The Cook Islands are an extraordinary tropical idyll: thrillingly remote, mesmerically beautiful, and above all generous
Condé Nast Traveller , February 2012
To northern earthlings, the attractions of the Cook Islands are more ethereal than material. There occurs a surreal feeling of displacement, of practically going off-planet, when 24 hours after negotiating your way to Heathrow from a provincial English railway station you find yourself standing, bare feet warmed by a hardwood deck, looking at an untrodden white Pacific beach whose first European visitor was Captain Bligh only two centuries ago, and beyond that a wide puddle of lagoon, its water the hue of a Fox’s Glacier Mint, and the toothpaste-white billows, curling again and again, of the permanent blue-black ocean.
I’ve been to this ocean before: two decades ago, when I spent five months island-hopping, drifting, wandering across the south Pacific. I visited more than two dozen islands, from Grande Terre in New Caledonia where an anti-French revolt had just taken place, to Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the US Army still has a base for testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
I had an agenda: the Pacific that interested me, and eventually became the subject of my first book, was the post-nuclear paradise lost of bad foreign aid, crackpot colonialism, wacky Christianity, beachcombers, booze and military bases. The more dysfunctional it was, the better I liked it. So the Cook Islands failed to attract me. Peaceful, friendly, unpolluted, largely apolitical, beautiful, the Cooks were apparently regular desert islands where, in Somerset Maugham’s words, ‘the coconut trees, as fanciful as women… stood at the water’s edge and spent all day looking at their reflections.’
This time I’ve come to repair the omission. My journey starts on the island of Aitutaki, 222 years to the day after Captain Bligh first saw it. As we land, a chubby New Zealander squeezed into her seat ahead of me mutters, “Soon be able to stritch my ligs.” Stepping through the aircraft door, I’m struck by the Pacific heat, a concatenation of smells more than temperature – coconut husks, frangipani and warm damp earth, oil and salt air, a complicated, pungent layering of scents decaying as others bloom fragrantly in their place. I’m also struck by the raw clarity of the sunlight, and another sort of clarity I can only describe as uncrowded air.
Prawn-shaped, lizard-green, the island was once busier than it is now, its airstrip built by American GIs during World War Two and formerly one of the Cooks’ main airfields. In the 1950s Tasman Empire Airways also used Akaiami islet at the far end of Aitutaki’s lagoon as a refuelling stop for its Solent flying boats on the Auckland–Tahiti route (rumours are circulating of a plan to bring back the luxury of the flying boats).
The Pacific Resort Aitutaki is a ten-minute drive from the airport at the speed limit of 40kph. The road’s unpopulated remoteness as we drive west surprises me. It’s a shorts-and-T-shirt version of a Hebridean island, rolling green volcanic hills to my left, everything else to my right; “everything” being a half-dozen boutique hotels and beach cabin resorts, a sparse parade of islanders’ houses built of single-storey concrete or ply with ripple-iron roofs and frequently the whitewashed tombs of ancestors in the mown garden, and the lagoon glimpsed through a flickering curtain of coco palms and casuarinas.
Of the Cooks’ fifteen islands, the nine high volcanic islands of the southern group support almost 90 per cent of the population. Captain Cook described them as “detached parts of the Earth” for their richness and fertility, and modestly named them the Hervey Islands. They were given his name half a century later by the Baltic German admiral and navigator, Ritter von Krusenstern, producer of the first and most beautiful atlas of the Pacific and one of Cook’s myriad admirers. When Captain Bligh, Cook’s former sailing master, saw “Whytootackee” a fortnight before the Bounty mutiny in 1789, he wrote in his log, “The Shore was bordered with Flat land, with innumerable Cocoa Nutt and other Trees, and the higher Grounds were beautifully interspersed with Lawns…. I saw no Smoke or any sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however that so charming a little spot is without them.”
The Pacific Resort reclines on 600 metres of that charming shore, with 27 beachfront bungalows, suites and villas in 19 acres of grounds leased from Polynesian landowners. My villa, designed in hardwood plantation style, has a patina of well-maintained luxury. It stands a lordly six metres above the beach, with a private staircase leading down and an inside-outside glass-walled double shower that pokes from the bathroom into the private garden (a honeymooners’ perquisite). Its ceiling fans clatter quietly but do away with the need for air-conditioning. I’m curious that there isn’t more sustainability – no solar panels – but the privacy and calm are total. The villa is a minute’s walk from the restaurant, pool and poolside café, and at no time do I hear a sound, except for my t.v.’s CNN and, if I step onto the secluded sundeck, the tumbling masonry of the Pacific breakers. (Nor, when I swim, do I ever see more than one other set of footprints in the sand.) At dinner, the new Australian general manager, Julian Moore, tells me that among his plans to widen the resort’s appeal (beach yoga, a library, new spa facilities) are private tented dinners on the beach, for which, with the seclusion already on offer, I don’t quite see the need, until I remember I’m not a honeymooner, but here with a donnish photographer and his imperturbable assistant. What begins to strike me is that both the Pacific Resort and the island are pleasurable in a contemplative, unwinding, grown-up sort of way: the perfect venue for, say, a writers’ festival, if the writers could be persuaded to behave.
