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Ciaran and Ruth's Worldwide Adventures


COOK ISLANDS | Saturday, 25 August 2007 | Views [3617] | Comments [2]

Kia Orana!

There are fifteen main islands in the country named Cook Islands, and of these fifteen islands which house 14,000 - 19,000 people (depending on who you ask or who's counting), Rarotonga is the largest. Our base on Rarotonga, the Muri Beach Club Hotel sits happily on the south-eastern coastline staring out at a few tiny islands - so close that you can walk out to them through the clear shallow water. Alternatively, you can take one of the hotel's complimentary kayaks and paddle to your heart's content around the waist deep lagoon, visiting along the way those islands which offer little more than palm trees and utter tranquillity - just look out for the rocks in the water.

On one of these islands there's a small chapel, or hut to be a bit more accurate, build for the performance of tribal wedding ceremonies. On Friday - our rainiest day here - a couple did indeed tie the knot over there, complete with Maori warrior, tribal boat, song, dance, flowers and two very white Irish people watching from the opposite shore.

Incidentally, we were supposed to be staying at the Pacific Resort - but unfortunately construction work on a footpath outside our window would have meant an unwanted 10am alarm call, so the extremely nice staff there - particularly the extraordinarily helpful Uta - relocated us next door to the Muri Club, where we had a ground floor, beach front room. Waking in the morning is so much less of a chore if you can open your door to the views we get - such as the one above (though few cameras - and particularly not ours - could do it justice).

They say that in the Cook Islands, sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. In a place like this, it is tempting to follow this advice. Everyone is laid back - from the border guard who stamps your passport with a broad smile; to the shop assistant who interrupts her dinner to amble over to the check out to serve you; to the server who's job it is to fill the tea pot at breakfast and does so now, then or whenever the feeling grabs him. Don't get us wrong, the place has a great atmosphere. This is not the place to come if you want something done for you quickly, but who cares, this is a place where things get done eventually, and while you're waiting get yourself another drink and enjoy the distant waves and the warm breeze. Even if you're in a queue, such as the one we were in for thirty minutes or so at the airport, there's a gray-haired, flowery-shirted guy with a guitar slowly strumming out 1960's chart toppers, just for your enjoyment. How nice.

The islands, named of course for our old mate Capt. James Cook - Jimmy C as we now call him - cover a combined land area of 240 square kilometers, but the entire area - land and sea - is a whopping 2 million square kilometers. A flight from here in Rarotonga to the northernmost island takes you across 1000km in 4.5 hours for about €750! And you've got to get in a queue for a place in these eight seater planes with irregular schedules. A good idea, then, is to just stick to the island you're on. This was our decision, as we took to bicycles rather than boats and circumnavigated the island along its only highway - which conveniently enough, follows the coastline making an almost perfect 31 km circle. Because it hugs the coastline, the entire road is only slightly higher than sea level and devoid of peaks and valleys - to our delight then we never faced uphill climbs, but to our dismay this meant no downhill buzz.

On our travels around the island we stopped only for two reasons. The first reason was to regain our breath and prevent death due to exhaustion - two months of rich food and fine wine (ok, steak and house wine) doesn't prepare you for this level of strain. The second reason was to shop for pearls. The island is littered, literally peppered with places that want to sell you these precious oyster contents, set in gold, silver or anything else you can think of to serve as ear-rings, bracelets and necklaces. Following our shopping, the island now has four less pearls. Despite the fact that Ruth has only two ears, she bought four ear-rings. Ciaran doesn't believe in such redundancy - he's bought one Hawaiian shirt which is now worn for breakfast, barbecues and bicycle trips.

Of the many pleasures to be had on the island - few beat the experience of just sitting on your doorstep watching what life there is pass by. Nicer still you can sit there with a bottle of champagne and not a care in the world. This is how we celebrated two months of marriage on Tuesday evening, after a lovely dinner in a nearby restaurant - enjoyed with feet buried in sand and cocktails dripping condensation onto the tablecloth.

