Rarotonga, Cook Islands


Coral toes find a touch of green on a coral shore of Rarotonga.

Pa, a revered medicine man, prays for the well-being of the group he has led to the highest point on Rarotonga.


A tropical sunset over an infinity pool at one of the family-owned resorts on the island.



Papua waterfall invites tired hikers to take a refreshing plunge into its cool waters after a trek to Te Rua Manga (The Needle) atop Rarotonga, the capital island of the Polynesian Cook Islands. (Lesley Sauls)


























Step over step, step over step. I focused on the sinewy brown calves ahead of me as they carefully climbed over twisted roots and jagged rocks higher and higher through the tropical jungle of Rarotonga to its highest point, an enormous rock called Te Rua Manga (The Needle). The medicine man I followed, Pa Teuruaa, said our reward would be a silent meditation at an intensely spiritual place.


A visit with him hadn’t been the reason for my trip to this tiny island nestled just south of the Equator and east of the International Date Line, the capital of the Cook Islands. He was an unexpected surprise. I had come with friends to explore the islands for a week and was delighted when our guide suggested a hike across Rarotonga with an experienced medicine man. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take my tropical holiday into a more spiritual realm.


Before we had met with him, though, my group spent a couple of days exploring. After picking up drivers licenses and a couple of mopeds, we scootered the circumference of the island capital on an 18-mile coral road, Ara Metua, that had been laid by native Rarotongans in the 11th century – long before Captain Cook happened upon the island chain. In this country there are no stoplights, and buildings are limited in size by the height of the island’s tallest palm tree. We stopped at a small hotel for a tropical cocktail and lounged in hammocks strung from palm trees by the lapping lagoon’s edge.


A petanque championship at another resort lured us to roll tiny metal balls across a grassy poolside lawn with the resort’s staff and owners and splashed between plays in the warm, clear pool. Strict Cook Islands law prevents property from being owned by foreigners or sold in any way. Instead, land is owned by the six tribes who originally inhabited the island and is handed out to family members as they marry or have need, so hotels and resorts are family-run and small – from the most spare to the most elegant – and at any restaurant or hotel, patrons are the owner’s guests and treated as friends.


We dined al fresco at a large restaurant where dancers on floating stages twirled fire and twisted their hips in provocative grass skirts to tell the Cook Islands history through music and dance. After the show, the restaurant’s owner, a tribal chief, generously greeted all of her guests. We felt like family in this island nation where everyone freely shares and helps one another. Without the barriers of land ownership, people pluck fruit from each other’s trees and flowers to tuck behind their ears – right side for married people and left for people who are looking.


We hired snorkel gear from The Big Fish Dive Centre, a property expats rent from an islander, to explore the reef around Rarotonga. The company runs regular dive trips to deeper water, but we were there on a day when the ocean was churning and visibility was low. Our decision to snorkel in the protected lagoon paid off. We were rewarded by discovering octopus, parrot fish and a variety of corals and sea life that were brightly colored, interestingly shaped and completely unfamiliar.


By the time we went to the island’s weekly open-air market, we were comfortable in the easy way of the island. We wandered along to the drumming sounds of local musicians and followed our noses to a variety of culinary treats. Rainbows of scarves adorned small tents in which polished wood salad tongs were displayed beside intricately carved statues representative of the island nation’s long history. Children darted among stands where I found local Nomi fruit juice, known internationally for its restorative properties. At one booth, a young man talked me into buying two bracelets made from the taro seeds he had gathered with his sister, and at another stand I found the South Pacific’s legendary opalescent black pearls.


We had only just settled into the crowded atmosphere when it was time to join up with Pa, our medicine man. In the market full of colorfully dressed men and women, most with flowers behind their ears, Pa stood out in his black shorts and naked chest. He had a vine tied around each calf and old shoes on his feet. His wide smile was warm and welcoming below his dreadlocked hair, and he greeted each of us with a hug that said he knew us before we’d even met.


