South Pacific Organizer
Cook Islands travel with author David Stanley
|Destinations: travel to the COOK ISLANDS|
FINDING COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands range from towering Rarotonga, the country's largest island, to the low oval islands of the south and the solitary atolls of the north. Visitors are rewarded with natural beauty and colorful attractions at every turn. There is motion and excitement on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, peaceful village life on the rest. Since few tourists get beyond the two main islands, a trip to Atiu, Mangaia, or Mauke can be a fascinating travel experience. After French Polynesia, travel to the Cook Islands is inexpensive, and the local accommodation industry is efficient and competitive. It's a safe, quiet place to relax and you feel right at home. The local greeting is kia orana (may you live on). Other words to know are meitaki (thank you), aere ra (goodbye), and kia manuia! (cheers!).
These 15 islands and atolls, with a land area of only 240 square km, are scattered over 1.83 million square km of the South Pacific, leaving a lot of empty ocean in between. It's 1,433 km from Penrhyn to Mangaia. The nine islands in the southern group are a continuation of the Austral Islands of French Polynesia, formed as volcanic material escaped from a southeast -northwest fracture in the earth's crust. Five of the northern islands stand on the 3,000-meter- deep Manihiki Plateau, while Penrhyn rises directly out of seas 5,000 meters deep.
Practically every different type of oceanic island can be found in the Cooks. Rarotonga is the only high volcanic island of the Tahiti type. Aitutaki, like Bora Bora, consists of a middle-aged volcanic island surrounded by an atoll-like barrier reef, with many tiny islets defining its lagoon. Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, and Mitiaro are raised atolls with a high cave- studded outer coral ring (makatea) enclosing volcanic soil at the center. It's believed these islands were uplifted during the past two million years due to the weight of Rarotonga on the earth's crust. There are low rolling hills in the interiors of both Atiu and Mangaia, while Mauke and Mitiaro are flat. The rich, fertile southern islands account for 89% of the Cooks' land area and population.
Manihiki, Manuae, Palmerston, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Rakahanga, and Suwarrow are typical lagoon atolls, while tiny Takutea and Nassau are sand cays without lagoons. All of the northern atolls are so low that waves roll right across them during hurricanes, and you have to be within 20 km to see them. This great variety makes the Cook Islands a geologist's paradise. (View a map of the Cook Islands.)
The main Cook Islands are about the same distance from the equator as Hawaii and have a similarly pleasant tropical climate. Rain clouds hang over Rarotonga's interior much of the year, but the coast is often sunny, and the rain often comes in brief, heavy downpours. The other islands are drier and can even experience severe water shortages. Winter evenings June to August can be cool.
The trade winds blow from the east and southeast in the southern Cooks and from the east in the more humid northern Cooks 80% of the year; the rest of the time winds are generally from the southwest or west. November to April is the summer hurricane season, with an average of one every other year, coming from the direction of Samoa. If you happen to coincide with one, you're in for a unique experience! (Check the weather today on Rarotonga.)
The lush vegetation of the high islands includes creepers, ferns, and tall trees in the interior, while coconuts, bananas, and grapefruit grow on the coast. Avocados and papayas are so abundant that the locals feed them to their pigs. Taro and yams are subsistence crops. From November to March, the flamboyant trees bloom red.
The only native mammals are bats and rats. The mynah is the bird most often seen, an aggressive introduced species that drives native birds up into the mountains and damages fruit trees. By 1989 only about 29 examples of the Rarotonga flycatcher or kakerori remained due to attacks on the birds' nests by ship rats. Fortunately a local landowners group, the Takitumu Conservation Area, took an interest in the kakerori's survival and began laying rat poison in the nesting areas during the breeding season. By 2001 there were 241 kakerori.
Unfortunately the activities of local sharpshooters have made the Cook Islands less attractive as a birdwatching venue, and spearfishing using scuba gear has done much damage to the marinelife. To control this, certain lagoon areas around Rarotonga have been closed to fishing and shell collecting since 1998 under a traditional system known as ra'ui. Humpback whales can sometimes be seen cruising along the shorelines from July to September having migrated 5,000 km north from Antarctica to bear their young. Pilot whales (up to six meters) are in the Cooks year-round. In 2001 the Cook Islands declared its large exclusive economic zone a whale sanctuary.
0 500—Polynesians reach Rarotonga from the northeast
Most organized sporting activities are on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Several professional scuba diving companies are based on these islands, and there are many snorkeling possibilities. Both islands offer lagoon tours by boat, with those at Aitutaki by far the better.
Several firms based on Rarotonga's Muri Beach rent water-sports equipment, including windsurfers, sailboats, and kayaks, with training in their use available. The surfing possibilities are very limited in the Cook Islands--windsurfing's the thing to do. Horseback riding and deep-sea fishing are other popular activities.
Most of the hiking possibilities are on mountainous Rarotonga, but uplifted islands such as Atiu, Mauke, and Mangaia are also fascinating to wander around, with many interesting, hidden features.
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The 10-day Te Maeva Celebrations is the big event of the year, culminating on Constitution Day (4 August). There are parades, drumming and singing contests, sporting events, and an agricultural fair. The Round Raro Road Race is a 31-km marathon held on the first Saturday of October.
National Gospel Day (26 October) recalls 26 October 1821, when the Rev. John Williams landed on Aitutaki. Ask about Biblical pageants (nuku) on that day. The third or fourth week in November is the Tiare Festival, with flower shows, a parade, and beauty contests.
No visa is required for a stay of up to 31 days, but you must show an onward travel ticket. Officially, you're supposed to have your first night's accommodations booked prior to arrival. Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Penrhyn are ports of entry for cruising yachts.
The currency is the New Zealand dollar. Traveler's checks are worth about three percent more than cash at the banks. Tipping and bargaining are not part of the local culture. Prices in the Cook Islands are reasonable for anyone carrying US dollars.
Air New Zealand has direct services to Rarotonga from Auckland, Nadi, Papeete, and Los Angeles. Aloha Airlines arrives from Pago Pago and Honolulu. Air services into Rarotonga are heavily booked, so reserve your inward and outward flights as far ahead as possible. If you try to change your outbound flight after arrival you could be put on standby. The airport departure tax is NZ$25.
All of the main islands of the southern Cooks and a few of the northern group have regular air service from Rarotonga, although no flights operate on Sunday. Air Rarotonga serves Aitutaki from Rarotonga three times a day except Sunday. Most weekdays Air Rarotonga flies to Atiu, Mangaia, and Mauke. Mitiaro is served three times a week. Manihiki and Penrhyn receive Air Rarotonga flights weekly.
Taio Shipping operates the interisland vessels Manu Nui and Maungaroa around the islands monthly. These ships are basic and very few visitors travel this way.
Regular hourly bus services travel around Rarotonga during the day. Otherwise cars, scooters, and bicycles can be rented almost anywhere in the Cook Islands. A local drivers license must be purchased if you intend to operate a motor vehicle.
abridged from the 5th edition of: Moon Handbooks Tahiti & Cook Islands
Read a press release about Moon Handbooks Tahiti & Cook Islands
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