Part 2: Two Weeks Cook Islands & Aitutaki

Part 2: Feb 22 – March 7, 2007 – Two Weeks in the Cook Islands – Rarotonga and Aitutaki

First Day in the Cook Islands

We arrived early at the Edgewater Resort, only about a 10 minute drive from the airport. It is conveniently located on the ocean and we later discovered it is the largest hotel on the island. We were warmly greeted by the hotel staff and Uncle Joe, a former Cook Island police officer took our bags on his large golf cart to our room before coming back to pick our family up. Along the way to our room, he gave us the tour of the resort complete with lots of helpful tips and information. We then checked into villa number 5 which was conveniently located at the newest end of the resort. It is a self contained 3 bedroom house perfect for accommodating our family of 7. We were also advised that we were only the second people to check into this brand new section of the resort. This became obvious as we discovered the installation instructions in the dishwasher and Styrofoam packaging inside the microwave. Nothing like the new-house feel. Because we were early enough, Uncle Joe encouraged us to take advantage of the Buffet Continental Breakfast that is included in the room rates. We had worked up an appetite and so it didn’t take much to convince us to have a fresh “Island” breakfast.

Breakfast came complete with toast, papaya juice (called Pawpaw juice), cereals and the greatest fresh island fruit bar. The fruit bar included fresh island fruits such as papaya, banana, coconut, guava, apples and watermelon. A great breakfast deal we discovered after seeing how much fruit costs at the local grocery store. Starting out the hot sunny day with a full stomach was the perfect way to begin our holiday. The rest of the day was spent wading in the lagoon water in front of the hotel and hanging out in the swimming pool which was much cooler than the hot air.

Although we did take a nap as the hottest time of the day came baring down on us we did make the most of our day. Our favorite part of the day was when we had the opportunity to ride the bus into the main town of Avarua to get some much needed groceries. I had gone down the street earlier to the local 6-11 store and paid $4 for a one litre bottle of spring water. When we arrived at one of the three main grocery stores on the island we didn’t notice the prices being much better. A block of butter was $5 and 4 litres of water was still $5. We would have bought some fish or chicken but they had all run out. I guess it’s the luck of the draw and it looks like our food budget won’t stretch as far as we had anticipated.

We stood out a bit in the small grocery store as our 5 children helped fill up our two shopping carts with the supplies we would need for the next few days. We had no choice but to get what we needed, so $250 later we walked out of the store with backpacks and arms loaded. After getting directions to the closest bus stop we headed out, 7 backs and 14 arms loaded with backpacks and bags.

As we sat at the bus-stop we quickly discovered that it may be a long ride home on the bus. The 10 minute bus-ride counter-clockwise around the island does not operate after 4:30 pm. This meant that the 7 pm bus that was to leave in 20 minutes would take the clockwise route around the island and take 50 minutes instead. To our surprise however a skinny 60 year old man driving by popped his head out the window and asked where we were going. When we explained our hotel destination to him he quickly turned his red truck around and offered us ride. He told us he felt for the kids and didn’t want them to have to wait or take the long ride to our hotel. As we started to load our belongings in the back of his truck he asked that we quickly get in as he did not want to upset his local friends by taking away fare paying passengers from the local bus company. No matter the result, it was a much appreciated gesture that we will long remember past the memory of a 50 minute bus ride I am sure.

As we spoke to our host we quickly discovered that he knew lots of people on the island. Every local person we passed he honked to and waved, calling many of them by name. He had a wonderful sense of humor and asked us to wait in his truck for a few minutes while he ran into a local corner store that was extremely small but where he said, “most of the locals shop”. He said the prices there are better than in the bigger supermarkets. We decided that we would follow the locals’ suggestion (this was the second local that had recommended this place to us) and shop there the next time.

After our conversation on the way to our hotel we discovered that this man was a popular island entertainer. He invited us to come and see his weekly performance at his home called the “Piri show”. It wasn’t until later that we discovered through reading our Lonely Planet guidebook that Piri Puruto III is perhaps the “longest running showman on the island”. He explained to us that his show includes starting fires by rubbing sticks together, climbing a coconut tree and husking coconuts (and on Sundays a delicious umukai feast cooked in an underground oven.