The next morning we drive to Ootu beach at the end of the airfield. On the near-empty road we pass a parked pickup with the tail of a big yellowfin tuna poking out from its back. At Ootu we board a white launch skippered by Captain Awesome, a jokey, purposeful Aitutakian who speeds us five or six miles to the south end of the lagoon, past Akaiami’s crumbling flying-boat jetty and its neighbouring islets to One Foot Island. In the lagoon, too shallow for dolphins, are green turtles paddling, baby reef rays hunting for their mother, and countless sea cucumbers as chunky and black as Stalin’s moustache – unprepossessing, but the never-lose-suction Dysons of the lagoon.
We drop anchor off a hallucinatory white sandbank, a sliver of palest ochre between the lagoon’s mint and the sky’s boundless violet. Mysteriously popular for weddings, it feels like the edge of the world and I find its untetheredness unsettling. Over a picnic of seared tuna and guava and starfruit salad (“Your lovely awesome blessing on it”, is Captain Awesome’s grace), we suspect the excursion is as much for Awesome’s benefit as ours, as he pulls out a ukulele and starts jamming with the crew from another boat. After lunch the One Foot Island Ukulele Band plus spoons, its members singing in a quick, plangent Polynesian register about spectacular vahines and cheating hearts that excite, carries to where I’m swimming and sounds like George Formby in a caffeine delirium. It’s hard to pull Captain Awesome away.
On the return we witness the ease with which an unspoiled ecology is disturbed. Hasty and greedy organisers have taken over the islet of Maina Iti for a kitesurfing competition in a month’s time, and instead of constructing facilities on the beach they have clear-cut the islet’s interior. Maina Iti is a nesting-ground for Red-tailed tropicbirds, and it’s the breeding season. A female shrieks as I step too close to where she’s nesting (with the dearth of trees there are birds under every bush); in the air hundreds of males circle in clamouring protest at their razed habitat.
Elsewhere Aitutaki’s pristineness and simplicity steal over me. Time spools out. The islanders were astonished when their bank was robbed recently for the first time in the island’s history, but you can look at that two ways: either it’s a disgraceful sign of the times, or an emphatic reminder of how unspoilt life is almost all the time. For little oppresses people here, not even the Church. Aitutaki was the first Cook island to be converted to Christianity, in 1821, when two Tahitian pastors were landed by the London Missionary Society, but there’s none of the prohibitionist fervour here that I’ve noticed in other Pacific nations.
In the hall by the wharf at Arutanga, next to the white limestone church built in 1828, village women show me how they make tivaevae, ceremonial appliqué quilts. Outside, between hall and road, inquisitive, snotty toddlers play unsupervised. On the road no one exceeds the speed limit: they don’t need to. This simplicity impregnates you: I have breakfast watching Great frigatebirds low-flying the lagoon for theirs; lunch on a motu; and after sunset, when the sky is irradiated by flounces of baby pink and blue, barred and exploded with grey, and the sea lacquered with the nacreous sheen of black pearls, dinner is served on the deck at a nearby resort, Aitutaki Escape. Steve Armstrong and his partner Trina run the Koru Café at Ootu, probably the best café on the island, from which Steve emerges at night to cook bespoke on-location dinners, in this case of superb tuna tartare and chicken, mushroom and rukau (local spinach) risotto. I realise all our meals have taken place next to water. Beneath the Dog Star and the metallic night-light on palm leaves, the water’s edge is, as the Irish maintain, ‘the threshold place’ of spirits.
But I’m restless too. To sit too long on a desert shore ensnares the soul. This is not just a Western discontent. Pacific islanders are just as prone to feel that islands can be traps, and sometimes you sense them fidgeting beneath their equability. Cook Islanders are extremely lucky: an almost unique virtue of the Cook Islands’ political arrangements is that they enjoy New Zealand citizenship as well as their own. As a result two thirds of the population live and work abroad, and when only a third of your country is in residence at any time, it must be easy to be relaxed. Put it another way: if, out of a total of 45,000, the absent 29,000 were all to return at once, the commotion would be considerable.
I ask Alistair, the photographer, if he feels this restlessness. He gives a photographer’s reply. “Better to look at it than for it,” he says.
So on our final day on Aitutaki we rent scooters, the island’s chief form of transport. Aitutakians can dwarf their scooters: I see a little girl, perhaps two years old, unable to reach round her father’s sizeable Polynesian waist and clutching fistfuls of his T-shirt for dear life instead.
We visit the Marine Resources Centre, engaged in repopulating the lagoon with clams from breeding tanks, their squiggly fat lips another mesmerising spectrum of blues, turquoise to aquamarine to cobalt and Yves Klein blue.
