THERE’S no getting away from the fact that it takes a long time to get to the Cook Islands. Located between Samoa, Fiji and Tahiti, they are as remote as it gets. The flight from London is over 20 hours. However, they are a perfect stop-over to stretch your legs on the way to Australasia and the ideal South Seas stopover as part of a round-the-world trip. If you fancy a few weeks of island hopping, then it’s hard to think of a more idyllic spot for it than this heavenly necklace of islands in the centre of the Polynesian triangle.
This cluster of 15 small islands are named after Captain James Cook, who sailed through the southern group in 1773. The islands are self-governing, but have a free association with New Zealand, and while English is the official language, the traditional greeting of “kia orana” rings out wherever you go.
The clear skies, temperate climes and pristine waters of the South Pacific offer the ideal tropical therapy. These easy-on-the-eye tropical islands attract travellers from far and wide to kick back on the secluded beaches, but I was determined to spend my days here doing more than just lying on a deck chair.
The islands are a great spot for travellers who want an active holiday. Sport is truly part of the culture, and I timed my stay to coincide with the South Pacific Mini Games, being hosted by the archipelago for the first time since 1985, making this the biggest event here in 24 years.
It was a fortnight-long competition in which 21 nations from all over the Pacific region competed in all manner of sports including lawn bowls, boxing, table tennis, triathlon and athletics. Everyone on the island is involved in one way or another. The Cook Islands also hosts the Youth Netball Championships and the Vaka Eiva paddling festival.
Even when the cream of Polynesia’s sportsmen and women are not there, sport is definitely on the menu in the Islands, and it’s easy to find somebody organising a spot of running and rugby – or if you’re looking for something a little more sedate, swimming and sea kayaking.
Any trip to the Cook Islands should commence with a few days on the main island of Rarotonga, a fabulous microcosm of all things Polynesian.
This lush green island, one of the southern group, has rugged mountains in the centre, and is ringed around the edges by white-powder sand.
I joined one of the 4WD inland safari tours (www.tangaroa4x4.co.ck), to enjoy the rainforest interior of the Avatiu valley and to soak up the panoramic views from the eastern heights overlooking Muri Lagoon.
Included in the tour is a delicious lunch of marinated raw fish, taro leaves and meat, all baked in banana leaves and cooked in the umu – or traditional earth oven.
If you’re feeling active, you can trek across the island via the highest point known as Te Rua Manga or “The Needle,” for spectacular views of the coral-fringed coastline.
The preferred means of transport on Rarotonga is the scooter, while the hop-on hop-off buses run a regular service clockwise and anti-clockwise around the perimeter.
There are a couple of good dive operators here, or, if you want to keep your head above water, you can go fishing to try and land your own supper.
The delights of the day are served up at Rarotonga’s lively array of cafes and restaurants, and the likes of Windjammer and The Yellow Hibiscus are well worth a try, as is Trader Jacks, which overlooks the beautiful Avarua Harbour – in what passes for the island’s capital; many of the hotels also have an Island Night, offering a traditional mix of Polynesian song, dance, costumes and cuisine.
I was based in a pristine pool suite at the luxurious Crown Beach Resort, and with my own plunge pool, large sun-deck, and super-sized bed, it didn’t take long to get used to “island time.”
The breath-taking powder-blue lagoon of Aitutaki, less than an hour’s flight north of Rarotonga, is in a league of its own, and this honeymoon destination, popular for its paradisal remoteness, is a clear frontrunner for one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.
The first European to record its existence was Captain Bligh, master of the Bounty back in 1789, just 17 days before the mutiny, although it has, more recently, been made famous by the Shipwrecked reality television show.
A boat tour of the brilliant blue lagoon is an absolute must, and I joined Bishop’s Cruises (www.bishops cruises.com) for its day-long trip around the numerous palm-fringed coral “motu” or islets.
The itinerary is incredibly relaxed, and includes a stop-off on One Foot Island for a banquet of barbequed fish and the chance to get your passport stamped at the world’s smallest Post Office.
You can then while away the remainder of your day cruising through the luminous blue, sunbathing on the chalk-white beaches and snorkelling in the kaleidoscopic reefs.
If you don’t mind splurging, then it’s worth spending a few nights in one of the sumptuous over-water bungalows at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa.
This incredibly upmarket private island resort is the perfect indulgence for those looking for a bit of beach-side bliss – this is barefoot luxury at its best.
Atiu remains one of the less visited islands in the Cook group, but nature lovers and adventure lovers alike will soon be won over by this Robinson Cruesoe-esque hideaway with its rugged jungle-covered interior and scenic coral cliffs or “makatea” coast.
With supplies delivered by a ship just once every three weeks, you certainly feel as though you’re a long way from anywhere. Nonetheless, from the moment I set foot on the island, I was made to feel like a member of the family at the homely Atiu Villas by my hosts, Roger and Kura Malcolm. The rooms, set in lush tropical gardens, all offer well-stocked larders and basic cooking facilities, while a delicious dinner is cooked up each evening at Kura’s Kitchen.
Atiu is far from your average beach holiday as it’s so far off the beaten track, and yet at the same time it so much more, as the island is ringed by miles of secluded beaches you can call your own. Bird-life here is prolific, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the striking red Rimatara Lorikeet, re-introduced back in 2007.
I joined a guided eco-tour with indigenous Birdman George whose knowledge of the flora and fauna of Atiu is unbeatable, and spent an action-packed afternoon trekking with UK-born Marshall Humphrey exploring the extensive limestone cave system, home to the kopeka or Atiu swiftlet (further tour details can be found at www.atiu.info).
I rounded off my final day on this castaway island with a visit to the Tumunu meeting place, to take part in the nightly drinking ritual with the local men.
The so-called ceremony comprises the assembled group knocking back a seemingly unending round of wooden cups of bush beer. And, as I sit beneath the starlit sky chattering and laughing late into the night with these welcoming Pacific Islanders whose traditions date back centuries, I know that I am well and truly immersed in island life.
Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.uk; 0800 028 4149) has daily departures from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, with connections once a week to Rarotonga; economy fares start from £926.
Air Rarotonga (www.airraro.com) flies daily from Rarotonga to Aitutaki and Atiu (except Sunday).
Prices for a villa at the Crown Beach Resort (www.crownbeach.com) in Rarotonga start from £321, while a garden room at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort (www.aitutakilagoonresort.com) starts from NZ $515 and an over-water villa starts from NZ $1,395; rooms at Atiu Villas (www.atiuvillas.com) start from NZ $160. All prices are per night. For more information go to www.cookislands.travel