The Cook Islands Message Forum
An unspoilt cluster of islands in the Pacific, several hours flying time from New Zealand, the Cook Island group is a treasured holiday experience. The “Cooks” is in the centre of the Polynesian triangle flanked to the west by Tonga and Samoa and to the east by Tahiti and French Polynesia.
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The group is made up of fifteen islands which are scattered over two million square kilometres of ocean. They fall into two distinct groups: The Southern Group is the most popular with 90% of the population. Six of the nine islands are accessible by regular air services. The more remote Northern Group has six islands, three of which Manihiki, Penrhyn and Pukapuka are accessible by air.
CAPITAL AND MAJOR CENTRES
Rarotonga is the largest island lying at the southern end of the group. The capital, Avarua is a thriving administrative and shopping centre with restaurants, hotels, banking and other facilities including the International Airport. There are first class resorts, reef protected bays in which to snorkel, swim and sail and local bus transport which encircles the island every forty-five minutes.
From Rarotonga, you can visit other Cook Island destinations such as Aitutaki, a fifty minute flight by Air Rarotonga; Atiu, north east of Rarotonga which offers untouched beaches and coral reefs riddled with caves; Mangaia, south east of Rarotonga surrounded by a narrow fringing reef backed by the formidable cliffs of Makatea which reach heights of up to 60 metres; Mauki, with its fine caves located in the cliffs of the coral reef; Mitiaro which has a large swampy interior; Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Nassau, Palmerston, and Suwarrow which has no permanent resident only a caretaker.
The southern group also has Manuae a marine reserve with only a caretaker and Takutea, another uninhabited island which is a bird sanctuary but there are no regular flights to either of these islands.
The people are mostly Polynesian, Cook Island Maoris, related to the New Zealand Maoris and the Tahitians. The Pukapukans however are unique in that they are closer to the Samoans. Most of the population live on Rarotonga and in the southern group. They are an open, friendly people who are happy to introduce you to their way of life. Their local greeting is "kia orana" ("may you live on").
Though spread across a vast empty expanse of ocean, the Polynesians knew all these islands by heart long before the first Europeans came. Rarotonga was first sighted by the Polynesians between 600 and 800 AD. Many anthropologists believe that these people may have originated in Peru and migrated to Malaya in "Asia Minor" which, in this case, refers to Southeast Asia and beyond, to such places as India, and then to Polynesia. However, one local legend says that they came from a land called Avaiki, (place you were before, which is understood to refer to Raiatea in French Polynesia). Another Rarotongan legend states that an ancestor named Tu-te-rangi-marama dwelt in the land of Atia-te-varinga-nui which means Atia-where-vari-was-abundant. In Rarotonga, the word vari means mud, but a connection has been seen between vari and the south Indian word padi meaning rice.
It has thus been thought that the Polynesian ancestors lived in a land where rice was grown in mud and that after they had left the rice lands behind them, they applied the word vari to the mud of taro swamps. One eminent authority believed that Atia was located in the basin of the Ganges. Perhaps the location is right, but the name Atia looks suspiciously like a Polynesian form of Asia. And so by isolated words and place names students have tried to prove that the Rarotongans travelled from the Land of the Pharaohs to India en route to the shores of the Pacific. ( See Polynesian Voyaging )
The Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana first sighted Pukapuka in 1595. He was followed by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who discovered Rakahanga in 1606. In the 1770s Captain James Cook made contact with Atiu, Mangaia, Manuae, Palmerston and Takutea which he called the Hervey Islands. In 1789, the Bounty Mutineers visited the bays of several islands on their way to Pitcairn Island. It was the Russian cartographer Johann von Krusenstern who named the southern group the Cook Islands in 1824.
New Zealand law took effect in 1901 and after pressure from the UN the group became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand on the 4th August 1965, a day which is now celebrated as Constitution Day.
There are no snakes, wild animals or poisonous insects so exploration is relaxing and enjoyable. A four hour trek to the top of a rocky outcrop called the "needle", one of the highest points in Rarotonga, reveals a number of fascinating exotic plants, birds, and butterflies. In the lagoon there is a variety of vivid and interesting coral and marine life including tropical fish of every hue. From August to October, whales can sometimes be seen outside the protective reef, while sharks are unheard of inside the warm lagoons.
The Avarua CICC Church is a magnificent landmark built of coral and lime and well worth a visit particularly on Sunday, for the people all attend church and the air is vibrant with their beautiful singing. The national cultural centre is an imposing island structure in beautifully kept gardens. Nearby are the old Sunday school ruins built by the missionaries, which have been renovated and are now the Beachcomber Pearl and artefact shop, and in the harbour is the wreck of the Matai which was sunk in 1916.
The wreck of the Yankee, Rarotonga
WHERE TO STAY
Rarotonga has a selection of resorts, hotels, motels, guest houses and lodgers which range from International standard to budget and mostly located along the waterfront. There are also Polynesian style thatched "ares" which are very comfortable.