Together we drove to the trailhead that would lead us to The Needle. We were a happy group of carefree travelers until our driver flung us out on a dead-end road and zoomed away with a toot and a wave.


Then we were alone with Pa, our man of the jungle. He draped his shoulders with long, wide leaves to keep himself cool and pulled out a jar of fermented Noni fruit to spread liberally on our shoulders and arms as a natural insect repellant. The pungent smell was eye-watering. Then he stood our small group in a ring and asked for silence as he blessed us in his native tongue, in a Buddhist chant and in a Christian prayer. The tone was set as we began a meditative walk to the heart of the island, and we silently copied Pa’s example of mindful foot placement on a rugged trail.


At the top of the mountain, Pa pulled out sweet, succulent star fruit that bore no resemblance to the anemic, hard buffet-line garnishes I had known. With fruit juice dripping from our chins, we had time to ask him our questions. One man asked what direction Pa would give a divorcee, and Pa laughingly said that no one could predict the future. I asked how a person could find balance and inner peace, and he became more serious.


“You can climb the holiest mountain with the holiest man, and you will only find peace in yourself,” he said gently.


Pa told us to walk or swim for meditation in silence – and for support with friends. In a world of many boundaries, he advised us to move forward in clear moments and to pause for introspection when things seemed less clear. He challenged us to look into the mirror once each day and really like ourselves – a difficult but rewarding task – and he told us to think about ourselves first before helping others.


“How can you help others when you are not healed yourself?” he asked.


From the top of Rarotonga all things seemed possible. The jungle was a lush green carpet around us, and the most daring of our group climbed to the top of the actual giant stone that was The Needle – prompting 141 prayers from Pa for his eventual safety. We all felt alive and spiritually renewed, and there was a sense among us that we were ready to begin the rest of our lives.


We leaped down the trail on the back side of the mountain like gazelles. We hopped over giant boulders, danced across clear running streams and clambered over fallen trees. Our feet padded on the mossy path, slipped on leafy inclines and gripped sandstone ledges with a refreshed energy that made us giddy. At the bottom of the trail, we peeled off our clothes and dove into the refreshing pool of a gushing waterfall to complete our symbolic baptism. Pa joined us and squeezed a tropical ginger flower’s pulp into our open hands so that we could use it as a natural shampoo. We scrambled up the Papua Falls and jumped from the top with squealing abandon.


“This is our defining moment,” one woman called out from the mossy cliff before leaping out into the warm air.


And so it was.

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When you go:


Getting there:

Several airlines partner connecting flights through Auckland to Rarotonga, but the only direct flight from the United States is on Air New Zealand out of Los Angeles.  It leaves on Sunday night to arrive in the islands at sunrise on Monday morning and returns the following Saturday night to arrive in Los Angeles midday on Sunday. This round-trip flight lasts about 10 hours and costs around $1,000.


Where to stay:

There are no high-rise hotels on Rarotonga or anywhere in the Cook Islands; travelers delight in the luxury of smaller resorts.  Pacific Resort (www.pacificresort.com) on Muri Beach is one of the largest with about 40 guest suites.  At Royale Takitumu (www.royaletakitumu.com), accommodations are more intimate with 10 private villas. The Little Polynesian Resort’s 14 suites are secluded on the southern tip of the island (www.littlepolynesian.com), and the Crown Beach Resort offers spectacular sunsets on the west side of the island. All resorts enjoy white sand beaches, and most offer dining, pools and petanque courts – the islanders’ version of lawn bowling.


Getting around:

Ara Tapu is the only road around the island, although some smaller roads reach toward its jungled center. City buses travel clockwise and counterclockwise around the 20-mile circumference at regular intervals and can be flagged down from anywhere along the road.  To travel more independently, a visitor can obtain a Cook Islands drivers license, good for a year, which is required for moped rentals. To see the jungle depths of the island, Coconut Tours offers an exciting way to drive Ara Metua – the ancient road- learn about jungle plants and take in ocean views from the highest points reachable by road. Hiking trails to The Needle are well marked on maps, and any resort will be able to arrange a guide – perhaps even with Pa.


