My ultimate dream would be to able to spend at least three months of every year on the Pacific island paradise of Rarotonga, with my mask, snorkel and fins, and camera, oh and a laptop for writing. Perhaps summering over in Aotearoa (New Zealand) for three months, and the remaining six travelling the World! Hmmm, now where is that lottery ticket…
Rarotonga, affectionately known as Raro, is the main island in the Cook Islands chain and it is quite literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean just over the International Date Line (10 hours behind GMT), so you travel back in time when flying there from New Zealand. Depending on which flight you get you can experience the same day twice, actual time travel. Indeed, once you arrive on the island everything runs on ‘Raro Time’, and it is just bliss! Well, I think so anyway.
A stunning volcanic island, with a mountainous, rainforest interior, surrounded by white sandy beaches, and encircled by coral reef, Raro is a largely unspoilt jewel. It’s just the right mix of ‘getting away from it all’ simplicity and amenities. There are some fantastic restaurants, small shops, places to stay and cafes but there are no chain stores, hotels (apart from a long ago abandoned Sheraton which is a story in itself) or eateries/cafes at all. You won’t find a Starbucks or MacDonalds on this island!
Warmth and sunshine can be enjoyed all year round. And there’s a little bit of old time sensibilities, Sundays are ‘dry’ (you can’t buy alcohol), Rarotongans are big church-goers, and brief clothing is not acceptable in the town or villages.
Everyone seems so happy there, particularly the dogs! I have never seen such healthy dogs in all my life and they are such characters cruising the beaches, befriending humans along the way and chasing fish in the shallows.
The morning routine normally involves getting up around 6am or earlier, when everything is quiet and cool, to watch the spectacular sunrise. Breakfast is on the veranda surveying the lagoon, all overlooked by the misty interior mountains behind.
Breakfast is black coffee, scrambled egg, fresh papaya (which the cheeky Myna birds like too), cashew nuts and on the last visit we discovered Star Apples, aka Milk Fruit. Extraordinary pink / purple coloured fruit, with a sweet and creamy inside, literally like it has its own ‘built in’ fresh cream.
The majority of most days is taken up snorkelling in the lagoon. On our last visit we stopped in at The Dive Centre on day 1 for a fin fitting with the knowledgeable and super chatty owner Sabina…whilst regaling you with fishy tales, she’ll take one look at your feet and then bring you the fins to suit you; you’ll never have poorly fitting fins ever again.
Entering the warm crystal waters of the lagoon your cares slip away as you swim between the coral bommies, surrounded by the chatters, clicks and grunts of underwater life, that fishy dawn chorus which everyone now knows about because of Blue Planet II, and an abundance of sea life.
At certain times of the year you may be met by rather territorial but harmless Picasso Triggerfish who come darting at you from nowhere, warning you off or you may see nurseries of baby Blue-green Chromis in a turquoise cloud around the Staghorn coral. You may find curious Sunset Wrasse coming to look into your mask, and they do come closer if you click your fingers, or you may see a shy Snowflake Moray hiding in the rocks, and only to be immediately drawn away by the sight of brilliant yellow Lemonpeel Angels with electric blue eyes. One of the most extraordinary sights I’ve seen was a Goatfish and Clown Cloris Wrasse working together as a team to dig holes to unearth food.
Sometimes you will see some of the deepwater fish in the lagoon, like huge, cruising Bluefin Trevally. On my last visit to Raro I spotted and followed a pair of enormous Bluespine Unicornfish, rare visitors to the lagoon, as they glided from bommie to bommie feeding, the best birthday present ever. I have yet to see a turtle but they have been spotted in the lagoon. Of course, for those who are divers, the reef wall itself will offer turtles and much more, including sharks and eagle rays.
The late afternoon in Raro, after lunch and a trip around the island, may involve a kayak on the lagoon and out to the reef edge being careful not to damage the coral, and of course to watch the tides. Looking back from offshore gives you a stunning view of the island and its mountainous, rainforest interior which may beckon you for an inland hike on another day.
A visit to Raro’s Botanical Gardens, Maire Nui is also not to be missed. All privately created, not for profit, these gorgeous 7-acre gardens, complete with lily ponds, will delight you. It is just a lovely place to roam with the Rarotongan ducks amongst the sensational tropical plants, trees and garden ornaments. There is also a lovely little café, the Hidden Spirit Café, where you can enjoy fresh food seasoned with herbs and spices grown in the gardens and all washed down with a homemade lemonade.
Indeed, eating out in Raro is a treat, there are so many splendid restaurants on the island. Tamarind House is a fine dining restaurant and a great place to celebrate special occasions.
Another favourite is Vaima where you can dine literally on the beach with your toes in the white sand, perhaps enjoying freshly caught Mahi Mahi poached in white wine, ginger and coconut milk, with lime, breadfruit croquette and greens. It is essential to book at both of those. Sails is a little more relaxed establishment which is right on the beach also, serving lush cocktails and where I’d recommend trying the island fries of kumara, taro and baby bananas.
In terms of getting out and about, travelling around the island by car, moped, or bus is an easy and sedate (the max speed limit is 50km per hour) clockwise/anticlockwise circuit which is a 45-minute round trip. Either way you will end up in the capital, Avarua which is really made up of just one long main street.
Stopping in Avarua you might like to chill and people watch at Café Salsa nibbling a papaya muffin washed down with a black Americano as the resident cockerel struts about.
On Saturdays you can wander around the Punanga Nui market which really is a ‘must do’ as this gives you an opportunity to experience the amazing culture of the islands through its music, including a live show on the central stage, its food, clothing, and arts and crafts.
Just out of town is the historic Beachcomber Pearl Market where you can find Polynesian arts and crafts, lustrous black pearls and in their café you can sample some of the best coffee made from beans grown on Atiu island, and homemade chocolate biscotti, yum!
Evenings, if not out for dinner, are again spent on the veranda watching the sun go down, and as dusk falls a dragonfly aerial ballet, and then star gazing sipping on your favourite tipple. The night sky is so incredible and stars so bright that the starlight actually reflects off the sea.
Ah just reminiscing to write this I can almost feel the balmy, Pacific breeze on my skin and hear the gentle sounds of the lapping waves on the shore and at once yearn to return to that magical and unspoilt place.