When the Choirboys belted out Run to Paradise, they were anguishing over the topic of drugs and death. Not that we noticed, as we cheerily screamed along to the chorus of this pub classic. But when Jenny and Johnny ‘run to paradise’, it means they’ve died and gone to heaven. So it got me thinking, if heaven were a place on earth (oh god, not Belinda Carlisle now!), where would that place be? The answer: Cook Islands. Here’s 5 reasons why the Cook Islands are heaven on earth.
1. Unbearable beauty
The scenery is hurting my eyes, I overheard a fellow tourist say. We were on One Foot Island, Aitutaki lagoon (pictured). Jeez! First world problems. Ungrateful sod. But then I looked around slowly, absorbing the vibrant turquoise water, brilliant white sand and gently swaying palms. He was right. The place is breathtakingly beautiful… and bright. The tropical colours are hyperintense in a too-good-to-be-true clichéd way. It makes you wonder if your brain is playing a cruel trick. Except it’s real and all around you and I was damn lucky to be there. The Cook Islands ‘jewel in the crown’ is Aitutaki. Naturally it attracts honeymooners, but if you can stomach the gushing romance and stunning scenery, go there.
2. Cruise the lagoons
Glass bottom boat is the only way to cruise the lagoons. One of the best companies is Koka Lagoon Cruises exploring Muri lagoon. The guys that run this gig are hilarious. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable day for all ages with onboard ukulele playing, snorkelling (or see the underwater tropics through the boat’s glass bottom), pareu tying, weaving, a mouth-watering bbq and awesome coconut tree climbing show. Oh and don’t forget the spectacular surrounds and lagoon life teeming beneath you.
3. Polynesian pollyannas
The Polynesians are some of my favourite people. Excessively cheerful, naturally charming, warm, friendly, family-focused and great entertainers – their optimism and laid back approach to life is infectious. Obviously living in paradise helps. Their sense of community is inspiring and mostly revolves around food. You must experience the national dish, Umukai, at a kaikai (feast). Umukai is food cooked in an umu. An Umu is like an underground slow cooker. A fire is lit in a shallow pit. Volcanic rocks are placed on the fire and pushed aside once they’re searing hot. The food, wrapped in banana leaves, is then placed in the pit. Sand or dirt is piled on top to trap the heat. Hours later a feast is unveiled. It’s delicious.
You can also gain an insight into the Cook Islands culture by attending Sunday mass. The joyful gospel music and fervent congregation is utterly uplifting, even if you’re not religious. Then there’s the dancing and drumming. Regarded as the best in all of Polynesia, the Drums of our Forefathers show at Highland Paradise is the most authentic entertainment on the Islands.
4. Whale tales
Humpback whale sightings are common in the Cook Islands between July-October. The warm, low latitude tropical waters are a perfect resting point and breeding ground. All of the territorial waters of the Cook Islands is a designated whale sanctuary. They often swim so close to shore, you can watch these majestic ocean beauties from the beach. If you’re in Rarotonga, the best vantage points are The Paradise Inn, Avarua (also home to the Whale Research Centre), Black Rock and Edgewater Resort. Venturing outside the lagoon increases your chances of seeing a humpback at close quarters. There have even been reports of charter boats witnessing whale births!
5. Bringing home a piece of paradise
The Punanga Nui market in Avarua is absolute pandemonium. And fun, very fun. Amongst the fruit, seafood, tropical smoothies and flowers, there’s some neat handicrafts. Think intricate wooden carvings, shell jewellery and coconut oil everything. There’s also magnificent patchwork bed covers, cushion covers and elaborate rito hats. Don’t haggle. It’s rude. Smile and pay the tourist price because being ‘ripped off’ is literally the difference of a few dollars. The Cook Islands is also known for its black pearls. The best pearls are sold under the brand Avaiki. It guarantees the buyer genuineness, superior quality and a commitment to sustainable farming practices.