25.02.2016 - 04.03.2016 32 °C
Disclaimer to begin..... the pictures included in this entry are not mine (though chosen to be as close to those of mine I remember) for reasons that will be clear later on, I have stolen them all from Google but still they do not do this beautiful country justice
After a rather bumpy night landing onto Rarotonga during which the pilot gave the brakes a thorough testing we had arrived in the Cook Islands, a tiny collection of islands, home to 14000 people. Rarotonga is the biggest of the Cook Islands and is 32km in in circumference and in a shocking coincidence this this the length of the longest and only main road on the island that circles the coast line. The island is surrounded about 100m off shore by a reef so the big waves break out to sea leaving a beautiful tropical lagoon filled with coral and sea life around the whole island. When you enter the airports arrival hall (or large room) they have a band to greet you, then after a very swift immigration process you are whisked off to your driver (or coach if you are still doing the backpacker thing). Part of our Cook Islands package included a VIP transfer to our lodgings, so we were given the full flower garland and champagne before a short ride round to the south of the island to Sea Change Villas.
We were somewhat gobsmacked by our villa when the driver let us in..... it was bigger than our house, came with a rather lush private pool and had already got a bottle of bubbly chilling away in the fridge!
A few photos in daylight
Friday morning we had a leisurely breakfast (Rob claims the first I have ever made him) from the breakfast hamper also kindly left in the fridge for us before the lovely manager Beverly came to the villa to do an island orientation. After that we hopped on some of the free villa bikes and cycled 2km round the coast passed the Queen's Representatives House - what a cushty job! - to a place called Charlie's which is just a shipping container with seating outside on the beach, but does an amazing Cook Island interpretation of the fish finger sandwich, just with freshly caught fish and the size of a plate. The plate in the picture is a normal size plate and yes we did eat 1 each on several occasions during our stay! I found it best washed down with a coconut milkshake.
There is an ongoing debate on the island which is better Charlie's or another shipping container cafe called The Moorings further around from our villa. After visiting both and sampling both fish sandwiches my verdict is choose Charlie's. Both are lovely, but Charlie's was bigger and cheaper and I preferred the crumb on the fish fillets and it came with a special sauce (mix between sweet chilli and mayo).
Rarotonga has a 2 bus services on island, one anticlockwise and one clockwise and the driver uniform is a Hawaiian shirt. The inner of the island is tropical jungle covered mountains and the whole place just feels like you've falled into Death in Paradise but without the murder. It is a place where most mobile phones don't have signal and there is wifi here and there but £7.50 for 50mb, so it's miles away from the real world. Everywhere you look is another postcard worthy beach, with barely a soul on it.
Many of the local restaurants operate a transfer service if pre-booked and on the Friday night we went to the nearest, a beautiful little place with tables on the beach so you called watch the sunset over the lagoon, called Vaima. Our driver turned out to be the owner no less, and a former Brit who long ago fled the rain and cold of northern England to set up in the Cook Islands. As such the menu not only had such Polynesian dishes such as ika mata, fresh raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, shallots, lime and tomato but also beef wellington, which I had to have as that was our wedding meal over 6 months ago now. Both of these were executed perfectly and was a nice English/Polynesia surf/turf starter/main combo.
On Saturday morning we were taken to collect our hire care, free for 3 days with our honeymoon package, and then drove to the capital Avarua on the opposite side of the island to Sea Change for the Punanga Nui market. This is a once a week market where all the traders, farmers and cooks on the island come to sell their wares. We had some great snacks and juices walking around buying breads, some beautiful artwork and some black pearl earrings (a local speciality we were told before our trip that Rob must buy me!). At 10.30 the bandstand in the middle of the market came alive with some tradition drumming and the local traditional dance troupe putting on a cultural display for all the shoppers. After completing the lap of the island to return our purchases to the villa, Rob had a quick "practice" snorkel in the pool observed by Wilf, then we headed out to a famous local eatery, again right on the beach, called Trader Jacks. We felt obliged to sample some more cocktails and ate a seafood platter that took up the whole table.
On Sunday night's there is an evening that is me and Rob in a nutshell. An all you can eat BBQ with live music at the mini golf course - which was free with the meal - all for $35 each. After I once again secured victory over Rob we stuffed our faces whilst listening to a pretty amazing band considering the number of folks on the island available to form a band. Dessert was to die for and the whole evening was just laid back and surreal.
