It’s an untouched and unforgettable tropical paradise, and a visit to the Cook Islands with kids is always a good idea. Here we share why..
The best place, in my humble opinion, to start uncovering the real spirit of a new destination is via its local markets and we’re lucky to have arrived in Rarotonga early enough on a Saturday morning that we can join the locals for a stroll around Raro’s weekly Punanga Nui Markets.
It is here that Sugarpuff thirstily slurps her way through the first of many of her favourite fresh drinking coconuts and kids, dogs and dozens of chirpy chickens run randomly between stalls laden with brightly coloured pareo (sarongs), black pearls, woven goods, floral garlands and fresh fruit.
Raff is not quite as taken by the consumption of coconuts as his sibling but does experience love at first sight when he spots a garish ukulele that’s been cunningly fashioned out of a hollowed coconut shell and decorated in the style of a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. It. Is. Hideous. And, of course, he demands that it come home with us. One day he’ll spot something tasteful and declare it must be his. But, in what can only be declared a tragedy for my decor, today is not that day.
It’s still a little early to check into our hotel, so ukulele in hand, we scoot around the tiny island to take in the sights and get a feel for this impossibly pretty patch in the Pacific. And it feels good.
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa with kids
We’re in the Cook Islands for a week of sun drenched relaxation Pacific Island style. I know, I know. But someone has to do it! And so, the rest of our post flight day is spent playing on the beach. More specifically, snorkelling in the clear blue water that’s literally metres from the door of our beachfront hotel suite at The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, where we feed the hundreds of friendly fish of every size and colour that come to greet us.
Raff is in his happy place. At least until one flesh-hungry fish decides to bite the hand that feeds. I didn’t think they had piranhas in these parts but this bastard fish has taken a suspiciously large chunk out of my son’s finger. The result of which is a lot of blood and a small boy howling, in an Oscar worthy performance, that he will “never ever go in the water again.”
I spend an hour convincing my dramatic offspring that the other fish are friendly and promise him we’ll eat the pesky pesce that bit him for dinner.
“Can I bite him in the face?” he asks, bottom lip still quivering. Of course, I answer and my vengeful boy is smiling once again.
Sure enough that evening we dine on delicious fresh fish by the water’s edge. We manage to persuade Raff that he has devoured his slippery nemesis and that the seas are once more safe for swimming.
In reality he is eating a lovely yellow fin tuna, served in traditional British fish and chip style, and it is so good we can’t help nicking chunks off his plate.
He gets his revenge as he digs into my dinner, the local specialty, Ike Mata, a wonderful concoction of raw tuna, lemon juice and coconut that I’ve fallen for hook, line and sinker.
In fact so surprisingly good is the food that we dine at the same resort restaurant each night, something we normally avoid in preference for street food and experimentation. It also makes sticking to our little one’s night time routines so much easier.
But Raff’s favourite thing about the restaurant isn’t eating his nemesis or stealing my dinner, it’s the bizarre appearance at the exact same time each evening of a metre long black and white snake-eel that swims purposefully by as we scoff. Either it’s the most OCD snake in Rarotonga, and it needs help from an aquatic therapist that resides in these parts or we’re sitting alongside a snake-eel superhighway at peak hour.
We’re not what exactly what you’d call regular churchgoers. And by not regular I actually mean never. But in an effort to immerse ourselves into Rarotonga’s local culture, and out of respect for the local and their beliefs, we’ve found ourselves bathing in the glow of stained-glass in a pretty whitewashed church on a sunny Sunday morning. It’s a full house but we’ve managed to squeeze in between two lovely local ladies dressed in their best floral muumuus and woven rito hats on the coral hued pews.
There are few places in the world where you’ll find people as devout as those in the Cook Islands. Like much of the Pacific, English Christian missionaries arrived in the early 1800s and were successful in converting the islanders from their cannibalistic tendencies, which has been a huge boon to tourists wanting to visit paradise without being marinated in a nice white wine sauce and served with a side of coconut.
As the Reverend uplifts his congregation Raffles, like the local littlies, begins to squirm, until the music starts.
