Know to Go

Swirling paper umbrellas through perfectly chilled Pina Colada’s we looked deeply into each other’s eyes …and panicked. Two weeks of paradise with nothing to do but relax?

Rarotonga is small, 32 kilometres in circumference, a scant 67 squared. By bus, the full-island round trip takes scarcely an hour, including the stops. We knew this Lush Lagoonbecause landing early the previous morning, we’d immediately hopped onto the local bus to get our bearings. It was an alarmingly short trip.

Fortunately, we discovered an island that is the definition of “tropical beauty” and whatever cachet the overworked descriptor “paradise” still holds, belongs to Rarotonga. Clear turquoise waters lapping at sugar sand beaches? Everywhere. Warm as a bathtub coral lagoons? The lagoon encircles the entire island. Lush tropical gardens? Describes the whole island. Every crooked dirt lane is a path through Eden.

Why the panic then?

Parachuting from a frenetic urban life directly into this world of endless relaxation is unsettling. Island ways and island time sounds real fine when you’re slogging through a snow storm at home. But onsite, it takes some adjustment. With nary a trace of self consciousness, Rarotongans smile benignly at those of us still trying to run our lives by the clock.

We’d booked a 4WD trip into the interior valleys and been told to be ready at 1:30. Naturally, we arrived in the lobby at 1:29. By 2:00 we were pestering the front desk for reassurance.

“ What time were you told you’d be picked up?”

“ We were told 1:30.”

"Oh well then, there’s lots of time yet,” the desk clerk smiled patiently.

Sure enough, at 2:20 an ancient Land Rover with “Safari Tours” splashed over the zebra paint job pulled up, tense tourists spilling out the open back bed of the truck.

Gazz of Safari ToursOur guide was Gazz and he was right on time, island time.

There isn’t much Gazz doesn’t know about Rarotonga and he shared it all. We visited ruins and sacred grounds, took goose-bump-generating tracks up vertical goat paths, rocked through crevasses big enough to swallow the truck and hopelessly lost control of shutter fingers in the face of stunning valley vistas.

It was Gazz who told us about the islanders’ initial interaction with white folks. This first meeting was with Captain Philip Goodenough of the Cumberland in 1814. The Captain was not a good man. He stole food and ravaged the women. When his wife came ashore to gather shells one day, the islanders grabbed her party and ate them all.

I’m not sure it was fair to eat the wife, but cannibalism was the island way of dealing with misbehaving tourists. Obviously it was effective because it has led, I think, to the extraordinary sense of self possession that Rarotongans exhibit. In comparison to many of the Caribbean islands, where the populace was oppressed and terrorized by white colonizers, Cook Islanders have always been in control of their relationships with white people.

Where I’ve often sensed strong undercurrents of hostility and anger towards tourists in some of the previously colonized Caribbean islands, Rarotongans of the South Pacific genuinely welcome visitors. There is an open-hearted friendliness that springs from an inner well of self confidence. When confronted with oppression in 1814, they dealt decisively with it. It’s behind them.

Fleeing Rarotonga, the Captain snatched one of the island princesses. When he landed in Aitutaki, several hundred kilometers away, the princess escaped and convinced the resident missionaries to take her home. Thus, Christianity arrived in Rarontonga.

The islanders are enthusiastic church goers, the women in a colourful parade of floral frocks and intricately decorated straw hats, the men in suits. Although visitors aren’t expected to get quite as done up, “smart wear” as they put it, is necessary if you don’t wish to offend. Church Ladies of Rarotonga
On Sunday morning we buzzed over to the Cook Islands Christian Church at Arorangi. Decked out in “clean” if not neccessarily “smart”, we slipped into some empty seats towards the back. The service was being conducted almost entirely in Rarotongan, in mellifluous tones that stroke the eardrum into a hypnotical state of total relaxation. Didn’t understand a thing, but my, how it mellowed us out.

The music is universal - anyone with a basic Protestant upbringing will recognize the first few bars of most of the songs – but only the first few bars. After that the Rarotongans let loose with indigenous rhythms and the most amazing vocalizations that transform even the most familiar standards into something uniquely Rarotongan. Acappella, the rhythm reverberates from wall to wall with harmonies vibrating from singer to singer. Booming baritones keep the beat …harrooomph …..harrooomph ….harrooomph.