Aitutaki has basic comfortable accommodation and one four star hotel. There are restaurants and tour facilities for lagoon trips and fishing expedition. All visitors must stay at licensed accommodation as camping, staying with the locals and sleeping in rental cars or on the beach is prohibited.
An island bus service operates around Rarotonga. Taxis and rental cars are available and a good sealed shoreline road encircles Rarotonga making it easy for bicycles and rented mopeds which are a very popular means of transport.
FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT
Nightspots, discos with bands and island dancing feature at the major hotels and resorts. Wining and dining is also a delight as a number of excellent restaurants offer a fine selection of local and international cuisines and are romantically located along the waterfront. A highlight of the Cook Islands is the Polynesian feast or banquet (umukai), prepared in the traditional style with foods such as marinated fish with coconut sauce, octopus, taro, and sweet potato.
Golf, tennis, trekking, squash, bowls, horse riding through tropical plantations to Wigmore Falls and a wide range of aquatic sports including sailing, windsurfing, snorkelling and scuba diving are popular pastime. Boats are available for charter for deep sea and game fishing.
Shops are open between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Lustrous precious pearls are indigenous to the Cook Islands. The beautiful black pearl is unique to French Polynesia and Manihiki Island in the Northern Cook. Set in gold, or complimented with precious gem, these black pearls are a special reminder of these islands. The traditional white pearl, found in the same area are predominantly golden in colour.
Aitutaki, the second most visited Cook Islands, is part volcanic and part atoll, and its highest hill, Maungapu is said to be the top of Rarotonga's Raemaru, chopped off and brought back by victorious Aitutaki warriors.
Polynesian myth holds that beautiful Aitutaki is a giant fish tethered to the seabed by a vine from the air. The light turquoise lagoon looks like a huge pale oyster against the vivid blue ocean. Captain Bligh discovered Aitutaki in 1789, only 17 days before the notorious mutiny, and Christian missionaries followed which meant it was the first of Cook Islands to receive Christianity.
Today the people live in villages strung out along the roads on both sides of the main island and travel about on motor scooters. The roads are red-brown in the centre of the island and coral white around the edge.
Every village has a community hall and there was tremendous competition between villages to have the biggest and the best, so the halls are splendid in size and seldom used.
The low rolling hills of the island are flanked by banana plantations and coconut groves. A triangular barrier reef seems to catch the exquisite turquoise Aitutaki lagoon like a giant fishhook. The crystal clear water in the lagoon is ideal for sailing, swimming and snorkelling and beneath the blue surface is a world of sea creatures and plants that will leave you fascinated.
To reach the summit of Maungapu, take a leisurely half hour walk to the west of the island. At the top you'll discover a sweeping view of Aitutaki and if you get hungry on the way down, pick a piece of fruit from the trees. The shopping and business district is clustered near the wharf at Arutanga. There's a good choice of places to stay, plus several good restaurants and spirited hotel-based live entertainment.
You can spend your days sailing on a catamaran yacht, chartering a fishing boat or enjoying a power boat excursion either inside or outside the lagoon. At night, activities are varied and include a spot of crab hunting after which the hunters prepare a crustacean feast.
For those who enjoy more traditional island entertainment, the big night is Friday when islanders and visitors get together for an evening of dancing and singing. For more singing of a different kind, attend church on Sunday for the services are truly memorable.
The diving opportunities in the Cooks are diverse with crystal clear waters having seldom less than 100 metre visibility, and water temperatures between 23 and 30 degrees C. All diving is shore based from boats in the 5.6 to 7 metre size range and most dive sites are a mere ten minutes from your departure point.
There are canyons, caves, and varieties of coral - including plate, shelving, mushrooms and brain, big drop-offs and a multitude of colourful tropical fish. While there are no guaranteed performers such as the rays of Cayman or the mantas of Yap, anything is possible. The real thrill is not knowing what is around the next corner.
Recreational diving was established commercially in the Cook Islands in 1973 and there are now four full time dive operators, three in Rarotonga, the main island and one in Aitutaki. Cook Island divers in Rarotonga, and Aitutaki Scuba in Aitutaki both run two separate one tank multi-level dives each day. Cook Island divers operates seven days a week and Aitutaki Scuba six days, and the newly established Pacific divers concentrate mainly on training but also offers whale watching and scenic cruises. Dive Rarotonga, based in Rarotonga, also offers dives most afternoons. A limited amount of night diving is also available.
All three operators have good rental equipment, so bringing your own gear is not necessary although masks, fins and snorkels are recommended as they are rented only for use on the operator's boats. Scuba training is available on both islands with Aitutaki scuba and Cook Island divers offering a choice of CMAS, NAUI or PADI certifications to all levels. Dive Rarotonga has PADI training available.
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