Jewels of the South Pacific – Tahiti and the Cook Islands

In August of 1996, I used some of my frequent flyer miles for two First Class award tickets on Air New Zealand. Leslie and I planned to visit Tahiti and the Cook Islands on our way to New Zealand and Australia. So an a very hot day (105+) in southern California we boarded the Air New Zealand 747 for the 9 hour overnight flight to Papeete, the capital city of French Polynesia. The inflight service and food was absolutely superb in every respect, and soon we touched down in the middle of the South Pacific early the next morning. It was a short taxi ride to the “Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel”, beautifully located on the edge of a spectacular blue lagoon, surrounded by majestic palm trees. The view from our balcony was stunning, with a lush tropical feeling.

Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel - Papeete
Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel – Papeete

As we enjoyed breakfast in the Garden Restaurant, outside overlooking the lagoon, the sounds of song birds and the exotic fragrance of the Frangipani blossoms filled the air. It was a perfect beginning to a holiday in the South Pacific! That afternoon, as Leslie lounged by the pool I joined a 4WD tour by Land Rover into the mountains that form the center of the island. Our French guide drove up a steep, rough, narrow dirt track through lush tropical forest to a point overlooking a massive, deep canyon 5000 feet below. Surrounding us were very steep, jagged peaks blanketed in lush deep green vegetation. From the rim of the canyon were spectacular views of the coast below with its gorgeous white sand beaches, blue lagoons, coral reefs, and crashing surf. To the west, across the ocean lay the beautiful tropical isle of Moorea, with its rugged, deep blue-green peaks – the picture postcard of the South Pacific. On our return to the hotel we encountered the “rush hour” traffic of Papeete, known locally as the “go slow”, which seemed so ironic for such a small town in an isolated part of the world. Back at the hotel I joined Leslie in the pool bar for an ice cold pint of the local Tahitian beer, “Hinano”. As darkness slowly appeared and evening approached, we were blessed with a gorgeous sunset while we sat on the deck of our bungalow, which was built on stilts over the lagoon.

Sunset in Tahiti
Sunset in Tahiti

Later we enjoyed a fabulous dinner that began with a salad of fresh crab and hearts of palm, followed by giant grilled prawns in a wonderful lime and ginger sauce served over a bed of rice. As we retired for the night, the crickets and tree frogs “sang” their evening songs outside our open door – so relaxing and peaceful!

The next morning began with a refreshing tropical rain shower as we took our breakfast in the Garden Restaurant. Then we joined a small tour group to Moorea by ferry across the 12 miles separating the islands. During the bus tour of the island, lead by our Japanese guide “Sal”, an elderly American named Al, sitting in the front seat, was constantly asking questions and making comments about everything and yet nothing at all. (He reminded me of “Barty”, Mr. Barton Smith from New Zealand, one of the people on the 1974 overland expedition across Africa, who had seen and done everything twice before!) One of the highlights of our island tour was the stop at Cook’s Bay, named for Captain Cook on his first landing in Tahiti, and more famously known as the classic scene from the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Standing on the beach with the view of the deep blue water of the bay, the steep, jagged peaks topped with brilliant white puffy clouds floating above in the dark blue sky was awesome! (worth the whole trip)

Cook's Bay - Moorea
Cook’s Bay – Moorea

Later on, as our old yellow school bus labored up a steep mountain road into the mountains, past small fields of pineapple, papaya, guava, and taro, the peaceful idyllic scene was suddenly  broken by a high pitched noise screaming from the engine, followed by ominous blue smoke boiling up from under the hood! At this point there were a lot of “armchair mechanics” who came forth to offer unsolicited advice on what was wrong, but none had a solution. While our guide tried to contact the tour company, our driver George, gave us a lesson about the local fruits, even climbing some of the trees in search of different fruits, tossing down samples as he perched himself on a branch. It was a wonderful way to divert our attention away from being angry and frustrated. (brilliant) Another bus arrived later and we continued to the “Moorea Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel” for lunch, but not before stopping at a small black pearl shop. (Moorea is famous for the largest black pearls in the world) Two young American couples were looking forward to buying something, and one of the young girls picked out a large single black pearl mounted in a gold pendent and chain. When she asked the price and the shopkeeper said it was “on sale” for $1400, an obvious state of shock descended upon her and her husband! (There was also a full necklace of beautiful black pearls in the shop window for the “special low price” of $4000) Clearly the shop was not selling your typical souvenirs! Finally, after the young couples had absorbed enough “sticker shock”, we were on our way to the hotel. As we ate lunch in the restaurant overlooking the pool, several women were sunbathing topless. One was particularly beautiful and well-endowed, so every time she got up and walked around, conversations throughout the restaurant suddenly stopped in mid-sentence! After lunch George drove us around the island before dropping us at the ferry terminal for our return to Papeete. (We had arrived at the ferry terminal just a few minutes before departure, and later found out it was the last trip of the day!) After a light dinner we packed our bags and retired early in preparation for our 4:30am flight to the Cook Islands. It was a nice 2 hour flight over the ocean before landing at a very small airport on the main island of Rarotonga, where the runway was long enough to handle a 747, but the terminal building was only the size of a typical 2 bedroom house. We were met by a very nice Maori lady named “Aleen”, who put beautiful fresh flower Leis on both of us as a traditional welcome to the islands. Then she drove us to the “Rarotongan Sunset Hotel”, and along the way we passed a small, one story grey cement house with a very big sign in front – “Parliament Building”! (a clue to just how small the country really is) Upon arriving at the hotel we were escorted to a beautiful beach front bungalow with a large veranda and gorgeous views of the massive waves crashing on the reef at the far edge of the lovely blue lagoon.

