In the Cook Islands, it takes less than an hour to drive Rarotonga‘s 20-mile ring road…but welcome distractions like green jungle backroads, sugar-sand beaches and surfside stops for refueling will take a few more hours.
You’ll be glad you put aside the time.
On the last official day of our 10th anniversary vacation, we found ourselves with five hours in Rarotonga and no formal plan. So, there was nothing for it but to rent a car and go exploring.
Wandering ten minutes north down the road from our Muri Beach villa at Rumours, we found ourselves second in line at Island Car & Bike Hire (opposite the Muri Beachcomber Resort). While Adam booked us a vehicle, I crossed the street to the Deli-licious Internet Cafe for take-away white coffees, or cappuccinos; in front of this popular spot, there are never fewer than three Kiwis, two pecking chickens and one slumbering dog. The java here is rich and the snacks homemade, but Cook Islands wireless is at a premium, and a painfully slow connection will set you back upwards of $10 NZ ($7 US) an hour. Better to stick to the fun and educational New Zealand celebrity magazines, available for free .
By the time I returned with our caffeinated spoils, we were the day-use owners of a bright turquoise Nissan March K12 cabriolet, a convertible coupe the Japanese car maker stopped producing in 1999…ironically, the year we got married.
We saw this bare-bones, plasticky car almost everywhere on the island, so it’s possible that they were long ago off-loaded here en masse. For Adam’s first experience driving on the left side of the road (how they roll here in the Cooks), our $45 NZ ($32 US) March afforded both zippy and narrow escapes.
Traveling north, we stopped in Vaimaanga across the road from Rarotonga’s greatest financial disgrace, an abandoned and crumbling Sheraton that was intended as the island’s first 5-star hotel. In 1987, the project was awarded to an Italian contractor financed by an Italian government-owned bank; the Cook Islands government, then led by Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry, signed a $52 million guarantee with this bank. Mid-construction and a few years later, the contractor went broke, and another took over. But by 1993, with the resort 80% complete, Rome defaulted on the bank loan, citing allegations of Mafia corruption. Sir Geoffrey and the Cooks were left holding a bag that nearly bankrupted the entire nation.
Ever since, the property has lain moldering beside the south entrance to the Cross-Island Trek, evoking post-apocalyptic visions of The World Without Us. As of August 2009, there was a roadside sign in front implying that Hilton aims to finish the job and open here, but this 2007 article in the New Zealand Herald suggested that the resort might be open for business in…2009. Sadly, not so much.
Continuing northwest between Matavera and Avarua, then again between Avatiu and Arorangi, we ducked in and out of bumpy backroads where sprawling farmsteads compete with encroaching jungle. Taro leaves spread thick and tall, goats graze in grassy thickets, and fuzzy pigs root in loamy red soil. Fences made of sprouting reeds were being trained against barbed wire, and small streams trickled along through lush nests of palms and vines.
In Arorangi, we cruised slowly past a small church service where the sounds of soulful singing made me gently close my eyes; in the South Pacific, Cook Islands Maori people are renowned for their beautiful voices. Stopping across the road to watch the frothy waves at a wind-tossed beach, we were surprised to find that “rocks” piled on the ground were actually chunks of dead coral.
With a return to Rarotonga (someday) on our minds, we stopped by three places highly touted by the island’s tourism machine: Sails Restaurant, the Pacific Resort Rarotonga, and the Little Polynesian. Sadly, the first, which boasts “Pacific cuisine” and seating this close to the sand, was closed for a weekend wedding. The second sits on a drop-dead lovely beach with islet views, but with soap-clogged ponds and less tasty food, it wasn’t half as dramatic its elegant counterpart on Aitutaki. Attracted from the road in Titikaveka, we stopped in to the Little Polynesian for lunch, and were disappointed to find that neither the mediocre food, reaching in a tragically misinformed Westernized direction (e.g., bechamel/powdered potato lasagna), nor the sky-high room prices (an average of $500 US) warranted our return.
But oh, that turquoise, beachside pool…it’s a dream, just like finding your own quiet stretch of Rarotonga.