Breathe Deeper, Smile Wider in the Cook Islands

An emerald island with a serrated spine of ancient volcanoes, lassoed by a bedazzling blue lagoon: it’s almost impossible not to draw breath sharply upon first glimpse of Rarotonga.

Happily, this dreamy escape is now much closer, thanks to new direct flights from Sydney. After a little over 5 hours of catching up on movies, you can step off the spacious Air New Zealand Dreamliner into gardenia- tinged tropical air.

The Pacific may be dotted with tempting havens, however the Cook Islands are uniquely relaxing for the ease with which you can do your own thing and feel uncannily at home.

The warm, friendly people speak English, prices are familiar and self- driving is the ideal. As I pick up a zappy Toyota, I’m told there’s no traffic lights, seat-belts aren’t mandatory and to ‘park wherever you like’.

And whilst the Cook Islands is big on the sort of romantic beauty the Pacific does so well, it’s an appealing destination for single travellers.

Far sighted legislation stipulates that no building can be taller than a coconut tree. The main township of Avarua is pretty and framed by mountains and has supermarkets that are well stocked for self- catering travel. The Saturday morning market is as much a social events as it is about great shopping.

Affordable options for accommodation include Club Raro,  Are Mango Guesthouse, Kiikii Motel and several backpacker- style options.

Muri Beach is pure South Pacific, with a necklace of four islands just a short paddle offshore.  Accessed from the beach by a series of bougainvillea – fringed lanes, the settlement serves as a traveller’s hub.

Kite-surfing, diving, snorkelling tours and SUP yoga can be booked here. Muri also has night-markets, galleries showcasing local art as well as atmospheric bars and eateries. Several cafes here have internet and a vibe that’s welcoming for single travellers.

Food at the Nautilus Resort is as fabulous as the picturesque setting.  Meals are thoughtfully cooked with fresh herbs and the flavours resonate as I walk home along the beach. I don’t usually walk along beaches by myself at night but here it feels safe and natural. Plus, by way of a big bonus, I’m usually joined by a friendly ‘Raro’ dog.

Cook Islands history is colourfully narrated at the exotic dance and drumming extravaganza at nearby Te Vana Nui cultural village. Watching the energetic performances, it’s not surprising that Cook Islands dancers especially vexed the lads from the London Missionary Society.

Another essential Raratonga dining experience is the Progressive Dinner, where individual courses are served at local’s homes. The evening is convivial and intimate and it’s a great way to meet other travellers and hear the stories of the locals.

Driving around Rarotonga, be prepared to slow down for roaming chooks- that’s the pace here. Reasons to pull over constantly present themselves; at garden cafes or stalls selling hand- painted sarongs, at ubiquitous picnic spots.

A great way to keep fit, have fun and meet people is to walk the resident dogs at either the Esther Honey Foundation or the SPCA.

The uncrowded white beaches of the south and south-east are dotted with spots to park under hibiscus trees and go snorkelling.

The West Coast features popular options for sunset drinks; a standout being the Islander Hotel, home to live music– anything from world – class opera to impressive local talent and a generous happy hour.

Air Rarotonga flies to arrestingly gorgeous Aitutaki several times a day, with schedules co-ordinating favourably with international flights.

Remarkable for its incandescent pale turquoise hue, Aitutaki lagoon has become a byword for extreme beauty.

Honeymoon heaven for sure, but the vibe is welcoming and the island is becoming increasingly popular with single travellers. Affordable accommodation options include, Paradise Cove, Vaikoa Units and Gina’s Garden Lodges.

Both the Pacific Resort and the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort –have a weekly ‘Island Night’ featuring sensational drumming and dancing.

Even for the non-religious, it’s worth getting spruced up for spectacle and the powerful acoustic music at the weekly church service. Worshippers arrive in blindingly white Sunday best -women adorned with floral garlands around their hats.

As the singing gains tempo, it seems Harry Belafonte and Kate Pearson from the 52’s are belting out from nearby pews. I swear I feel the coral walls quivering.

People wave as I seek out Aitutaki’s hidden beaches and cute settlements of candy coloured houses surrounded by hedges brandishing bright hibiscus flowers. At times I drive on dirt roads and beneath banyan tendrils.

To experience the lagoon islands, hop aboard the Vaka Cruise – a day of songs, stories, island hoping and snorkelling amidst giant clams and giant trevally.

Legend has it that when historic ‘Coral Route’ flying boats paused here to refuel, passengers were reluctant to interrupt their swimming to reboard. Decades later, their actions remain entirely understandable.

Escape Routes

# www.airnewzealand.com.au

# www.cookislands.travel

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Especially passionate about getting away from the crowds and discovering unsung gems, Melissa (pictured here with her trusty editorial assistant) has been writing about travel, architecture and health for a wide range of magazines and newspapers for more than 15 years. She's shamelessly addicted to spending time underwater and seeking out the world's most eye - boggling snorkelling.