My brother was on his way home from a two year round-the-world journey and dropped in on our father at our childhood home in the Cook Islands. “That’s where I want to live the rest of my life,” he said. “All that searching and it was there all along, under my nose.” It’s the people, he says. Cook Islanders are what make these islands so unique, they’re chubby, jovial souls always with a guitar handy and a laugh that’ll scare you at first with its sonic boom.
While some Cook Islanders can look as big and imposing as a rugby scrum, they’re as soft and cuddly as teddy bears. Growing up here, my first memories are of being squeezed half to death by big island women who fussed over us fair little foreigners, any time now I smell that all too familiar smell of coconut oil and the frangipani every Cook Island woman wears in her hair, I have such a strong sense of déjà vu it’s all I can do to stop hugging every one of them.
The Cook Islands are like the recipe to romantic utopia: 15 sun-drenched islands spread over two million square kilometres of perfect blue sea, occupied by under 20 000 locals, with some of the world’s largest lagoons. There’s practically a beach to every person in the group, on Atiu, one of the Cook Islands’ hidden gems, you’re told sternly that if you find a beach with someone on it to go to the next one because no-one likes a crowd.
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To me, the Cook Islands represent more than just a romantic getaway. Rent a motor-bike and drive around Rarotonga’s one main road, you’ll circumnavigate the island in half an hour but you’ll always find something new. There’s a pig that hasn’t tried to run under your wheel yet, or a rooster, there’s a coconut tree to climb, a perfect white sandy beach with no-one on it, a lagoon with sail-boats, a pretty local woman riding a horse along the sand. There’s a mountainous interior you can climb yourself, or take a walking tour with local character Pa.
These days Rarotonga is a fairly sophisticated couples retreat, but it still beats with the same heart of my time here almost 30 years ago. For every perfect $50 steak, there’s the iki mate (the local delicacy of raw fish with coconut and lime) for $5 at a local bar, for every European stretched out on a cabana chair at Muri Lagoon, there’s a Cook Islander asleep in the sun at the markets, oblivious to your efforts to buy from them.
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