When we arrived home we were happy to have a quick meal and head off for a well needed rest. Exhausted from the heat of the day, some of our kids fell asleep before dinner was even ready.

Fun in the Water – Pools and Oceans

I’m sitting poolside at the Edgewater resort’s outdoor bar/patio. After searching for a variety of options on how to get online in the Cook Islands I was pleased to find that they had a WiFi hotspot for my laptop here at the hotel. Not a big deal you may think but it is one of only 7 locations on the island provided by Telecom Cook Islands. Otherwise most internet access is the turtle slow dial-up access I have grown accustomed to forget. The hotel does have a location for dial-up access for $7.50 NZD per half hour but I’m told it is slow and does not always work. So I get spoiled with some wirless access for my laptop which isn’t as fast as what I am used to but much better than the alternative.

Well you may wonder why I even need to go online if I am on holidays but I am in fact on a working holiday, and blogging about it.

Our family spent our first full day on the Cook Islands just relaxing at the Edgewater resort which is a fabulous hotel located on the ocean. The entire island of Rarotonga is circled by a reef that protects its shores from the open waves of the ocean. Waves come and crash on the reef about 300 feet from the shorline of our hotel. The rythmic sound of the waves is enough to relax anyone.

After a hearty breakfast, the morning was spent snorkeling in the lagoon between the soft white sandy beach and the outer edge of the reef. At 10 AM every day the resort organizes a daily “fish feeding” activity which is no more than bringing a loaf of white bread to feed to the fish. This almost tames the fish into being used to come close to shore to have a mid morning snack. The fish of all shapes and sizes then attach and splash towards the food to get a bite to eat. After feeding the fish we put our snorkelling gear on and went to look at the fish from a different perspective. There were hundreds of fish, yellow, white, bright blue, rainbow coloured and my 10 year old son Jaeden even spotted an eel as it peered out from under a large rock only 20 feet from shore. It kept popping its head out from under the rock, just like we had seen on the IMAX movies. It was an exciting morning of sealife and snorkeling.

After getting a bit exhausted and burned in the water we headed for the coconut palms that line the edge of the beach. My oldest two boys found some brown coconut’s in the husk that they thought they would attempt to extract (from the husk). Not an easy feat even if you have seen a professional do it at one of those Polynesian performances. My oldest son who had brought his pen knife along with him was persistent. First he whittled away at the husk and started to pull wedges off of it. Finally after about 2 hours he was successful in his attempt and pulled the hard coconut out. A wack with a rock later he was drinking coconut juice and eating the fresh coconut meat from inside.

The Saturday Island Market

Every Saturday in the Cook Islands there is a morning market on the edge of Avarua. The first bus of the day did not pick us up until 8:40 AM from the hotel. I had forgotten our camera back in our hotel room so while my family boarded the bus I dashed off in the heat to see if I would be fast enough to get it in time. The bus driver seeing my wife alone with our 5 kids was compassionate enough to take her time and drove as slowly as possible so that I was able to catch up to the bus. Needless to say I received quite the applause when I boarded the bus by all of the other tourists who were onboard. The bus driver told me I have a nice family that wanted to make sure I came along. When I jokingly told her my wife probably just wanted my help with the kids she informed me in traditional Cook Island humor, “No, she just wanted your money.”

In order to get the freshest fish at the market you have to be early. We were planning on buying some fish to cook but didn’t arrive early enough to obtain any. We did however arrive in time to see a variety of tents with adults and children alike selling their wares. Vendors of all ages were selling fresh papaya (paw paw), starfruit, watermelon, mangos, coconuts, giant boiled chestnuts, sweet sop, fresh herbs, taro, breadfruit and a variety of bananas from their gardens. Carvers were also showing their wares including carved shells and wood. Locals were also showing off their beautiful hand made pareus, black pearls and flower headresses & leis. Local island music was also in the air to add to the atmosphere along with live performers dancing on stage and musicians selling their cd’s. The island market is a definate must do for anyone visiting Rarotonga.

