The world has some surprises left even for a blasé traveler like me. My wife and I booked a bargain fare on Air New Zealand to Rarotonga (Cook Islands) in the South Pacific having never heard of the place and without knowing where it is or what to expect when we got there, as I wrote about it here.
So, Rarotonga was a mystery to me. I wondered: Would I like it? I did, very much. In fact I was delighted with its charms.
THE JOLTING JUXTAPOSITION OF RAR AIRPORT AFTER LAX
Rarotonga: Just 10,572 souls on a bucolic and peaceful tropical rock, one of the Cook Islands. It’s the most jolting juxtaposition imaginable to land there on a huge 777 from the teeming millions and madness of Los Angeles and step into the itty-bitty shed of an airport and be greeted by just three friendly immigration officials.
It must be the smallest nonstop international destination of any plane departing LAX.
In fact the island’s enticements began with that airport experience: landing between the mountains and sea on Rarotonga’s one runway, old-fashioned air-stairs to put us on the tarmac and then a short walk to the modest terminal building, a musician performing soothing tropical songs on a ukulele as we entered the building, the efficient Immigration and Customs officers, the warm breezes wafting through the open terminal, the 15 second stroll to the exit and then palm trees and coral reefs. Suddenly stress was left behind.
I picked up an Avis rental car from a friendly lady in the small office. She didn’t have my reservation, but gave me a car anyway and took my booking confirmation document saying, “No worries! We’ll get it straight for you.” When has that ever happened at a rental car counter?
And off we drove with the windows down in our Toyota Corolla. It was just 17 minutes at slow speed (max on Rarotonga is 50 KPH, about 33 MPH) to our Airbnb villa directly on the beach of the coral reef lagoon which surrounds the island. The owner had left the key under a clam shell, and soon we were unpacked and going for our first snorkeling experience.
WHERE IS RAROTONGA?
West of Tahiti 711 miles, but no harder to get to because both are so far south. Nonstop 9.5 hr flight from LAX on Air New Zealand.
Less than 2,000 miles (about 4.5 hours by air) to Auckland.
Directly south of Hawai’i and exactly as far south of the Equator as Hawai’i is north of it, so very similar weather both places.
Lies east of the International Date Line and, like Hawai’i, is 5 hours earlier than ET.
THE MARVELOUS BEACH & CORAL REEF FRONTING OUR AIRBNB RENTAL
The Rarotonga beaches are mostly white sand, and the lagoon no more than six feet deep with crystal clear water. The reef’s steep and dangerous drop-off to the open sea is about a quarter mile out. Swimmers inexperienced with the strong currents regularly drown there. We decided not to die and snorkeled inside the extensive lagoon, which was filled with healthy branch, brain, and fan corals and a variety of small tropical reef fish.
No big man-eating sharks cruise the lagoon, but Stonefish are reputed to live there. I didn’t find any, luckily, as their poisonous dorsal spines jammed into a foot can be lethal. We always wore tough reef shoes or flippers, too.
The myriad of coral heads are visible in the clear water, especially at low tide, which made for a gorgeous view from our deck. The view from our deck of the lagoon and the distant breakers at the reef drop-off was spectacular and never got old.
Many thousands of chickens run free on Rarotonga, as do hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs. Dogs often followed us home, even though they have homes.
The surviving chickens are expert flyers in a classic Darwinian battle to escape the dogs that chase and try to kill them. Successive generations of chickens have become high flyers indeed, as we witnessed many times. I’ve never seen chickens that fly that well.
Goats abound on Rarotonga, with fewer hogs and cows.
Because all dining is al fresco, it is a bounty for mosquitos (the island boasts small day and night mosquitos).
Very small and speedy ants excelled at finding food left out in our beautiful and modern Airbnb beach house.
Our Airbnb villa came with bicycles, paddleboards, and kayaks. We availed ourselves of them all, but we found that walking was safer and more pleasant than biking. Traffic on the main road (about the ONLY road) around the island is not heavy, but the road is narrow and has few shoulders for cyclists to move out of the way.
Intermittent rain fell during our six days on Rarotonga in mid-December, including a torrential downpour one day, but skies soon cleared, and we snorkeled twice daily even in the rain.
