Cook Islands

Visitors offer different views on their reason for visiting. Some will say because “it’s so far away.” Others just smile wistfully, saying they’re here because no one back home seems to know a thing about the Cooks. A good number come to enjoy watersports and adventure. Photographers say they’re here for the light alone and to see the deep green covering spectacular topography. No matter. There’s something for everyone.

Just because the islands are far from the well-trodden path and have a very low population doesn’t mean tourist amenities are lacking. On the contrary, there are enough resorts, five-star hotels and attractions to warm the cockles of the most jaded traveler’s heart.

Several development projects to improve tourism infrastructure are underway. According to Cook Island Prime Minister Jim Marurai, he would like to see the islands become a destination for Americans and Canadians since the Cooks are already a favorite—if under-publicized—destination for sun-starved northern Europeans.

Recently, a group of tourists posed several questions dealing with tourism to a guide who smiled and said: “Why don’t you ask the prime minister? He’s sitting over there,” and pointed to an adjoining table.

Prime Minister Marurai was dining in the restaurant of the Crown Beach Resort, a hotel favored by travelers. He was unlike any head of state; his friendliness reflected the spirit of his country. He wore a Hawaiian-print shirt and asked the visitors to join him. It’s that kind of place, the Cooks.

“Despite the economy,” Prime Minister Marurai says, “we have seen tourism increase by almost 3 percent in the last year and we expect that number to climb. We plan to upgrade the airport terminal with a loan we recently secured from China and are improving roads, sanitation facilities and water.”

The Crown Beach Resort is, incidentally, one of Rarotonga’s most alluring hotels—a 4.5-acre complex that looks like a South Seas thatched village. With 21 luxury suites and individual plunge pools set in gardens thriving with frangipani and wild hibiscus, the beachfront property has recently added 14 courtyard and pool suites. The property is rich in exotic landscaping and small waterfalls, all built to the specifications of Rondo Perkins, a semi-retired Wyoming cattleman who happens to be one of the leading black pearl wholesalers in the region.

The Crown Beach is rich in special touches blending cowboy influence with South Seas culture. Its Windjammer Restaurant features imported American steaks grilled to perfection and served with delectable native side dishes. Most employees like to weave leis (called eis in the Cooks) for guests from the flowers growing within the property.

Rates at the resort range from about 500 New Zealand dollars (1 NZ dollar equals approximately 70 U.S. cents) for a 1-bedroom garden villa (that’s $350), to $525 for a deluxe beachfront and spa villa. The rates include tax, tropical breakfast, unlimited use of snorkeling equipment and traditional outrigger canoes, and weekend diving lessons.

Since the quintessential mode of transport in Rarotonga is the motor scooter, visitors are advised to rent one. Daily rates at Budget, range from $14-$63, but visitors must obtain a Cook Islands driver’s license for an additional $7. Licenses are highly prized by tourists who obtain one, even when they have no intention of driving.

A scooter offers tremendous possibilities while exploring Rarotonga, which may be looped in less than one hour over a paved road that’s never more than a few yards from fantastic secluded beaches. On a scooter, one can visit such remote spots as Tikioki Beach, Black Rock or the channels of Muri Lagoon, considered some of Rarotonga’s most spectacular snorkeling spots.

Vacationers can also indulge on a cross-island hike led by Pa Teuraa, a famous local herbalist, conservationist, traditional healer and authority on Cook Islands culture. Pa leads groups on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays along mountain trails where ancient Maori once lived and thrived. The walks invariably end at Wigmore Waterfalls, a lush, tropical spot so laid back natives claim even mosquitoes don’t bite here. Concierges will arrange for the walk that costs approximately $52.

Another fabulous way to learn about island culture is through a progressive dinner sponsored by the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation where a small group of travelers make the rounds in Rarotonga, stopping at private homes to share in local food and conversation. The tour operates every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and lasts most of the evening.