A Religious Island and the New Zealand Influence

Cook Islanders are well known for being very religious. Most travel books also recommend attending religious services on the islands to get a proper impression of the people and their culture. In many churches ladies come dressed in white and are sure to wear a hat. As I watched churchgoers heading to their worship services I noticed them arriving in cars and on motor scooters. Even after driving up on their scooters, ladies were sure to have a hat tucked away and put it on for the service.

Attending church services is also a great way to get to know the local people. They are warm, welcoming and extremely hospitable. After church we were fortunate enough to have a friendly couple come by our hotel on their scooter to drop off some fresh fruit from their garden. It was refreshing to have some fresh starfruit and passionfruit picked from the garden on a hot summer day. A second person stopped by the next day and dropped off some deliciously sweet green oranges that they had seen growing at the side of the road. Within the next week we were the greatfull recipients of fruit from at least 3 other people we had met. One does not have to go far to notice the friendly nature of the island people. It seems to flow freely from their nature.

New Zealand and the Cook Islands are closely associated with one another. In the past 10 years the population of the Cook Islands have dropped by more than half. Young people tend to move to Australia or New Zealand to search for greener pastures and a stable lifestyle. A large number of the Cook Island residents I have spoken to have lived elsewhere and returned back to the island to live. For many residents, living in the islands is a lifestyle choice as opposed to a way to make some money. Wages can be fairly low while expenses remain quite high. When comparing the cost of food to that of Canada I have found that the prices generally are double to triple in price. Most goods are also imported from New Zealand which freight costs can add substantially to the grocery bill.

Snorkelling, Shells and Hermit Crabs

We have sought out the perfect beaches to explore and snorkel in. It seems like the entire coastline of the Cook Islands is nothing but the perfect white sand beaches that you see in travel books. Very little of the coastline does not have a beach. It stretches for miles and miles and I would not be surprised if you couldn’t almost walk the entire coastline. A beautiful spot we stopped at for snorkelling in the afternoon was Muri Beach along the southern coast of Rarotonga. There are four little islands off in the lagoon, isolated with their own palm tree oasis. From shore you can take lagoon cruises or simply rent a windsurfer, sailboat or kayak. We chose to just snorkel out to a large islet in the distance called Koromiri. It was no deeper than waist deep on the entire 1 km walk out to the island. My 6 year old son, Orin even walked all the way out to the island with a little bit of help from me. The water is turquoise blue and the white sand makes it a dreamy, idellic experience.

I walked over to Koromiri with my digital camera in hand. I was sure to keep my shirt on and lots of sunscreen since the early morning sun was already getting hot. As four of my children arrived on the islet the only people we saw were 2 people who had also kayaked to the island and a dog. I don’t really know where the dog came from as there was no owner in sight. The islet seemed fairly empty as it was a 9 AM mid week morning. We explored the white sand shoreline along with a rocky outcropping on the West side. It wasn’t until we went inland to where it seemed that a company had set up a covered eating area and some outhouses that we had a bit of a surprise.

I walked past a pile shells sitting on the ground that it looked like someone had collected. It was far enough on shore that it seemed that some shell collector had placed them there. I never really thought much about it until my children who were a little bit behind me came up to collect the shells. As they were about to do so they noticed that the shells were moving. The entire cluster of shells were growing legs and walking away in all different directions. Some shells were quite large while others were very small. Spiral shells, round shells and others were all starting to move. Some even started to climb up a nearby tree. Hermit crabs were using the shells as their homes and were moving around to where they wanted to go. When we went back to another beach between Black Rock and the airport later on in the week we noticed that at least 50% of the shells my children were trying to collect were already inhabited. They had to be careful to make sure that the shells were all empty. Even at that, of all the shells they collected we discovered one was occupied and my son, a few hours later upon discovering this, was sure to go back to the beach and place the crab into the water.

The beaches of the Cook Islands are truely breathtaking. No matter where you go you cannot help but see turquoise blue water and white sand beaches. For the best snorkelling we have had to search out lagoons that have rocks in them because it is around the jagged rocks and coral that the fish congregate. I have noticed that on the sandy bottoms of the lagoons very few fish are found as they are exposed to the open elements with no place to hide.