Beachfront Bungalow - Cook Islands
Beachfront Bungalow – Cook Islands

It was an idyllic place for the next few days as we explored the Cook Islands. Our day started with a traditional English breakfast before we took a long walk down the white sandy beach, barefoot in the cool morning air.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Rarotonga, Cook Islands

(The Cook Islands were once a protectorate of New Zealand and still has strong ties, including the use of the New Zealand currency) Later I walked into the town, along the main road, and came to a lovely whitewashed church, perfectly framed against a backdrop of rugged, lush green mountains. Suddenly a little Maori girl from the school across the road came up to me and asked for some money, however, she settled for a photo instead.

Young Maori Schoolgirl
Young Maori Schoolgirl

Then she wanted to use my camera to take a photo of her classmates, which I’m sure made her a celebrity in her class that day. Back at the hotel I joined Leslie for a glass of wine on our veranda as we watched the huge waves crashing on the reef and listened to the roar of the surf – the white foam contrasted dramatically against the deep blue water of the lagoon. As the massive 15 foot waves curled and crashed on the reef, one after another, it became almost hypnotic. We sat silently, absorbed in the beauty of the moment, our bodies relaxed and our minds soothed. (a very special moment to be cherished) As the sun slowly set behind the heavy clouds on the horizon, we walked along the beach to the “Oasis Village Steakhouse and Hopsing’s Chinese Wok” for dinner. The warm spring rolls were wonderful in the cool evening air, followed by a fantastic “Polynesian Seafood Curry”, along with a huge salad bar featuring exotic dishes like papaya in sweet curry sauce, breadfruit in spicy yoghurt sauce, and roasted garlic taro root. That night the soft roar of the surf lulled us into a deep slumber.

The next morning I got up at sunrise to join the “cross island trek and nature walk” lead by a local Polynesian named “Pa”. The first part of the tour was a drive past many small farms of papaya, taro, pineapple, and coconut, at the island-wide speed limit of 35 mph. Eventually we turned on to a narrow rough road which lead to a group of small backpacker bungalows where we met Pa. He was a large, muscular Polynesian with long blond hair done up in small braids Rastafarian style, and dressed in long, multi-colored pants. Pa lead us up a narrow, rocky trail into a steep valley, following a lovely mountain stream. Along the way he pointed out many plants and flowers having traditional medicinal properties. As we climbed higher into the verdant green mountains following the stream, we came to an ancient village site where the stone foundations were still visible. Pa had us sit down on some of the old stones as he pointed to a waterfall with a beautiful, small pool at the base which was reserved for high priests and warriors. While we sat in a circle around Pa, he told us stories of how the high priests and warriors conducted sacred ceremonies for fertility, abundant harvests, and many other festivities and celebrations throughout the year. As it turns out, his uncle is a very old high priest, one of the last in the islands, and in 1990 his uncle held a sacred ceremony for 20 “Kahunas” (tribal chiefs) at another of the ancient “Maurare” sites high up in the mountains. His uncle was also responsible for Pa’s spiritual training. Further up the trail we stopped in a small clearing beside the tumbling waters of the tropical stream for lunch of fresh grilled fish and local fruits, as the sunshine softly filtered down through the huge tree ferns surrounding us. Then as we descended the mountain, Pa told us his sister had won a bronze medal in wind surfing for the Cook Islands during the recent Commonwealth Games. Pa was an amazing character who was very much in harmony with the island environment and he delighted in sharing it with visitors. That day spent with him remained a highlight of my time in the Cook Islands.

In the evening Leslie and I walked down the beach to another restaurant named “Tumunou” for dinner as the sun set in a gorgeous display of tropical colors. The array of delicious fresh seafood dishes included local mussels, oysters, scallops, crab, and many kinds of local fish. Later, sitting on our veranda under billions of stars in the night sky, listening to the surf in the distance as a gentle breeze brushed the palm trees, made our time in the islands a most special and memorable experience!

View from our veranda - Cook Islands
View from our veranda – Cook Islands

(even as I write this blog post, the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and emotions of that time come flooding back to me)

Eventually it was time to continue our journey across the international dateline to New Zealand and more wonderful adventures and travel stories – stay tuned!

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