It is said that Cook Islanders are the friendliest people in the world. While this may indeed be true, it is but one element of a culture that has remained virtually unchanged over the past three hundred years. The Cook Island Maori is a proud, passionate and caring person. Deeply religious, the islanders have embraced Western Christian values, and as such, churches dot the villages of Rarotonga. From the moment you land on their islands, you will feel their genuine friendship and a willingness to share their island and culture with visitors.
To discover the culture of the Cook Islands, the best place to start is by attending one of the various, "Island Night" celebrations that occur at various locations on the island. The night begins with an Umukai, the traditional Polynesian feast. A hole is dug in the ground, and a fire started, the Umu is then lined with rocks. Once the fire dies down, green banana stalks and leaves are placed in the hole to provide a liner, which by now is steaming away. The food or Kai is then placed in the earthen oven and additional layers of banana or hibiscus are placed on top with a covering of dirt. The Kai, typically a whole pig or fish, along with various side dishes, is then left to steam in its own juices for a couple of hours, at which point you have created the Polynesian equivalent of "fast food." Those of you that have attended a Hawaiian luau have experienced much the same meal, but once the food is consumed, the dancing will not resemble the Hawaiian Hula.
The dancing in the Cook Islands is referred to as Kaiori and it bears only slight resemblance to its cousin the Hula. The dancers, dressed in traditional costumes, demonstrate dancing that has been passed down from generation to generation. Dancers range in age from middle-aged to small children, and the various dance troupes on the island clearly enjoy dancing and competing amongst themselves. Their annual dance competition draws visitors from the entire world as teams from the neighboring islands come to Rarotonga for the pageant. Viewing Cook Islands dancing for the first time will leave you with a sense of awe and to this day never fails to bring tears to my eyes. No wonder Captain Cook had trouble with a mutiny - the dancing is very authentic. Clearly nothing inspired by the tourist board, and, how shall I say, quite…sensual.
While Island Night is offered at a variety of resorts on Rarotonga, my favorite, and I feel the best value, is offered by the Staircase Restaurant (Ph. 22-254). At NZ$25.00 they offer a traditional buffet meal, sans the Umukai, with dancing provided by the Te Maneva Troupe, some of the finest dancers on the island. The Staircase has an intimate dining area and an opportunity to be right amongst the dancers. There is also a large deck, and if you decide to skip the buffet, entry to view the dancing is only NZ$5.00. The culmination of the night’s dancing involves audience participation, for which most of us visitors quickly find out we are ill equipped. The smiling dancers randomly pick people from the crowd to dance with and the resulting shaking never fails to draw laughs from one and all. Island night on Rarotonga will provide you with an introductory glimpse into the culture and traditions of the island’s Maori culture.
If you enjoyed "Island Night" and you are interested in knowing more about the history and culture of the Cook Islands, I suggest you sign up for the Cultural Village Tour (Ph. 21-314), which operates Monday through Friday. After a brief history lesson, you will be led through a variety of huts, where guides will demonstrate various aspects of Cook Island Maori life, including the making of traditional dancing costumes, fishing, local medicine, weaving, carving, and cooking. The 3½-hour tour ends with a demonstration of traditional singing and dancing, followed by an island meal, where you will get a chance to try a wide assortment of local foods. This extremely well-presented tour costs NZ$54.00, and transfers to and from your hotel are available for NZ$4.00. The tour has been a fixture on the island since 1988, is highly informative, and a must for those interested in the people and culture of Rarotonga.
Those interested in more history or culture should plan on visiting the National History & Library (Ph. 20-725) on the Eastern outskirts of Avarua. Make an inland turn at Victoria Road, directly across from the Paradise Inn, and it will lead you to the two buildings that house the museum and library. Entrance to the museum is free and offers a variety of exhibits. When you are done viewing the exhibits, head for the library, where you can fill out a temporary borrower’s card, pay a small deposit, and be allowed to check out books for a nominal fee.
Having participated in the three cultural features above, you are now ready to experience the event which will forever remind you of the special people and place that is Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. Sunday is a special day on all the islands in the Cook Island chain - the inter-island planes don’t fly, few restaurants are open, and the stage is set for the island’s legendary church services. You will see the locals in their finest clothes, women in their wide-brimmed hats and the males in long pants and starched shirts headed for the closest CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church) shortly before 10am on any Sunday. The visitor that attends the service in one of these churches will experience an awe-inspiring event. The hymn singing is beyond description, dating back to a period long before the missionaries brought Christianity to the islands. Clearly these people have been singing praise to their Gods for several centuries. Attend a church service and you will be rewarded by the sweetest of harmonies and hymn singing that is guaranteed to raise the roof of the church.
Once you have attended a Sunday church service, you should have a deep understanding and appreciation of the culture and the people I am happy to call my friends, the Cook Island Maori.