The Cook Islands: Bargain in the South Pacific

That rare discovery--a lush, unspoiled South Pacific escape that anyone can afford

Christian missionaries descended on the Cook Islands some two centuries ago, and their influence is still seen today. Most Cook Islanders attend Sunday mass, and sprinkled around the island are white-stone churches dating from the mid-1800s. Also curious are the above-ground cemetery plots found in the yards of ramshackle cinder-block homes. When relatives pass away, it's a Cook Islands tradition to bury them in the yard so that their spirit can watch over the family and vice versa. Inland, there are banana and "pawpaw" (papaya) plantations, braced up against steep, green peaks.

Touring on one's own is easy and safe, but a guide will give context to the scenery. For a rugged, four-wheel-drive tour of the interior, try Raro Safari Tours (23-629, rarosafaritours.co.ck), lasting about three hours, for $31. Several hiking trails wind through the mountainous interior, including the popular cross-island trek that passes by the "Needle," a huge, dramatic stone jutting out of the island center. Trails are often overgrown with greenery and sometimes downright treacherous, so a guide makes sense. Pa's Treks (21-079) has a monopoly on guided hikes, charging $29 for a half day with lunch. For a bird's-eye view of the island, hop aboard an Air Rarotonga flight (22-888, airraro.com) for $34.

Getting wet is essential in the Cook Islands. With four small islands offshore and powdery-soft sand, the east coast's Muri Beach is unanimously regarded as the best on Rarotonga. Captain Tama's AquaSportz Centre (27-350) offers half-day lagoon cruises with snorkeling and lunch for $31 and rents kayaks and snorkeling gear for $2.65 each, sailboards for $7.85. Because of the reefs ringing Rarotonga, snorkeling is quite good but can be dangerous in spots, so ask around before taking the plunge. Normally a pricey activity, scuba diving is a bargain for Americans thanks to the exchange rate. Greg Wilson has run Cook Island Divers (22-483) for 30 years, charging $37 for one-tank dives (an extra $10.45 for equipment) and $266 for four-day certification courses, all with transportation from your hotel. Similar provisions in Hawaii or the Caribbean cost double, if not more.

A bounty of affordable beds

There is a giddiness among Cook Islands visitors; put into words it's something like, "Can you believe how beautiful this place is? And how cheap?" Nowhere is this felt more than at the many family-run lodgings.

At the low end are the backpacker flophouses with too few amenities to be accredited by Cook Islands Tourism. Aunty Noo's (21-253, in Arorangi ) charges only $5.30 for a bed, but the water has been known to shut off periodically. A step up are the accredited hostels, the newest and nicest of which is Rarotonga Backpackers (21-590, rarotongabackpackers.com), a handsome hillside lodge that charges $10.45 for dorm beds, $23 for doubles (shared bath). Right on Muri Beach is Vara's Beach House (23-156, varas.co.ck), the largest assemblage of affordable rentals, priced $10.45 for dorms, $25 for doubles, and $53 for beachfront bungalows.

"Self-catering" accommodations, with private bath and kitchen, are found in abundance. The Paradise Inn (20-544) has clean rooms and a deck overlooking Avarua Harbour, running $30 single, $51 double. On a quiet stretch of rocky coast north of Muri Beach is the Sunrise Beach Motel (20-417, sunrise.co.ck); eight private bungalows rent for $56 to $64 a night. Gracious owners Peter and Caryn Elphick invite guests to use the pool and barbecue for get-togethers.

Home rentals are a b est friend to small groups on a budget. A poor job market causes thousands of Cook Islanders to leave for better wages abroad. Homes left behind rent for as little as $235 a week for a small two-bedroom away from the beach. A beachfront home runs around $522 per week. Contact Rarotonga Realty (26-664, rarorealty.co.ck), Shekinah Holiday Homes (26-004, shekinahhomes.com), or visit the Cook Islands Web site, cook-islands.com, for more information.

What's cooking?

Unfortunately, the same combination of quality and price doesn't translate to the cuisine. Almost all food has to be shipped in, and prices reflect the transportation costs. Still, visitors pay less for meals than in Hawaii or Tahiti, on average. Since prices are fairly even at Rarotonga restaurants (main courses for $10 to $16; pick one with an ocean view, like Trader Jack's (26-464) in Avarua or Sails Restaurant (27-349) at Muri Beach.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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