Makulay Lodge
Makulay Lodge
Aug 072011

I am happy to report that our 8-day stay on the Cooks lived up to expectations.  We spent our entire visit on Rarotonga, the biggest island in the Cooks.  It’s a volcanic island with a jungle-covered center and beautiful beaches and reefs around its circumference, similar to Kauai but less commercialized.  It’s about 20 miles around the island and at the recommendation of a friend we booked a bungalow with Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast.

Avarua harbour
Avarua harbour

Avarua is the nation’s capital as well as it’s biggest town.  Most of the restaurants, banks, and shops are in Avarua as is their humble parliament building.  Avarua’s lively Sunday market (Punanga Nui) is definitely a must-see since it is a good place to sample some local cuisine without breaking the bank.  Rarotonga wasn’t as bad as Easter Island but the restaurant menu prices were still quite high.  I ordered up a BBQ plate for NZ$10 and received an absolutely massive plate of meat and carbs.  It was about 50% larger than the biggest plates I’ve been served at L&L BBQ in Hawaii and by that I mean it was about 4 times the amount of food I want at one sitting!  It was a long and difficult battle that I eventually lost.

Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)

We actually had two different types of accomodations at Rarotonga Backpackers.  For the first four nights we stayed at their “Hillside” complex which was about a quarter mile inland from the coast.  Our bungalow was a outfitted with a bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony – that’s “self-contained” in Cooks lingo.  We couldn’t quite see the ocean over the palms but the view was nice enough.  Nightly rate was $72 New Zealand Dollars which works out to about $61 US dollars per night.  For the last four nights we moved down to their recently-opened Garden Bugalows which are closer to the beach but without a view.  The garden bungalows were a couple bucks more but I would say that the proximity to the beach made it a win.

Hillside Bungalow
Hillside Bungalow

Initially, getting around the island was a bit frustrating.  Our guesthouse picked us up at the airport just as promised but the rest of the time we relied on Rarotonga’s bus service.  There is a once-hourly bus that goes clockwise and another that goes ANTI-clockwise around the island.  The full circuit takes just shy of an hour, plus or minus.  Unfortunately, the posted schedules mean next to nothing as everything and everyone operates on “island time.”  On a few occasions we just gave up on the bus altogether and spent the subsequent hour or so walking to our intended destination.  During these lengthy strolls I pondered how I would model the bus arrivals as a stochastic process.  But I digress…

A bit of a revelation came to us on day 4 or 5 when the helpful staff at Rarotonga Backpackers suggested that we try hitching “like the locals do.”  Sure enough, that worked like a charm!  As an added bonus I got to talk to some locals.  One time I had some kids show me how they liked to catch colorful reef fish in plastic cups.  Another time I rode with a lady on her way to church whose only trip out of the Cooks took her to Boston for a seminar at Harvard.  Small world!

A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.

The main thing we occupied our time with during the visit was snorkeling.  You can snorkel just about anywhere around the island and there are very few off-limits areas where there are dangerous currents.  One day we took the bus over to Muri Lagoon on the eastern coast.  The lagoon is dotted with small islands and there is good snorkeling just past one called Taakoka.  The island is a few hundred yards off the coast of Rarotonga but knee-deep water made it an easy walk.  We just had to watch out for all the sea cucumbers and the foot-wide cobalt blue starfish that crowd the lagoon!

My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”

Another day I decided to tackle the cross-island trek.  Amy wanted to do some more snorkeling her fancy new prescription mask so I went solo.  After hitching my way up to Avarua I walked about 2km on a dirt road leading to the island’s interior and a sign marking the start of the trail.  It informed me that it should take about 3 hours to make the 5km crossing to the south coast.  The climb was quite steep and it became very obvious why all the guidebooks strongly advice against attempting it after rain.  The surface of the trail is almost clay-like and I am sure it turns into a muddy slip-n-slide with even the slightest precipitation.

