The Punanga Nui Cultural Market near the harbor in Avarua, Rarotonga, is popular with everyone on the island, including these young women. Some permanent stores open all week but Saturday morning is the peak time for the flea market.
Cook Islands – Long Read

Fifteen tiny coral islands lost in the South Seas 

Photo by Sergi Reboredo

Cook Islands – Long Read Fifteen tiny coral islands lost in the South Seas 

Hello Cook Islands, a paradise of 15 tiny islands lost in the South Seas that is a picture postcard of coral reefs, white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and clear blue water. With friendly people and a fascinating local culture, it is a dream destination for adventurers and honeymooners or anyone who wants to get off the beaten track.

Sergi Reboredo
Sergi Reboredo Travel Photographer

“People who haven’t visited the Cook Islands often say they think there is nothing to do,” says Christian Mani, who works for the local tourist board. “I always tell them there are lots of things to do, including my favorite: lying on the beach.” He laughs, and goes on. “You can also trek across the island, visit a local bar or swim, paddle board or kayak to Motu Koromiri and spend the whole day there – it feels like you are off the Rock.” “The Rock” is the local name for the island of Rarotonga which along with Aitutaki and Atiu make up the southern group of the archipelago, the part most visited by tourists.

The Cook Islands take their name from an early visitor, British explorer Captain Cook in 1773, although he called them the Hervey Islands. The 15 islands, deep in the Pacific between Hawaii and New Zealand, can be divided into two groups, with the more remote northern group of six coral atolls being the sort of place where any adventurers will feel right at home, being virtually unexplored as well as scenic. The islands became a British protectorate in 1888, passing into the hands of New Zealand in 1901. In 1965 they gained independence, although the islanders remain New Zealand citizens as well.

Rarotonga, with its international airport, is also the largest and highest of the islands and its irregular contours are covered by tropical and subtropical vegetation. Thick, perennial weeds hide much of the landscape. Finding my way around is easy; there is one road going around the island and one across it. There are no traffic lights and no building higher than the tallest coconut tree.

You are likely to meet every local you know in the market

“It’s a laid back place,” says Christian. “The beach is just down the road from me, so if I’ve had a long day at work, I just need to hop skip and jump and I’m there. The speed limit is 40km by scooter, so you are on cruising speed already. I get to wear shorts, jandals (flip flops or thongs for some) and a singlet every day. It’s nice and comfortable in the Cook Islands weather.”

The capital Avarua is an intimate place, where you are likely to meet every local you know in the Saturday morning Punanga Nui market. Islanders get here early for bargains, buying fresh fruit and vegetables as well as local delicacies such as Noni juice, a natural tonic claimed to cure everything from cancer to HIV. The eastern end of the market is given over to crafts and clothing stalls, selling everything from sarongs and ukuleles to black pearls and souvenir T-shirts.

Woodcraft is dominated by numerous carvings of Tangaroa, god of the sea and a symbol of the islands. The islands are also noted for tivaevae, a form of handmade patchwork with beautiful designs that are transmitted from generation to generation. The technique was introduced in the 19th century by missionaries from England and nuns from Tahiti who taught embroidery, sewing and knitting.

The market is also a good place to have a Maori tattoo applied. Artist Clive Nicholas shows me photographs of the many designs he has done and explains that in his veins runs the blood of the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand. He is proud of his family and his culture. Tā moko, Maori tattoo art, is a unique expression of cultural heritage and identity, reflecting the lineage of the person and their personal history. “In the past, it was an indicator of social status, knowledge, ability and suitability for marriage,” he says. “Traditionally, male moko (tattoos) were applied to the face, buttocks and thighs, while women wore moko on the lips and chin.” Today, tattoos are experiencing a resurgence in both traditional and modern forms.

The magic and spirit of pre-missionary times

I learn more about local culture at the Highland Paradise Cultural Village. Like anywhere else, the Cook Islands are constantly evolving but the village tries to preserve the magic and spirit of pre-missionary times. It is the perfect place to experience the sacred rites and traditions passed down by the ancestors of Rarotonga. After a traditional welcome at the entrance to the Marae, a sacred place for families, warriors and leaders for centuries, I enjoy a show of sexy dancing and drumming. Afterwards, I take a tour of the forest nearby to learn about flora and fauna, and their use in traditional medicine.

Tempted to discover more, I search out a trekking guide with the reputation of being the best in the South Seas. Pa started exploring the rugged and volcanic mountains of the interior when he was four years old. “My grandmother would send me to gather leaves and herbs for traditional healing,” he says. “This is how ancient knowledge is passed on from one generation to another.” Every family also still has its own plantation of arrowroot, banana, mango, pawpaw, sour sop and coconut trees, and a refreshing drink of fresh coconut juice is a healthy island staple. Barefoot, dressed in few clothes and sporting long hair braids decorated with flowers, Pa tells me how much he enjoys the peace and serenity of the islands.

He takes me to the protected area of Takimunu, where I see numerous birds and native flora. Elsewhere on the island are natural lakes formed by volcanic eruptions, surrounded by lush vegetation, in which you can swim, snorkel or dive. Paradise indeed. Many people tell him to keep the islands a secret so they remain unspoilt. “We are a society of people who have generous hearts and giving is a way of life,” he says. “Visitors often say that we are not the real world. We don’t carry guns, we give flowers. The greater part of the world is in chaos – is that what is meant by the real world?”