And in the afternoon we discover a Swiss accountant’s secret garden. Bill Tschan, retired a decade ago and given 3 acres of land by his Aitutakian father-in-law, has devoted his leisure to producing a remarkable potpourri of the world’s fruit on a single plantation. He travels, and visitors dispatch seeds: dates from Arabia, durian from Borneo, sapodillas from south America, miracle berries from west Africa (chew one, then eat a lemon and taste it flooding your mouth with sweetness). He is 80 per cent self-sufficient, still an obsessional accountant (he knows the yield of every tree) and an expert on natural remedies. “Momordica charantia for back pain, nothing better. Mile-a-minute is the best coagulant and antiseptic.” White-haired, youthful, eager, in love with his days and his acres, Bill seemed to have answered the question of restlessness in a majestically Voltairean way, cultivating his garden as his passion and his remedy.
Rarotonga, the Cooks’ capital, looks impossibly urban by contrast. Yet as ribbon developments go – the population is almost all in the coastal belt encircling the high centre – this coastline is strung out more loosely than most. In the 1990s, intending to deliver a high-grossing tourist industry (and inevitably advised by UN experts), the Cook Islands government bankrolled a 204-room Sheraton resort at Vaimaanga. It was a hubristic disaster, a calamity of doubtful Italian construction companies, spiralling costs and bankruptcy. An Italian project manager was murdered; the Cook Islands dollar collapsed and had to be abandoned.
Today the half-finished Sheraton, reclaimed by the jungle, is a salutary relic. At Muri beach, halfway round the island from the main settlement of Avarua, small islander-run resorts and hotels have remained the pattern. Muri is not overbuilt; playful, but not raucous. On the landward side most land is still devoted to local plantations; on the seaward side beach cabins cohabit with luxury resorts. My accommodation at Rumours Luxury Villas at Muri is one such place, spacious and private and overhung with lush greenery, though due a refit. The owner can’t have slept here for a while: I have to mend the shower, there is nowhere for my toothbrush, the kitchen and colour scheme are both tired. The bedside lights are mini anglepoises from IKEA.
If Aitutaki is the place to unwind with your lover, Rarotonga is for families and groups (there are exceptions – the minimalist, intimate Little Polynesian Hotel and Te Vakaroa Villas are two). Raro is commercial; Judith Kunzlé, an energetic Swiss-born painter and specialist in Polynesian dance whom I drop in on next morning, points out that it can’t really be otherwise. “At least the main printer for my work is now as good as in New Zealand.” But the capital is still, thanks to most islanders living abroad, uncrowded. Her studio is nicely isolated, yet only ten minutes’ drive from her gallery at Avarua.
Rarotonga’s charms nevertheless stand in peril of being over-commodified. The second evening, we spend an excruciating time at a place called Highland Paradise, listening to a bombastic compère spouting packaged commentary about Polynesian tradition, interspersed with luckless boys stamping their feet and grass-skirted girls shaking their coconut-shell bras. I feel sorry for the Swiss and Korean ambassadors who are present – they must have to sit through a lot of this stuff, and cannot hurry out early the way we do.
The following day I am thrilled to let cultural standards plummet: I locate a quad-biking excursion at Muri and we take off into the mountains. Anarchic and muddy, with all eight participants (male and female) wearing replica Wehrmacht crash helmets, this is an Edenic afternoon of rushing streams, deep, vivid forest greens, and revving four-stroke engines. I’m so thrilled that when I lose an expensive pair of glasses jumping a spectacular mud-hill and can’t find them again, I don’t care. On the return we tear past an isolated pig pen, on which a hand-painted notice warns, “If I catch you stealing one of my pigs – I will shoot you,” and this fragment of a wilder Pacific buoys me up. We catch sight of the pigs’ owner: a mountain, like his pigs, his retribution wholly credible.
All the time I’m in Rarotonga this moment returns to remind me that I must only be scratching the surface here. There must be more to the Cook Islands than this: wilder islands, lonelier islands. And I hear enough stories to know that it’s true, stories about Manihiki, the island of black pearls, about Mangaia and its catacombs, Pukapuka where the men behave like women and the women like men. That, I think, is partly what capitals are for: to draw the best stories to them, to make you want to seek the stories out. But in its mundanity Rarotonga reminds me of the islands’ most obvious, least marketable quality too. Here I encounter Cook Islanders who are just funny, kind, intelligent to meet: André, the manager at Budget Rent a Car, digressing from the paperwork to tell me the story of the inner coast road that is 1000 years old, and how Christian missionaries told the Rarotongans to live by the sea, exposing them to attack and tsunamis – and who then waives my extra day’s rental because he enjoyed the conversation; Louis and Minar, who over a first-rate dinner of baked parrotfish at their home, urge us to return for the black pearl harvest in the autumn; and the poker-faced guard at the prison at Arorangi where, I have heard, the prisoners make ukuleles to sell in its craft shop, who is adamant that many of the prison’s 30 inmates (30 for the whole country) like it so much that they often break out before their release to get drunk on stolen hooch in order to be brought back.
As Judith Kunzlé said when I stopped at her studio to talk, “There is no paradise anywhere that there are humans. But this is a very supportive environment.” Her remark seems to articulate a parable of genuine pleasure: that luxury and deepest comfort may be necessary but not sufficient conditions, without the kindness of those who administer them. Thinking back two decades, I didn’t appreciate that the first time around.