Rarotonga, not Tonga or Toga, but the Cook Islands

Katy and I decided that that we wanted to explore someplace that wasn’t in New Zealand after our 27 days of visitors, so after my parents left we came back to New Plymouth, Katy worked four shifts, and on the fifth day we started our journey to Rarotonga. I have to be honest and admit that until recently I could not have told you if Rarotonga was a city or an island or a state or where it was. Well, it turns out that Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands with a whopping 12,000 people. The Cook Islands are an independent country in free association with New Zealand? Seriously, what does that mean?  I had to resort to the google. What that means is that they are self governing on local issues, but New Zealand handles their international relations and defense. We decided on Rarotonga because we were able to get there one-way on a frequent flyer ticket and pay cash during a fare sale for the ticket home, so it came out to 12.5k miles and $133 per person, which isn’t bad at all. We transferred miles to Singapore Airlines (you can transfer Amex MR, Chase UR, or Citi TYP to Singapore) and used their frequent flyer program to book a ticket on Air New Zealand. 

Katy finished up the last of her four night shifts about two hours early and came home and took a four hour nap. We were then off to Auckland. We first did a stop at the Three Sisters, one of Katy’s favorite beaches around.  We hopped out of the car and were instantly aware that we did not time our visit with the low tide, but this time we were prepared and knew the tide was going out. We then had the age old debate of whether Katy should wear her swimsuit (yes this is an age old debate, a frequent one), and she decided to forgo it this time, so off we waded in knee deep water.  As soon as we made it onto the beach after 100 meters of wading through water, Katy proclaimed that she wanted her swimsuit (some things never change).  We hung around the area, and Katy splashed in the water and whinged that she should have brought her swimsuit so she could have properly swam in the water.  We spent the night near the airport and then headed to the airport early the next morning. 

The airport was efficient as usual, and we shortly were through immigration and in the lounge. My passport has an issue with the automated gates and refused to automatically scan through, again. That means I had to go and talk to an immigration official who asks me why I didn’t use the automatic gate and if I tried twice (I did).   We were soon on our Air New Zealand, four hour flight to Rarotonga. We were pleasantly surprised to see “The Works” printed on our frequent flyer tickets, which means free booze and food on the airplane, as Katy has never been known to turn down an airplane beverage. 

We landed in Rarotonga after an uneventful flight. The airport is literally in the main part of town, and you can instantly tell that you are on an island.  Everything screams laidback island time, from the gentleman playing the ukulele at baggage claim (well he was also playing it at customs, immigration, security, and duty free since they are all in one not very large room), to the main vehicle of choice being mopeds, to the multitude of signs saying that pig feed was back in stock since the supply ship had arrived.  The main (only) road around the island passes between the airport and the ocean, and at points it seems like the runway is less than 100 meters from the ocean. We left the airport and found our car rental agency, and they wrote our credit card number down on a piece of paper and gave me the keys to the car,, and only later did I realize that my name was spelled wrong, a minor detail in the Cook Islands. When I think of Rarotonga, I think of a remote Pacific Island that I just learned existed six months ago. When a New Zealander thinks of Rarotonga, they think of a Pacific Island that is the same distance away as Australia, with multiple airlines (including a budget one) flying there, with cheap alcohol compared to New Zealand, that uses the New Zealand dollar, and that it is not a big deal to go there (Katy has colleagues who vacation there every year).

We then visited the grocery and liquor stores for some food and beer before heading to our Airbnb. The prices in the grocery store ranged from just about normal to $5 USD for 1.5 liters of soda. Our Airbnb was ~$100 a night and was a beachfront house with two decks looking over the west coast of the island. We went during offseason, which does mean it is hotter and wetter than normal. We were a tad bummed that the forecast called for rain everyday, but we figured (hoped) that it would be a passing rain cloud. 

Katy quickly made herself a tropical explosion mixed drink, and I opened a beer, and off we went to discover the water.  After a grueling 24 second walk (most of that time was spent debating to lock the door or not), we arrived at the water. We didn’t fully committing to the water due to seeing numerous blue jelly fish in the surf, which we later discovered are Portuguese man o war, and they do sting. I had briefly read something about them but couldn’t remember what I had read, and since internet is really pricey because it is all via satellite we couldn’t google to figure it out. We actually had to talk to someone and ask, very archaic. We settled for wading in the water, which was about the same temperature as Hawaii a month earlier, but nowhere near as warm as Sri Lanka. We then had a beer and played some Settlers on our deck while 30 feet from the breaking waves.  We decided to go out for dinner, since we did not pick up any fish (of course they don’t sell fish in the grocery stores) earlier in the day.  We walked about half a mile and ended up getting a seafood platter that included: tuna (cooked a little too much for me), really good calamari, Cook Islands’s version of ceviche with coconut milk (tuna), shrimp, scallops, tuna sashimi, and fish and chips. Including drinks, dinner came to $70USD, which isn’t bad for a beachfront meal.

