Where are these islands?
The Cook Islands are a group of fifteen tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean, north-east of New Zealand. Although there are only fifteen islands and they are all quite tiny they are spread over 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean. The islands are divided into two groups: the Southern Cook Islands, and the Northern Cook Islands. We visited two of the Southern islands, Raratonga and Aitutaki and these are a good 45 minute flight apart from each other.
Useful information for visitors:
Visas aren't needed for a stay of up to31 days, only valid passports, proof of onward travel and booked accommodation.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -9
Electricity: 240V ,50Hz and two pin flat plugs are used like Australia and NZ
A potted history:
The Cook Islands were from 1888, a British Dominion but they were annexed by New Zealand on 7th October 1900. However since 1903 the Cooks Islands have been independent but remain under New Zealand's governance, although a Cook Islands Legislative Council was elected in 1946.
In April 1965, the first elections were held and a government led by Albert Henry was formed. The islands are self-governing in association with New Zealand. This is a unique relationship and all Cook Islanders have an automatic right New Zealand citizenship as well as their own nationality.
These islands are Polynesian in their culture and it is believed that the first people landed on Raratonga in 800AD coming from what is today French Polynesia. It is also said that the first of the proud Maori people left from Raratonga for the shores of New Zealand in the 5th century AD.
Europeans first noticed these islands in 1595 when a Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana made note of them. The British first sighted Pukapuka in 1764 and then the infamous Captain Bligh landed his ship the HMS Bounty on Aitutaki in 1798. 1821 saw the arrival of the first Christian missionaries whose influence spread rapidly throughout the Cook Islands. Fortunately the islanders did manage to keep a good many of their own traditions despite their conversion to Christianity. They did however drop their cannibalism which was probably a good thing for the missionaries.
Although English is the main language of communication , Cook Islands Mãori or Maori Kuki Airani is becoming more widely spoken and has been our official language since 2003. Cook Island Maori is also referred to as ‘Te reo Ipukarea’ or "the language of the Ancestral Homeland’.
Raratonga is the most populated of the islands and it is the centre of the government as the Parliament Building is in Avarua, the capital city of Raratonga and the Cook Islands too. The International Airport is also on Raratonga and from here flights go daily to the other islands in the group.
The island is tiny and I thought as we were coming in to land ‘I hope the pilot doesn’t miss it!’ It is only a tiny 20 miles in circumference and has an area of 26 square miles. We drove around it in under three hours stopping at any site of interest on the way. Driving is all 30mph and there are very few cars as most people use scooters and motor bikes. Our car that we hired was ‘interesting’ I might get round to writing a review at some time!
From the moment you land you are made to feel welcome. The airport is quite tiny and fairly basic but everything seemed to work efficiently. We were met and taken to our hotel in a mini bus with little fuss and that is what you want after a long journey really.
You don’t really need a car on the island as the bus is quite good but we wanted to explore a bit further so we did hire one for a day. There is one main "ring" road that follows the coast. In some places there is also a secondary ring road slightly further inland but as the interior is so mountainous there is no road across the island.
There is a great bus service on the island which goes around the island clockwise and anti clockwise and there are bus stops all along the route and sometimes people were dropped off in between as well. I can’t remember how much the fares were but not much at all and we used it a few times to get into Avarua. It did seem to be mainly tourists using the bus when we were there but there were a few locals. They seemed to use their scooters and double up on those.
As you drive around the island there are several places of interest to try and find. Some were easier than others. We spent quite some time hunting for the different Stone remnants of the Marae which were ancient open places of worship of the Polynesian culture. We found some stones but we were not sure if these were the right stones as there was no notice to say what they were. We only had a map to go on and this was fairly simple but we enjoyed looking for them anyway.
One rather sad sight was a huge development by the Sheraton group which lay disused and left empty. This was built prior to the financial collapse in the 1990s and looks as though not much will be happening with this at all. It seems rather a waste and we felt it could be made into apartments for local people rather than just left to fall down.
A little further down this road is the house where the Queen’s representative lives but all we could see was a flag and a simple sign with a nice tropical garden. I should think they are queuing for this plum job in the consul offices as this has to be one of the nicest most welcoming islands in the world.
Continuing round the island we get to Vaka village where there is a really beautiful CICC church where the priest here in 1827 - 1854 spent years translating many works of literature into Maori. Across from this beautiful building is a small park and a sheltered harbor where legend has it that seven canoes left here in 1350 to make their way to New Zealand. The names of the seven canoes are carved on a monument in this car park beside the shore.
We drove along the inner road for some of our trip as we were looking for rural scenery and local plants like taro growing. Some of the houses were just so pretty and everyone took such pride in their gardens it was a really lovely drive. We felt quite comfortable stopping to take photos when we found something that we found interesting as everyone was so friendly and smiley. This inner road is said to be an ancient road, the oldest in Polynesia. It has a coral foundation laid by chief Toi over a thousand years ago.
We were able to go inland as far as Wigmore’s waterfall. This stream and falls are quite pretty but despite being lathered in deet we were still getting bothered by mossies so we didn’t hand around too long. It is possible to walk into the interior of the island along a track from here but we ran back to the car to avoid being eaten alive and continued our driving exploration instead.
We thoroughly explored everything on our list of things to see in our guide book plus hunting out things we wanted to see like the farming areas and taro growing so we returned our little Nissan Micra cabriolet car to the rental office and walked back across the road to our lovely little hotel to spend the rest of the day by the pool.
Raratonga may not be the most exciting island for sightseeing but the atmosphere and welcome feeling you get as you explore the place more than makes up for this.
Compared to Tahiti this island is so much better value. Food and drink cost are reasonable and most of the sights around the island are free. You don’t feel like you are being ripped off at every turn here. The island is beautiful and despite the fact it was raining a lot of the time we were here, it was hard to not be impressed by the luxurious foliage, white sand beaches, the lovely well kept tropical gardens and the genuine happy welcoming faces of the local people who are justifiably proud of their culture and their country.
If you can only visit one South Sea Island then this or Samoa are probably the most unspoilt and certainly much cheaper and far more attractive than Tahiti so I would recommend either of these two islands.