Posted in Travel

Cook Islands Essentials

We had a great Christmas week in the Cook Islands – and hopefully one day you will too! This post is a collection of some of the things to know before you go there: from the car hire experience to the food to the local flora and fauna. (You can read more about our holiday in my first post, second post and third post.)

Eating out in Raratonga

While we were planning this holiday, we weren’t sure what the food situation was going to be over Christmas so we booked the various lunches and dinners in advance. We had Christmas Eve dinner at Crown’s (see post) and Christmas Day lunch at Nautilus (see post). We had booked Boxing Day brunch back at Crown’s Ocean’s Restaurant and it turned out to be basically just the hotel breakfast, with eggs and bacon, cereal, cake, tea and coffee. It hit the spot however, and we also scored a couple of individual packets of Vegemite for later use!


Because we were staying self-catering with a kitchen, we only ended up having two other dinners out. We chose a couple of restaurants that had free transfers from our accommodation. For dinner on the day of our epic cross island hike, we decided to go to Vaima Polynesian Bar and Restaurant. We started with cocktails and a local fish starter called Ika Mata (per the menu: A traditional Island delicacy… a delicious tropical combination of Fresh Tuna Fish marinated in reme (lemon) & creamy akari (coconut) served with tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, shallots and coriander) then fish and chips for me and fish curry (house special) for Jonathon. The food was excellent and even though we were completely full, we had key lime pie and pavlova for dessert. Our table was under palm trees in the sand with the waterline a stone’s throw away: very convenient for photographing the sunset.

Ika Mata
Fish Curry
Fish ‘n’ Chips
Sunset from Vaima restaurant (300mm lens)

On our second last evening we went to dinner at “On the Beach” which was a restaurant not quite, but nearly, on the beach, part of the Manuia Beach Resort. I started with grilled and chilled ratatouille, which was possibly a mistake because it came in aspic and was just ok. Jonathon started with scallop and leek tart (spelled “leak” on the menu). For the main course we both had ocean fish: swordfish and somewhat rare yellowfin tuna. It was delicious. From our table we saw a beautiful sunset, which included another green flash.


Sunset from On The Beach

Birds and animals in the Cook Islands

Stray dogs are a big feature of the island although it’s possible some of these dogs aren’t stray, just roaming free. During lunch on the deck one day, two local dogs came racing along the beach and threw themselves in the water, doing their best impression of gazelles. They appeared to be hunting the small fish that go around in schools in the shallows, and while they didn’t seem to catch any, they seemed to be having a good time. We saw the same thing – different dogs – on another day.



This fella was waiting for me as I was walking on the beach then followed me most of the way home

There are also quite a few hens, chicks and roosters around. In fact, if you are unlucky you will be woken up by rooster. It was fun to see chicks following their mother hen around, and the roosters were quite pretty.

Rooster: half way up the hill on the cross island hike

Drive around the island of Raratonga

One thing to know about Raratonga is that it’s small. While it has an international airport it has just one road circling the island (and an inland road which is not continuous) which is 32 km (20 miles) long. One afternoon we decided to take an hour and drive the whole way around. The speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph) and the road, while sealed, is pretty appalling most of the way. It probably took us 30 minutes to get up to the main town, Avarua, where we stopped at the (only?) post office to get stamps, and the handy shop next door for postcards. We found that the rest of the island was just as beautiful as the area we were staying: more of the same coconut palms, scattered houses, dogs, occasional food places, and glimpses of the magnificent lagoon.


A sign greets you at each of the quadrants of the island
Typical house and yard
Looking towards the center of the island


Car hire in the Cook Islands

While we are talking about driving, as mentioned in my first post, our experience of car hire was less than brilliant. We made allowances because we were picking up our car on Christmas Eve but we got the last car on the island and its warrant of fitness was going to expire during our rental.


So, on Boxing Day, after breakfast we decided to solve this problem. We had spotted that the Island Car and Bike Hire branch near to Crown was open, so we parked up, and went inside. We explained that we’d been rented a car with a warrant that was expiring and could they sort it out please, and within 10 minutes we were driving away in a different car. It was the same model and color as the first, and had twice as many scrapes and dents, and what looked like at least one bald tire, but otherwise seemed in better working order.

A fine model – Toyata Vitz

We used Island Car and Bike because they have a relationship with Sea Change Villas but I’m not sure we’d go with them again!

Supermarkets on Raratonga

As I mentioned in my first post, on Christmas Eve Wigmore’s supermarket was packed with people and there wasn’t much on the shelves to choose from. On Boxing Day, however, it was a different story: it a lot less busy with a lot more fresh items available.