The waters are a rich blue turquoise colour because of how clean and shallow the water is. Apart from a few places I have seen in the Galapagos Islands I have not seen this colour of water in many places. It is such a deep vibrant colour that reflects off of the water whenever it is at least a little bit sunny. On rainy afternoons it is not very noticable but when the sun comes out the colours of the shallow lagoons are obvious. The island of Rarotonga is encompassed entirely by a coral reef that is anywhere from 50 feet to 1000 feet from shore. It makes the shoreline into an almost continuous lagoon of blue water and white sand that wraps around the island. It also makes it so that there are dozens of places safe for children to swim without having waves crash on them. The waves actually crash as they hit the coral reef in the distance and so there are not more than minimal laps of water hitting the shoreline. Adults and children alike will enjoy the shores of the Cook Islands.

Cook Island Travel Tips:

  • Visit in the North American Summer Season if possible. The Cook Island Summer (North American Winter) is very hot.
  • Bring extra hats, books, sunscreen and sunglasses (especially for kids). Things are expensive in the Cooks and these are essential items for the slow paced holiday you will experience.
  • Car or Bus: You can easily get around with either a rental car ($10 Cook Island drivers licence required) or on a bus. Decide how you want to get around but remember, busses operate no more than once every hour so be flexible if you pick this option.
  • Cook Island Time is a bit of a different schedule so be prepared for some laid back flexibility. I’ve been to a local travel company 20 minutes before closing and found it already closed with not a person in sight. Busses have been over 20 minutes late and guests we have invited over have been over 1 hour late.
  • Most everything shuts down at 12 noon on Saturday and almost everything including grocery stores are closed on Sunday. Prepare in advance accordingly.
  • Check around for good snorkelling spots. Some areas have even more fantastic sealife to be viewed.

Aitutaki and Tom’s Cottage

When the people from the main Cook Island of Rarotonga found out that I was going to Aitutaki, they kept telling me that “It is even more beautiful than here”. I had a hard time believing them as Rarotonga itself is a jewel of an island. It is like trying to tell someone looking at a priceless gemstone that there is one even more beautiful. Then I took the 50 minute flight to Aitutaki and had the shock of my life.

As our Air Raro flight was landing I caught a glimpse of what kind of treat we were in for over the next three days as we stayed on this remote island lagoon. The dozen or so Islets that dotted the perimeter of the lagoon were covered in green vegetation, palm trees, bright white sand beaches and the clearest turquoise and blue huges of water I have ever seen. Even from the sky it was a breathtaking sight to look down on. I can see why even the Cook Islanders refer to it as the priceless possesion that it is.

As my family got off the airplane in Aitutaki we were anxious to go and explore the island. The only problem was that we arrived around 4 PM and so we did not have enough time to do anything but settle in. Prior to going to Aitutaki we had decided to stay at one of the most affordable places we could find on the island. We booked accommodations in Tom’s Cottage which was the first tourist accommodation on the island according to the owner (Papa Tom as they call him). Papa Tom himself came to the airport to pick us up. He greeted us with a warm smile and proceeded to assist us with bringing our luggage to his van that would transport us to the two cottages we had booked on his property. His kindness and simple nature made me, my wife and five children feel like family as soon as we met him.

After collecting our bags we were anxious to move on and settle in. As I sat down and reached for my seatbelt he advised me that “there would be no need for that here”. Although I firmly believe in wearing a seatbelt under all circumstances I soon discovered the reason for his comment. Aitutaki is a small island only about 14 km from one end to the other of this fish hook shaped main island. The roads are narrow and speeds rarely top 40 km per hour. The drive was a slow and relaxing one as we made our way to Tom’s Cottage.

Tom’s cottage consists two main areas. There are two small self contained cottages that include a very simple mini-kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area. One cottage is located about 60 feet from the ocean. In the Canadian winter (Cook Island summer from November to March) the trees between the cottage and ocean are left to grow as this protects the cottages from the monsoon season. During one particular 1 hour long windy rainstorm we discovered the wisdom in allowing the trees to block the winds from blowing throught the house. During the Aitutaki winter these trees are trimmed down to allow for a nice ocean view from the cottage decks.

