Why the Cook Islands are hot

The flights are cheap but these Polynesian isles are priceless, Debbie Hunter discovers.

One doesn't imagine one would come to the Cook Islands looking for adventure. It's the sort of place where you'd picture yourself lazing on a beach under that idyllic palm tree beside a brochure-blue lagoon or frolicking with tropical fish you'd normally only see at an aquarium.

So I'm somewhat unprepared for a sweaty hike into jungle, crawling and slipping over sharp boulders of fossilised coral known as the "makatea", which used to lie at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean more than 120,000 years ago.

Our guide Marshall Humphreys takes up the rear of our group of six, as his son James leads us further and further into Atiu's wilderness.

While we battle the bush, the mozzies at least seem to be having a great time on our steaming flesh. After 20 minutes we come to a cave opening accessed by a small ladder. We climb down and enter a secret underworld of lush rainforest and spectacular ancient rock formations. It's like a giant cathedral open to the sky. We're not surprised to learn it's also a sacred place for the Maori (closely related to the New Zealand Maori).

Still in awe of this discovery we venture on deeper into another cave, torches guiding us over the slimy, uneven rock. The passage grows narrower and soon it's hard to see the person in front. Above us in the dark we can hear the "click, click, click" of the tiny swiftlet which calls this cave home.

Like bats, the kopeka birds rely on sonar to guide them to their nests, precariously built within the cave ceiling. It's a glimpse of nature at its most innovative, but our best surprise is yet to come.

Deeper into the Anatakitaki cave system we discover a subterranean pool one of many within the island's extensive cave system. In candlelight, it's pure delight to discard our shoes and clothes and take a refreshing (if somewhat romantic) dip.

By the trek's end our thirst is savage. Luckily Humphreys ends his tours with a visit to the village "tumunu" for a taste of Atiu's infamous "bush beer".

The drinking tradition, which descended from the Tahitian kava ceremony, was successfully stamped out on all the Cook islands except Atiu by Christian missionaries in the 1800s.

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Instead, the Atiuans developed their own brew in secret from local oranges and wild honey. The recipe has changed slightly over time, but drinking the potent beer is now an accepted custom.

Tumunus also offer a place for village men to socialise and discuss the local affairs, but tourists, including women, are encouraged to join in with the drinking, singing and storytelling that often accompanies these informal gatherings.

Atiu is known as the island of birds so called because of the 11 species that live there, more than on any of the other islands so the next day local expert "birdman" George Mateariki guides us around the island in search of a few more feathered friends, including the endangered native kakerori. On his three-hour tour he also takes time out to point out plants used in traditional Maori medicine.

The highlight this time is a picnic on one of the 28 secluded coral sand beaches. It's a bud-tingling feast of bananas and paw paw drizzled with lime juice and grated coconut. George never fails to amaze us especially when he shimmies up a coconut tree for fresh green coconuts which he husks and splits to get to the sweet liquid inside. We discover it fizzes just like champagne, but tastes more delicious.

Besides its unusual geological history, it's this sort of exclusive and intimate contact with the islanders that makes Atiu so special. You can virtually have the place all to yourself. There are only 500 people living on the island. In and around the main township (made up of five villages or five streets which radiate from the town centre, which is dominated by churches) there's accommodation for only 30 visitors, although visitor numbers only average 12 at a time.

Facilities are comfortable but quite basic with good reason. There are no air-conditioners on the island because it simply doesn't have enough power to run them. Twenty-four-hour electricity only arrived on the island in 1998 the telephone in 1992!

TO RUN their industrial coffee roaster, Andrea and Jeurgen Manske-Eimke, a German couple who moved to the island 22 years ago after being spellbound as tourists, have to shut down power to one of five small villages on the island.

The couple offer tours of their Arabica coffee plantation and tastings. Andrea is also a talented "tivaevae" patchwork artist and shows and sells her work from home.

Bonds between the church, community and family are strong and it's likely that those same islanders you chatted to on the main street or who checked you onto your Air Rarotonga flight are probably the same who performed a traditional welcome dance, beat the drums or strummed a ukulele for you the night before.

Even if you've joined in on one of the island nights before, don't miss a performance at Atiu Villas, if only to witness team leader Kau Henry husk a mature coconut with his teeth. Captain Cook, who the islands were named after, visited Atiu during his vast exploration of the Pacific between 1773 and 1777. He also visited Aitutaki.

If after all your jungle adventures you're still craving an idyllic slice of paradise that the Cook Islands, like its Pacific neighbours Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti are so famous for, you must do the same.

Aitutaki is a 45-minute flight north-east from Atiu and is the definite looker of the Cook's 15 islands. From the air the world's largest natural lagoon takes your breath away with its delicate beauty. On the surface and underneath, it doesn't disappoint either. Day cruises will take you to some popular snorkelling spots and some of the tiny islands that fringe the shimmering lagoon.

ALTHOUGH uninhabited, One Foot Island (because it is so shaped) where we lunched on barbecued fish even has a post office where you can send postcards home to family or get a souvenir stamp in your passport.

Aitutaki is the island for romantics and honeymooners, and the ultimate in island luxury can be found here in over-water bungalows and beachfront villas.

Rarotonga, the main island, where the new Pacific Blue flights land from Australia, is different again.

Like Tahiti, it was created by volcanoes, and dramatic needle-sharp mountains rise up into the clouds forming a crown. A blanket of lush green jungle spills down to the white coral sands and the lagoon which circles the island like some magical aura.

Life here is more typical of what we're used to in the South Pacific. Weekend markets now cater to tourists selling handicrafts, shell necklaces, black pearls and coconut drinks and the big resorts put on dance and seafood supper shows after dark .

Rarotonga also has a reasonable night-life, yet it's still remains relatively underdeveloped and this is perhaps its special charm, too. At least that's why so many papa'as (foreigners) find it hard to leave.

"This is what Hawaii was like 60 years ago," said Jim Bruce, who moved from Maui three years ago to build the Aro'a Beachside Inn resort and serve his opu ra magic cocktails each sunset from his Shipwreck bar on the western shore.

So what are you waiting for? Tuck a frangipani behind your ear, throw on a pareu (sarong) and experience the Cook Islands for yourself.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Pacific Blue has just started to fly to the Cook Islands (Rarotonga) weekly from Sydney via Christchurch. Fares start from $289 one-way (plus taxes) on the net. See http://www.virginblue.com.au and click on the Pacific Blue button.

Air Rarotonga flies between the islands, including Atiu.

A two-island pass to Atiu and Atitutaki costs $NZ367 ($337). See http://www.airraro.co.ck.

Accommodation: Rooms at the Atiu Villas start from $NZ110. Book online at http://www.atiuvillas.co.ck.

Rooms at the luxurious Pacific Resort Aitutaki start at $NZ730 for a beachfront bungalow for two. See http://www.pacificresort.com.

In Rarotonga room rates start from $NZ20 per night for dormitory backpacker accommodation. Rates at the Aro'a Beachside Inn, which offers eight self-contained beachfront and garden units, start from $NZ160 single and $NZ220 a double. Breakfast is included. The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa has one of the best kids clubs on the islands. Rooms start from $NZ300 on the net. See http://www.therarotongan.co.ck. Rooms at the Pacific Resort Rarotonga start from NZ$350 for a garden studio for 1-2 persons. See http://www.pacificresort.com.

For more details on accommodation and activities see http://www.cook-islands.com or travel agents.

The writer was a guest of Pacific Blue and Cook Islands Tourism.