Inside Wigmore’s
Inside Wigmore’s
‘ei katu (head garland) for sale at Wigmore’s

On our around-the-island drive we also stopped at the main “big” supermarket – CITC supermarket – in Avarua. This had a lot more on offer than Wigmore’s, but the prices were the same (i.e. expensive). We stocked up on essentials like coke and chocolate and somehow our total was ~$40 NZD.

Inside CITC supermarket


Raratonga Lagoon activities

The lagoon is the main feature of the island of Raratonga. We were fortunate enough to be able to get into the water straight from our deck and Sea Change Villas had reef shoes, snorkels and masks, canoes and SUPs for use by the guests. The lagoon is not very deep and I was nearly always able to put my feet down. We spent a glorious amount of time in the water and got to recognize the different kinds of fish: the biggest one we saw was the size of a watermelon and there also were also a scattering of big blue starfish, and “giant” clams with blue mouths.

The lagoon – the surf line indicates the reef barrier

A couple of times we went quite far out towards the reef barrier where there was much more coral – once in a canoe and once swimming. We had seen people go right up to the breaking waves in canoes, but we weren’t that brave/stupid.

We waited until the high tide each time we went out so we had some clearance.  We borrowed canoes and paddled quite far out but noticed we really couldn’t see fish from that vantage point high above the water. The coral was still worth it, as was just being out on the water.

The time we swam out as far as we could I found it quite hard work – perhaps we were going against the current or the tide. When we finally got to the dense coral we found it was all reef and no sandy spots to stop and rest! Still, we saw a lot of different fish as well as a more of the giant blue starfish and clams.

Our look, multiple times a day

Our last day

Our flight back to LA left at nearly midnight and we were given use of the villa until our departure. The (mostly outdoor) airport was pretty chaotic but because everyone had been relaxing all week, so no-one was stressed out about anything.

Last sunset of the holiday


The Cook Islands is truly a spectacular holiday destination. Everyone was extremely friendly in that antipodean, “she’ll be right”, “island time” kind of way. It seems like an ultra-laid-back version of New Zealand, if such a thing were possible.

Our accommodation at Sea Change Villas was all around excellent, having great lagoon access, high quality furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and lots of peace and quiet. The car rental situation was fairly dodgy but also fairly cheap, much safer than riding a bicycle or a scooter, and more convenient than trying to catch the bus. Food was expensive, but when one remembers that in restaurants you don’t have to tip, it’s actually not bad – the restaurants we went to had NZD $30-$35 mains.

There are plenty of outdoor activities, and equally all the time in the world to just sit and look at the view. I realize we got lucky with the weather – normally at this time of year it rains more. Being pretty well cut off from mobile and internet access was a real plus.

I would highly recommend the Cook Islands as a place to visit, but at the same time, I don’t want any more tourists to come and spoil it!

Sea Change Villas from the lagoon

Things to know about the Cook Islands

  1. The time zone in Cook Islands at Christmas is just -2hrs from LA (12pm LA time = 10am Cook Islands time)
  2. The power and sockets are Australia/NZ.
  3. The currency is the NZ dollar, although you can pick up some Cook Islands coins.
  4. Cook Islanders drive on the left and the max speed is 50 km/h (30 mph)
  5. On AT&T it costs $3/min to call and 50c per text. There is no cellular data. Google Fi has no reception.
  6. The water is apparently safe to drink, though we only drank to bottled water.
  7. Christmas time is the rainy season.
  8. When arriving at Raratonga from LAX, sit on the left side of the plane to catch the sunrise, or on the right side of the plane for a view of the island on landing. On departure to LAX, it’s night time so you can’t see anything from either side!

Check out my previous posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands


Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Travel

Jungle and lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

There are two main landscapes on Raratonga: thick, sweaty jungle and clear warm lagoon. To take advantage of both, we arranged to do two tours on our trip: a night stand up paddleboard lagoon tour and Pa’s Cross Island Trek. Here’s how they went.

This is the third in a series of posts about the Cook Islands: read the first post here, the second post here, and the fourth post here.

Night Paddle (SUP) Lagoon Tour

Run by Ariki Adventures out of Muri, the Night Paddle (SUP) Lagoon Tour started just before sunset at 7pm. We arrived at the appointed beach and while we were waiting we noticed that all the stray dogs on the beach were barking like crazy and all racing up to one end of the beach. Someone pointed out the drone they were chasing, and we all had to scramble out of the way as the whole pack suddenly turned and raced back along the beach in pursuit.