Where to eat:

Many restaurants beckon to passers-by, and almost all offer fresh produce, savory seafood and a waterfront hammock.  A casual lunch at Sails Restaurant and Bar can include local Matutu beer and traditional ika mata – fresh tuna with lemon and coconut cream. For dramatic dining, cultural entertainment is available at several locations. Te Vara Nui Village provides afternoon education and experiences in the legends, costumes, medicines and history of the Cook Islands.  When night falls, the village comes to life on an overwater island where dancers bring the history to life after guests enjoy a generous Umu Buffet dinner: www.tevaranui.co.ck



The Dive Centre Ltd is owned by Sabine Janneck and Sascha Schmitt, expats who are eager to share the beauty of Rarotonga’s underwater paradise:  www.thidivecentre-rarotonga.com


More information:

For more detailed information about the Cook Islands and all that is available there, visit www.cookislands.travel.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The 19th century pirate Fermin Mundaca pledged his elaborate home and gardens on Isla Mujeres to unsuccessfully win the love of a local teenager, La Triguena.

Sand on toes feels good in the bright island sunshine.













Children love La Tortugranja, the turtle farm where they can feed endangered green turtles and white loggerhead turtles that have been rescued, hatched and raised to be released into the ocean.












Lovesick pirate Fermin Mundaca's grave is nestled among others that brightly celebrate the lives of the people whose remains are placed in the Isla Mujeres cemetery.












Refreshments served from a beach-side palapa make the tropical experience complete on Isla Mujeres.











In hopes of a healthy pregnancy, Mayan women came to Isla Mujeres to honor the goddess Ixchel hundreds of years ago.














Isla Mujeres boasts a public market where freshly squeezed orange, tangerine and grapefruit juices are sold along with vegetables, meats and tortillas.












Nothing is more appealing on a short, cold winter day than the idea of a vacation to somewhere sunny and warm.   My friends and I had decided on Cancun until we discovered a near-by tropical gem, Isla Mujeres.  While Cancun has been providing beauty, rest and opulence for almost 50 years, the “Island of Women,” three miles off its coast, has been the real draw for centuries.

We found a base for our explorations with a woman who rents her island residence to weary travelers in search of a comfortable ocean-side setting for a tropical vacation.  Aptly named Xanadu after the mythical garden of Kubla Kahn, the property is peaceful and serene.   Swinging on a hammock under a roof-top palapa with the sound of the surf crashing in the distance was exactly what we had in mind when we left the snow and ice behind us.

Evenings, as I stood barefoot in the kitchen making tacos with shells still warm from a tortillaria, fresh sea breezes blew gently into the dining, living and bedrooms.  Fresh pico de gallo with vegetables and cilantro from a neighborhood market, and candles flickering in glass holders made our home-made Mexican feasts into celebrations of island colors, flavors, sounds and smells.

When it came time to discover Isla Mujeres, we found the locals warm and inviting.  In search of limes for our first island dinner, we unsuccessfully poked into several vividly painted shops.  Finally, a store owner listened patiently as I explained our problem in my meager Spanish.  She called over her shoulder to her husband, and he brought five limes to sell from their own kitchen.

In the town square, families gathered to enjoy a pop-jet fountain and watch children playing chase and tossing balls to each other.  Vendors offered tacos, drinks and warm pastries from push-carts.  Narrow cobblestone streets were lined with shops that offered jewelry, souvenirs and necessities.  Cigars were sold alongside dresses, bracelets and colorful pottery, and shop owners were eager to help us find exactly what we wanted to bring home as a memory of the island.

