The remote beauty of the Cook Islands

If you spin an ornamental globe to simply the proper spot, you may come to a spot the place there’s nearly nothing however open blue water. Near the center of this expansive function – the Pacific Ocean – you can find the Cook Islands.

Surrounded by practically 2 million sq. kilometers of ocean, this tiny nation consists of fifteen small islands shaped by historic volcanoes. The geography right here is exclusive and numerous, starting from Jurassic Park-like mountains and jungle on Rarotonga, the most populous island, to the fossilized coral cliffs of Mangaia, which is believed to be amongst the oldest islands in the Pacific.

About as remote of an island as you may get, Muri Lagoon in Rarotonga © Didier Marti / Getty Images

Farther north in the direction of the equator, you can find low-lying coral atolls – seductive, fascinating landscapes that creep into our desires, making a maddening want to journey there. Due to their remoteness, few of us will ever get there.

Yet someway, it’s right here the place I discovered myself at the onset of the pandemic, simply as lockdowns have been being imposed round the world, and whereas a lot of the northern hemisphere was starting to grapple with the cruelties of winter. Due to journey restrictions, this paradise was practically devoid of different vacationers.

Sunrise over the famous Muri Beach in the Cook Islands
Sunrise over the well-known Muri Beach in the Cook Islands © Didier Maqrti / Getty Images

Your journey to the islands most certainly begins in Rarotonga

I arrived right here with my household in early 2020, the last cease in an around-the-world journey. We had wished to indicate our daughter the nation that my spouse and I have been fortunate to have as soon as known as residence – a land far faraway from the freshwater lakes and deciduous forests of Canada the place we have been born and raised.

‘Raro’, because it’s known as by locals, is fringed with luxurious, gentle coral sand seashores, tall coconut palms and a dramatic mountainous inside. A distinction of verdant greens from the hills and mountains mix with the lagoon’s luxurious shades of blue to make Raro irresistibly Instagrammable.

Prior to the pandemic, guests might solely make their method right here from solely a handful of gateways – Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles or French Polynesia. Yet in spite of its isolation, Rarotonga presents flashy vacation villas and a cosmopolitan eating scene devoid of massive chains and multinational corporatins. A typical day can embrace snorkeling in the lagoon, mountain climbing the island’s rugged inside and dinner with top-rated New Zealand wines and freshly caught yellowfin.

I began issues off at one of Rarotonga’s cafes with a macchiato. The caffeine was the draw, nevertheless it was the dialog that I used to be actually in search of. It is thru Cook Islanders which you can peel again the layers of this dynamic area and listen to a very good yarn about survival and resilience, and what island life is admittedly like.

Fresh food at the market in Avarua; Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Fresh fish, tropical fruits and extra island favorites are greatest loved immediately from the supply at the market in Avarua; Rarotonga, Cook Islands © Chester Voyage / Alamy

Rarotonga’s picture-perfect Black Rock seashore

One morning, below intense sunshine and a heat breeze, I headed to Punanga Nui market, which involves life each Saturday with sellers providing freshly cooked meals, tropical fruits corresponding to passionfruit, papayas and soursop and artisanal items corresponding to selfmade vanilla extract and ukuleles.

I noticed a Cook Islands elder I do know and over espresso, he informed me his story about rising up in Rarotonga and ultimately heading abroad to find what lies past the reef.

Master Navigator Tua Pittman aboard the Marumaru Atua, sailing out from Rarotonga in The Cook Islands
Sailing out from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands © Chester Voyage / Alamy

It’s a journey many have made; there are extra Cook Islanders residing in New Zealand and Australia than in the Cook Islands itself. Some, like my good friend, ultimately make it residence to retire amongst the plantations and seashores of their birthplace.

I met one other younger man with the same historical past. As we handed away the hours on picture-perfect Black Rock beach on Rarotonga’s north coast, he informed me his outstanding story.

His ancestors hailed from the northern atoll of Penrhyn. It’s an island with distinctive geography – a sliver of land formed like a large zero with an enormous 233-square-kilometer lagoon in the center that teems with sharks.

In his late teenagers, whereas residing in New Zealand, he lastly had an opportunity to go to his ancestral homeland. He traveled to the tiny atoll of Penrhyn from Rarotonga by boat – a 1,400km journey – however on the method again, they have been caught in a cyclone. At one level, the boat’s passengers have been saying their last goodbyes, however after a number of days the storm subsided, permitting them to dock safely in Rarotonga. He informed me he hasn’t returned to Penrhyn since, and if he ever did it might be by airplane – which is difficult in numerous methods. There are solely 5 completely habited islands in the far north of the Cook Islands, and solely three have airstrips. Commercial flights are irregular and airfare tends to be costly.

