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.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

A traditional warrior blows a conch shell to welcome guests to his motu, Akitua.


Turquoise water is the trademark of Aitutaki’s coral-filled lagoon where snorkelers and divers swim with giant clams and sea turtles.




Soaking up the sun on Aitutaki's cerulean lagoon.











Honeymoon Island is the perfect place to stroll champagne beaches and savor the quiet moments of life with a friend.

An enthusiastic snorkeler leaps into the Aitutaki’s turquoise lagoon to search for tropical fish and, perhaps, pirate treasure.



Auntie Nane serenades guests with her hand-carved ukulele at the highest point on Aitutaki.A traditional warrior blows a conch shell to welcome guests to his motu, Akitua.






















I’ve heard it said that you can pick your friends but not your family.  A trip to Aitutaki in the South Pacific, however, challenged that old adage. When strangers welcomed me on my milestone birthday trip with hugs, kisses and eis – flower necklaces, I felt like I had arrived at a family reunion with distant cousins who were happy to see me again – even though we’d never met. My freckled arms were immediately encircled by rich brown skin, and my frizzy auburn waves tangled in straight, dark hair as I was greeted by women who called out the local welcome, “Kia Orana,” and were soon clucking life advice to me.

After dropping my bags in a beachside bungalow, I joined a group of travelers to spend a day snorkeling with a native guide in the crystalline blue lagoon that spans much of the island.  Fifteen tiny islets, or “motus,” ring the lagoon where giant clams and coral abound.  TeKing George met us at the boat landing for a bit of instruction before we boarded his vessel, his deadpan style opposite to the ebullient nature of the women at the island’s small airport. A dozen travelers from around the world piled on TeKing’s boat.  We talked and reached eager hands into the cool salt spray that flew around the bow of the boat as we motored to our first snorkel site.

Once anchored, TeKing taught us tricks to attract curious butterfly fish, and one by one we leapt into the turquoise water, each of us armed with cameras and a healthy dose of enthusiasm.  At least 50 butterfly fish immediately surrounded me when I submerged.  They pecked at my mask and flitted between my arms and legs.  I was a mermaid among the fishes, and I had to actively remember to keep breathing.

The butterfly fish moved on to a new visitor, and I set off on my own to explore the coral that grew around me in ledges and bulbs.  TeKing had explained that the coral’s flat tops were a result of their need to be submerged to live. If coral grows too close to the surface of the water or is exposed for too long during a storm or low tide, it will die.  I followed brightly colored fish through passageways between the tables of coral and found star fish and octopi tucked into their crevices.

After a break on the boat, TeKing took us across the lagoon where we focused not on the exotically shaped and colored coral surrounding us but on the giant clams that are native to this area of the world.  Once in the water, he helped each of us wrap our arms around a heavy clam before guiding us on a snorkel tour to see them in their natural habitat.  We could catch only a glimpse of the neon blue and green flesh that quickly sucked into their shell when they felt their surrounding water move. These clams had been over-harvested and are now in a protected area of the lagoon.

Knowing we were a bit waterlogged, TeKing dropped his charges on the long, white beach of uninhabited Honeymoon Island where we walked and splashed in the gentle, lapping waves. It was impossible to think of anything from home; no worries were allowed on this small stretch of paradise.

Lunch was grilled for us on Maina motu.  TeKing and his assistant, Mai, grilled ahi and bananas and served them with fresh star fruit and mango salads whose chilled sweetness offset the warm and spicy entrees.  An icy beer and a chat with TeKing finished the meal.  He explained that he had lost everything and had been dying at the side of the road after a terrible accident only a year prior to our day together. After being  flown to the mainland, Rarotonga, for emergency surgery, he was rebuilding his life again on Aitutaki one day at a time. His courage was an impressive example of the quiet strength I found in everyone I met on this island.  His willingness to share his heartache moved us to a familial intimacy.  We were not strangers with this man.

“This is paradise,” he said peacefully. “It’s freedom.”

A giant white turtle kept pace with us after lunch as we headed over to One Foot Island, another motu on the edge of the lagoon. TeKing took us for a walk and showed us how his ancestors had used the plants around him to make clothes and shelter.  He pointed out where the Survivor series had spent a season, and he stamped our passports with the One Foot Island stamp – proof of our visit to paradise. Then he boated us through the quiet bay that had once been the Cook Islands International Airport before it had moved to a hard-surfaced field on the nation’s capital island, Rarotonga.

By nightfall we were sundrenched and exhausted, and everyone on the boat was hungry for seafood again.  After a quick shower, I slipped into dry clothes and headed out to dinner. It took a small launch to shuttle me across a bit of lagoon to Akita motu where an island warrior blew a conch shell in greeting. On the beach, I enjoyed fresh ika mata served in a coconut shell under a private gazebo while the sun set and tiki torches blazed.  By the time my succulent panna cotta had been served, the stars were brightly twinkling.  From here I saw the Southern Cross, the most prominent constellation in the Southern Hemisphere, and was captivated by constellations I could not name – or forget.