Tucked deep in the corner of town was a public market.  Four little sidewalk restaurants made meals with fresh vegetables and the combination of spices that make Mexican food unique and savory.  Other shops sold T-shirts, dresses and wood furniture, but the real prize at this market was tucked quietly behind the tables and trinkets.  Through iron gates we found a dark building that opened into bright stalls of grocers and butchers where the warm scent of steaming, fresh tortillas wafted through the air.  There we met Rafael who became our friend as we visited him frequently for fresh orange, tangerine or grapefruit juice that he squeezed daily and sold cheaply by the liter.

Isla Mujeres is 4.5 miles long, and to explore the farther reaches, it is necessary to rent a golf cart.  A set of wheels allowed us to visit an aquarium where sea turtles are hatched and raised in incrementally larger tanks until they are large enough to be released back into the ocean.  Children tossed pellets of food to hungry white and green turtles of varying sizes, and signs around the property explained the threats and possibilities for the endangered species.

Just down the road from the turtle farm is a legendary hacienda called Vista Alegre that was built in the mid-1800s.  The story says that a pirate named Fermin Mundaca came to the island and began building an estate that eventually covered almost half of Isla Mujeres with elaborate gardens, wells, orchards and livestock.  Eventually Mundaca fell in love with a local teenager known as “La Triguena” (the brunette) and pledged his home and property to woo her affection, but without success.  Now open for public tour, the gardens are home to monkeys, snakes, iguanas and other small animals for tourists to enjoy.

Back in town the tale continues with a visit to Mundaca’s grave.  La Triguena, it is said, married a local boy, and Mundaca soon died of a broken heart.  The pirate’s above-ground tomb is marked with words of lost love that he carved along with a skull and crossbones before his death: “As you are, I was.  As I am, you will be.” The burial place is tucked among dozens of brightly decorated graves that honor and celebrate the people entombed within.  Colorful flowers, photographs and candles drew me in, and I spent an hour absorbing the physical and emotional warmth of love displayed there.

On the other end of the island, life had been celebrated in another way centuries before Mundaca came to Isla.  More than 500 years ago, the Mayans honored Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, childbirth and medicine.  The southern tip of Isla Mujeres is also the eastern-most point of Mexico.  On this promontory a Myan ruin stands in proud honor of Ixchel, and the name of the island comes from the idols and statues of the goddess that Spanish explorer Fernando de Cordoba found on the island in 1514.  He discerned that women came to the island to honor this powerful “Lady Rainbow” when they desired healthy pregnancies.

Now people come to the island to enjoy the white sand beaches, brilliant blue water, myriad dining establishments and a relaxing pace of life.  Just a short ferry ride away is the bustling city of Cancun where fine dining, spa treatments and activities abound.  It was fun to look across the bay at the glamorous and energetic young city, but I had found my bliss in my comfortable chair on an ancient beach where I read my book in peace, sipped Rafael’s fresh tangerine juice and listened to the sounds of tropical music drifting over the rhythm of the dazzling teal waves.

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If you go

Getting to the island:

Taxi from Cancun International airport to Puerto Juarez:  Expect to pay about $42.

UltraMar Ferry from Puerto Juarez leaves every 30 minutes and costs about $7 round-trip.


Getting around on the island:  Golf carts are the safest form of independent transportation and rent for about $60 for a 24-hour period.  Alternatives include bike rentals for about $10/day or moped rentals for about $40/day.  Taxis are another inexpensive option.


House rental:  Several companies list private residences on Isla Mujeres.  Visit www.islabeckons.com. www.lostoasis.net or www.vrbo.com  to find private homes available for rent.  Prices vary by season.  Expect to spend at least $200/night for a two-bedroom oceanfront home.


Hotel rental:   Hotel rooms can be found from $25-250 USD per night on the island.  (www.isla-mujeres.net)

*Recent hurricanes have deposited sand from the eastern side of the island to the northwest corner which is now the best beach in town.

*Most of the restaurants, activities and shops are on the north end of Isla Mujeres, so it will be a long jaunt to town if you opt for a southern hotel.

*Downtown hotels are near the beaches but don’t have beach views.  Also, they are bustling with nightlife and not as serene as some of the beachside hotels.


