Cook Islands: Pacific play time

Rarotonga is known for its stunning blue lagoons and sandy beaches, but there is much more to do than sit on the sun lounger, writes Andrew Bain.

As a tropical playground, Rarotonga is exceptional. The beating heart of the Cook Islands, it's ringed by reef and split by a sharp line of rainforest-covered mountains. Beaches step directly into turquoise shallows, and an interesting selection of tours showcases the island's natural assets.

Here is our pick of the five best day trips around the island.

KOKA LAGOON CRUISES

From the moment the Koka boat leaves Muri Beach, it's fun overload on the still waters of Rarotonga's lagoon. Ukuleles emerge and Koka's guides sing the boat out into the seas. Even the skipper steers with one hand as he beats a drum with the other.

From Muri Beach, the glass-bottomed boat heads south to the edge of a marine reserve, where visitors roll overboard in snorkels and masks, floating over coral bommies and clams enclosed in cages to protect them from hungry octopus.

The morning I'm here, a three-metre-long moray eel coils between bommies, looking like a train emerging from a tunnel.

Back on the boat there are pareu (sarong) tying lessons and more songs before a barbecue lunch on a sandy island just off Muri Beach. Colourful fish skirt the shores and there's time to laze on the beach before the entertainment continues with coconut-husking lessons, a hermit-crab race and a tree-climbing demonstration from a crew member who just happens to be the Polynesian coconut-tree-climbing champion - he shimmies up and down the palm in seven seconds this day.

Ukuleles and song escort us back to Muri Beach.

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PA'S CROSS-ISLAND TREK

With his blonde dreadlocks, bare feet and lines of chillies tied around his bicep, the inimitable Pa is not your average hiking guide, but he's been leading visitors on cross-island hikes since 1985.

The hike takes about three hours and begins on a grassy track lined with taro plants before thinning to a narrow path that climbs steeply through thick forest to the crest of the island's main ridge.

From the ridge top there are views through the cloud forest to Rarotonga's airport and the white line of the reef beyond.

Rising above the crest is an imposing bullet-shaped rock known as the Needle, which has one edge carved into the shape of a god - the cross-island track was originally used by ancient islanders worshipping the rock.

The descent follows a stream towards the north coast, finishing beside the island's prime waterfall.

The walk involves some steep terrain but isn't particularly difficult - Pa's oldest client was 96 years of age. Lunch and fresh tropical fruits are included.

NAVIGATING PACIFIC SKIES

Tua Pittman is one of Polynesia's finest sailors and navigators, having sailed 30,000 kilometres around the Pacific Ocean in a vaka (a traditional Cook Islands canoe) without navigation equipment in 2011/12. In this new evening tour, he brings visitors the stories of his experience, the culture of his seafaring ancestors and the skill of navigating by the stars that steered him around the Pacific.

The evening begins at the Waterline restaurant on Rarotonga's west coast, watching the sun roll away like a coin. As darkness creeps over the island, Pittman points out the key stars used in navigation - from the Southern Cross to Orion's Belt and Jupiter - before a dinner with stories of blue whales along the California coast, thousands-strong pods of dolphins, and the current-fed garbage dumps in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

After dinner, guests drive around the island in a van, stopping at points on the north, east and south coasts. At each stop, Pittman has guests find their bearings by locating the stars they've previously noted.

The night ends with dessert with a celestial view at the home of Pittman's business partner, Carmel Beattie, on the south coast. By this time, the sky above will have become far more than a random spread of stars.

RARO SAFARI TOURS

The postcard beauty of Rarotonga's coast invariably overshadows Rarotonga's interior, but it's worth spending half a day on this 4WD tour that delves deep into the green heart of the rugged island.

The open safari-style jeep follows the secondary road that partly rings the island, hidden from the main flow of traffic. At regular intervals it ducks away into lanes carved through fruit plantations, or up into the mountains.

Through the interior there are more chickens than people and more pawpaw plants than buildings, but it's as the 4WD grunts into the mountains that you get a unique perspective on the island. Following a road that's closed to all traffic but the Safari Tours jeep, the drive climbs steeply through jungle to a clearing atop a spur. The views are like a scene from Lost, with the spur enclosed by a toothy skyline of ridges and cloud forest. The plains below are covered in coconut palms, and the reef is visible as a white line of waves encircling the island.

HIGHLAND PARADISE

One of Rarotonga's premier cultural performances is Highland Paradise, a dinner and dance show on ancestral lands above the town of Arorangi. Native islanders lived on the site until 1840, when they were enticed to the coast by missionaries. In 1980 a descendant of the original inhabitants was granted land in the mountains, and six hectares was cleared to create Highland Paradise.

On arrival, there's a ceremonial welcome and offerings of fruit are placed on the marae for the ancestors. In the dining hall, dinner consists of traditional meats cooked in an umu (ground oven) along with salads and local fruits.

A traditional dance performance follows dinner, featuring a series of energetic dances that show the evolution of Rarotongan culture, from the arrival of the first Cook Islanders from the Marquesas Islands, to cannibalism, to the appearance of missionaries in the 19th century. A band of drummers beats out the rhythms, and the dancers, who are all descendants of the area's original inhabitants, fill the hall with yelps and bird calls.

ACCOMMODATION: PACIFIC RESORT

Muri Lagoon is Rarotonga's most idyllic stretch of beach and water, and commanding prime position on the beach is Pacific Resort, perhaps the finest accommodation option on the island for families.

The resort is set on extensive grassy grounds, giving kids space to run and explore freely. The premium family rooms are ringed around an open section of lawn and the resort swimming pool (which has a poolside telephone for food and drink orders), which ranges in depth from 1.36 metres to two metres, with a small circular pool attached for toddlers.

A shallow stream runs through the resort, while the beach bar has its tables under a sun shelter on the sands of Muri Beach. The highly regarded Sandals restaurant is a few metres behind.

From the beach, the lagoon is laid out like a cobalt welcome mat. Kite surfers blast across its surface, kayaks zip about like dragonflies and stand-up paddle boarders drift this way and that. A rope swing arcs out over the beach and the sandy shallows offer safe swimming and can provide kids with a great introduction to snorkelling.

Pacific Resort's attached Beach Hut can easily get you out on the water in a kayak or a paddle board. It also offers a range of great all-inclusive family activities, from volleyball to windsurfing to traditional basket-weaving. There's a free kids' club each morning and afternoon, with cultural activities such as dance lessons, crafts and Cook Island Maori language lessons. Each Thursday kids make their own costumes and perform a Cook Islands dance for their parents.

For a bit of passive parental indulgence, nearby Te Manava Spa is managed by the resort, and guests can book a massage (half-hour $70, one hour $95) at the spa, in their room or even on Muri Beach.

The writer was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney to Rarotonga each Saturday (flights connect through Auckland on other days). Phone 13 24 76, see airnewzealand.com.au.

TOURING THERE

Koka Lagoon Cruises, adult/child $NZ75/35 ($70/32). See kokalagooncruises.com.

Pa's Cross Island Trek ($NZ70) runs on Tuesday and Thursday, see pastreks.com.

Navigating Pacific Skies is on Tuesday and Thursday evenings (or on demand) and costs $NZ120, including dinner at Waterline. Email bookings@islanddiscoveries.co.ck.

Raro Safari Tours (adult/child $NZ60/30) run daily except Saturday. Highland Paradise (adult/child $NZ89/50) shows are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights.

STAYING THERE

Premium family rooms at Pacific Resort cost $NZ620 a night, including breakfast and all beach hut activities, see pacificresort.com.

MORE INFORMATION

cookislands.travel.