The second section of this accommodation is the old house of Papa Tom’s family. He grew up with about 10 siblings and so his father built the family house that now makes up the oldest part of this property. The family house has about 10 rooms coming off of a main hallway and large livingroom/eating area. This area almost reminds me of a very rustic and basic youth hostel with shared washrooms, a television and eating area. The rooms are extremely clean yet basic in a way that takes you back to the old life on Aitutaki.

I highly reccommend the cottages as a rustic and basic type of accommodation. Although it is not for everyone, it is one of the best values for an oceanfront property that you will likely see anywere on Aitutaki. There may be some plans to modernize and rebuild the main house area which would modernize the property but also inevitably add to the cost of this budget rated accommodation. Just keep in mind that as with anywhere else in the tropics, clean up after eating or you will find that the small tropical ants will do the clean-up for you.

The beach in this location is not as nice as other areas of the coastline. We found the water to have a bit of a seaweed type of slime in it. Although it did not stop the children from playing in the water it did not leave the water too clear. The coral here is also very sharp. It did not take long for two of our youngest children to get a scrape on the knee and foot even though we tried our best to ensure that they kept their rubber water socks on at all times.

After walking across the street to the little “Cash and Carry” convenience store, we purchased a few grocery items that we needed to make our very basic meal. Many of the items were sold out and so we walked three minutes down the street to pick up a few other essentials we had been searching for. Following our meal, we started planning the excursions we were going to take over the next few days and called the local boat tour companies and adventure operator on the island. We were told that as long as people in Aitutaki answered the phone their office was open. Even though we were calling between 5 to 7 pm the local tour operators were obviously in business and ready to take bookings.

Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise – A Must Do Experience

Our first and foremost main objective was to book a Lagoon Cruise. There are many operators to choose from. The main thing to consider when selecting a cruise company is do you want to travel on a small boat (8 people) or a large boat (30 people) lots of open space. Keep in mind that the smaller boats can travel to different more remote islets that involve travelling through extremely shallow water less than 4 feet deep. Although we did not know it at the time we had booked ourselves onto one of the smaller boats. After having my own experience on a lagoon cruise I highly reccommend a smaller boat but not necessarily the one that we were on.

We selected Teking a local lagoon cruise operator but found that the degrading humor and sarchasm was a bit wearing on the patience after the first of only a six hour tour. Perhaps this is why there was space on the tour only one day in advance whereas the other small boat cruise operator Kia Orana Cruises or “Captain Fantastic” was booked many days in advance. Others I spoke to had rave reviews of this alternative and slightly less expensive option.

In any case we were in Aitutaki to see the Lagoons and even though the boat almost didn’t operate that day due to the torrential downpour and rain in the morning, we did leave much to our delight. The day was perfect for ourselves and our children. It started our overcast for the first three hours and then cleared up to a bright sunny day near the end of the lagoon tour.

We started our tour by visiting the Australian sponsored marine centre that works at rebuilding the aquatic life of the islands. We were able to see clams being introduced into the local waters to help them regain their numbers as well as seeing sea turtles that were about up to two years old. The local workers even allowed the children to hold the turtles and explained the importance of these animals to the local aquatic environment of the islands.

Following this visit we set off on our boating adventure into the famous Aitutaki Lagoon. We were quickly wisked off to a location where we were able to stop to snorkel in the turquoise coloured lagoon waters. It was within seconds of jumping into the water that we were surrounded by hundreds of tropical fish of all sizes and shapes. This snorkelling location was by far the best for viewing the fish life, a few clams and various types of coral that were growing in the lagoon. It was at this location that we also fed the fish some bread and where my 6 year old son was able to feed them out of his hand (only to have one of the fish think his white finger was fish food – he made a quick exit following that experience… but it did not stop him for long).

Our second stop was to go to a clam sanctuary where Clams have be re-introduced to a protected area of the lagoon. Massive clams the size of two basketballs were not uncommon in this area. Some of the clams were so old that coral formations were growing completely around them. It was amazing to see the efforts in bringing the clam population back up to more healthy numbers in this area where they have died off because of human interaction.