Perfectly ripe, to-die-for papayas are widely available on Rarotonga at 10 for NZ$6, which is about US 43 cents each. Locals call them paw-paws. Lots of other tropical fruit, too.
There isn’t much to do on Rarotonga, which is in large part its appeal. It’s characterized by good food, nice people, a slow pace, and the wonderful coral reef lagoon. It’s heavenly if you just want to relax, catch rays, swim and snorkel, read, and enjoy the friendly people.
Crime is not (yet?) a big problem on Rarotonga as it is on Fiji and in Tahiti, although we were coached not to leave anything of value outside and to lock windows and doors whenever we left, including closing curtains and blinds, as some people cruise the beach looking for opportunities, especially when they see tourists way out on the reef snorkeling.
Lots of Photo Voltaic panels are installed on the island, particularly in new construction, because of the abundance of tropical sunlight and the very high cost of electricity (all island power is diesel-generated and expensive). Our place had enough PV to provide all our power plus a surplus sold back to the grid each month. Without it, the electric bill for our one bedroom place was said to be over NZ$1000 per month (about US$714).
Some restaurants were disappointments despite being highly rated. At the waterfront and well-known Trader Jack’s in Avarua (the biggest “town” on Rarotonga), the best part of the meal was the Diet Cokes. If you go there, DON’T get the smoked fish cakes, and DON’T get the NZ mussels.
That said, we enjoyed two delicious and memorable lunches in the local Avarua market at no-name booths of prawn curry and garlic prawn. Best meals we had in the island.
A TRIP TO THE DOCTOR ON RAROTONGA
My wife came down with bronchitis on the second day, and I succumbed a day later. Hacking and coughing, I made an appointment with a local doctor. Nothing is very far from anything else on Rarotonga, so we set off about 15 minutes early to see Doctor Uka (pronounced YOU-KA) in Muri Beach.
I didn’t expect it to be like a Raleigh clinic, and I was right. Dr. Uka’s “surgery” (the Brit term for clinic) was open both front (on the street) and back (to a dirt alley and field). The good doctor was attired in a well-worn Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and he was barefoot and very fat in the Maori-Samoan way (takes one to know one, except I don’t have the excuse of Samoan physiology). He had no sink to wash his hands between patients.
We sat by his desk, which was placed by the open back door, no doubt the better for cooling breezes. Numerous chickens wandered by and looked in (as I said above, chickens by the thousands wander everywhere on Rarotonga). Dr. Uka might as well have been practicing medicine outside. He only listened to our lungs before writing prescriptions, did not take our temps or ask questions. The doc was extremely good-natured and friendly. Frankly, I wished my physician back home operated the same way.
Dr. Uka charged NZ$50 each in cash (US$35). No receipt or record was given. It was a bargain.
The pharmacy was a kilometer away and supposed to open at 10:00 AM, but the very nice proprietress didn’t arrive until 10:25 AM. Our Augmentin (antibiotic) was NZ$15 each and the Prednisone (steroid) was NZ$2 for a total of NZ$32, or US$22.50, another bargain.
While waiting for the pharmacy to open, we grabbed delicious and filling, perfectly cooked pineapple pancakes with bananas and bacon and maple syrup at the adjacent Aussie-run Deli-Licious Muri Beach Cafe for NZ$13.50 (US$9.50). I enjoyed watching a chicken wander into the café, and nobody cared. I fed the local Mynah Birds a scrap or two.
Bronchitis notwithstanding, we continued to snorkel on the coral reef lagoon in front of our beach house twice a day religiously.
RAROTONGA FISH IN THE WATER & ON THE TABLE
The lagoon’s reef fish are, like a great many place we snorkel nowadays, in decline and obviously so. We’ve seen this all over the Caribbean (many islands, especially including our favorite snorkeling place, St. John), Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, The Maldives, Barbados, The Caymans, remote islands in the Philippines, Belize, Costa Rica, Bali, Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, remote Thai islands, even some places on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Climate change and over-fishing are dramatically diminishing fish stocks and killing reefs.
That said, the Rarotonga reef is healthy by comparison, and the water is as clear as anywhere we’ve ever been. But the fish on the reef are small and lack great species diversity because most adult fish have been caught and eaten. We saw few parrot fish, for instance, because it’s a delicacy. Lots of trigger fish, though, because they are not too big and not considered good to eat. Many varieties of beautiful aquarium size fish abound, especially among the branch coral heads (as opposed to the solid brain coral which lack crevices to hide in), which are beautiful and fun to watch.