The paradise continues underwater. At the Big Fish dive center, German owner and divemaster Saba kits me out while explaining how she left Germany to escape the cold. She first went to Mexico where she learned to dive and met her husband. They came here on vacation and decided to stay. We swim in the crystal-clear, warm waters of the lagoon, then dive around beautiful coral reefs to see endless tropical fish and huge sea turtles. I am not surprised to learn that this tiny archipelago has recently created the world’s largest marine reserve confined to a single country, a vast swath of ocean almost twice the size of France. This new reserve of 1,065 million square kilometers should help promote sustainable development of an area doted with remote atolls, volcanic islands surrounded by coral reefs. The sealife includes whales and several species of sharks, some of them endangered.

More and more islanders are leaving to seek an easier life abroad

While encouraging tourism may risk spoiling this paradise, it is also a vital source of income. “More and more Cook Islanders are leaving to seek an easier life abroad,” says German-born artist Andrea Eimke, who has lived on the northern island of Atiu for the last 30 years. “Our difficulty lies in the remoteness of the islands and the decline in tourism. Many visitors think the islands should be a cheap destination because it is a third world country. Rarotonga and Aitutaki have direct links to New Zealand but for the sister islands there are no inter-island shipping subsidies, which makes life in them more expensive and basic. Most goods need to be imported at great cost.”

Andrea’s works have been exhibited in New Zealand, Australia and further abroad but all are inspired by her life here. One of her passions is the traditional tapa bark cloth of the islanders. “The nicest thing about the Cook Islands is that our people still care about others,” she says. “They have time for you and treasure you as their guest and human being rather than just as a source of income.”

After a short hop on the domestic carrier to Atiu, I am greeted at the airport with a flower necklace. With its 569 inhabitants, the third largest island of the archipelago is the Polynesia of yesteryear. Captain Cook never made it as far as Rarotonga or Aitutaki, stumbling instead on Atiu when he was lost on his way home from Tahiti, and it is tempting to think little has changed since then. The island is a vision of tropical birds, reefs, fisherfolk, thick tropical forests and gardens of taro.

I am staying at a small guesthouse run by New Zealander Roger Malcolm. He was working as a research student in Rarotonga when he met a girl from Atiu. They married in New Zealand but came here in 1978 when the airport opened to begin a new life catering to tourism. “What I like about living here is that there are few regulations and few rules,” he says. “The only real rule is to make sure that you are not offending your family and neighbors. The people are very friendly and you are far away from the worries of the rest of the world.” He tells me he also enjoys the outdoor climate and living in a place with no snakes, venomous spiders or vicious animals.

Swim in the pools at night, lit by candles.

What Atiu does have is many birds and it is nicknamed “bird island” for the tiny kopeka that flit from cave to cave in the dark using a form of echo location like bats. The sea has carved a rugged landscape where caves abound, many connected to the sea and dotted with rock pools. It is a popular activity for hotel guests to swim in the pools at night, lit by candles.

“Birdman George”, the island’s expert, takes me on drive around the coast road until we reach a stand of leafy trees. There, a whistle begins to attract birds. First to come is a lovely Tahitian blue lory which seems to be talking to us. It is a magical moment. George explains that right now there is a battle to safeguard the future of the kakerori, an endangered species of flycatcher. The main problem is rats, an invasive species that had reduced bird numbers to just 29 a decade ago. Trapping the rodents has allowed the kakerori population to recover, but it is still barely twice that fragile low number and one cyclone could wipe them out.

The island also has a long history of coffee cultivation. The crop was introduced by missionaries in the 19th century but went into decline with the passing of centuries, By 1983, the poor performance of the processing company had led farmers to abandon production, except for their own private use. Then German economist Juergen Manske-Eimke, Andrea’s husband, set up the Atiu Coffee Factory, which now manages 39 hectares of land and produces 4.5 tons of roasted beans for local and online sale.

After her husband reveals the secrets of a good cup of coffee, Andrea sells me some of her jewellery creations in silver to take home. “The best thing about living here is the quietness you still find, especially on the sister islands,” she says. “The people are friendly and caring, and openly welcome visitors. They are happy to include you into their activities, especially their celebrations. And there’s always reason to celebrate here.”

Filled with tiny coral fish and giant clams

Aitutaki, the last of the three main islands, is yet another slice of paradise, its volcanic origin revealed by the 124-meter-high Mount Maungapu. It sits in a circle of 12 uninhabited coral islets or motus, a pearl necklace around perhaps the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific Ocean. Only a meter deep, but covering 50 square kilometers, the lagoon changes color continually during the tropical day. The warm waters never fall below 22°C and are filled with tiny coral fish and giant clams that weigh up to 200kg. Spectactular sunsets are, of course, a given.

Taria Pureariki Nagaakaara Kita – “just call me Ngaa” – shows me around, telling me stories of the ancient culture, myths, legends and ancient ways. Several sacred stones still stand in a site that was worshipped long before the coming of Christianity, looking like strange animals suddenly turned to stone. We finish with a traditional umu kai feast of locally grown produce and pork, baked in an underground earth oven. After four hours of cooking and steaming, the food is permeated with the flavor of the banana leaves in which it is wrapped.

Ngaa tells me I cannot leave without a visit to One Foot Island, a sort of seventh heaven. The smallest island of Aitutaki, its proper name is Tapuaetai and it is one of the 22 islands that make up the atoll. We reach it after a seven- kilometer boat ride from the main island and land near a wooden shack where my passport is stamped with a tiny footprint. The island is uninhabited, although a cabin accommodates a handful of overnight guests once the fisherman and day visitors have cast off. Being stranded on a South Sea island is certainly an experience to brag about. However, with beautiful views, white sand and crystal clear water, it is another place you might prefer to keep to yourself.

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