There is not much life on the Cook Islands. However, as well as the 14,000 or so people there are 16,000 pigs (actual pigs, not law enforcement) - though we met none of them, and an unusual number of dogs - some of whom wander up to you and harmlessly take rest from the heat. The excitement comes when these territorial creatures compete for a spot in the sun and then chase each other across the beach. Or when they go fishing - which in fairness to them they're pretty good at. They sit on the beach endlesslessly staring into the water, before pouncing, disappearing and reemerging with some tasty treat from under the sea. Who needs TV?

It is hard to stress the tininess of this place's population. Registration plates on cars use only four digits. Telephone numbers use five digits - fairly excessive we think, since this gives a potential of seven different phone numbers to every resident in the country. They reckon that 75,000 Cook Islanders live abroad. Maybe they expect them all to come back and are keeping a few spare numbers for them.

Avarua is the main town on Rarotonga and serves as the capital for the Cook Islands. Their government is elected from a parliament whose lower house has 25 members, 24 of whom represent Cook Islanders at home, the other representing the Cook Island population in New Zealand. The various government ministries have their offices sprinkled around Avarua. The Ministry of Marine Resources shares a building with a chip shop. You would miss the ministry were it not for their hand painted, nay - scribbled, sign on their outside wall. Various other ministries occupy similarly underwhelming but undeniably charming buildings.

Curiously, their police headquarters is one of their two most impressive physical structures. This place picks up a lot of moola though, by charging tourists $10 to get a local driving license - not recognising those licenses from abroad. There's always a bit of a queue outside, as well, due to the requirement for tourists to complete a driving test if they want a scooter license. We didn't bother. We got bikes. If we had neither bikes nor scooters we could have taken the bus around the island. There are two bus routes, and untroubled by numbers and letters, they simply label the busses as either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Makes sense.

If you're interested, the second impressive building is the Queen's Representative's Residence (seriously, imagine when they're dishing out jobs in Whitehall and this one comes up for grabs - "eh, I'll take Cook Islands boss"). Like many other island nations in the south-west Pacific, and indeed like Australia and New Zealand, their flag gives reference (reverence?) to Great Britain and her queen with a Union Jack in the upper left quadrant.

Despite the small population, there are churches on the island catering for a vast array of Christian faiths. I tell ya, this place challenges New York for its diversity, with as many as three Mormon churches on Rarotonga, as well as houses of worship for Jehovah's Witnesses and a whole load of versions of Protestantism and a bunch of Roman Catholic churches. There's even a cathedral! St. Josephs. All this on Rarotonga - an island with less than half the number of people in Leixlip. Holy God!

The Cook Islanders have a very rich culture, brim full of dancing and song. We never made it to the Cultural Centre here - designed apparently to teach tourists all the local rituals. We did, however, go to an Island Night - an occasion in the Pacific Resort where the locals come in and perform their various dances and beat their drums for your entertainment. Mighty fun. The best part, by some distance, was when Ruth was called upon to participate. And this she did with grace and skill. All recorded on video should you ever wish to see it.

It is difficult to believe why anyone would want to leave this little spot of paradise. The locals certainly seem to think so. For your foolishness, when you do elect to leave, they charge you $30. They call it a departure fee, but we think they're using a stick rather than a carrot to invite you to stay. There's no need really, we'd all happily stay here - we'd take the slow service and the low speed limits, we'd take the remoteness and we'd live with the prices, we'd endure the occasional cyclone, goodness me we'd even take the Union Jack on the national flag, we'd take it all and leave the rest of the world behind were it not for the need to go back to Ireland, start making money, buy a house and see all of you again.

By the way, our opening salutation - Kia Orana - is Cook Island Maori for "hello", though the literal meaning is "that you may live a long life". There's hardly a better place to do so.

Tags: Relaxation




"Nicer still you can sit there with a bottle of champagne and not a care in the world. This is how we celebrated two months of marriage on Tuesday evening, after a lovely dinner in a nearby restaurant - enjoyed with feet buried in sand and cocktails dripping condensation onto the tablecloth."...how romantic...awwww :-)

  Maria Aug 28, 2007 8:35 PM


I will pay good money to see that video of Ruthie!!

  Fiona Aug 30, 2007 8:27 PM

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