Snorkeling: Isla Mujeres is an attractive snorkeling destination.  Captain Tony is well known on the island for his snorkel tours to El Farolito reef for less than $20/person.   www.isla-mujeres.net/capttony/home.htm.


Scuba:  There are many scuba centers on Isla Mujeres that cater to SSI, Padi and Naui certifications.  Bring your certification card along, and only dive with a company that seems concerned to reference your experience level.  Dives cost roughly $60 per two-tank dive.  www.diveislamujeres.com , and www.isla-mujeres.net/cruisedivers


Swim with the dolphins: If it has been your life-long dream to swim with dolphins, this is your chance.   Varying packages allow for touching, snorkeling among and being towed by dolphins.  The encounters cost up to $100.  www.dolphindiscovery.com


Garrafon Park:  On the southwestern shore of Isla Mujeres, Garrafon Park offers an all-inclusive day of snacks and drinks with water toys, snorkeling reefs and interesting caves to explore for $50/day.  For an additional $5, snap into a zip line and whiz over the teal blue sea.


Tipping:  Customary tips in Mexico run 10 percent to 15 percent.


Helpful hint:  Stop in to Digame phone service on the island for an extremely informative and user-friendly map of Isla Mujeres for $8 or order one on line before you travel at http://www.cancunstore.com.

Atiu, Cook Islands

Toes in the tropical jungle of Atiu.

Atiu’s only airport terminal welcomes guests to the tiny island where jungles reach down to the water and community is found in its very center. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)















I had just bushwhacked through a dense jungle on an ancient coral reef and crawled into a dimly lit cave behind a silent Polynesian guide named Paul Kura on the tiny island of Atiu in the southern Cook Islands. When he wordlessly gestured toward a shallow pool of water in the bottom of the cave, I was a bit confused as to what was on offer. But when he stripped off his clothes and dove down into that pool, I got the idea. The depth had been deceiving. This was no tiny cave-puddle, this was an underground oasis – a place to cool off after our sweaty trek. I admit to a moment’s hesitation after I had peeled down to my mud-smeared skivvies and was teetering on a cliff of damp limestone, but I’d come halfway around the planet to challenge my boundaries in honor of a significant birthday, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. I closed my eyes and jumped.

After splashing about for a while in the refreshing water, I found a little nook in the cave where I could rest on a submerged ledge with my upper body leaning against rough stone. The clear water stilled around me, and I could sense the explosive history that had created this volcanic island – how far it was from my busy city life. In the dark quiet, a long black shape slowly curled around my legs and then drifted away from me. No one else saw it, and I began to wonder if I had imagined some kind of mystic cave creature.

Four other brave explorers played with us in the water cave, which I learned was on Kura’s family’s land and rarely visited by outsiders. We were lucky to have been introduced to him by the owner of our resort, Roger Malcom. An atmospheric physicist and 31-year resident of the island, Malcom knew how to help his guests find the adventure of a lifetime. He even turned a minor emergency into an education when he whisked us down one of the island’s five roads to the local hospital, a small building next to a raised plot of land. While we waited for one of our group to be bandaged up after a fall on the jungle’s sharp coral floor, Roger pointed to what is now the doctor’s residence atop the elevated property.

“Medicine came with the missionaries,” he explained. “Before that time the locals put sick and dying people on that piece of land. When they died, the bodies were left there until only bones remained. Then their families would take the bones to a burial cave.”

Oddly enough, when the missionaries came, they built a hospital on that sacred spot. Locals were so conditioned to its purpose that they only brought dead and dying people to the hospital, not people who could be healed. Eventually, respect for local custom, the missionaries moved the hospital to a plot of land nearby and made the building on the raised area into doctors’ quarters.

