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When I told my friends that I was going on vacation to the island of Rarotonga every single one of 'em replied with: "Where?" "Where in the heck is that?!!!!!!!"
When my wife and I celebrated our 20th anniversary, we chose Tahiti and Moorea in French Polynesia. I noticed that our Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 was continuing on to a place called "Rarotonga" so I looked it up when I got home and vowed to someday go there!
So where is Rarotonga? It's in the Cook Islands between Tahiti and Fiji in the beautiful South Pacific.
This was a special trip for us. My daughter, Christie, was kind enough to let us go on part of her honeymoon with her and her new husband Russ. We also took our son, Rob, and his fiancée Jenn and it turned out to be quite a trip. My wife and I along with Rob and Jenn came home directly from Rarotonga while the lovebirds lingered on their honeymoon visiting Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora on their way home.
Since we are Delta Air Line nuts, our trip---as always!!!---began with a short hop from Detroit to Atlanta. Then it was off to Los Angeles on a beautiful Delta MD-11. We got into L.A. late on Christmas night and spent the night and a relaxing afternoon the next day before catching our Air New Zealand 747-200 from L.A. to the islands.
This is not a trip for people who don't like to fly! Just getting from Detroit to L.A. the Delta way (connecting in Atlanta), we were in the air for 5 and a half hours. From L.A. it was about 8 hours non-stop to Papeete, Tahiti. We spent about 2 hours on the ground there and then re-boarded for the final 90 minute flight to Rarotonga.
We found Rarotonga to be delightful and the people were just wonderful. While I didn't have the pleasure of visiting Tahiti 40 years ago, I can only imagine that it must have been like this.
The island is only 20 miles around. It's a typical lagoon type island with high mountains in the center and a coral reef protecting the island itself about a quarter to a half mile off shore. Without that protective coral reef, the waves would have pounded the island leaving cliffs behind instead of fine sand beaches.
This is great---there isn't one, single stoplight on the entire island. In fact we only saw two or three stop signs! And you won't find one, single McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, etc. NO fast food, period! You know you're "way out there" when you don't find fast food!
Rarotonga is now an independent nation but has close ties with New Zealand. That's why most paper money that changes hands there is New Zealand currency. It's interchangeable with the Cook Islands currency. The Cooks feature all kinds of interesting coins and one paper note--the three dollar bill.
When it comes to accommodations, this was a radical departure from anywhere we've ever stayed before in an island setting. Always in the past it was at least a "3 star resort" and more often than not a 4 or 5 star resort. On Rarotonga, they just don't have places like that. It's much more simple but still quite lovely.
Our choice for lodging was the Little Polynesian. It has only 9 units and no restaurant. But each bungalow comes complete with a little stove, refrigerator, sink and all the dishes and silverware you'll need. The property is owned and managed by Dorice Reid and her sister and they treated you like royalty! Dorice met us at the airport and schlepped us to the motel and even took my wife, Cindy, out to a grocery store early in the morning so we could buy some eggs, milk, bread and Fosters. You know what Fosters is, right? As their ad campaign goes: "Fosters -- It's Australian for Beer!" Rarotonga is fairly close to New Zealand and Australia so most of the everyday products you buy there (from beer to cheese to laundry detergent to saltine crackers) come from one of those countries.
Please Note: We are very sad to report that Dorice Reed passed away in 2011. She became ill and was flown to New Zealand for treatment and died peacefully. It is with equal sadness that we learned that Dorice's sister, Jeannine, has also passed away.
Our bungalows each had a king size bed (actually two regulars pulled together so tightly you hardly noticed), two wicker lounging chairs and a nice dining table. The rooms were only steps from the beach and the properly had a nice but small "homemade" in-ground pool. The rooms had no air conditioning but did have a ceiling fan. We were only really hot one night when the trade winds died down. For the most part, though, it was very windy on the island and the breeze was much appreciated.