Our first islet stop was that of honeymoon island. This island was a magical walk along a long sandbar of white sand that barely surfaced the blue waters of the lagoon. We were dropped off to walk along a long stretch of remote white sand with no vegetation, crossed two shallow channels of water to where our boat picked us up on the far end of the islet. The sand was dreamy white with hundreds of shells. My children had a hard time understanding that we had not much more time than to walk to the other end of this breathtaking islet back to our boat before being wisked off to another neighbouring islet for lunch. We did however let them take their time before moving them along to the boat.

The next islet was just a minute away by boat and within shallow walking distance. Here we enjoyed a wonderful island lunch with fresh fruits of the island as well as delicious barbequed fish. All of this was served on palm frond woven plates that only added to the charm of the experience. It was hard to get my children focusing on eating their lunch however as there were over a hundred hermit crabs carrying their shell homes of all sizes around the area we were eating at. Some of the crabs were so large that it seemed they could fit no more than a crab-leg inside of their shell. Perhaps it was time for them to upgrade to a larger home.

Our next destination was to push our boat off of the sandbar and into the water for a boat-ride to the other side of the lagoon. During this 20 minute ride we whisked past coral rocks that were barely below the surface of the water. Our captain obviously knew how to navigate the waters well as he zipped within 10 feet of these corals at over 50 kilometres per hour. As we crossed this long stretch of the lagoon we noticed how the water changed from light blue to turquoise to dark blue, all within a matter of minutes. The water at its different depths eminated an amazing variety of rich colours that cannot compare to the bottom of any swimming pool imitation.

Our last stop was at one foot island. This is the famous island that tourists bring their passports to in order to have them stamped at the little post office on the island with its signature “footprint” Aitutaki stamp. The postoffice is on one side of the shaded building while a bar is located on the other half of the counter, separated only by a small rack of postcards.

One foot island is indeed a breathtaking beach with the signature blue waters and white beaches lined with coconut trees. It looks out onto “Survivor Island” where recent reality TV shows have been filmed. The kids once again could hardly be encouraged to get out of the water to have their passport stamped. They were having too much fun splashing in the cool water during the heat of the day.

By 3 PM it was unfortunately time to go home and so we headed off to look at one more island before boating back home for the evening. With what started out as a morning of a torrential downpour, we were glad we stuck to our plans and headed off for the Awe inspiring lagoon of Aitutaki.

Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours

After taking a 4 Wheel Drive tour on the island of Rarotonga (on which I thouroughly enjoyed myself but would not repeat a second time) I hesitantly embarked on a 4 Wheel Drive, “Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tour” with my family. This was the best decision we made. The Discovery Safari Tour took us through the religion, history, archaeology, native plants and mountain peaks of Aitutaki. It was not only the walk into the historic coral built Cook Island church built over 140 years ago, but also the amazing knowledgeable guide that took us from the coastal uninhabited Southern tip of the island to the three mountain peaks with breathtaking views.

This modified 4×4 touring jeep had bench seats in the back for us to hang on to as we drove on grass roads and through dense jungle where no other person would even know that a road existed. During may parts of the tour we drove directly into what looked like the ridge of a “five-foot tall grass covered mountain” or impassible jungle of branches and trees. But on the other side there was always a road that led us on to the next part of our tour.

Every question regarding the history of the island, the dances of the people, the herbal properties of the plants and the native animals of the island were answered on this tour. Our guide was one of the survival guide/naturalists that assisted the Survivor movie crew as they prepared for and filmed the first Cook Island Aitutaki reality TV series.

My children enjoyed the unreheared parts of the tour where we took a side tour to stop the vehicle beside a Starfruit tree so that each of our children could pluck off some starfruit to snack on in the back of the jeep. They also enjoyed the fresh coconuts, watermelon, papaya and passion fruit that we ate as we took in the sights from the top of Aitutaki’s mountain peak. Looking at the lagoon from both sides of the mountain was amazing.

Before we even knew it three hours had passed and we were back at our cabin to enjoy the rest of the day on the beach.

Aitutaki is such an awe inspiring sight and experience that I cannot recommend that anyone visit the Cook Islands without at least experiencing the life on this island for a few days. Aitutaki is a must-see island, no matter the sacrifice involved in getting there.

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