to have little in common. Until we realise they have everything in common, as all children do: a need for fun and play and their whole lives ahead of them. We’re treated to simple, home-cooked meals, home-grown produce and singing aplenty. One family even puts on a rendition of children’s songs with an islander twist for my delighted daughter, teaching her to play the ukulele as they do so.

It’s in these small things that our night begins to feel less like a tour. If my family were to start singing together it would be a comedy of awkwardness (and, let’s be honest, an atrocious noise!); the fact that none of this exists is testament to how organic this experience actually is. And the ability to make 14 strangers feel at home and a welcome part of their households for a night — well, that’s a unique skill of all the Cook Islanders.

In our manufactured experience we slowly lift away the layers to see the realness of people who make this island what it is. They share their food and stories and sing with us, and in some ways that’s as much as any person can give to another.

Modern life, from conservationists to entrepreneurs

“I’m just cutting a whale’s head right now, but come on over,” is how my conversation with Nan Hauser starts. I’m at her house five minutes later and thankfully she’s packed the carcass away.

We embark on a conversation about why this Swiss-American Islander does what she does: that is, managing a whale and wildlife centre. She tells me about her research, shows videos of her close encounters with the world’s largest creatures and then settles in to tell me what led her here.

When she first arrived in the Cooks, Nan says, she found the next generation had little knowledge of their environment and how to look after it, which is perhaps surprising given their utter dependence upon it. “They needed to know more about the bigger picture,” Nan explains and her audience was, and is, eager and willing to learn. She now goes into local schools to teach the kids about wildlife and environmental issues and it’s not uncommon for dozens of those children to explore around her whale centre after school.

During my trip I meet more people with this level of passion, many of whom are entrepreneurs running several businesses to take advantage of the all-important tourist dollar. One is Dr Graeme Matheson, the developer of a skincare product called Te Tika. Using the native kauariki plant, Dr Matheson — with tribal permission — is researching a treatment that regenerates bones. Along the way he found it to be an amazing skincare product, too. Together with his family, who also run a luxury resort, Dr Matheson uses several plantations around the islands to gather the oils that go into his research and the creams and sells the products worldwide.

People like this prove that one of the strengths of Cook Islanders is their resourcefulness; another is their ability to combine modern life with the legacy of their ancestors. And when these two great strengths come together, the result is something special.

Make no mistake: this is a savvy and hard-working nation. Cook Islanders might love a joke and live with less obvious stress than many of us but they approach their jobs, faith and authority with the utmost seriousness. They work a lot but it seems that work is life and life is work; there is no expectation of anything else. While we visitors find our time on the islands relaxing, carefree and fun, there’s a lot of effort happening behind the scenes to achieve that.

The people you meet in a tourist capacity — at resorts, restaurants and on tours — fulfil the stereotype with over-enthusiastic greetings of “Kia orana!” and personalities larger than life. But get out of the tourist circle and you’ll see perhaps a more relatable version. While the people we met don’t go so far as to prove stereotypes wrong, they display a more humanness: a smile in greeting but no outlandish jokes or cuddles for the baby.

The one big difference between the Islanders and me — us — has nothing to do with where we live or what we do. It’s attitudinal. Upon our return home, the usual work pressures and school routines hit us like a coconut to the head. But the Cook Islands give you something different. I’m no longer in a tropical paradise but have been reminded that I’m in control of living a life filled with passion and worth.

Just like that couple on the beach who couldn’t see the Beauty of the sunrise until they’d moved past their own internal struggles, sometimes we all need a renewed perspective to see the paradise that our own lives and homes can be.

Experience Rarotonga

Getting there
Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Rarotonga. Look out for regular specials, particularly in the off-peak summer months.

Staying there
Muri Beach is a beautiful area filled with great eateries. Check out the Muri Beachcomber for great self-contained accommodation with family-friendly options. There are heaps of resorts around the island: choose based on your priorities of amazing sunset (west), sunrise (east) or the best beaches (south).

Getting around
Ride like a local by hiring a scooter from Polynesian Rentals or, if you have kids too young to sit behind you, hire a hatchback. Buses circle the main road regularly (on island time), one going clockwise and one anti-clockwise.

What to do
Immerse yourself in Rarotongan life with a progressive dinner tour and a visit to the Punanga Nui Market in Avarua and take in a cultural tour and show at Te Vara Nui Village. You can experience the Te Tika products at Rumours Day Spa or buy them at the local pharmacy or online at tetika.com.au.

More info
Visit cookislands.travel.


Megan Blandford

Megan Blandford is a freelance writer, specialising in lifestyle, travel and business topics for many online and print publications, and some of Australia’s best organisations. Megan lives in peaceful country Victoria with her family.