The “choir” is scattered throughout the congregation, so sitting in the midst of these swells of sound is akin, perhaps, to sitting in the middle of a symphonic orchestra during Ravel’s Bolero. Amazing. Doing justice in words to this profoundly experiential music is hopeless. If you’re in the Cook Islands, go. The church bus stops at most hotels on Sunday morning for those who need transportation.

Speaking of transportation, there is the island bus and there are cars and jeeps for rent, but the main mode of transportation is small motorcycles. The rental for these was a reasonable $50 - $60 for 4 days when we went, and it is the only way to travel in paradise!

I could have spent the whole holiday hanging off the back of my husband’s bike, but I’d always harbored the desire to harness one of these beasts myself. In Rarotonga humongous old women rode and skinny little slips of girls rode, so how hard could it Local Transportationbe? If they could, surely I could too?

My husband, who grew up racing motorbikes through the back lanes of residential Vancouver, assured me there is nothing to it. “You can balance a bicycle and you can drive a stick shift,” he held forth. “These little Yamahas are just somewhere in between.”
The lady in the rental booth just hooted when I repeated this to her. “No,” she snorted. “It’s not that simple. I’ll rent him a motorcycle but I won’t rent you one until you get a license.” He was instructed to take me out to the local lacrosse field and teach me how to ride.

So with me hanging off the back, we rode out to the lacrosse field where the groundskeeper put down his clippers to watch. I assumed he was going to chase us off, but no. He just wanted to help.

“ No one actually needs all those gears,” he told me.

“ Don’t complicate things,” he continued.

“ Fourth gear will do nicely for anywhere you want to go.”

The very idea of driving in only one gear made my husband apoplectic.

Standing at opposite ends of the field, the two of them held to their positions, bellowing instructions as I passed. If I tried to change gears the groundskeeper jumped up and down, waving his arms over his head, screaming at me. But if I tried to start off in fourth gear Steve did his own little dance and while I couldn’t actually hear what he was saying, I knew.

Ignoring them both, I eventually gained enough confidence to escape the lacrosse field and head out onto the open road. There, I shakily proceeded forward for a few miles. I didn’t mean to go that far on my own, but I was worried about turning around. My prior experience with turning had offered the width of a whole lacrosse field. Now I was going to turn around on an itty bitty lane of a road?

My mistake, no doubt, was stopping dead because that made the bike heavy and hard to manage. Straddling it, I did a kind of duck waddle maneuver at the edge of the road. There wasn’t much room and the ground was uneven, so I did the predictable and jackknifed the bike, pulling the exhaust pipe onto my inner calf.

The friendly pharmacist who filled my prescription for burn cream chuckled while she told me that she’s paid off her mortgage treating what they call the “Cook Island tattoo”. Road rash pays for vacations.

No matter, we had a ball. There is NOTHING in the world like flying through the tropics, palm trees swaying, ocean crashing, frangipani the very essence you inhale. Hair streaming behind you ….oh yes, don’t tell the kids but there isn’t a helmet to be found on the island. Simply isn’t done.

We used the bikes to explore every inch of the island, taking us to the Saturday morning Punangi-nui Market for snacks and souvenirs, to the beach for snorkeling and kayaking, and to a different place for dinner every night.
What else is there to do?

Water Fun
There are a number of “Raui” in the shallow lagoon that encircles the island. “Raui” Rarotonga's Reefmeans “not to be touched” and these are conservation areas that attract up to 500 different species of fish – all of them brilliantly flamboyant, weaving in and out of the coral – brain, plate, staghorn, and mushroom. The snorkelling is safe and easy, even for the fainthearted – most of the lagoon is waist deep or less.

All the major hotels loan out snorkeling equipment as well as small kayaks for tooling around in. Wind surfing equipment is available for rent and glass bottom boats do lagoon cruises. Beyond the lagoon, the reef drop off starts at around 100 feet and descends vertically to 12,000 feet. There are a number of professional dive operators to take you out to the wrecks, drop offs, canyons, caves and swim throughs.

From torch fishing for flying fish at night to deep sea fishing for tuna and marlin, to flycasting and angling for bone fish, trevally, cod and snapper, the fishing fanatics are happy on Rarotonga. As the reef drop off is so close to shore, a 5-hour deep sea fishing trip really means 5 hours of fishing!