The next morning I woke up a little after seven and headed to the bakery to grab a fresh loaf of cheese bread.  I also tried to go to the fish store, since I read that they close when they sell out of fish, but it wasn’t open yet.  There is one store, Ocean Fresh, that sells fish and one small grocery store does too. None of the other grocery stores sell it, which I wasn’t expecting.  Ocean Fresh has a couple boats, and one of them got beached earlier this year, so the fish supply at times is minimal.  They have a board with the price of fish out front and scratch off as they sell it.  One day at noon they just had albacore left, but the first day when we got our fish they had yellowfin tuna ($7.30/lb),  mahi mahi ($8), albacore ($6), marlin ($4.30), offcuts ($2.90/lb) and a few other fish that I forget.  It isn’t bad for fresh fish that was caught that day.

After breakfast with semi ominous clouds in the sky, we drove a couple kilometers down the road to Aroa Beach, what turned out to be our favorite snorkeling beach on island.  Driving around the island can take a couple minutes, even though it only has a circumference of 20 miles, since the max speed is ~35 mph, and in some towns the speed limit dips to a blistering 19 mph.  We did round one of snorkeling, and of course I called my round a little earlier than Katy, since I got cold and she couldn’t stop examining all the fishes.  When I got to the beach it started to drizzle, and when Katy came in it started to rain, and so we scampered to the car while she described every single fish that she had seen and asked if I had seen them too. While it’s fine to snorkel in the rain, sitting on the beach in the rain is not my definition of fun, so we continued around the island.  We saw a brewery, so we stopped by.  I tried to buy a six pack each of the IPA and the lager, but they bottle everyday and only had 2 bottles of their IPA left, and some lager, so that is what we got.  They encouraged bringing back their bottles to recycle, and a closer examination of the bottles revealed that they were previously recycled Heineken (or whatever) bottles that they could get their hands on.  The rain then dissipated, and we went to another snorkeling beach, Fruits of Rarotonga, named after a fruit shop across the street from the beach.  This one involved a decent swim out, and even though there were multiple snorkel tour boats there, it wasn’t as good as Aroa Beach.  Overall the snorkeling quality was better than Oahu, with tons of fish, but some of the coral was dying, and you could tell that it had seen better days.  

We finished up our tour around the island, stopping for some really good mahi mahi and tuna sandwiches for lunch, and a stop in town to pickup some mahi mahi and tuna for dinner.  Our last stop was the fruit seller down the way.  We picked up a breadfruit, passion fruit, nu (young drinking coconut), a papaya, and some mini bananas.  We also got a mini lesson on how to cook the breadfruit, which may be a fruit but tastes way more like a starchy vegetable (the seller compared it a potato).  You first boil it like a potato, then pan fry it a touch to add some crispness, and it is actually pretty good (Katy: to me it seemed most similar to yucca).  It is pretty easy to navigate an island that only has one main road, as you only have the choice to go either clockwise or counter clockwise and no matter which direction you choose you will pass your destination in less that 45 minutes. The dinner turned out great, with the mahi mahi being some of the best that I have every had.  

We started our third day on the island with another good snorkel.  This turned out to be the best weather day of the trip, with the sun out most of the day.  The other days there was a good amount of cloud for a large portion of the day.  We did the snorkeling at Aroa Beach again, and halfway through our visit were joined by one of the local preschools.  Bringing 30 four year olds to the beach does not sound like a particularly relaxing day as a preschool teacher, but I guess when you live in an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you are used to sand and water.  After our beach and snorkel time, we went to town and grabbed a fisherman’s platter that had tuna sashimi done three different ways for $14 (two person serving), and Katy got a tropical fruit smoothie. Since fish is so cheap here the portions are huge, and our lunch probably had at least 12 ounces of tuna on it in the various dishes.

