The Cook Islands: Bargain in the South Pacific
That rare discovery--a lush, unspoiled South Pacific escape that anyone can afford
After hours of nothing but deep-blue sea and the occasional cloud, at last it appears from the plane window: an improbable crop of jagged, green peaks descending to white sands below. As if the eye isn't drawn already, a brilliant-turquoise lagoon glowingly outlines the oval-shaped isle's every curve. Welcome to Rarotonga, which, despite being the largest and most visited of the Cook Islands, is that rarest of finds-a safe, pristine, and (best of all) affordable South Pacific escape. The term "tropical paradise" is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but there's something unusually idyllic and unspoiled here. It's not just the climate (heavenly-similar to Hawaii); or th e attractive, friendly natives (at first glance, indistinguishable from other Polynesians); or the local accent (Kiwi-esque thanks to big brother New Zealand). After a quick look around, there's an odd sense that something is missing.
Then it hits your brand-name-addled brain. Unlike nearly every other place on the globe, the Cook Islands are not shackled with chains (hotels and fast-food chains, that is). No KFC or McDonald's; no Hilton, Hyatt, or Holiday Inn.
How have Cook Islanders held corporate interests at bay? For one, tight-knit communities led by the House of Ariki, or tribal chiefs, shape the moral, cultural, and economic landscapes. Crime is nearly nonexistent. Most natives speak both English and Cook Islands Maori in everyday life. Plus, there's the land situation. Self-governing since 1965 (but still closely tied to New Zealand), the Cook Islands is a relative newcomer to tourism, its international airport opening in 1974. Learning from the mistakes of Polynesia n brethren who sold out to corporations decades prior, it established early on that all land would be family-owned and never sold (though it can be leased for up to 60 years, after community approval). As a result, there are scads of family-owned hotels, restaurants, and backpacker hangouts, all of reasonable size and price, in sharp contrast to the gargantuan, expensive resorts ubiquitous elsewhere in the Tropics. The culture also fosters other welcome rarities for beach retreats: Tipping is not encouraged, haggling is considered rude, and aggressive sales tactics are ruder still.
Once one arrives-and admittedly, getting here requires a fair amount of time and money-you find hassle-free, inexpensive, laid-back living at its finest. Hostel beds cost as little as $10. Beachfront bungalows are $100. Entire two-bedroom homes rent for as little as $450 a week. These prices would be decent as is, but the kicker is that they're all quoted in the local currency (New Zealand dollars) , meaning Americans can effectively slice them in half (NZ$1=US$.53). Surprising as it seems, Yanks can pay around $5 for hostel beds, $53 for bungalows, $235 a week for home rentals, all within stumbling distance of the sparkling South Pacific. (Unless stated otherwise, prices in this article are in U.S. dollars.)
Rarotonga is the biggest and most populated of the Cook Islands (home to about half of its 21,000 residents), but the entire coastline is circled in less than an hour's leisurely drive (20 miles around). Road signs are few and there are no street addresses, but the place is so small it's easy to find one's way around. (From the United States, first dial 011-682 for all numbers.)
Rarotonga is divided into several villages, but Avarua, just east of the airport, is really the only town in all the Cook Islands. Even so, it's only a few blocks big, with a single roundabout, no traffic lights, and a handful of understated storefronts and eateries. Sh opping for black pearls (a regional specialty) is popular, but prices vary widely, so shop around before buying. Though somewhat redundant, there are two national museums in town, the Library and Museum of the Cook Islands (Makea Tinirau Rd., 20-748) and the National Museum (Victoria Rd., 20-725). Both request a donation for admission (NZ$1 is reasonable) and provide a glimpse into the local religions, traditions, and culture.
Every visitor should make a trip around the island, either via the coastal Ara Tapu road or the older Are Metua interior road. All drivers need a Cook Islands license, a cute but pointless souvenir that costs $5.30 for cars and mopeds, available at the police station in Avarua (22-499). If heading to the outer island Aitutaki, get your license there for $1.30. Budget (20-895, budget.co.ck) and Avis (22-833, avis.co.ck) have several locations, with cars renting for around $31 a day, mopeds for $12, and bicycles for $4.20. Rarotonga Rentals (22-3 26) often undercuts the competition (mopeds for $6.90 a day on weekly rentals), but scout out each because they all offer specials. Two buses run around the island during the daytime, one clockwise, one counterclockwise, costing $1.30 one way, $2.10 round trip. Taxis cost at least $10.50. Many lodgings, including low-end properties, provide free airport pickup for guests.