Why the laid-back charm of Rarotonga will have you hooked

You might come for the pure white sand and clear waters, but it’s the Cook Islands people and culture that will have you plotting your return.

Couple walk on Rarotonga sea shore
  • Words: Krysia Bonkowski
  • June 2018

After four hours flying over uninterrupted water from New Zealand, a tiny land mass fringed with white sand and crowned with forested peaks leaps into view. As the plane descends, a small crowd becomes visible, waving cheerfully. Entering the small airport we are greeted by a smiling man perched on the baggage carousel playing jaunty ukulele tunes, and women eager to hang fragrant garlands around our necks. This is Rarotonga, capital of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands.

It turns out that it’s a time-honoured tradition for families to make their way down to the flimsy cyclone fencing surrounding the airstrip, to lean into the buffeting jet stream of arriving planes and wave hello to the occupants. The beaming, Hawaiian-shirted musician in airport arrivals is Jake Numanga, who has been welcoming and seeing off every flight for over 30 years, no matter what time of day or night. These snippets hint at the quirky charms of this tiny pacific nation.

Local musicians dancing on the beach in the Cook Islands
Local musicians dancing on the beach in the Cook Islands

Island time

Rarotonga is often described as under-developed. The building code stipulates no structure can be higher than the tallest coconut palm. There is only one major road and two public buses – one labelled clockwise, the other anti-clockwise – and schedules run on the somewhat unreliable “island time”. After a few days however, it’s hard not to get drawn into this unhurried pace of life. The qualities that make life on Rarotonga so laid back also make it an incredibly easy destination for travellers. Although Cook Islander Māori is the official language, English is used on a day-to-day basis and spoken widely. Scams, touts and crime are rare. Traffic is light and it’s nearly impossible to get lost. While all these things add to the appeal of Rarotonga, the accessibility is by no means the only reason to visit.

At first glance, people on Raro don’t appear to take life too seriously. Flip flops are standard-issue footwear. Locals get from place to place squashed three to a scooter or standing in the cab of a ute. People here are quick to smile and just as quick to laugh. But if you look closer, you’ll discover a deep spirituality running beneath the seemingly mellow surface.

Mamas and the papas

Cook Islander society rests on respect and tradition. Look out for the local nod, a very slight inclination of the chin upwards as a tacit acknowledgement of an acquaintance. If you are a woman, you will get a kiss on the cheek from any stranger you meet. Out of respect, anyone of senior years is addressed as “Mama”, “Papa”, “Auntie” or “Uncle”. It’s not uncommon for a papa on a scooter to serenely sail onto the main road driving at least 10km p/h less than the already-sedate speed limit. In a big city, this would result in gritted teeth and a blast of the horn. On Rarotonga, even the flashiest ute will slow obediently. This modern etiquette stems from a very ancient social structure.

A step back in time

Up in the green foothills, farmers and locals still traverse the remains of a thoroughfare built more than a thousand years ago. The Ara Metua road, made of giant slabs of coral from the sea and basalt from the volcanic mountains, is evidence of a sophisticated society that far predates European arrival. The Cook Islands were the last site populated by migrating Polynesians on their journey through the Pacific, before they made the shores of Aotearoa. Anyone familiar with New Zealand’s Māori culture will notice similarities, including a rich oral history that pays tribute to ancestors and nature. Families are seen as the caretakers rather than the owners of tracts of land, handed down through the generations. Land law is a delicate matter, in which the whole clan must approve a member’s claim to a site.

Local affairs used to be run out of open-air courts by a highly structured governmental system that included ariki (head chiefs), mata’iapo (deputy chiefs) and ta’unga (spiritual leaders). The powers of tribal leaders have dwindled, but the traditional chiefs still have an important role to play, reminding the younger generations of their rich cultural heritage. The best way to get a feeling for the Cook Islander way of life is to embrace it. Courtesy will get you far, a smile even further.

Ika Mata - fresh fish pickled in lime juice and soaked in coconut cream.
Ika Mata - fresh fish pickled in lime juice and soaked in coconut cream.

Island life

There are two very different ways to immerse yourself in Cook Islander culture, inspired by recent and distant history.

Get thee to church

Missionaries landed on Rarotonga in the 1800s determined to convert the locals, and Christianity remains the predominant religion to this day. Rather than being a solemn affair, worship on Raro takes on some of the joyous aspect with which everyday life is approached. To witness this, don a more demure outfit and take yourself off to church. On Sundays, papas wear their best suits and mamas their most extravagant straw hats to gather at whitewashed coral churches dotted all around the island. At a Cook Islands Christian Church on the west side, the pulpit is decorated in an explosion of tropical blooms and the crowds ripple with the motion of waving handheld fans. The main attraction is the singing, which is nothing short of sublime. The church choir take their art seriously, and the performance is worth the hour-long sermon in Cook Islander Māori.

Tourists are very welcome, and most congregations will enthusiastically invite you to morning tea afterwards at a local hall or Sunday school – a great opportunity to meet the locals.

Strap on your dancing shoes

From an early age, Cook Islanders are versed in their island’s hypnotic dances. Watching dancers act out ancient stories to the frenetic beat of the pau drum is a must. There are many cultural shows at resorts and restaurants, but the biggest are Highland Paradise and Te Vara Nui Village. Up in the hills where the population of Rarotonga once lived, Highland Paradise leads visitors around a traditional village before settling them down for a dance show and umu, a feast prepared in an underground barbecue. Highland Paradise is dedicated to providing an authentic glimpse into an older way of life, from weaving to worship. Down in Muri Beach, Te Vara Nui Village spices up their nightly cultural spectaculars with a healthy dose of theatre. The owners have converted a taro patch into a lush open-air theatre restaurant where dancers perform on a platform in the middle of a lake with diners on either side. Get prepared for fire-twirling, frequent costume changes, and fantastic traditional dancing.

The Te Vara Nui buffet, like most Rarotonga meals, is generous. Sample as many local dishes as you can, and have seconds of ika mata, fresh fish pickled in lime juice and soaked in coconut cream, and rukau, tender taro leaves in coconut cream and onion.