Beach combing for shells is productive. We collected so many that we actually put some back before leaving.

Sports Stuff
Golf, jogging, tennis, squash, aerobics, volleyball, lawn bowling, sailing, and horseback riding. Rarotonga is also host to frequent marathons and triatholons.
Trekking through the jungle is popular, either as a do-it-yourself adventure or more advisedly, with a guide. There are no poisonous insects, snakes or wild animals, but the inland mosquitoes are big enough to carry off small children, so use lots of repellant.

Cultural Stuff
The Cultural Village takes a half day to see – numerous thatch huts each feature a demonstration of some aspect of island life: costume making, fishing, medicine, weaving, coconut husking, boat making, cooking, carving, and so on. Several of the demonstrations are interactive and lots of fun. I learned how to play the indigenous slit drum, while my partner worked up a sweat trying to husk a coconut – it looked so easy when Aasi showed us!

Rarotongan’s are just waking up to the tourism potential of their island so initiatives like the Cultural Centre are sometimes endearingly hokey. On our visit, the same three people dashed from hut to hut, donning new costumes and adopting new personas – performances were sometimes amateur, but always charming. The grand finale was a demonstration of island dancing – normally fast, frenzied, erotic and suggestive. In this case however, we had our same three performers, plus an obviously petulant and unwilling teenage daughter – the effect was hilarious.

Night Life
The resorts offer Friday night Club Tours which are lots of fun. Everyone piles onto a bus and sings their way through 6 to 10 watering holes. I couldn’t help wondering what the “clubs” had to pay to be on the tour as some were genuine holes. But the deal was always the same – no drinking allowed on the bus so into a club, buy a drink, gulp it down and move on.

In the better clubs we hung out and danced to local bands playing a synthesis of island rock and international hits. The grand finale of the evening was a stop at the fried chicken takeout. By now it was 2am and the idea was patently nauseating. But as my mates all climbed back on board licking their fingers, the concept acquired merit and I too clambered off to pay $5 for a brown bag of deep fried drumettes. Absolutely deliciUmakai Feastous, and the next day - no hangover. Apparently it’s the island’s secret remedy.

Most resorts also host what are known as “Island Nights”. These feature an Umakai feast – succulent foodstuffs steamed all afternoon over hot stones in an underground oven and a stage show of Polynesian dancing. These internationally award-winning dance teams have some of the most extraordinary energy and moves I’ve ever witnessed - hot, erotic, frenzied, and very suggestive. In comparison, Hawaiian dancing is restrained and polite.

The 4WD Island “Safari” was well worth it, and we learned a lot about island history and culture too. Another activity that I thoroughly enjoyed was the scenic tour in a Cessna 172 – four seater. It offers a perspective of the island and an opportunity for photos that you could not get any other way.

Rarotonga - Paradise
What qualifies Rarotonga as a paradise? It’s more than scenic beauty because while it is undeniably gorgeous, so are many other destinations. Rarotonga is a paradise because it is still Rarontongan. There are no chain restaurants or stores or big business tour operators.

The fellow who pilots the Cessna is the same guy who Rarotongan Homedrives the airport cab, then shows up again tending bar at a night club.
The people are hardworking and industrious, but things are definitely done their way - island ways and on island time. This sounds great, but it can be frustrating for North Americans.

We spent the first week making some major attitude adjustments. By week two we were into it – and bemusedly shrugging our shoulders at newcomers.

On arrival, we’d witnessed departing guests lined up at the front desk arguing over their bills. Not wanting to get into an unsubstantiated predicament like that, I carefully recorded everything we’d charged to our room. But when our bill came on the last day it was hopelessly muddled - charges for meals never ordered, no charges for what was. No charge for the island night, but who rented a windsail? On balance, however, the total was close enough so we shrugged our shoulders, hugged the staff and murmured, “Whatever.” We were not about to mar our last moments in paradise with a front desk argument. Life would get intense soon enough. Tonight we were still islanders. If you go, what you need to know...

Carolyn Usher

This trip was taken in 2000 by Steve and Carolyn Usher. Unless otherwise noted, info and links have been updated as of August 2005.