Back at the SUP, our three guides gave us a brief lesson on how to paddle, then we were straight out into the water. Neither Jonathon or I had done this before, and it quickly became apparent that I was the slowest person in the group. This was somewhat disconcerting, especially there were people slighter than me, and someone who fell in twice in the first 5 minutes.

Paddleboards of doom at Muri

Each paddleboard had a light underneath, so from my vantage point way at the back, our group was a set of silhouettes against the sky, standing on multi-colored glowing patches of lagoon. We paddled over to one island for a group photo, then paddled over coral to the back of another island where we all rafted together and listened to various improbable tales like how one guide was the coconut tree climbing champion of the South Pacific, and that if you want to visit the abandoned Sheraton hotel, just tell the people there that say “Aunty said it was ok.”  We got a limited amount of information about the sea life, such as how to cook a sea cucumber, but that was all.

Given it was cloudy there wasn’t any stars to be seen and I didn’t see any fish: but I did see a turtle shape go by once. The tour was two hours long. It was a great experience to be on the water at night, and, even though we didn’t learn much, I enjoyed it. I didn’t bring a camera because I was expecting to get wet, but check their link for some photos of what it’s like.

Pa’s Cross Island Trek

The next morning, just before 9am we packed our water, sunscreen, mozzie spray and cameras and sat in the rather oppressive heat outside reception, waiting for our ride. One of the owners of our accommodation, Sea Change Villas, Beverly, came over and chatted for a while, then before long a battered silver van pulled up.

We got in to find a septuagenarian dreadlocked man with no shirt on, who introduced himself as “Pa”. Famed on the island as a healer, he also was the owner of Pa’s Treks, one of which we would be doing today. There were three others on board the van already.

We drove clockwise from Sea Change, looking for the rest of the group. After pulling into various hotels and resorts and not finding the right people, Pa gave up and we headed to the meeting point. Along the way he gave a running commentary on the various ills of modern medicine (e.g. people with blood group “O” should not use statins because it would kill them), and waved to everyone. He pointed out one guy on a bike and said he was the richest man on the island (“oil money”). As we passed him Pa honked and yelled, to which the guy replied good-naturedly, “F**K!”.

We passed the airport then pulled up at a shop to pick up our guide, a local guy with a big tattoo on his shoulder and a machete in his backpack. Turns out his real job is an importer of confectionery, but he does these walks as a favor to Pa. His name might have been Justin.

Pa dropped us off at the trailhead and went away. Justin said that Pa only stopped guiding the walks three years ago, after doing more than 4000 of them.

How hard can it be – at the beginning of the hike

It was hot and sweaty as we made our way past a few houses with pigs and cows in pens, then Justin motioned us over to a shady patch of grass and pointed at a tall monolith in the distance – the Needle. That’s where we’re going – half way across the island – then back down the other side. It would be three miles, three hours, and 400 meters of vertical climb.

Our goal – the Needle

We soon reached a more shaded area, and that’s when the “cardio” section began. We climbed, up and up, grabbing onto tree roots for stability. About half way up, when we were all sweating profusely, we paused at a clearing where some roosters were pecking around, and Justin handed out big chunks of watermelon. At this point he told us that the record for the race across the island – coast to coast – was 45 minutes. He said his best time was 1 hour 6 minutes. It had just taken us 30 minutes to get from the parking lot to this point.

Our guide – this was an unusual downhill bit in the first part of the hike

Then it was time to tackle the second half of the climb, which was somehow even harder than the first. Pausing occasionally for a sip of water or to take a picture, the view through the trees became more enticing as we gained elevation.




Suddenly we saw the Needle right there in front of us, and Justin pointed out the face that was formed out of the rock. He said the Needle had four faces – corresponding to the cardinal points and to different gods – ocean, land etc – and that in ancient times sacrifices, sometimes human, would be made here.


A little more of a climb was needed to get to the base of the Needle, and from this point we could see the ocean on both sides.


The braver of the group tackled the last little climb around the base of the Needle, but we decided to play it safe and stay put. One of our group had a little drone which he flew up and around (it was same drone guy with from Muri beach yesterday).

View looking towards where we came from
View looking towards where we were going
It was quite crowded at the top

Then it was time to head down the other side. Justin said this was the “yoga” part of the hike, the balance part. The climb down was even more treacherous, as the clay underfoot seemed slipperier. Lots more scrambling was required, and hanging onto tree roots was essential.

At one point we came across a white pipe – Justin said contained power cables, direct from the power station to the abandoned Sheraton. It was never used.

