The Cook Islands: Bargain in the South Pacific

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

Worth the splurge is a dinner cultural show. They're sim ilar to luaus in Hawaii, with music, grass skirts, and coconut-shell bikini tops, but the dancing is more passionate and provocative. Dinner shows at the Staircase (21-254) in Avarua cost $13, and the show without food is $2.65. Several hotels host similar shows for $16 to $21, still much less than the $50 or $75 Hawaiian luaus cost.

For quick, cheap grub, Avatiu Harbour's food stands, such as Palace Takeaways (21-438), can't be beat, with burgers for $1.85 and full plates of chips, salad, and meat for $5.30. After the weekly bar binge on Friday nights (in which locals and visitors go all-out until 2 a.m.), revelers head to the food stands for a salty munch. There are two supermarkets in Avarua, where locally produced fruit and bread are the best buys. For snacks, convenience stores dot the ring road every mile or so. Good buys on food, crafts, and pearls are found each Saturday at the market in Avarua.

Passage to paradise

Two airlines serve Rarotonga from North America, bo th of which offer stopovers for intriguing, multidestination vacations. For years, Air New Zealand was the only carrier of note to the Cook Islands, but now there's competition thanks to Aloha Airlines (800/367-5250, alohaairlines.com), which kicked off service there in December 2002. From the West Coast, Aloha flies twice a week via Honolulu for round-trip fares of $993 from Burbank, Orange County, and Oakland; $1,133 from Las Vegas or Phoenix; and CAD$1,600 (US$1,015) from Vancouver. All flights to Rarotonga allow free stops in Hawaii in both directions, for as long as a ticket is valid (usually 30 days). Round trips from Honolulu to Rarotonga start at $581. Air New Zealand (800/262-1234, airnewzealand.com) flies direct from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (sometimes via Tahiti) for around $1,100 round trip. Get more out of your vacation with a multi-stop ticket (valid for travel within a three-month window) to Auckland in New Zealand, with free stopovers allowed at several spots in the South Pacific, including Rarotonga, Fiji, and Tahiti. These tickets start at about $1,470.

Excursions to the outer islands

A Cook Islands visitor who only sees Rarotonga is truly missing out. Fifteen islands comprise the Cooks, and Aitutaki, with miles of luminous blue-green lagoon and a picture-perfect smattering of tiny islands, is arguably even more breathtaking than Rarotonga. Unsurprisingly the most popular outer island for tourists, Aitutaki is a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga, with round trips on Air Rarotonga (22-888, airraro.com) starting at NZ$254 (US$135). There are even reasonably priced lodgings like Paradise Cove (31-218), with dorm-style beds in thatched huts for NZ$25 (US$13). Atiu, known for its caves and rocky coastline, is the next most popular outer island. Other islands, where there are no hotels or restaurants to speak of, allow the visitor to withdraw from the modern world completely. Air Rarotonga offers a variety of island air pas ses, starting at NZ$355 (US$189) for a Rarotonga-Aitutaki-Atiu trip.

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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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