Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Jolene Davidson

Take a few moments out of your busy life and imagine if you will: a picture perfect tropical island with leisurely pace, friendly people, and days so warm you can’t help but be in good spirits. Hard to believe it exists, but Rarotonga is such a haven.
My sister and her then fiancé chose Rarotonga as their wedding location so a group of thirty family and friends set off for ten days of wedding celebration, rest and recreation.

One of the Cook Islands in the Pacific, with a population of around 12,000 and 32 kilometres in circumference; you get the sense that Rarotonga is touched but not spoilt by tourism. This is definitely a ‘relax and unwind’ type of holiday destination, interspersed with adventure activities.
The island lends itself to water activities, land-based pursuits; or simply sunbathing, relaxing and doing not much at all. I opted for a combination of all three aspects during my stay.

As you might expect the water activities are numerous and include snorkelling, fishing, kayaking or boat cruising. Many of us in the group hadn’t snorkelled before, however I for one have always loved the sea and water activities so knew it was a must on the ‘to do’ list. After starting I couldn’t get enough of it; snorkelling is an exhilarating experience and the sea life you get up close with is fascinating. One of the highlights of the holiday was Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruise on a glass bottom boat. This included a snorkelling stop in the Muri Lagoon marine reserve where we came face-to-face with fish of all different shapes, sizes and colours; followed by a barbecue lunch and infotainment by our tour guide on a small outer island. This involved an interactive and very amusing demonstration of many different ways to tie a sarong, and how to husk and extract milk from a coconut.

Meanwhile back on the mainland and when overcome with energy, we found plenty of options for passing time including cruising around by motorbike (a popular choice), shopping, or experiencing the local cafes and restaurants. And there’s also the fantastic four-wheel-drive Raro Safari Tour. This was a tour around the island, through forests, and up hills – being entertained along the way by our fantastic tour guides, and stopping to explore hidden places and be told about the island’s history and culture. In some parts the ‘roads’ were no more than dodgy dirt tracks up steep hills which put us passengers a little on edge, but the drivers sped along with no less self-assurance than on the proper main roads and their confidence eventually instilled confidence in us also. The tour was completed by a barbecue lunch, loads of fruit, and more infotainment back at the headquarters.

We stayed at the Rarotongan Beach Resort and Spa at Aroa Beach and could not have asked for a better base for our stay (except that as one of the few in our group not part of a couple, I had to share with my parents). The resort is situated to the south-west of the island with its own private beach and right next to Aroa Marine Reserve. The resort offers its own entertainment with a different theme each night of the week, and activities such as snorkelling, table tennis, karaoke, happy hour and more. The particularly lazy needn’t leave the resort and still have a fulfilling holiday!
One of the main events was ‘Legends of Polynesia Night’ which involved an Umu feast with a range of meat and vegetables cooked in an earth oven. There was also the ‘Island BBQ and Fire Dancer’ where we were treated to a fabulous BBQ dinner followed by an hour-long series of traditional Polynesian singing and dancing performances. As hinted at previously, one of the interesting aspects was such events and entertainment were clearly geared towards a mainly western tourist market, but at the same time appeared to maintained great authenticity.
In terms of the people, they are open, cheerful and full of pride. Their culture is steeped in tradition and the locals are completely happy to share this with tourists. You experience this by way of ‘infotainment’ from tour guides, or simply getting among things and chatting with locals. On our first night’s shuttle journey from the airport to the resort our host told us with a wide grin about ‘island time’. If you’re meeting an Islander don’t expect them to be on time, no one is rushed or overly time-bound here. We expected to be frustrated by this but by the end were not bothered at all; such is the charm of an island holiday.
So then, what is the culture? On the surface it’s warmth, generosity, food and festivities. Behind that though lies a strong sense of family and community; and strong roots, embracing where they’ve come from to make who they are.

With so many appealing features as well as the fact it’s successfully maintaining a true sense of identity, it’s no wonder Rarotonga has a booming tourism industry and is a favourite even over other idyllic island destinations. To sum up this island paradise in one word; bliss.