 We picked up some marlin, albacore, and yellowfin tuna for dinner (they were out of mahi mahi).  When we were driving back to our beach house, we came across a conundrum, an airplane sitting on the runway.  This normally is not an issue when you’re driving since planes hang out in airports, and cars hang out on roads.  The issue here is that the road is about two meters from the runway, and there are signs to be cautious of jet blast, and to stop if a plane is taking off, but you have no idea if the plane is about to take off or not.  I made the split second decision to not stop, since no cars in front of me were stopped, and I saw oncoming cars.  About a minute later the plane did take off, right over the main town….

We played some more Settlers (Katy was on a winning streak) that night and made some fruit juice, rum, coconut cream, passion fruit, coconut, and papaya adult beverages.  When you cut open a passion fruit, it is just seeds inside, and they are flavor explosion of tart and sweet when you bite into one (Katy: I highly recommend adding them to drinks, where they’re like tart fruity boba).  

Our fourth day on the island was much like the others, and it was great.  We did switch it up in the evening, and we went to an Island Night.  An Island Night is like a luau in Hawaii, and it was surprisingly good.  There was some consternation as to whether it was going to go on due to lack of people signing up (low season), but they were able to gather about 25 people, and so the show was on.  The food was actually one of the highlights of the event.  There was goat curry (no luau in Hawaii would serve this), unlimited tuna sashimi, tuna ceviche, seared tuna cooked medium rare (the best cooked buffet tuna I have seen), pork belly, pumpkin poke (pumpkin, coconut milk, arrow root, milk, and water mixed up and cooked into a gel which was surprisingly good), rukau (cooked taro leaves…Katy has edited this twice to say spinach, but it was not spinach…with coconut cream that tasted a lot like Indian saag), a couple salads, and some other boring meats like chicken.  Normally, in my opinion, the food is an after thought at these type of events, but it was actually cooked well and very good at this one.  The dance troupe that came out had at least 29 people that were are part of it, split between dancers and musicians, with three fire twirlers.  Don’t worry, only one set himself on fire, and only one dropped his flaming stick of doom (I may be reading Lord of the Rings at the moment). They also forced everyone to get up and do the assorted dances with minimal instructions.  There was no choice like at every other luau to not get up and make a fool of yourself.   It was a great evening, and to top it off it was only $38USD per person, which is more than reasonable, and the rain even decided to stop so we could walk home without getting drenched. 

Our last day turned out to be a wash.  It rained (hard) nearly the entire day, but we still went out for a snorkel.  It was actually surprisingly good with a lot more fish than normal.  The snorkeling spots normally had no more than a handful of people actually snorkeling at a time, and this time there wasn’t anyone else.  The water was warm enough for about 20-30 minutes, and then I needed a break (except on the sunny days).  We then headed back and did some packing, and Katy got one last float in her pink floaty that we had carted back from Hawaii. It then started down pouring. Our AirBnB host was gracious enough to let us stay as late as we wanted, since we had a 130am flight, and he didn’t have another booking for a couple more days.  It was raining so much that we were worried that our plane might be delayed or cancelled, and since we didn’t have internet there was no way to check.  On our way to dinner we stopped by the airport to look at the monitor, and it turns out they don’t have monitors at the Rarotonga Airport….

After dinner we worked on sorting out the car (dropping it off turned out to be more a pain than we were hoping), had a beer at the bar down the street from the airport, and then checked in.  We flew Jet Star for the first time, which is an Australian low cost carrier.  We were prepared and had bought the extra legroom seats, a checked bag, and guesstimated our weight of each bag (total carryon limited to 7 kg, checked bag 15 kg).  It turns out that no one in front of us did that, and since there were no self checkin counters or mobile boarding passes, the line moved painfully slow as EVERY SINLGE PERSON (except one group) had to move luggage around or throw things out to meet the weight limits.  We were lucky, and our checked bag was 14 kg, and the heaviest carryon (Todd’s) was 6 kg so we were issue free. A lot of the flights to New Zealand have Cook Islanders on them since 60% of Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.  This is mainly due to the fact that the median household income in the Cook Islands is about 1/4 that of New Zealand, and many of the workers in the Cook Islands are actually from other island chains. We went back to the bar and discovered that they were all closed at 11:45pm on a Friday night.  Friday night is the night that they are allowed to stay open until 2am, but apparently they were not in the mood (Katy: probably because they found the rain discouraging).  We had an uneventful flight back and even though it is a four flight, there is a 23 hour time difference, so we left the Cook Islands at 1:30am on Saturday morning and arrived back in New Zealand at 4:30am on Sunday morning.  It was a great trip, and we were glad that we did it.  We did wish the weather was a little sunnier, but it is low season and the prices reflect it.

Cook Island Santa Parade
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