Truth is, unless you spend a ton of money to go to hard-to-reach dive spots, the Eden-like places are gone. However, we greatly enjoyed our snorkeling every day on Rarotonga.
Fish for eating on Rarotonga are also in decline. Mahi-mahi (dolphin) was very expensive because almost fished out. Ditto for most other fin fish species. The main meat fish there now is Striped Marlin and White Marlin, which are also in decline from overfishing. Hard to get oysters, shrimp (prawns), and scallops, too, and zero crabs. All overfished. Except for the fresh-caught Marlin, the majority of seafood, in fact most food, on Rarotonga is imported from New Zealand.
With so many people on the planet, resource management is not working in places like the Cook Islands, nor throughout the entire South Pacific. Even though those island nations are small in population and have legal fishing rights going out 200 miles, factory boats from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Europe plunder the sea without legal sanction. Small nations like the Cook Islands struggle even to keep their telecom/Internet functioning and certainly lack the enforcement resources to protect their own fishing rights. Not a pretty picture.
RAROTONGA INTERNET & WIFI
BlueSky has the monopoly on all landline telephone, mobile and Internet service in the Cook Islands. Its unreliability is legendary, the source of the local nickname for the company: GraySky. It’s a perennial joke due to one bungle after another.
Following an October fire that melted down the entire BlueSky network in one small building with zero redundancy, phones and Internet reportedly just came back—well, mostly—in mid-December. We experienced intermittent failures of Internet and phone service, including one that knocked out everything overnight.
Imagine an entire country’s population without any landline telephone, mobile, or Internet service. No way to contact anyone. No way to call the police, ambulance, or firefighting services. Credit card machines in restaurants and businesses down. At the airport, no Internet means no way to print boarding passes or to dispatch airplanes with weight and balance documents. Customs and Immigration computers are offline, stranding passengers outbound and not allowing entry of inbound.
When working, BlueSky sells Internet short subscriptions in MB/GB increments and for so many days which work wherever Wi-Fi is available. While many places broadcast Wi-Fi signals, signing on to the Internet is impossible without a BlueSky subscription. Even then, however, service is intermittent and sloooow. Being sole-source in a tiny market, though, BlueSky does as it wishes.
ISLANDER HOTEL: DON’T BOTHER
On the last day we decided to rent a day room because the Airbnb checkout time was noon, and our flight didn’t leave until nearly midnight. Several sources recommended the Islander Hotel, which is directly across the street from the airport.
The Islander was a big disappointment. Thank God we didn’t stay there overnight. Where to start in the litany of things wrong with the place? Security was a problem because the antiquated infrastructure featured louvered windows over the door and over the shower in the bathroom, too, both with glass easy to remove should someone want to break in.
The glass louvers also meant zero noise protection from the long, dark hallway. You could hear everything said as if passersby were in our room.
We were told that our room looked out on the coral reef, but the large “Hula Bar” just outside our window blocked the view completely, and the band there started playing early.
So stereo noise from within and without. The hotel thoughtfully provides ear plugs and a warning sign in our room about the loud, nearly incessant noise.
The lumpy, hard beds were uncomfortable even to read on, let alone when trying to nap.
Bathrobes were provided. We guessed they were for privacy since anyone walking outside by the Hula Bar could look directly into our room if the drapes were open.
The outside window opened easily with one lock ajar and the other loose, another security worry.
I guess the place would be okay if you were 19 or 20 years old and wanted to party hard all night. But for us, we were grateful to be staying there only for a few hours and then never again.
On the plus side, the Islander had a very nice staff. Rarotongans are just naturally pleasant people.
But the Islander Hotel is very depressing, a huge letdown after our gorgeous Airbnb villa. And extremely expensive for a day room (US$149), especially considering the state of the property. Don’t go there.
SUMMARIZING THE TRIP
It was hard to leave Rarotonga. No place is perfect, of course, but we loved the slow traffic and not much of it, and no news about Trump or Congress. We de-stressed in the tropical sun and warm temps, lush vegetation, among genuinely nice people, enjoying delicious local food in the markets (not the tourist restaurants), and the coral reef lagoon with crystal clear visibility. Ah, heaven!