Rob got into his Indiana Jones groove on the Monday and we set off to explore the old Sheraton Resort. This would have been the Cook Islands first big 5* international resort and it was going to be big! Sadly the funding it turns out had come from the Italian mafia and at 95% ready for opening the money disappeared and the resort was just left as it was to stand for 20 years. Security has long since been abandoned so the resort is available for anyone who cares to enter and have a nose around. The bathrooms with spa baths are still therebut many doors have rotted off the hinges. The pool and pool bar are now a pond and vine covered and cows roamed the site freely, including one that took a real objection to me until I fled upstairs into what would have been the main reception restaurant building. Nothing of value that wasn't build in remains on the site, but now nature is trying to reclaim it there is such a eerie beauty - these are some of the photos I am most disappointed about losing. A quick Google tells me that there have been many attempts to reopen/redevelop the site, the last of these was supposed to be well underway currently, but these have never taken off according to the locals due to a long standing curse on the land. The land was a long time ago "rented" from a local man by a chap call Wigmore who then killed the owner and claimed the land as his. The local man's widow cursed the land so no venture on it would ever succeed. At the groundbreaking of the Sheraton back in the 90s the great grandson of the murdered owner attended and repeated the curse and broke a tone with a staff which apparently shows the curse is still working and from the look of the site it really still is!
After much pool snorkel practice from Rob on the Tuesday we headed out for a lagoon cruise with Koka Lagoon Cruises. The first part of this is a guided snorkel tour around the "Fruits of Rarotonga" marine preserve area of the lagoon then onto a small island just of the coast of the town of Muri for a seafood BBQ and a coconut lesson, which included Rob representing the UK in a coconut tree climb. It seems that Rob is somehow perfect for coconut tree climbing and kicked Kiwi and Ozzie butt - sadly again the video of this astounding event is all lost. This trip also included an encounter with a dog called Hercules who belonged to one of the captains of the boat and we left happily snoozing on the beach under a tree on the main land but then appeared happy as anything on the island. I assumed that another boat had brought him across the lagoon, but after he hopped off the boat to chase a stray flip flop as we were departing and refused to get back on and the boat left without him, we were told this is how Hercules spends his days. After the boat heads off to the snorkelling site he naps for a while then runs along the beach to the shortest crossing site and swims to the island to await the captain and tourists who spoil him rotten feeding him BBQ scraps, then when the boat leaves he swims back across and beats the boat back to the dock!
Another honeymoon perk was to have a private chef come cook dinner for us poolside, we thought after a hard day of snorkelling and laying on the beach was as good as day as any to put our feet up and be food pampered. The lovely lady chef came and set up a lush all meats you can think of BBQ followed by chocolate brownie and coconut ice cream, and did all the washing up. There was enough food to feed an army, but in true getting a bit chunky nearing 30s style we ate the lot! I could definitely get used to someone coming and cooking my dinners and cleaning up whilst I drink another bottle of bubbly with my feet dipped in a pool.
Our final days in paradise were spent having our free couples massage on the villa decking. I felt somewhat like Prince Oberyn at the end of his fight with the mountain when we came to the head massage but my muscles definitely did feel looser after the beating they took. Then a dinner at Highland Paradise cultural show up in the mountains where some locals are trying to find and reclaim their pre missionary culture and after a feast put on a song and dance show charting the pre missionary days to the present in how their lives and styles have changed. Highly recommend this to anyone who finds themselves over in Rarotonga, Rob would also highly recommend it but this has absolutely nothing to do with girls and their grass and coconut bras shaking it.
For our final day before the flight we attempted something I had been pondering since planning this trip and picking up a bike to get back into cycling. Using the free resort bikes we set off on a mission to cycle the whole island! We stopped at the main police station at the 16km mark to get Rob a Cook Island driving licence which he will proudly show to anyone, and ate an absurd amount of pizza for a lunch fuelling stop. We also had a few home straight stop at some beach bars. We completed the whole circuit 32km in 32oC heat and were chuffed as anything. Alas it was this chuffedness that cost me my beloved phone. As we arrived back at Sea Change I threw on my reef shoes and charged into the sea as a cooling celebration. Rob stood on a rock to capture this moment on phone film and was taken out by a surprising wave (a hangover from the nights storm) and chose to rescue his sandal with my phone in his hand. Despite some emergency rice treatment my phone did not make it and all photos are currently lost but we will attempt to find someone to retrieve them on return to the UK.
Final thoughts: go to the Cook Islands, it's paradise before it's commercialised. Rob loved "island time" it's been what he has worked to his whole life.
The beach in front of Sea Change