Pews in paradise

On the oasis of Rarotonga, Daniel Scott and his family make it their mission to see ... and believe.

On our second morning on Rarotonga we go to church. It's not something we ever do back home and it isn't because we've suddenly found God among the Cook Island coconut palms.

It's just that we want to get close to the soul of the Cooks and we know that, ever since Tahitian missionaries arrived in 1821, religion has been pivotal here. Along the 32-kilometre road that encircles Rarotonga, churches and halls representing more than 30 denominations are as common as holiday resorts.

We take our seats in an upstairs gallery and gaze down upon the congregation, mostly older women in colourful muumuu dresses and broad-brimmed straw hats and men in suits offset by thongs. At the front, 10 fidgety local children, in brightly patterned shirts and skirts, slump across wooden pews. As my five- and three-year-old daughters peek at them, so the small boys smirk back, a flirtation that lasts the whole one-hour service. We watch as lessons and notices are read, some in English and some in Cook Islands' Maori. An old man weeps openly as he reports a friend's death. In the front pews, three girls take turns to cradle a baby.

When the singing comes it ascends through the high-roofed Christian church like an upsurge out at sea, building from all corners and peaking in a rolling wave of harmony. The most powerful voices belong to two large women directly below us, their lips barely moving as the sound rises from deep within them. This is church singing more ethereal - melding pagan Maori passion and Christian belief with Pacific island fruitfulness - than I have ever heard before.

Like those Christian devotees who spread their message almost two centuries ago, our family is on a mission in the Cooks. We plan to warm our bones away from the Aussie winter and to immerse our girls as much in Cook Islands culture as we do in the lagoons surrounding Rarotonga.

We begin, having crossed the international dateline on our direct flight from Sydney, with a Polynesian-style groundhog day. After leaving on a dank Saturday night, we arrive on a sunny Saturday morning and head straight to the main town, Avarua, to pick up a rented people carrier. Posing for mugshots at the police station, to adorn our $NZ20 ($17) local driving licences, there is nothing fake about our smiles.

Our grins are paltry, however, when compared with the ear-to-ear beams worn by the young dancers performing at the nearby Punanga Nui market. They are our introduction to the infectious, shake-your-booty Cook Islands hula dancing, which is surely the main reason humans were created with hips. Behind the dancers, six men bang out a powerful rhythm on big skin drums and by knocking on hollowed-out logs. As a finale, a few holidaymakers, including an uncoordinated Aussie dad, join the lithe island dancers on stage, making public geese of themselves.

For the rest of our first day we tour the island at snail's pace - Rarotonga's speed limit is 50km/h, diminishing to 30km/h in villages - pausing occasionally to gape at a particularly picturesque combination of white beach and turquoise lagoon.

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For our first few days we stay behind one such beach, Aro'a, at the Rarotongan resort. It's an older-style property offering a range of free activities, from snorkelling to ukulele classes to learning how to paddle a traditional Polynesian canoe or vaka. The predominantly Fijian-staff, proffering yet more smiles, make the resort, greeting the children like family throughout.

With island fire and dance shows, barbecues and two restaurants offering solid, if unspectacular food, we could easily not leave the Rarotongan at night. But with more than 50, mostly beachside, eateries to choose from, we are keen to venture out.

On our first night, after dropping into the Aro'a Beachside Inn for a sublime honey-hued sunset, we eat at the candlelit Waterline Restaurant, overlooking Arorangi Passage. Here we have our first taste of the islands' delectable yellowfin tuna. On other days, we visit the roadside Saltwater Cafe for a delicious fresh lunch of enchiladas and pad thai and the upmarket Polynesian restaurant, Vaima, its tables spilling out onto the beach, for dinner. Our favourites, however, are the Asian-style Rickshaw at Muri beach and Tamarind House, near Avarua.

As with all the best family holidays, we mix activity with indolence. We teach the girls to snorkel in the lagoon. We take them to the excellent Whale and Wildlife Centre, and join the Raro reef sub tour, during which they watch giant trevally through the boat's underwater windows and scan the 1916 wreck of the Matai, searching for treasure.

On another day, I take my eldest, Mila, on a tour to Aitutaki, an island at the edge of one of the planet's bluest lagoons, 40 minutes' flight from Rarotonga. We snorkel among giant clams and swarms of tropical fish, have our passports stamped on One Foot Island and stage hermit crab races along the beach.

Time out for mum and dad is not forgotten either. On our third day, we leave the kids with a babysitter - our three-year-old Freya is too young for the resort's Kids' Club - to do a cross-Rarotonga walk.

Led by Pa, a dreadlocked islander with 32 grandchildren, it takes us up to Te Rua Manga, a sawtooth peak jutting from the island's volcanic core. The trek unveils another side to Rarotonga. But it is the barefoot Buddhist Pa, an inveterate storyteller, who is the tour's revelation. Following the three-hour trek, we recover with massage treatments at the Rarotongan's SpaPolynesia.

Halfway through our visit we move to the Cooks Bay Villas, on the island's south coast. Run by radiant Rarotongan sisters Shine, a former Qantas cabin attendant, and Tara, the modern two-bedroom villas incorporate a holidaying family's every need.

Once again, though, it is connecting with Cook Islands culture that we value most. One afternoon, Shine invites us into her home to teach the girls hula dancing. What follows is a feast of wiggling and giggling. Not content, the family's female contingent find a local "hupa-hula" class in a Seventh Day Adventist hall, and dad is roped in, too.

At first, in a room full of swaying Polynesian women, my ageing hips struggle to find any rhythm. But soon, I'm self-consciously jiggling my backside to the beat, waving my palms to either side in approximate hula style.

At the end, the instructor seeks me out. "Well done for carrying on," she beams, enveloping me in a bear hug, "you're the first man we've ever had do this class."

FIVE COOK ISLANDS DAY TRIPS

1. Aitutaki, including snorkelling, land tour, lunch, outer island visits and return Air Rarotonga flights. airraro.com.

2. Pa's Cross Island Trek. pastreks.com.

3. Lagoon cruises off Rarotonga in a glass-bottomed boat. kokalagooncruises.co.ck.

4. Pacific Divers run daily excursions for certified divers. pacificdivers.co.ck.

5. Four-wheel-drive safari tours to Rarotonga's mountainous interior. rarosafaritours.co.ck.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand has weekly direct return flights from Sydney to Rarotonga, departing Sydney on Saturday nights and returning from Rarotonga on Friday afternoons. airnewzealand.com.au. 

STAYING THERE

The Rarotongan resort has deluxe beach suites from $NZ320 ($277) for two adults and two children, with breakfast. therarotongan.com.

Cooks Bay Villas offers two-bed beachfront units for $NZ400 ($347) including breakfast supplies, for families of four. cooksbayvillas.com.

MORE INFORMATION

cookislands.travel/au.