Cook Islands

If you rotate the beautiful sphere to the right position, you will come to a place where there is nothing but open blue water. Near the middle of this expanse the Pacific Ocean – you’ll find the Cook Islands.

Surrounded by nearly 2 million square kilometers of ocean, this tiny nation consists of fifteen small islands formed from ancient volcanoes. Its geography ranges from the Jurassic Park-like mountains and jungle of the most populated island, Rarotonga, to the fossil coral reefs of Mangea, believed to be among the oldest islands in the Pacific.

North of the equator, you’ll find low-lying coral atolls glamorous, enchanting landscapes that creep into our dreams, instilling an obsessive desire to travel there. Because of their remoteness, few of us will ever get there.

However, this is where I found myself, despite the world in lockdown and much of the Northern Hemisphere beginning to grapple with the brutality of winter. Due to traffic restrictions, this paradise was almost devoid of other tourists.

Your trip to the islands often begins in Rarotonga

I came here with my family in early 2020, the last stop of a trip around the world. We wanted to show our daughter the country my wife and I were lucky enough to once call home a land far removed from the freshwater lakes and deciduous forests of Canada where we were born and raised.

‘Raro’, as it is called by the locals, features luxurious, soft coral sand beaches, towering coconut trees, and a dramatic mountainous interior. A contrast of the lush greens of the hills and mountains combined with the luxurious blues of the lagoon make Raro unavoidably Instagrammable.

Before the pandemic, visitors could travel here only through a handful of gateways in Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles, or French Polynesia. Despite its isolation, Rarotonga offers glitzy holiday villas and a cosmopolitan dining scene devoid of big chains and multinationals. A typical day might include snorkeling in the lagoon, hiking the island’s rugged interior, and dinner with top-rated New Zealand wines and freshly caught yellowfin.

I started things off with a macchiato at one of Rarotonga’s cafes. The caffeine was the draw, but it was the conversation I was really looking for. Through Cook Islanders, you can peel back the layers of this dynamic region and hear great yarns about survival and resilience and what island life is really like.

Pukapuka: As remote as you can get

When my family was stuck in the Cook Islands in the early stages of the pandemic, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was offered a job at the daily newspaper. A few months later, I received the assignment of a lifetime a chance to explore and write about the islands of Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Penryn.

So on a sunny summer morning, I threw my bag in the back of a small Cessna, and off we went, leaving little beautiful Rarotonga in the distance with nothing but blue water.

As I looked out the window, I wondered what to expect from this trip. The islands have only a few hundred residents and no bars, restaurants, or cafes. If Rarotonga is considered isolated, these tiny islands might as well be on another planet.

After landing in Pukapuka, I immediately felt the need for the locals to come up with innovative solutions to remoteness and limited resources. The bus that was normally used to take the bags to our accommodation broke down, so our group used a tractor. Freshly husked young coconuts in hand, we began walking to our water taxi to take us to our accommodation.

The beauty was stunning. Coconut trees leaning against pristine white coral sand beaches, quaint coconut shacks along the beach, well-tended taro patches, and turquoise waters that couldn’t be more inviting for a relaxing swim. After lunch of fried parrots and taro with coconut cream, we prepared for the next stop. In less than 24 hours, we were scheduled to fly to our next destination, Manihiki, pearl island.

Cook Islands

Rarotonga’s picture-perfect Black Rock Beach

One morning, under the hot sun and a warm breeze, I visited Punanga Nui Market, which comes alive every Saturday with vendors offering freshly cooked food, tropical fruits like passionfruit, papaya, and soursop, and homemade vanilla extract and handicrafts like ukuleles.

I saw a Cook Islands elder I knew, over coffee, who told me his story of growing up in Rarotonga and eventually going overseas to discover what lay beyond the reef.
It is a journey many have made; There are more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia than in the Cook Islands. Some, like my friend, eventually go home to retire to the plantations and beaches of their native land.

I met another young man with a similar history. As we spent a few hours at the picture-perfect Black Rock beach on Rarotonga’s north coast, he told me his wonderful story.

His ancestors came from the North Pole of Penryn. It is a unique geographical island – a piece of land in the shape of a giant drop, in the middle of which is a huge lagoon of 233 square kilometers full of sharks.

In his late teens, while living in New Zealand, he finally got a chance to visit his ancestral homeland. He traveled by boat from Rarotonga to the small atoll of Penrhyn a journey of 1,400 km but on the way back they were caught in a hurricane. At one point, the boat’s passengers were saying their final goodbyes, but a few days later the storm cleared allowing them to dock safely in Rarotonga. He told me he hadn’t been back to Penryn since, and if he ever did it was by plane – which is challenging in many ways. There are only five permanently inhabited islands north of the Cook Islands, and only three have airstrips. Commercial flights are irregular and airfares are expensive.

Cook Islands

Manihiki and its stunning lagoon

Once the center of the Cook Islands’ black pearl industry, Manihiki had a rather cosmopolitan feel. Most of the residents I spoke with had moved abroad at some point in their lives. With the same geography as its neighboring atolls, it has a feature that sets it apart – small islands in its stunning lagoon.

Many are home to pearl farms called ‘Kaos’ where these precious gems are cultivated. Foreign competition has decimated this once-booming industry, leaving many kaoas to crumble and a reminder of how challenging it can be to make a living here.

However, nature continues to provide. A dive in the lagoon reveals colorful fish and endless schools of paua (abalone) – some of which end up in an irresistible bowl of curry.

Residents are talking about rehabilitating the kaoas and converting them into accommodations for intrepid travelers. I can’t think of a more unique Airbnb experience if they deliver on this vision.

The day ends with a fried fish dinner and the island’s specialty, poke – a sweet pudding-like treat made from ripe bananas and fresh coconut cream. Apart from our voices, the only sound was the crashing waves on Manihiki’s outer reef.

Cook Islands

Penrhyn’s coconuts and fresh tuna

We finally made our way to Penrhyn, the final destination of our trip. It’s a spartan landscape – a larger lagoon than our previous stops, the land less lush, but still coconut trees and huge crabs running across the island’s dusty roads.

The next day, we explored the island and talked to the locals, met one of Penryn’s famous hat weavers, and tried our luck fishing, drinking coconuts, and eating lots of fresh raw tuna.

This was a different kind of trip one that embraced a slower travel mode. This is perhaps the biggest draw of the Cook Islands: the chance to tune out the hysteria and commercialism of our daily lives and enjoy the warmth of good company, good food, and natural beauty as far as the eye can see.

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