If you're squeamish about critters, you'll like Rarotonga. The sea is swimmer and diver friendly and there are no snakes or bugs that can really harm you. There are mosquitoes, especially inland, and you'll see an occasional gecko--usually in your room. But that's a good thing. A gecko is a little lizard-like creature that thrives on eating mosquitoes. They can be as short as a skinny green bean about 2 inches long or as long as 5 inches and really fat in the middle. They're neat critters.
Several stalks of bananas were tied up to a tree at all times at the Little Poly so you could just go out and fetch your own bananas anytime you wanted and coconuts were piled up nearby. Dorice personally showed us the fine art of how to husk and crack open a coconut. It's not at all what I thought it would be. Husking is easily. Anybody can do it. In Polynesia, they start with a sharpened stick that has been stuck in the sand, blunt end buried in the sand, sharp end sticking up out of the sand. They start by just jabbing the coconut with the sharp end and go to work peeling the husk off. Once it's husked comes the tricky part. Dorice taught us to look for the "eyes" on the bottom of the coconut. Holding the coconut upright with the eyes on the bottom, you'll find three "veins" spiraling out from the top. Take a rock and GENTLY tap those veins. Tap one then rotate and tap the next one. Keep doing this until the shell lightly cracks--just like cracking a soft-boiled egg open. If you do this right ONLY the hard, thin shell will come off and you'll be left with a soft inner layer. That's the lining of the coconut meat and is perfectly edible. Then just keep carefully cracking the outer shell until you've got a lot of soft lining and then just take a knife and cut through it and start enjoying wonderful, fresh coconut meat. The "milk" is refreshing but is quite thin and not at all creamy. You have to take the meat and mix it with the "milk" to come up with coconut cream.
The view from our room was incredible. There were all kinds of coconut palms and other tropical plants including hibiscus, frangipani trees, flame trees, etc. Absolutely beautiful. Then an incredible white sand beach with a beautiful crystal clear lagoon. Out about a quarter of a mile was the coral reef with huge, pounding waves. The lagoon was smooth when the wind wasn't blowing.
Snorkeling was excellent. The water varied from a foot upon entering to about 10 feet deep, depending upon the tide. The lagoon is called Titikaveka Lagoon and it's beautiful. Among the many fish we swam with and photographed were these: many, many different parrotfish, moorish idols, zillions of different wrasses, many different butterfly fish, tangs, surgeonfish, trunkfish, goatfish, triggerfish, chromis, trumpet fish, cornet fish, cowfish, sergeants---and the list goes on and on. We saw some beautiful blue starfish that we had never seen before. Each arm on these babies was about 10 inches long. They were rather skinny but a bright, deep blue in color.
Before the British missionaries came to the island, the locals worshiped "the gods" including the primary god of Tangaroa. His claim to fame? He is anatomically correct and extremely well endowed! This is not a made-up story but he was a real god in those days. All the tikis feature his "manly digit" and his hum-dinger even shows up on the one dollar Cook Island coin and on the Cooks three dollar bill. Needless to say I brought back several of these tikis for souvenirs and everybody gets a chuckle out of them!
There's not a lot to do on Rarotonga, which is why we enjoyed it! The beach is the main attraction and snorkeling, as mentioned, is wonderful. There is a surprisingly good collection of restaurants on the island including the Flame Tree and the Portofino which are the best on the island. Surprisingly there's not a very big selection of fresh seafood at all. We ONLY encountered fresh Mahi Mahi (dorado dolphin and NOT the mammal flipper type dolphin!) and fresh parrotfish. Even when you charter a deep sea fishing boat you usually don't get to keep the fish you catch because fish is expensive on the island. This is one thing I still don't understand. The island is surrounded by the South Pacific and it's just jumpin' with all kinds of fish yet fresh fish is not on every menu. In fact at one local restaurant (Tumunu) I checked out all the fish and seafood items on the menu and asked our server which one was the freshest. She told me, with a typical kind, Polynesian smile..that nothing was fresh, it was all frozen. I still ordered a seafood platter and it was pretty good. At least they've mastered the art of proper handling of frozen fish there! I kept fantasizing about buying a boat, moving to Rarotonga and going out everyday and filling the boat up with fish and making a decent living. They don't take kindly to granting employment to outsiders in Rarotonga or any other foreign country but the thought did occur to me!