Stunned into stillness he, like us, is enthralled by the scat-like musical improvisation of the Imene tuki (hymn of grunts). As the women fill the church with sweet melody the men interject with a rhythmic harmony that is part chant, part spontaneous outburst of joy, wholly beautiful and something every visitor should experience, regardless of their religious persuasion… or lack thereof.
So welcoming are the parishioner’s that afterwards we’re invited to join them for morning tea. We’re extremely tempted but decline before they discover what a pack of heathens they have in their midst.
A whale of a time
Instead we head to The Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre, an unforgiving Tardis of whaling history that is all about hands-on education.
Raffles is taken by the sharks’ jaws but it’s the fossilised dinosaur poo that really floats his boat – that and a frankly gruesome live coconut crab dangling precariously from its mesh enclosure for all the world like an extra from a b-grade horror film.
Raro Reef Sub
Ready for some seafaring of our own we head to Avatiu Harbour and climb into the semi-submersible Raro Reef Sub, the hull of which is soon filled with cries of “Sound the Octo Alert, Whoop, Whoop, Whoop”, as Raffles embraces his inner Octonaut and we cruise over the wreck of the SS Maitai accompanied by a school of giant pouty fish, who’ve clearly been overdoing the collagen injections.
The Lagoon Breeze Villas offer us spacious, self catering accommodation and is proves and excellent home base for the next few days. Located opposite a sandy beach on Aroa Lagoon & Marine Reserve where we paddle on the resort’s kayaks, or “Gondola’s” as a confused (post Venice) Raffles insists on calling them, this place is perfect for families.
The swimming pool includes a shallow toddlers’ area and plenty of pool toys, not to mention beach toys by the bucket load. The children’s playground, trikes and a trampoline also prove popular with my tiny travellers but it is Coco, the villa’s resident pooch, who wins their hearts.
Following a hot tip from a cool local we find ourselves at Island Living, a gift shop with a pronounced regional flavour, to chat to owners Minar and Louis. With typical Cook Island hospitality they have opened their colonial-style home to visitors for a weekly gourmet three-course local dining experience with a difference where guests can enjoy restaurant quality dishes made from ingredients grown and livestock raised in their expansive garden.
We are lucky enough to enjoy a tour of the plantation with Louis. Raffles happily stalks the chickens and what must be the happiest pigs on the planet – currently being porked up, if you’ll pardon the pun, on a diet of fresh mango, bananas, coconut and papaya – to make Louis And Minars’ family one mighty tasty free range feast.
Louis also gives us a lesson in the multiple stages and uses of the humble coconut (whilst fighting off a frenzied Sugarpuff who I swear given the chance would gnaw her way through the husk to get at the tasty prize inside) and lets us smell, touch and taste his edible garden and, best of all, lets us scoff sweet, sweet bananas and coconuts fresh from the tree. They are a revelation of sugary goodness and Raffles can’t stop at one. Our days in Rarotonga are spent eating, swimming, kayaking and cruising on waters too blue to be true to a fairly constant soundtrack of twanging ukuleles.
We open up the kids to the stories and culture of Raro at every opportunity and Raffles discovers his inner warrior.
We take a glass-bottom boat on Muri Lagoon with Koka Lagoon Cruises.
We find this dude just hanging around….
Sugarpuff scoffs another thousand or so freshly husked coconuts…
And the kids both enjoy anatomy lessons of the totem kind.
Keen for Raffles to suck in a little more Cook Islands culture we head to the National Auditorium where free lessons in the Cook Islands hula are offered. We suck. But the rubber-hipped hula dancers make quite an impression on our little movers and shakers. We decide to take in a performance at the Te Vara Nui Cultural Village where muscular men dance with fire and ladies, clad in gravity-defying coconut shell bras, swing their hips to the beat, Raffles’ eyes following every last jiggle.
The performance is all kinds of awesome, but its most memorable moment comes during a poignant theatrical pause as Raffles shouts “When are the bottom dancers coming back?” and Mr Eats World and I, hoping we’ve scored a few points with the man upstairs following our earlier church visit, pray for the earth to swallow us up.