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A view of the islands from a propeller plane
Small planes are the best and quickest option to hop islands © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Pukapuka: about as remote as you may get

When my household turned caught in the Cook Islands throughout the early phases of the pandemic, I discovered myself in the proper place at the proper time and was supplied a job at the each day newspaper. Several months later, I used to be given the task of a lifetime – an opportunity to discover and write about the islands of Pukapuka, Manihiki and Penrhyn.

So on a sunny summer time morning, I threw my backpack into the again of a small Cessna and off we went, leaving small lovely Rarotonga in the distance with nothing however blue water forward of us.

As I stared out the window, I puzzled what to anticipate on this journey. These islands have just a few hundred residents every, and there aren’t any bars, eating places or cafes. If Rarotonga is taken into account remoted, these small islands may as effectively be on a distinct planet.

After touchdown in Pukapuka, I instantly felt the remoteness and the way restricted assets require locals to give you progressive options. The bus that might have usually been used to hold our baggage to our lodging was damaged down, so our hosts used a tractor as a substitute. With freshly-husked younger coconuts in our palms, we started strolling to our water taxi to take us to our lodging.   

The Aitutaki lagoon, The Cook Islands
The beautiful coast of the Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands © Simon Bradfield / Getty Images

The beauty was placing. Coconut palms leaning over pristine white coral sand seashores, quaint coconut frond cottages alongside the shore, well-kept taro patches and turquoise waters that couldn’t be extra inviting for a leisurely swim. We ate a lunch of fried parrotfish and taro with coconut cream and ready for our subsequent cease. In lower than 24 hours, we have been scheduled to fly to our subsequent vacation spot – Manihiki, the island of pearls.

Palm trees and a small hut on the Manihiki coastline in the Cook Islands
It’s straightforward to loosen up while you’re this remote © Galaxiid / Alamy

Manihiki and its beautiful lagoon

Once the epicenter of the Cook Islands black pearl business, Manihiki had a barely extra cosmopolitan really feel. Many residents I spoke with had traveled overseas sooner or later of their lives. With comparable geography to its neighboring atolls, it has a function that units it aside – the small islets in its beautiful lagoon. 

Many are residence to pearl farms known as ‘kaoas’, the place these prized gems are cultivated. Foreign competitors has decimated this as soon as booming business, leaving many kaoas to fall into disrepair and providing a reminder of how difficult it may be to eke out an existence right here.

Nature, nonetheless, continues to supply. A dive in the lagoon reveals colleges of colourful fish and infinite paua (abalone) – some of which is able to find yourself in a pot of an irresistible curry.

Residents converse of rehabilitating the kaoas and changing them into lodging for intrepid vacationers. I can’t suppose of a extra unique Airbnb expertise ought to they fulfill this imaginative and prescient.

The day ends with a dinner of fried fish and an island specialty known as poke – a candy pudding-like deal with made with ripe bananas and recent coconut cream. Apart from our voices, the solely sound is the faint thud of waves crashing on Manihiki’s outer reef.

Cook Islands traditional singing ute
Don’t go up your probability to listen to a joyous ‘ute’, a celebratory tune efficiency © Hemis / Alamy

Penrhyn’s coconut palms and recent tuna

We ultimately made our option to Penrhyn, the last vacation spot of our journey. It’s a spartan panorama – a lagoon a lot bigger than these at our earlier stops, the land not as lush, however nonetheless lined with coconut palms and huge crabs dashing throughout the island’s dusty roads.

The subsequent day, we explored the island and talked with locals, assembly a weaver of Penrhyn’s well-known hats, making an attempt our luck with some fishing, ingesting coconuts and consuming copious quantities of recent, uncooked tuna.

This was a distinct kind of journey – an embrace of a slower mode of journey. This is maybe the largest draw of the Cook Islands: the alternative to tune out the hysteria and commercialism of our each day lives and take pleasure in the heat of good firm, good meals and pure beauty so far as the eye can see.

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2022

The Cook Islands are on our 2022 Best in Travel listing. For extra tales from some of the world’s most enjoyable locations click here.

Safety suggestions and restrictions throughout a pandemic can change quickly. Lonely Planet recommends that vacationers all the time examine with native authorities for up-to-date steerage earlier than traveling during Covid-19.

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