Looking south from the ridge
Looking south from the ridge

I made it to the top in about 45 minutes and stood on the ridge of the island right next to this rock pinnacle they call the Needle.  You used to be able to climb the needle itself but a sizeable piece fell off it a few years back and now there are some very to-the-point signs advising against climbing.  I heeded the warnings and just enjoyed the view from the overlook – it was good enough.  The descent on the south side was much steeper but fortunately they have quite a few ropes in place that you can use to help yourself down.  Eventually the trail flatted out and followed a nice little stream past a waterfall to the coast.  Total elapsed time was just over two-hours.

From the miscellaneous island activities category I can say now say that I have been “jet blasted.”  I went down to RAR (isn’t that a great airport code?) one afternoon to catch an Air NZ 777-200 arrival.  There is a nice place to watch right at the end of the runway so that made for a fun diversion one afternoon.  I regret not sticking around for the departure.  Seeing a few hundred thousand pounds of aluminum and jet-A go from stationary to airborn in less than 7,500ft is surely a loud and exciting spectacle.

Another entry in the miscellaneous category came on our last day on the island.  I was staring out the window of our bungalow and happened to see a nice large coconut drop from one of the palms.  I went out and retrieved a relatively large green specimen and started to formulate a strategy.  Tools on hand included a kitchen knife, my hands and my feet.  Step one was to google how to husk a coconut.

I learned that green ones tend to be harder to open than their more mature brown counterparts but that they usually contain more coconut water.  The basic idea is to attack from the stem end and peel sections of the husk off one-by-one.  Having a nice sturdy prybar was highly recommended but I just had to make due with my hands.  I won’t lie, it was difficult and I probably looked a right idiot while I was working on it.  Start to finish it took over an hour but the results were worth it.  As an added bonus I didn’t detach any digits in the process!

From an eating standpoint we mostly self-catered.  Groceries were expensive and going back we would have brought a bunch of staples with us from the States.  Nevertheless, we still managed to keep to a pretty low budget with our grocery bill totalling NZ$87 (about US$73) for the week.  We primarily shopped at a nearby mini-mart and while selection was limited the prices were on-par with the bigger grocery stores in town.  Coconut cream was readily available so Amy put together some excellent coconut curries a couple of the evenings.  We also had our fair share of standard backpack cuisine: pasta, sauteed veggies, and toast.

Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes

All in all the Cook Islands left us impressed.  Given Air NZ’s nonstop flight from LAX and relatively reasonable airfares, I am surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in the Cooks.  It is much like Hawaii but has two big advantages, at least to me.  The first are the plentiful beaches – having a couple hundred yards of pristine white beach to ourselves was the norm (and it was high season when we visited!).  The second big win is the lack of commercialization.  The Cooks have strict rules against outside ownership so this has kept the big hotel chains at bay.  This gives the place a bit more character if you ask me.

We would love to visit the Cooks again someday to travel to some of the other islands.  Domestic airfares are a bit pricy but the other islands are supposed to have their own charms that are well worth exploring.  Lastly, I decided to put together a budget summary for those who are interested.  Perhaps some other travelers will find it useful someday.

Budget Summary (prices in US$):

  • Accomodations (8-nights): $497.35
  • Groceries: $72.25
  • Eating/drinking out: $64.58
  • Local transportation: $58.53
  • Total: $692.52 (or $43.28 per person per day)
    Cook Islands
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Hillside Bungalow
    Hillside Bungalow
    These mosquito coils came in very handy.  Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    These mosquito coils came in very handy. Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market.  Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market. Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    The aftermath...I barely finished half.
    The aftermath…I barely finished half.
    Avarua harbour
    Avarua harbour
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    Muri Lagoon
    Muri Lagoon
    Taakoka Island
    Taakoka Island
    A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
    A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    Looking south from the ridge
    Looking south from the ridge
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    777 arrival from Auckland
    777 arrival from Auckland
    Our local grocery purveyor - the Tex Mart
    Our local grocery purveyor – the Tex Mart
    After an hour of hard work.
    After an hour of hard work.
    Fresh coconut water!
    Fresh coconut water!
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack's.
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack’s.
    Sunset on our last day
    Sunset on our last day


Map showing our routing across the Pacific.