Back at my beachside bungalow I curled up on my balcony to enjoy a tropical rainstorm and a glass of champagne.  As the rain moved offshore, a full moon rose behind me and shone brightly at an ideal angle to create a moonbow across the South Pacific horizon.  It appeared as a perfect white arc across the sky that beckoned me into a midnight dip in the dark and silent Aitutaki lagoon.

After a sumptuous breakfast with freshly squeezed tropical juices blended from luscious fruits that exploded in my mouth, I headed out to explore Aitutaki’s terra firma.  I enlisted an island tour and was greeted with another ei and a giant hug from my guide who insisted that I think of her as my new auntie.

“You call me Auntie Nane!” she demanded.

In the next few hours my new auntie showed me around the island and explained local customs. She showed me the ring of rocks where eight tribal chiefs would gather when important decisions were required.  And near those rocks is the Visitors Rock upon which visitors who came to the island by boat long ago would first set foot. It was here that they would be welcomed to the island as family.  She explained that on Aitutaki, there are no strangers.  Any visitor is the responsibility of the tribe with whom they are staying. Even hotels and resorts follow the tradition which explained why I had been so openly embraced by everyone I’d met.

Driving on a winding road, we stopped to pick some flowers.  A local woman in the van named Misepa told us that she had to get up pretty early to pick enough wild flowers off of her bush to make a good ei before they were picked by her neighbors. In the Cook Islands the flowers and fruits belong to everyone.  Individuals do not own property which means that everyone is responsible for and can enjoy every plant on the island. There are no arguments over lot lines or scoldings to children who pick the best star fruit, and there is a lot less daily stress.

At the highest point of the island, Maunga Pu, Auntie Nane pulled over and grabbed a plate of passion fruit from a basket.  She laughed when I asked for a utensil and taught me how it is meant to be eaten.

“This is PASSION fruit, darling,” she teased me. “We use only our tongues to pull out the flesh!”

While the sweet juices dripped down my chin, Auntie Nane produced a hand-carved ukulele and began to sing.  She sang to me about the frangipani flowers that hung around my neck and then joined her voice with Misepa’s in a language I couldn’t understand.  The words were lost to me, but the sound of them captured the tropical sun, the luscious fruit and the endless deep blue ocean around us.

Having learned that I was a former airline pilot, Auntie Nane insisted that I come to her house before she returned me to my resort.  There I found the front half of an old DC3 that had been left by a movie crew several years before.  Auntie Nane’s son, also a pilot, had convinced the crew to let them have the wreckage which now stood in a tangle of lush plants and rust to hold up one end of Auntie’s clothes line.

Auntie Nane delivered me back to my resort but refused to say goodbye.  She said she would see me again at the airport before I left the island.  That is how family is treated on Aitutaki.

As promised, she met me at the airport with her broad smile.  She said that her nephew was going to be the pilot on my flight to Atiu, another of the beautiful Cook Islands, and insisted on introducing me to him when he arrived.  We chatted as we waited for the plane to load, and then she wrapped me again in her strong brown arms.  The hours we had spent touring her homeland had brought us close together, and she had given me important advice that eventually changed my life.  But for that moment, she held me close, pouring her energy into me.

“Next time you come to Aitutaki, you stay with your Auntie Nane,” she said with tears in her eyes.

How can I refuse?

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When You Go

Cook Islands History:

With inhabitants dating back over 1,000 years, the Cook Islands was protected by the British in the 1800s and spent the first 65 years of the 20th Century as a colony of New Zeland until it was granted self-governing status.  It is now a democracy with a parliament that includes a representative from the hereditary island chiefs and a representative for those Cook Islanders who live in New Zealand and Australia. The head of state remains Queen Elizabeth II, as the Queen of New Zealand where Cook Islanders are granted automatic citizenship.

Getting there:

Aitutaki is part of the Cook Islands nation that is located just south of the equator and east of the international dateline and is comprised of 15 islands that are spread over a maritime area of over a million square miles. There is only one direct flight from the United States to the Cook Islands each week on Sunday night for a return the following Saturday night. The Air New Zealand overnight flights provide a refreshed arrival in both countries and cost around $1000. After enjoying the capital island of Rarotonga, book a flight on Air Rarotonga to Aitutaki. This round-trip flight over the azure South Pacific will cost about $300.

Where to stay:

With no high-rise hotels anywhere in the Cook Islands, travelers find familial intimacy at smaller resorts.  The Pacific Resort on Aitutaki(www.pacificaitutaki.com) offers beachside bungalows that boast privacy and an open view of the water.  Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa (www.aitutakilagoonresort.com) exists on its own motu (islet) and offers over-water bungalows in addition to beach bungalows.

Getting around:

The island is only about 10 sq mi, so some exploring can be done on foot, but the best way to find your way around the island is to book a tour when you arrive with Nane & Chloe’s Tropical Tours (www.cookislands.travel.com).

Explore the lagoon:

There are several tour operators who offer dive and snorkel trips in Aitutaki’s lagoon.  To learn more about having your passport stamped at One Foot Island during a day with TeKing, go to www.teking.co.ck.

Where to eat:

Most resorts offer restaurants that have delicious local seafood and produce and will provide picnic hampers for days spent on the beach, and day trips on the lagoon include lunch.  To explore other local restaurants, ask hotel staff for recommendations.

More information:

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