A holiday on Rarotonga can be anything you want it to be. Some people come for celebrations, joyous flings featuring weddings and boozy brunches and cocktails under the stars. Others come for adventure, to scale peaks and spear fish and surf a treacherous reef break. Still others come for respite, for the stillness of the mountains and refreshment of the tropical rain.
I come for all of the above. Any holiday to Rarotonga is equal parts escape and excitement. It’s an opportunity to unplug and re-focus on life’s simplest pleasures: natural beauty, fresh food, sunshine, hospitality. It’s an opportunity to take photos on mountaintops, in undersea kingdoms, on quad bikes in the jungle. It’s also an opportunity to learn about a slower way of life, about people who live in deeper connection with the land and each other than most urbanites.
A holiday on Rarotonga begins when you exit the airplane’s door, when you walk down its steps and into Polynesia – the fragrance of tropical flowers, the weight of tropical humidity, the views of tropical greenery in every direction. It begins when you collect your bag in a one-room arrivals lounge, when you hear Papa Jake playing the ukulele, welcoming you to paradise. It begins with Cook Islands hospitality, with a greeter who asks where you’re staying, a lounge full of people waiting for passengers with fresh ‘ei – necklaces of fragrant frangipani and gardenia – and a woman in the tollbooth who greets you with a kia orana and a wide-open smile. Your holiday begins when you notice the colours and the smells and the spirit of the Cook Islands people.
I spent my holiday in a house on a white-sand beach in Arorangi, the western side of Rarotonga, where sunsets are breathtaking and coconut palms abound and a glassy lagoon stretches a few hundred metres to the white foam of waves crashing on Rarotonga’s reef. The roosters crowed and the dogs barked, but otherwise I had the beach to myself most mornings. Each sunrise set the sky alight, making the mountains stand bold against a canvas of red and orange. When anyone walked by, he or she waved – a welcome change from bustling cities, where passerby pretend other passersby don’t exist.
Every day was a blank slate, and Rarotonga offers so much with which to fill it. You just have to decide in the morning what you’re in the mood to do.
Some days I spent reading in the tropical sun, alternating between a sarong spread out on the sand and a refreshingly cool lagoon. Some days I walked down the road to buy fresh fruit and a nu – a drinking coconut – from a roadside stall. Each time, the seller greeted me warmly. Some days I had an afternoon cocktail and watched the sun set, exiting a sky awash with colour.
Other days I felt like exploring, and on those days I rented a scooter and filmed my sojourn through a preserved tropical paradise, through unpaved roads and creeks and waterfalls and jungle. One day I walked across the island with Pa, a local healer who takes tourists to The Needle – the island’s second-highest peak – and down the other side, along the way sharing his knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. His spirit made an impression – he’s the kind of guy who prefers hugs to handshakes – and time with him got me thinking about what it means to live with nature, and how far urban societies have drifted from it. I thought about how I wanted to adopt that spirit – the kind that belongs to a man who answers the phone with “Kia orana, you’re talking to Pa, I hope you are having a blessed day, nice to hear you.” I would notice, over the course of my trip, that he wasn’t the only local to show me genuine kindness – there was the mama at the supermarket who let me in front of her in the queue for really no reason at all, the congregation that welcomed me to lunch after church, the papa who picked me up when my tyre went flat.
There were days I walked along the back roads, stopping to take photos of cows and goats and taro patches, wandering up unpaved roads hemmed in on either side by walls of vines and trees. I walked along streams, counting prawns, and swam in refreshing waterfalls with no one else around. On Saturdays I woke early to catch the Punanga Nui market, where I bought fresh fruits and cooked island food, watched the local kids perform local dances, and browsed the booths selling local souvenirs – brooms of coconut fibre, black pearls, ukulele, colourful quilts.
I spent time in Muri learning to kitesurf, felt the thrill of finally getting up on the board and speeding across the lagoon, the instructor’s shouts of glee fading into the distance. I rented a stand-up paddleboard and circled the offshore islets, stopping at one for a picnic lunch. Aboard a thatched-roof boat I returned to the same islet, but this time with a string band and some fit young men who showed off for their passengers, climbing trees and husking coconuts, barbecuing fresh fish for lunch.
I dove with a local dive company around shipwrecks and steep drop-offs, amongst turtles and eels and a reef shark, and snorkeled inside the lagoon around the coral homes of tropical fish. I hired a kayak from my accommodator and went on long morning paddles for exercise and meditation and breathtaking views; took yoga classes on the beach at sunrise; and signed up for an informative cycling tour. I spent one afternoon on a fishing charter, casting for deep-sea species and beholding the sight of Rarotonga from the sea, a striking sight. And when the sun went down, I didn’t.
I watched live music at seaside bars and went to an “island night” – a celebration of the Cook Islands’ food and culture featuring a buffet of local food and a stirring show of dancing and drumming. Cook Islands’ drumming is some of the best in the world – rhythmic, unfathomably fast. It makes you want to dance, tricks you into thinking you’ll be able to sway your hips as fast as the girls onstage.
On a Friday night, some new local friends invited me aboard the party bus – a tropical pub-crawl that stops at all the happening spots and drops you at home after “town” closes. We had $3 drinks next to the sea, swayed to island music under the stars, and danced to the sounds a local DJ spun at the island’s only nightclub. In the morning, we met at the Punanga Nui market to re-energise with some fresh fruit smoothies and spinach croissants.
I went to Rarotonga alone, but it’s a great place for families, too. Kids can partake of most outdoor activities – swimming, snorkelling, climbing mountains. There are family-friendly activities like miniature golf and laser tag, or cheaper activities like eating fruit from trees or taking photos of pigs and chickens. It’s a getaway for the whole family, with something for everyone – kayaks for kids, Mai Tais for their parents. Some resorts offer kids’ activities – octopus hunts, sand castle competitions, coconut-husking courses – for parents in the mood for more than one Mai Tai.
The nightlife, the food, and the shows were a thrill, but I think my fondest memories will be of Rarotonga’s beauty and stillness, of the time I took to notice the details of every landscape, of the distance I felt from my computer.
I’ll remember that when the sun rose, the air smelled of sizzling coconut donuts, sweet and chewy and warm, and that in the evenings, it smelled of burning leaves and sea salt, carried inland by a tepid breeze. I’ll remember that when it rained, the drops were warm and cleansing, and that they left a rainbow in their place, and that when the sun came out again everything sparkled.
Rarotonga is an intoxicating place. It seems impossible that here, among coconut palms and bushes overloaded with red hibiscus, and green leafy taro patches flanked by trickling waterfalls, you could ever lose yourself in yourself.
I depart soon with great reluctance. I will think of Rarotonga when I’m sitting in a stifled car, watching brake lights and billboards, remembering what it felt like to drive a motorbike along the sea, with the wind knotting my hair and the sun shining on my shoulders. I’ll think of Rarotonga when I’m drinking coconut water out of a box or when I’m dressing up to go out, wearing a more complicated getup than shorts, rubber flip-flops, and a gardenia behind my ear.
I’ll remember Rarotonga anytime I can afford to book another holiday.