Revisiting the Colorful Cook Islands

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It seems like only yesterday that I was lounging on a deserted beach, below the equator, in the enchanting Cook Islands. As the memories dance in my head like swaying palms, I would like to look back on that trip – especially now, as California tourists that are in “the know” prepare their own trip before the island’s November rainy season.

The Cook Islands are lost in time. They are that remote island paradise pictured on old postcards and posters from the 1950’s, when the South Pacific was a far away dream. But now, with regular direct flights from Los Angeles Airport aboard Air New Zealand, the Cooks are closer than ever and are an exciting option for North American travelers in search of a memorable tropical getaway.

Located in the Tropic of Capricorn, the 15-island archipelago is spread out like stepping stones across the water, about 2,000 miles from New Zealand. The capital and largest island is Rarotonga, where a tiny international airport with a single runway connects the Cooks to the outside world. A friend and I landed here after a 10-hour Air New Zealand flight.

From the airport we taxied to the Rarotonga Beach Bungalows, along the way passing fields of tropical fruit, old churches, tiny homes and locals on motor scooters. As we followed the island’s one main road, we could always see the emerald lagoon that circles the land, and the jagged rock mountain known as “the needle,” which jets 650 ft from the interior.

At the bungalows we found Polynesian paradise on the sand, steps from a turquoise lagoon with coral gardens. Our private bungalow was one of five and featured 700 sq.-ft. of tropical living space, elevated 30 inches off the ground to allow cool breezes to circulate beneath the floor.

The Rarotonga Beach Bungalows are paradise on the sand 

The bungalows boast coconut thatched roofs, woven bamboo walls, exotic wood furniture, native paintings, large bedrooms, kitchens and dining areas, and big wooden porches overlooking the lagoon. The highlight of the room is its unique shower, located out the back door, in a lush private garden. But the bungalow’s best feature is its proximity to the crystal clear lagoon, close enough to see and hear the water splashing on the sand.

When not relaxing like castaways, we explored. One of our first experiences was a ride on the island bus. It runs every 20 minutes and can complete the island’s 22-mile circumference in about one hour. The system consists of two buses at a time; one is labeled “Clockwise,” the other “Anticlockwise.” They both stop in the main town of Avarua.

For more adventurous visitors, there are numerous places to rent the ubiquitous motor scooter. Just remember that you will have to get a driver’s license at the police station to ride them.  I avoided this option when I learned that traffic drives on the left.

While wondering we met many New Zealand tourists, who visit the Cooks like Americans visit Hawaii. In fact, the Cooks remind me of what Hawaii must have been like decades ago, before the development explosion.

But the Cook Islands are a different story. With a total population of approximately 19,000, scattered over 15 islands and some 2 million square kilometers, they are scarcely populated, except for an abundance of coconut trees and sea shells on the beaches, and lush tropical vegetation across the interior.

Back at the bungalows, I checked out free scuba gear and investigated the coral-filled lagoon. Because the island is encircled by a natural reef, the lagoon is perfect for snorkeling and swimming. This means the water is filtered clear turquoise so you can see a rainbow of thousands of fish and you don’t have to worry about sharks.

The reef is such an imposing boundary that one morning I walked two hundred yards into the water and it never reached my shoulder. It’s like a gigantic fish bowl.

Another highlight of my trip was a quick flight to the island of Aitutaki, which is a smaller version of Rarotonga, with vegetation more dense and green and waters a deeper turquoise. Other fond memories include a hike to the top of the island and four-wheeling through the rain forest.

For more information on visiting the Cook Islands, check out: www.cookislands.org.uk/ For flight information from LAX to Rarotonga, visit Air New Zealand at: www.airnewzealand.com and for more info on staying at the Rarotonga Beach Bungalows, visit www.rarotongabeachbungalows.com/

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