Fantasy Island - Craig Tansley Explores Cook Islands

19 November 2014

Craig Tansley returns to his childhood island home of Rarotonga and discovers new attractions every time that make this the most under-rated island in the Pacific…

“Where’s this waterfall?” Call me a sceptic, but I figured I knew every square kilometre of Rarotonga; after all, there’s only 67 of them. “Just around the corner,” the guide insists. I’m taking a new cycling tour – Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours - round Rarotonga’s ancient inland road, Ara Metua, built almost 1000 years ago. My guide James, leads us past arrowroot and taro plantations where goats and pigs - far greater in number than humans here - wander in and out. In Rarotonga it doesn’t take long to get off the beaten track, just ride a few metres off the well-worn coastal road and you’re there.

We cross a slow-flowing river and cycle up a dirt path. “Here,” he stops. There’s nothing but bush. He pushes a fern aside and steps inside. I follow close behind as we enter a small waterhole area and get ready to jump in. “Wait,” he says reaching around the corner for an old rope. I follow him, tip-toeing across slippery rocks, when we turn a corner I see it: more a cascade than a waterfall, but glorious all the same, especially on this hot day with the harsh sunlight filtered through green vegetation. The water’s so clear I see every rock, and I climb up the cascade to put my head under the steady stream. “Even the locals don’t know about this one,” James says smugly.

I shouldn't be surprised, the Cook Islands have a habit of throwing out curve balls every time I come to stay. Rarotonga, the jewel of the crown and the Cooks’ sleepy capital, features a striking interior of eroded volcanic peaks covered in dense green vegetation (a lot like Tahiti… without the price tag), no-one lives here either, instead unpaved roads provide access to valleys – if you can find them. Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours reveal some of them, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

 Life is still pure and simple in local villages on islands not far from Rarotonga - pic - Craig Tansley

The Cook Islands are the South Pacific’s most under-rated destination. Fifteen islands spread across an area of ocean the size of western Europe populated by barely 16 000 locals, Lonely Planet calls them “a castaway’s dream come true”. All it takes is a 40 minute flight from Rarotonga to discover island paradises visited by fewer than 50 tourists in a year. Most travellers won’t go beyond Rarotonga (or Aitutaki, 40 minutes north, home to arguably the Pacific’s most pristine lagoon), but there’s plenty here to keep even the most demanding vacationer satisfied; because while Rarotonga maintains its nearly-comatose south seas charm (think: roosters wandering the main street of its only major town, no building higher than a coconut tree), there’s always new things to try.

 The lagoon at Aitutaki is one of the Pacific's most pristine - pic - Cook Islands Tourism

Today I’m discovering new waterfalls and secret paths to shut-off valleys on a cycling tour, but yesterday I took a ride aboard a brand-new rigid inflatable speed boat with twin 250-horsepower engines that shot me half-way round the island, stopping to whale watch (humpbacks come close to Rarotonga between June and October each year, Rarotonga offers numerous whale watching tours) and slowing down to talk to locals training in outrigger canoes for the island’s famous yearly outrigger race, Vaka Eiva. It’s only here from the sea you can appreciate the scale of the mountains that plunge straight into Rarotonga’s encircling lagoon.

 The lagoon at Aitutaki takes turquoise and azure to new levels - pic - Craig Tansley

I was born and raised on Rarotonga and despite a career spent travelling to find the ultimate travel destinations, I’ve never managed to find better than the first place I ever knew. I have family still here, so I return most years, never failing to discover new attractions every time. Like last week when the fisherman two doors up from my father’s home (who offers fishing charters), took me out to sea at dawn and I pulled in a 15 kilogram mahi-mahi (the Pacific’s most prized fish) within five minutes of wetting the line (and I can’t fish to save myself).

And each evening come sunset time, I like to ride a scooter to the west side of the island (Aorangi) to watch the sun disappear right into the lagoon in some of the world’s most perfect sundowner bars, like the Waterline, A’roa and Castaways. Somehow, they just seem to get better each year.

Decades ago, visiting Rarotonga meant having to drop your standards – and understanding that finding this kind of peacefulness meant not expecting five-star amenities – but that’s all changed. Now some of the South Pacific’s best regarded hotels – like The Pacific Resort in Aitutaki, a three-time winner of the World’s Leading Boutique Island Resort, and the newly built Nautilus Resort that looks out to a tiny deserted isle in Rarotonga’s largest lagoon, Muri – can be found in the Cook Islands, and there’s everything to try here from surfing to 4WD tours to cultural tours (with Polynesia’s most frenetic dancing) to diving, mountain hiking, kayaking and kite surfing.

 Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga - Raro's biggest lagoon - pic - Cook Islands Tourism

You’ll also find some of the Pacific’s best restaurants here – some like the Tamarind, in graceful century-and-a-half-old homesteads straddling calm lagoons; to The Mooring, an old shipping container beside the water offering yellow-fin tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi straight from the boat and filleted right in front of you.

The Cook Islands differ from other islands in the Pacific because they allow visitors to truly absorb themselves in the daily lives of locals from the moment they arrive – there’s no separation here on private island resorts or snobby hotels protected by fences and guards -  and there’s nowhere on Earth where life feels quite so precious. One day I’ll return permanently again, but till then I’m happy returning each year to a whole new list of surprises.

 Hammocks were made surely with Aitutaki firmly in mind - Cook Islands Tourism
 Most of the Cook Islands are atolls but Rarotonga's volcanic interior is most spectacular - pic - Craig Tansley
 Local identity Pa has been leading cross-island walks since 1984 - pic - Cook Islands Tourism
 There's fish aplenty for anglers in the Cooks - pic - Craig Tansley

Craig Tansley

A Polynesian tragic, Tansley blames his parents for having him in Rarotonga for why he can't stay away from there for more than a few months at a time. Give him a coconut and a lagoon and he'll be happy.