There are supposedly two radio stations on the island--one a.m. and one f.m. but we could only pick up the a.m. at the Little Poly. It was called Radio AKTIV which stood for "Always Keen to Initiate Vision." At least that's what one announcer said. Most of the music is typical Polynesian music (ukuleles) and there are some western tunes mixed in. They have local news and their international news comes from New Zealand. They get it from short wave at the local a.m. station or I should say try to get it. Sometimes it doesn't come in! We did not have a t.v. in the room (which was just dandy with us!!!!) but I'm told there is one t.v. station on the island that broadcasts during the evening hours.
There are activities other than swimming and snorkeling. They have a golf course, tennis courts and you can always take a mountain trek. But I think the greatest thing about Rarotonga is the relaxation factor and the kind, warm, gentle Polynesian people. I'd say these are the friendliest people we've encountered so far in the South Pacific and our host at the Little Poly, Dorice Reid, couldn't have been any nicer.
We got a kick out of Dorice's two pets---Kuru (a dog) and Kara (a kitty). We quickly made friends with them and they seemed sad to see us go. Kuru (which is Polynesian for breadfruit) was a super friendly medium to large mutt. She was probably 45 pounds and a brown mix of something or other. She would sit next to our beach chairs and beg us to throw sticks for her to fetch. Kara, which is Polynesian for the word "color," was always coming around to our patio for some lovin.' Sadly like Dorice and her sister Jeannine, Kuru and Kara are no longer there. All the dogs on Raro (and there are many) seemed friendly and they all seemed to get along splendidly well with each other. The locals liked to stroll down the beach with them.
Rarotonga is the perfect place to come if you truly want to unwind and get away from it all. This is NOT the place to come if you're looking for 5 star resorts, casinos and fast night life. But if you want beautiful and uncrowded beaches, friendly people, and a real escape---this is paradise. Despite the fact that all 9 bungalows at our motel were occupied, there were days when we were the only ones on the beach! Now that's my kind of place. And happily on Rarotonga, crime is not at all a problem.
When you rent a car, as we did, you have to go to downtown Avarua (the main city) and get a Cook Islands driver's license at the local police station. It only costs $10, New Zealand and makes a neat souvenir complete with your photo on it. And by the way .the exchange rate really favors us Yanks. While we were there, the New Zealand Dollar/Cooks Dollar equaled only 56.9 cents U.S.! That's even better than the Canadian exchange rate!
One thing I'll always remember as long as I live was celebrating New Year's Eve on the beach at the Little Poly. The stars were so bright that I watched my watch turn 12 midnight and gave the order to pop the champagne cork with no additional light other than the stars illuminating my watch! Incredible! And the moon wasn't even out! With no light to speak of on the island, the stars are the brightest I've ever seen. Much better than the highly acclaimed "black diamond sky" in the Caribbean.
A special thanks to Ellen Pierce of Northern California. She posted a note about Rarotonga on an AOL travel BBS and she was just wonderful in helping us to learn about Rarotonga before we actually got on the plane. THANKS, ELLEN!
For years people have asked me what my favorite place on Earth is. I'd ask them to narrow it down to Europe, Asia, Caribbean, etc. But now it's an easy call to make. Rarotonga is my favorite place on the planet!
Currency is the Cook Islands Dollar and the New Zealand Dollar, which are interchangeable. Cook Islands Maori (similar to Tahitian Polynesian) is the official language but EVERYBODY speaks English. Driving is on the LEFT and this is a good place to learn how to drive on the left since traffic is extremely light. The driver's wheel is on the RIGHT, which makes for an interesting first trip! The turn signal lever is on the RIGHT of the steering column so you're first impulse is to flick the windshield wiper lever which is to the LEFT of the column when turning on the signal for the first few times! You'll need a passport to go to Rarotonga but not a visa.