A new boutique resort in the Cook Islands throws out the welcome mat for well-heeled families.
I can't find my child. I know that sounds terribly irresponsible, but I'm not worried. The last time I saw her she was running barefoot, possibly not wearing sunscreen, hair blowing wildly in the breeze. She was chasing identical twin girls with blonde hair and sun-kissed skin, and a dog called Ice Cream. Earlier she was seen climbing a tall tree, her skinny legs clinging on for dear life. And before that she was huddled under a makeshift cubby; standing guard over a collection of hermit crabs being kept hostage in a coconut shell. I've never seen her so happy.
We're staying at the new Nautilus Resort, a boutique eco property that opened in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands on October 1. Surprisingly, up until now, there hasn't been a luxury resort in the Cooks that catered to well-heeled families. Fiji has had that cornered in the South Pacific, with kids' clubs, nannies and family friendly accommodation on tap. Australian owners Paul and Jane Pearson, who between them have four children (including those blonde twin girls), perceived a gap in the market. They saw the demand for quality surroundings in which to spend precious time with your family.
Eventually the 4.5-star, low-key property, set on the gorgeous Muri Beach, will have 38 spacious pool villas (the first six to open as part of stage one are mere steps from the water), a spa, and kids' club in addition to its excellent onsite restaurant. There will be a kids' concierge to organise fun cultural and environmentally aware activities, based on the demographics of guests staying inhouse. A tailor-made kids' program could include a beach treasure hunt, basket and ei (necklace) making and guided snorkelling of a motu. Nannies will also be available at $NZ15 an hour.
On arrival, the first thing that commands your attention is Nautilus' prime beachfront location. It sits on the safe, pristine Muri Lagoon opposite the picturesque Ta'akoka Motu, which you can swim, kayak or wade to (at low tide) for terrific snorkeling. The resort's centerpiece is a tiered infinity pool. When you're lying beside it, all you can see are layers of blue – the cobalt blue of the pool and the aquamarine blue of the lagoon beyond, fringed by swaying palms. Adjacent to the pool is the resort's beachfront restaurant and bar. The Cook Islands has a competitive restaurant scene as visitors are not confined to eating at the place they're staying in and already Nautilus is making a name for itself for its food.
Head chef Michael Fosbender, a New Zealander who worked for The Landing in Wanaka before moving to Brazil to run Gotisso, delivers a menu with a strong Polynesian influence. There's a limited kids' menu too but, if you speak to the staff, the kitchen will whip up pretty much whatever your child fancies. Our six-year-old Ella became addicted to the frozen fruit slushies they served from the bar.
the first thing that commands your attention is Nautilus' prime beachfront location
The spacious villas feature contemporary island-inspired interiors with high ceilings, polished boards, canopy beds, deep baths, and salt-water plunge pools on the deck. There will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, with the premium beachfront villas the pick of the bunch. Mist-shrouded peaks loom behind the resort, so the view from rooms set behind the beach isn't too shabby either.
It felt like we hardly saw Ella during our five days at the resort. She became fast friends with Jane and Paul's twins, Tia and Chloe, who have grown up in the Cook Islands. When she wasn't climbing trees or building cubbies, she was fashioning a crab race track in the sand, crafting boats out of coconuts, swimming in the pool or chasing the many friendly island dogs that roam free
Rarotonga is easy to get around, either on foot, scooter, hire car, bicycle or by bus, which does a circular loop of the island every half hour during the day. Most mornings we head to LBV for coffee, a terrific bakery with a garden for kids to run around, until we discover Neil Dearlove, from the Cook Islands Coffee Company, who undoubtedly makes the best coffee on the island. You find Neil by looking for an orange traffic cone with the word "coffee" stamped down the side. He places this outside his house to let passers-by know when he's making coffee.
A fun thing to do if you have kids is ride the bus the entire 32km route around the island. Ella loved sitting up front squeezed next to two schoolkids on their way home from the Christian school. The kids taught each other songs, while we watched life pass by outside the window.
One morning we left Ella in the care of one of the Nautilus nannies and went for a dive with the Big Fish Dive Centre to Edna's Anchor, a stunningly beautiful dive site where we were trailed by an inquisitive triggerfish. Another afternoon, I did yoga at the resort, gazing out over Muri Lagoon. But by far my favourite memory is going for long walks along the white sandy beach with Ella and the twins. In just a few short days Ella had lost interest in the iPad and become a fully fledged island girl. I'm as happy as she is.
The writer travelled courtesy of Nautilus Resort, Cook Islands.
Nautilus is in a soft opening stage and building works are still continuing on the first 17 villas. One-bedroom villas start from $NZ600 per night, up to $NZ1750 a night for the premium beachfront three-bedroom villa. Opening specials, including stay seven pay five nights with airport transfers; tropical fruit platter and wine are on offer until March 31, 2015.
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.