LITTLE specks in a vast seascape,
the Cook Islands are a collection of 15 atolls, cays and volcanic
islands, and extravagantly beautiful.
They are a Gauguin palette of handsome Polynesians, craggy mountain
peaks, dense jungles, turquoise lagoons fringed by reefs and some of
the best white-sand beaches imaginable.
TripAdvisor has just
released its travellers' choice survey of the top beach destinations for
2012. It ranks three Cook Islands beaches among the best 10 in the
South Pacific, up against those of Tahiti and Australia. Judged by
fellow travellers, five Australian beaches and one in Fiji made the
list. The winner, if you can afford it, was Tahiti's Bora Bora.
But it was the three lesser-known gems of the Cook Islands that raised many eyebrows.
beaches around the lagoon on Aitutaki scored second place. On the main
island of Rarotonga, Titikaveka Beach ranked No.3 and Arorangi No.10.
And there's a range of affordable accommodation at each.
Titikaveka stretches around the southeast corner of Rarotonga and is
home to out-of-the-way boutique properties such as the elegant Little
Polynesian Resort or self-contained villas at Royale Takitumu and
Coconut palms fringe the beach on the edge of
the magnificent lagoon, where local fishermen wade waist-deep every day
with spears and nets almost to the line of surf breaking on the outer
Over on the west coast, it's much the same story at
Arorangi, but there are also larger resorts such as the Edgewater,
Sunset Resort and Crown Beach Resort, with arguably Rarotonga's finest
dining at its Windjammer Restaurant.
While spas, sun and sand are reason enough to visit, Rarotonga is more than just a pretty face.
are enough activities and cultural experiences to keep you entertained
for well over a week. Almost every resort has its own island night with
electrifying drum and dance routines.
The best cultural shows are
at the award-winning Highland Paradise Cultural Centre, set in an
ancient mountain village at Arorangi, and the over-water spectacular at
Te Vara Nui at Muri Beach, on the east coast.
For a more
intimate cultural experience, join one of the extraordinary progressive
dinner tours, which take you into the private homes and lives of
ordinary Rarotongans, like the "Coconut Irishman" Danny Kelly and his
wife Jayne, who produce entrees that include lime-marinated raw fish,
breadfruit, taro and pawpaw.
Main courses, usually based on
seafood, pork and chicken, are presented at a hillside mansion owned by
empty-nesters Pae and Kafo Tuteru, who are happy to detail how they met
and fell in love.
Desserts come courtesy of Tom and Lorraine
Marsters, as Tom recounts the womanising antics of his great-grandfather
and Cook Islands legend William Marsters.
Take a walk with the
extraordinary Pa Teuruaa, a 72-year-old guide who bounds up mountains
steering walkers on half-day treks across the island. The former
champion ironman turned alternative herbalist has sun-bleached
dreadlocks, wears a red sarong, travels barefoot and swims 2km around
the lagoon every day.
If it's Saturday, head for the Punanga
Nui Markets in Avatiu before the tourist hordes arrive about 9am. You'll
find good coffee, kebabs, freshly baked coconut buns, pawpaw smoothies
and other Rarotongan breakfast goodies, clothing, fresh local produce
and unusual souvenirs that include some beautiful handmade ukuleles.
Sundays, don't miss church, especially the many Cook Islands Christian
churches, where you'll not only be welcome but you'll also hear some of
the most harmonious singing in the world.
Aitutaki lies about
200km north of Rarotonga, a gorgeous half-atoll. Air Rarotonga flies
there and offers day trips but once you see it, you won't want to
Accommodation ranges from inexpensive beachfront lodges
through the mid-range Tamanu Beach Hotel to the luxurious Aitutaki
Lagoon Resort and the mega-luxury Pacific Resort. Doubles range from $50
Don Watt and his son Jason run Aitutaki Fishing
Charters and they'll take you outside the reef into the open sea for a
half-day fishing expedition.
If you prefer your seafood on a
plate, try Tupuna's Restaurant for fine dining on a raked coral-sand
floor. The mud crab and coconut crab are to die for.
Aitutaki lagoon on a Bishop's Lagoon Cruise. It includes snorkelling and
visiting the outer motus (islets) such as Honeymoon Island, Moturaku,
Akaiami and One Foot Island, where lunch is served in their hut on what
some reckon is the second-best beach in the South Pacific.
writer was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism Corporation (see
cookislands.travel) and Virgin Australia (ph 13 15 16 or see