The lagoon becoming visible again


Trail markers were few and far between

We finally slid our way nearly to the bottom of the valley, and we were told that we just had to cross the river 8 times and we’d basically be at the Wigmore waterfall, our destination. At this point it became clear that sneakers were perhaps not the right footwear. It was mossy and slippery underfoot and the rocks randomly scattered in the rivers weren’t exactly positioned for ease of use. Each part of the river was about 2 meters wide. Happily, none of us fell in, but both Jonathon and I got our feet wet.

This was an easy one

After that it was just “10 more minutes” to the waterfall. As we approached, on mercifully flat-ish ground, except for the last bit where we had to use a rope to climb down backwards, it started to rain.

Loading up on mozzie spray

The waterfall had a lovely pool below it – deep enough for people to jump off the rocks into it. I went in up to my knees and it was very refreshing. However, this had the side effect of washing the Deet off my legs so all the mozzies in the world found me and I had to run for the van.

Wigmore Waterfall

It really started lashing with rain as we were driven the few minutes back to Sea Change. Justin passed out magnificent sandwiches in the van, along with tasty pawpaw.

Pa’s island walk was an excellent day out and we would highly recommend it. Although I don’t mention it above, our guide did give us information about the plants and animals on the island. You need to be in reasonable shape to complete the hike because it’s pretty strenuous. It is possible to do this as a self-guided walk but the signs are infrequent. Bring plenty of water and insect repellent and be prepared to get muddy and wet!


Click here to see a short video from the Fun Travel TV company which shows an overview the walk.


Read more about our Cook Islands trip in Cook Islands – first impressions and Cook Islands – Christmas Day and Cook Islands Essentials.


Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!


Posted in Travel

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Day 2 – Christmas Day

The second in a series of posts about our recent trip to the Cook Islands. You can read the first post here, the third post here and the fourth post here.

We woke bright and early – no alarm required. Before I even opened my eyes properly I went out onto the deck and breathed the fresh sea air. There was quite a breeze – the trade winds. After a cup of tea in bed I decided to go for a run. I walked as my Garmin found the satellites – taking 5 minutes to do so – then jogged by the side of the road with the lagoon on my right. This being Christmas Day there was hardly anyone about.


I saw lots of different flowering plants as I went, as well as a jackfruit tree with huge fruit, a goat, a chicken with chicks, dogs, some birds – terns I think – and a few people. Families seems to be out in their gardens starting a smoky barbecue or just sitting around chatting. I got as far as Chantal’s Concierge, about 1.7 miles from home then turned around. I got a “Merry Christmas” from the guy putting the big flags outside the Maire Nui Gardens & Café.

After a hearty homemade breakfast of cereal and egg on toast and a giant pot of coffee, I sat down and wrote the post about our first day. I texted home in the UK to wish people merry Christmas, and got reports back that the weather was dark and stormy. Those same people were not impressed with my description of Raratonga’s weather!

View from the deck
Eleven steps from the deck to the lagoon

At 1pm we headed up the road to the Nautilus resort for Christmas lunch. Parking was an issue but because we had a small car we squeezed into a not-quite-a-space and went inside. This was definitely a step up from Crown and the buffet was good, with some seafood options and some excellent ham, the date cake with custard was delicious and the Christmas crackers on the table were a nice touch. The view over the pool to the lagoon was spectacular (for a change).


View from Nautilus dining room

Once home we donned the snorkel gear, determined to go further out into the lagoon than before. The tide was going out so we managed to get pretty far and we found the coral and fish were much more varied here as the rocks were more abundant. I can report, since we consulted the poster of fishes at Crown the day before, that we saw Convict Surgeonfish, Orangespine Unicornfish and Threadfin butterflyfish and a Moorish idol, among others, as well as another blue starfish and a giant clam. After about 45 minutes we’d had enough so we drifted back to shore.


We spent the afternoon lounging around then improvised dinner at home. Just before sunset we headed along the beach for a walk. As the sun approached the horizon we paused to watch it go down. Someone nearby was blaring “Hotel California” from speakers, and someone else was flying a drone around.



The sun hardly deviated from a sphere as it approached the horizon, making it strangely easy to visualize as a giant ball of burning gas at the center of the solar system. The conditions were perfect for the possibility of a green flash as there was no cloud on the horizon. Sure enough, we both saw it – our first. Jonathon saw it for long enough to take off his sunglasses for a better look. To me it looked like the last drop of sun turned into a green jewel for just a moment.

No pictures of the green flash, but this was a pretty good sunset!

That night, I took the camera out for some star photography, and got 5-6 shots in before the mosquitoes found me and I had to beat a retreat.

Facing north-ish. Orion is visible center left.

