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.
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.
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.
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.