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Prescription Paradise

Tourism Contact
www.cook-islands.com

Visas
Visitors staying less than 31 days require only a passport and forwarding air ticket.

Accomodation
Most tourists travel to Rarotonga via package deals that include accommodations, however there are many less expensive local hotels and self-catering bungalows that can be booked through the Cook Islands Tourism website noted above.

Some of the higher-end hotels booked with the packages advertise themselves as being “the finest of resorts”. This is true in island terms, but much more modest than what one would expect by North American standards. For example, air conditioning is Rarotongan Resortjust beginning to be installed, so don’t make any assumptions about this if it is important to you. Camping is not permitted on the island but there are several inexpensive backpacker hostels.

Getting Around
Rarotonga has a great local bus service, as well as car, bicycle and motorbike rentals. Drivers require a Cook Island’s license, available from the police station in Avaru for $10NZ. Motorbike licenses are an additional $5NZ. International licenses are not recognized. All driving is on the left, British style. There are no traffic lights or crosswalks to watch for (when we were there – might have changed since then), but there are big heavy coconuts. These fall on car roofs and make big deep dents, so consider yourself warned and watch what you park under!

Connections
Electricity is 220 volts, a two pin adaptor is required. Fax and internet connections are available in town.

Food and Water
The water is safe and good. Most people tolerate it out of the tap, however bottled water is available.

If one insists, all the North American favourites, from pizza to chow mein are available in local restaurants. For those more interested in the native cuisine, the Umakai is the ultimate experience. This is a traditional Polynesian feast of chicken, pork, fish, turtle and vegetables baked in an underground umu of hot stones. The food, called kai, is placed in the umu, covered with leaves and earth, then left to steam for hours.

Unearthed in the evening, the kai is served up with a buffet of sweet potato, manioto (arrowroot – like a potato), octopus, tuna, mahi mahi, parrot fish, aUmakai Feastnd barracuda. Octopus is often curried, with coconut cream showing up in the sauces of many island dishes. Savoury rukau is a kind of condiment that enlivens blander fish and chicken dishes. Resembling soggy overcooked spinach mush, rukau (taro leaves) doesn’t look great, but don’t let that stop you, because it tastes sensational.

Fruit abounds – coconuts, paw paw (papaya), mangoes, pineapples, oranges, avocadoes and watermelon. A frequent side dish to any meal, the succulent, bright orange paw paw is garnished with freshly shredded coconut – tasting nothing like the pale imitations we find in our northern super markets. Finally, no Cook Islands dinner would be complete without Poke – a stick-to-your-ribs, bread pudding type of dessert that features arrowroot, banana pulp and coconut juice. Islanders know how to cook – and how to eat.

Money
The Cook Islands uses the New Zealand dollar. Tipping is neither customary nor encouraged.

Language
The people are Maori and their indigenous language is Rarotongan, however English is common and communication presents no problems.

Economy
The economy has been primarily agricultural, but tourism is gradually taking over as the primary source of revenue. This is of major concern to community leaders because as tourism becomes more critical to people’s livelihood, decisions about their community life become ever more focused on what would attract and keep the tourists happy as opposed to what is best for the community. This will change the nature of the islands and we’ll all lose something precious.

Climate
Rarotonga is as far south of the Tropic of Capricorn as Hawaii is north of it. The drier months are reported to be April to November, with temperatures ranging from 20 to 26. The wetter months, and the hurricane season are apparently from December to March with temperatures ranging from 22 to 28.

Interestingly enough, the December to March corridor is exactly when the tour operators are booking their holiday packages to the Cook Islands. We went in February and the weather was fine. Mid-afternoon there was often a tropical squall of some fifteen minutes or so duration. Out riding our motorbikes, we’d spot a menacing black cloud galloping in from the ocean, take cover under someone’s front porch, then marvel at the sheer volume thumping down from the heavens. It seemed as if God’s wife was emptying a bucket of water out the window. As quickly as it arrived, the squall was gone, and we were put-putting back down the lanes, tarmac steaming in the tropical heat.


Geography
Rarotonga was created millions of years ago when a volcano pushed up from under the ocean floor. The volcano is now dormant, it’s flanks having eroded into a series of ridges, now softened by the lush vegetation of the creeping valley jungle. A fertile coastal plain encircles the island, offering islanders the agricultural abundance Rarotongaresponsible for that well-fed Polynesian plumpness.

The island is ringed by a clear turquoise lagoon, enclosed by a natural reef. Tumbling down through mountain passes, freshwater streams, deadly to the coral, cut natural passages through the reef, creating several natural harbours.

There are actually fifteen tiny Cook Islands, scattered over 240 square kilometers of the South Pacific. This geographical anomaly presents the Cook Islanders with an interesting financial sideline. As the 200 mile limit applies to even the smallest of the Cook’s atolls, they do a booming business in fishing permits for international tuna boats.

What to Buy
Black pearls are the big deal on Rarotonga and there are several chi-chi jewelers in the main town of Avaru. Even if you don’t have the funds or desire for this kind of purchase, go on in because the pearls themselves and the carving done on them is exquisite. Staff are happy to talk about pearl cultivation and show a video about the pearl farming and diving conducted off Manihika, one of the northern islands.

Punanga-nui MarketIf you’re more in the market for souvenirs, you’ll want to buzz on over to the Saturday morning Punanga-nui Market at the west end of town. Local vendors set up their stalls under the brilliant boughs of the aptly named Flame Tree. Punanga-nui has an the intriguing dual function of providing both the necessities of life for the locals and trinkets for the tourists.

This is the place to pick up fresh bananas, succulent paw paw, and local baking for afternoon snacks. It’s also the place to buy intriguing mother of pearl carved medallions. Each medallion has a story carved onto it and is an original work of art by the pearl carver Tokeru. At $20 each, I bought one for my 70-year-old mother, another for my 19-year-old son. They were both delighted.

Another market specialty is the brilliantly tie-dyed pareu. These are the beautifully patterned fine cotton sheets of fabric that Polynesians tie around themselves. I personally witnessed a demonstration of this garment being tied into 135 different configurations including one pareu fashioned into both shorts and a shirt! I will never remember how to do that so I just use mine for a tablecloth and it looks fabulous.

Finally, we go to the market for wood carvings. Cook Islanders carve bowls and drums and salad tongs but their specialty is carvings of the local God Tangaroa. The missionaries tried to rid the islands of this fellow but he seems to have stuck in the affections of islanders. His one outstanding feature? The largest penis you will ever see – truly distinguishes him as a god – to other men anyway. They sell zillions of them.

Carolyn Usher

TRIP DATA:

This trip was taken by Steve and Carolyn Usher in 2000. Info and links have been updated as of August 2005.