After I returned to the States in early June, I had no specific plans as to where to go next.  The volunteer opportunity I had pursued in Africa all but fell apart so I really didn’t have a specific reason to head in that direction – at least not yet.  I spent hours combing through airline award charts and award seat availabilities.

The Republic of Palau, a small group of islands in Pacific, looked to be an awesome destination.  It’s an island paradise with all sorts of natural wonders to explore.  Continental operates its “island hopper” flight which makes stops at cool places like Truk, Kosrae and Kwajalein as it plies the Pacific from Honolulu to Guam.  I’ve heard that the flight is quite interesting but award availability was extremely scarce for the dates we wanted to travel.

Eventually, I came upon some nice availability for travel to the Cook Islands.  The Cooks are a popular destination for Kiwis and Aussies but are relatively unknown to North Americans.  Surprisingly enough it is possible to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the priciple island in the Cooks) once a week with Air New Zealand.  But why fly nonstop when you can go by way of Auckland (a 2000+ mile detour) on one of Air New Zealand’s brand new planes for the same price?!

Air New Zealand recently took delivery of Boeing’s latest addition to its 777 series, the 777-300ER, and made headlines in aviation circles with their innovative seat designs.  They have a “Sky Couch” product in economy, some very comfy looking “Spaceseats” in premium economy and a revamped lie-flat seat design in Business Premier.  As luck would have it, award space was available on NZ1, the flight operated by the new plane, so I snapped those up as fast as I could.  Using my United miles, business class tickets to the Cooks came to 60,000 miles and $2.50 in taxes.

Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback

After a bit more searching around I was able to piece together an exit plan for getting off the Cooks.  We would fly to Malaysia Borneo (Kota Kinabalu) by way of Sydney and Seoul with a stopover in the latter.  I know it sounds a bit roundabout but it is the most direct routing available using Star Alliance carriers.  Even so, it took a supervisor at British Midland to authorize the long routing.  The total worked out to 18,750 miles and $401 in taxes and fees for the business class booking.  Oh, and if anyone is wondering the total flown mileage on these two tickets is about 19,025 miles.  The Pacific is one huge ocean!

Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway

So…on to the flights.  Air New Zealand Flight 1 from LAX to AKL was incredible.  The new seats were easily the best business class seats I have flown and I would say they compete nicely with many carriers first class products.  In particular, the quality of the cushioning when the seat is in “bed mode” is superb.  The back of the seat actually folds forward to reveal a separate matress for the bed.  In most lay-flat seat designs the seat itself just goes flat and isn’t a true matress.  Another nice feature of the plane is the fact that the galleys are equipped differently so that the crew can actually cook (as opposed to reheat) food on the aircraft.  I had some great waffles for breakfast just prior to landing in AKL!

Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast

After some showers in the Koru Club we boarded one of Air NZ’s older 767 aircraft.  Nothing too exciting in terms of the seats or in-flight entertainment but the service was exceptional as it always seems to be on Air New Zealand.  The load was light that day (5 of 24 seats occupied in business) so it did feel a little like a private jet.

Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga

Arrival into Rarotonga was a nice firm landing runway 8.  I guess pilots don’t like to waste precious runway…especially then it comes to landing a widebody on a 7,500ft runway!  Much like Easter Island there are no jetways so everyone takes the stairs and immediately gets to soak in some of the great island weather.  A local band was playing in the baggage claim area and before we knew it we were through customs to meet the representative from our guesthouse.

Across the Pacific
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
Air NZ's new generation of herringbone suites.
Air NZ’s new generation of herringbone suites.
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
The chef's selection plate as a light main.
The chef’s selection plate as a light main.
Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway
Time for bed.
Time for bed.
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ's Koru Club
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ’s Koru Club
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Climb out from AKL
Climb out from AKL
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
I love it when there is no jetway!
I love it when there is no jetway!

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