Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Melanie Whittaker

We all have a checklist when choosing a holiday destination such as value for money, good accommodation, plenty of activities etc.  What would be on your checklist for Paradise?  White sandy beaches, palm trees, crystal blue sea, and a tropical climate.  You can have peace of mind that the Cook Islands ticks every box on the list.  One thing that won’t be on your list but will leave a lasting impression is the hospitality of the local people.

As a tropical destination the Cook Islands isn’t the first place that springs to mind.  The beauty of this means that commercialism hasn’t infiltrated onto the islands.  When you leave the Cooks you actually feel like you have found your own little piece of Paradise.  There are fifteen islands which make up the Cook Islands.  The capital is called Rarotonga and this is the most modern of the islands.  When flying into the Cooks as you descend the steps of your plane a few steps ahead of you is the airport which looks nothing more than a wooden hut.  In big neon white letters is the greeting “Welcome to the Cook Islands”.  My flight landed at 6am and even at this early hour I could feel the warmth of the islands not just through temperature but from the happy smiley faces that were there to greet me.  There is a local man playing a ukulele and singing local songs as a greeting to the island.  The locals informed me that this man has been doing this job for just over twenty years.  Something tells me that he has great job satisfaction.  Even when you go through Customs and show your passport the staff are smiling and singing you get the feeling that they are happy to see you as much as you are happy to have arrived in Paradise.

When visiting tropical destinations of the world as a tourist you see the best the island has to offer.  The flip side of this can mean although you are enjoying Paradise the locals don’t have sufficient housing or food which can lead to robbery or begging.  This is something you won’t experience in the Cooks.  The Cooks are ruled by New Zealand government who pump money into the islands.  When speaking to the locals you learn that there is no unemployment.  Their motto is you work you eat you don’t work you don’t eat.  This means that the locals don’t just sit around all day under a palm tree but they work hard and this in turn leads to a sense of pride about their islands.  If you are born on the Cooks its normal practice for you to inherit land.  The family generally give the land to their children when they are eighteen or twenty one.  This creates a sense of belonging to the island and it’s up to individuals what they do with the land they can build a house or create a business.  A common sight is to see a tombstone outside a house.  This does appear weird as they do have cemeteries but the reason some people do this is because they want to be buried on the land they have lived on and has been in the family for generations.

The Cook Islands is a place where you can totally escape the pressures of modern living although if the thought of not having internet connection scares you there are plenty of cafes you can log onto and some hotels will provide you access.  Children from the Cook Islands do have a knowledge of modern technology but they also have an understanding of their history.  They understand their culture and are proud of it.

If going on holiday means that you want to feel totally pampered there are many spas you can visit on the island which are normally within a hotel resort but why not go to the best spa on the island “the beach”.  Walk on the white sandy beaches and feel the sand between your toes.  Listen to the lulling sound of the Pacific ocean as you feast your eyes on all the beautiful nature that surrounds you and pick a flower from a tree and wear it in your hair.  This is true Polynesian living.   

Eating on the Cook islands is an absolute joy every ingredient is fresh.  After visiting the Cooks I have seen the true definition of free range chickens.  Chickens are allowed to roam freely on the island and the strange thing is the dogs don’t eat them.  All day and night you hear the distant sound of ***-a-doodle-do.  The traditional way of cooking is to use a method called umukai.  This involves cooking food underground, it is possible to see this on the island nights which are generally held at hotel resorts or restaurants.  This is a great opportunity to meet the locals and experience their culture while eating delicious food.  No island night would be complete without their traditional island dancing.  Not only is it entertaining but they tell you the history behind each dance. 

People on the Cooks are very religious.  If you get to visit a church while you are on the island make sure you go on a Sunday morning to hear them sing.  While I was there the vicar gave the service in their language – Maori but he also spoke English at one point he said “We would like to extend a warm welcome to our visitors today for choosing a small dot on the map as their holiday destination”.    The locals can’t believe we chose their islands when we have the whole of the world to choose from.

When you leave the Cooks you will not only have sampled a true taste of Paradise but you will have sampled true hospitality from the local people.  Even as I was leaving some of the local people gave me leaving presents and wished me a safe journey. 

When your holiday is over your memories will last forever.