Local custom is deeply rooted in Atiu. Once our injured member had been safely bandaged, Malcom invited his guests to participate in a centuries-old tradition called a tumunu. We ducked back into the edge of the jungle and approached a rustic shack on which was crudely painted “Rising Sun Boys.” From within wafted the smell of mosquito coils, sweat and fermented fruit. We respectfully slipped onto wooden benches within the small shed and waited quietly to be introduced to Daniel Tearaitoa, the boss of this tumunu. Malcom had already explained the expectation of tumunu guests to us, so we each knew to wait patiently for the barman in the middle of the room to dip a small coconut shell into a bucket between his knees. He slowly scooped out a local brew and handed it to each of us in turn so that we could take it with one hand, gulp it in one drink and then hand the shell back.

“Put your hand up if you want to pass on a round,” said Malcom. “I suggest you take 10 turns. That will give you a slight buzz and a feeling of joining in the ceremony, but your head and body will feel fine in the morning. Any more is up to you.”

While we ritually shared the communal coconut shell cup of jungle brew, Kura and Kau Henry sang, played guitar and talked to us. They told me that my mystic cave creature had been a vaiakaruru, a freshwater eel, come to honor me. After a few local songs, they struck up some tunes that their foreign guests might know. We loosened our inhibitions with every round of sweet fermented fruit juice – the recipe for which is not shared with outsiders. A South African visitor repeatedly raised his shell in toasts to peace, health, love, life, happiness and well-being. He said that he had learned this 8,000-year-old toastmastering, or tamada, tradition in Eurasian Georgia, and that at the end of the toast we should all join him in a Buddhist chant. So we did – all of us. And the cup kept passing. A few rounds later, we were people from seven countries with arms entwined singing “Que Sera, Sera” at the top of our lungs.

That was when the barmaster’s shell tapped his jug, and the group fell silent. Henry explained that this was the serious time in the evening when he would pray for us. Then we were each expected to introduce ourselves and share a few words. Some people simply said what country they had come from or what they did for work. Others shared what impact the Cook Islands were having on them. I found myself unable to speak for a moment when I tried to explain how welcomed I had been by everyone on this island of 400 people and that I had never so openly and intimately experienced a joining of so many cultures. When the Rising Sun Boys – including the boss’s wife, Vaine Tearaitoa – introduced themselves, they were equally solemn in their shared comments and gratitude for our congregation.

After the serious ritual, the singing and stories resumed. A young woman from Los Angeles grabbed a guitar and belted out the blues with her long brown hair swirling to the beat. Beside her, Polynesian men clapped, flower-adorned Tearaitoa pounded a drum, and our international summit continued long into the night.


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When You Go


Getting there: From the Midwest, the trick is to get the direct Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to the main island of Rarotonga that runs every Sunday night for a return the following Saturday night. These overnight flights allow for a refreshed arrival in either country, but the connection to Los Angeles can be hard to find online. Be creative; it’s worth the effort. The total cost of these flights will be less than $2,000. After a day or two in Raro, hop a flight on Air Rarotonga to Atiu. This round-trip flight over the tropical blue South Pacific will cost about $300.

Staying on Atiu: Roger and Kura Malcom offer air-conditioned jungle cottages that sleep up to five people for about $200/night. Their property boasts a pool and grass tennis court that is perfect for late-night star-gazing. Book online to find discounts at www.atiuvillas.com. Other accommodations are available with Marshall Humphreys (www.atiutoursaccommodation.com) and with Auntie Nga and Papa Paiere at Taparere Lodge (www.atiutourism.com) for less than $100/night.

Where to eat: Kura Malcom is a fantastic cook and welcoming hostess who serves dinner and drinks nightly. Do NOT leave Atiu without trying her delicious Pota, a taro leaf/coconut cream concoction that captures the sweet flavor of the island. In addition to Kura’s Kitchen, you can grab a burger and a snack at Super Brown Burgers, and all accommodations provide self-cooking areas.

Tours and activities: Your hosts will likely welcome you as family and help plan your activities, but to see what’s available, go to www.atiutourism.com. You won’t find your tumunu there, though. For that, you’ll have to live like a local and ask around when you arrive.