Check out my other posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Essentials


Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Travel

Cook Islands – first impressions

Christmas Eve, 2017

The first in a series of posts about our recent trip to the Cook Islands. You can read more about the Cook Islands in my second post, third post and fourth post.

Getting off the plane first is important if you want to get as rapidly as possible to the business of being on holiday in the Cook Islands.

With an entire 777-200 arriving, and only two immigration officers who want to chat with every passenger, the line quickly stalls.

We were fortunate enough to have the bulkhead seats in premium economy, which meant we were the first in line for the visitor queue. We were asked “what brings you to paradise?”, and the customs official only wanted to know if we had alcohol or tobacco with us. A man sitting on top of the baggage carousel was playing acoustic guitar and singing local songs. LAX this was not.

Raratonga International Airport

Walking out into the pleasant arrivals area at around 7am we were greeted by a driver from Raro Tours who gave us a Ei of fragrant flowers each and drove us to our accommodation. Along the way he pointed out various important landmarks including the island’s two 24-hour gas stations and the abandoned Sheraton hotel. On arrival 20 minutes later at Sea Change Villas, he procured the key to our villa (reception wasn’t yet open) and let us in.

I think this was safely the first time in my life that the pictures of a place turned out to look exactly like reality. From the front door we looked through our self-contained villa to a deck which overlooked the lagoon with the surf crashing into the coral wall some 0.6 km away. There were exactly 11 steps down to the beach, which at high tide was about 6ft wide.

Our villa was the one on the right

Forgetting about the lack of sleep the previous night on the plane, and the cold I was getting over, we walked straight into the water. Everywhere we looked from “our” beach was a national geographic image. (The excessive amount of photos below were all taken from just outside our villa in the first few minutes after we arrived)






Our fridge was stocked with eggs, bread, milk, juice, some butter and jam so we made breakfast and sat inside to eat as a rain shower came over and soaked the whole place. Ten minutes later it was sunny again.

Later that morning our rental car arrived from Island Car & Bike – two hours late, filthy and with a “Warrant of Fitness” (roadworthy/MOT) that would expire during our rental. Since it was Christmas Eve there were no other cars to be had, so we were told to just bring the car back after Christmas to get the warrant renewed. We were slightly miffed at this, but eventually decided to live with it since this was the land of “she’ll be right.”

With that settled, the next priority was getting some groceries. Over the next few days many places would be closed for Christmas and Boxing day, so we had to make sure we had some food in the house.

We drove up the road to Wigmores Market, our nearest supermarket. The place was packed (I assume, unless that was normal). We had read before we traveled that there wasn’t much fresh stuff to be had, and things would be expensive. Both of these were true, but we managed to find some cheese, crackers, olives, pasta, pasta sauce, and tinned tuna. Inside the shop there was also an ice cream stall which was extremely popular and people were coming away with towering multicolored cones.

After lunch at the villa, as much as we wanted a nap, we decided instead to avail ourselves of the free reef shoes and go for a walk in the lagoon. A long way out the water was still only knee deep and we found lots of sea cucumbers underfoot.

View from our deck
The tide had come in by lunchtime

We quickly decided we needed to get the snorkel gear and have a proper look, and soon we were swimming quite far out looking at an array of colorful fish. Still, the current was pretty strong, and when Jonathon noticed my lips had gone blue we decided we should come in.

After a shower and a nap, we headed over to Crown Beach Resort’s Ocean’s restaurant for dinner. On arrival it was suggested we might have drink overlooking the beach. We agreed, but stuck to mocktails given we were driving.

Yes please

After drinks and estimating the sunset was more than an hour away (wrong) we went in for the buffet. The most exciting thing for Jonathon was the “Lemon, lime and bitters” on the drinks menu – something we haven’t been able to get in the US. Dinner wasn’t fine dining, but there was plenty of food, including salad (green, potato salad, coleslaw), veg (peas, carrots, mash, pumpkin), meat (ham, lamb and others), and a giant urn of gravy. Dessert was fruit, cake, and ice-cream which the children were taking pains to cram as much of in their bowls as possible. Two men were playing the 60’s greatest hits on guitar and vocals. It was extremely pleasant way to spend the evening.

Ocean’s dining room

Back at our villa, even though we missed sunset the sky was still red, so I got the tripod out and tried to get some pictures. Before long the mosquitoes started to tow us away, so we went inside and opened one of the mini champagnes we liberated from our car service in the morning. Jonathon hunted down and removed the cricket which was singing loudly from somewhere in our bathroom.


Later, I risked the mosquitoes for a few minutes to look at the night sky. Even without dark adapted eyes, the stars were still southern-hemisphere spectacular.

Check out my next posts:

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Essentials


Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!