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 just 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.
Food and Water
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, and 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.
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.
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
If 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.