Polynesian Adventure: Reminiscing the Best Memories of My Vacation

Yvonne Pipkin

© Copyright 2023 by Yvonne Pipkin

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author

If you wanted to vacation on an island in the South Pacific, which island would you pick to visit? Would it be: Tahiti, Figi, Tonga, or Cook Islands?

We decided to vacation in the tropical Cook Islands. Notice I say islands as plural. There are 15 islands that comprise the Cook Islands. We chose to stay on the main island which is Rarotonga. It is the capital and the largest of the islands.

We (my husband, Gary, and two teenage sons) looked forward to enjoying the beaches, learning about Polynesian culture, and sightseeing on a volcanic island.

Our Arrival in Rarotonga

It had been a long flight of 16 hours from Seattle. Needless to say, we were tired. As soon as we landed, we made our way to The Rarotongan Resort Hotel in a cab and checked into our two ground-level beachfront rooms. All we could think of was to head for the beach just outside our hotel door to soak up the sun and feel the ocean breeze which would be refreshing and calming.

All four of us plopped down our towels on the beach and slowly sank into oblivion. Unwelcome raindrops lightly falling brought us to life. Then the raindrops came rushing down on us. We grabbed our towels and dashed to our hotel room. This was July and it is supposed to be the dry season. No matter, we were all tired and went to bed around 4 pm local time. Besides, we needed to quickly adjust to the time zone change.

Let the Sightseeing Begin

We had planned to rent some bicycles but the weather forecast in the daily paper delivered to our hotel door said “mostly fine.” We were skeptical after experiencing rain upon our arrival.

We realized we should go to Plan B. So, Gary went and rented a jeep. After renting the jeep, he had to get a license to drive a motor vehicle in the Cook Islands. Furthermore, Gary had to remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road, British style, for 7 days.

Countryside: Now we were set to go sightseeing and headed inward on the island. We observed the locals lived in small homes with few conveniences. Their laundry hung outdoors to dry. We saw the livestock tied up to trees alongside the road. Seeing the volcano from a distance was impressive. I loved all the tall palm trees.

Town: After seeing the countryside, we drove into town. We stopped at the Beachcomber which is a historical site built in 1843. Originally, it was a school for missionaries’ children and was remodeled into a pearl and gift shop in 1992. It is located at Cooks Corner.

Shopping Mall: We stopped at Cook Island’s only shopping mall consisting of seven businesses. We were pleasantly surprised to see a coffee shop and their coffee beans are locally grown. Being from Seattle, we love our coffee. A tip is to always carry the local currency which is New Zealand dollars.

Museum: To gather some history and the flavor of the Cook Islands, we toured the National Museum. It was small but packed with history.

History Lesson 1: Where were the Cook Islands' first inhabitants from?

I was intrigued with the possibility the Cook Islands may have originally been the home to pirates. It was plausible because when have you heard there is more than one island?

Anthropologists formerly believed that around AD 1000 Polynesians wandered from Tahiti and settled on Rarotonga when seafarers became lost and drifted to uninhabited shores. Now anthropologists believe Polynesians deliberately migrated to the Pacific Ocean islands.

According to local legend, Polynesians purposefully traveled in open canoes from the original home of Hawaiki (location is unknown) to the islands in the Pacific Ocean. After death, the spirits of Polynesian people return to Hawaiki. Darn, no pirates.

We were intrigued when we saw the canoe, Maire Nui. It was one of the four canoes for the Thorhideoll Research study regarding the origins of the natives arriving at the Cook Islands. This canoe was sailed from Mauke to Rarotonga for the opening of the festival in October 1992.

History Lesson 2: The Name, Cook Islands

Why were the islands named Cook Islands? I would think the islands would have a Polynesian name.

What happened is this. In 1773 and 1777, British sailor Captain James Cook landed and named the islands "Hervey Islands" in honor of a British Lord of the Admiralty. However, a half-century later, the islands were renamed the Cook Islands by the Russian-Baltic German Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern in honor of Cook.

Wait! According to a native islander, “the Islands real name is and still to this day is named Hawaiki-nui long before white man step foot on the land.”

Lagoon Cruise: We had an unforgettable half-day on a Glass Bottom Cruise traversing the Muri Lagoon. It was bewitching to watch the ocean from the glass-bottom boat and see tropical fish. Everyone on board was invited to snorkel.

Author’s photos: My two sons underwater looking up through the bottom of the glass-bottom boat. A view of the ocean looking down through the glass-bottom boat.

On top of that, we anchored at a small island to have a BBQ fresh fish lunch accompanied by native salads, fried tree-ripened bananas, and tropical punch. Yum!

Sunday: On Sunday it is quiet with generally not much happening since all the town shops are closed, but a few local shops may be open during certain hours. There are some activities and the hotels are open all day for all their guests' needs.

Visitors are welcome to attend a church service. The oldest church on Rarotonga is the Cook Islands Christian Church and is the main denomination.

We spent most of the day enjoying the beach and the water activities.

Island Tours: The Cultural Village Tour is a three-hour cultural experience. It was a wonderful way to quickly get immersed in the local culture.

Even though the native language of the Cook Islands is Maori, everyone speaks English.

Trader Jacks – We were so surprised when we saw Trader Jacks restaurant and bar on the waterfront at Avarua in Rarotonga. Why? Trader Jacks is a restaurant chain in the U.S. Did we eat there? We did and loved it.

Here’s an interesting and true story about the origin of Trader Jacks in Rarotonga which is the first restaurant on a waterfront in Cook Islands.

It so happens the founder’s first name was Jack. Jack Cooper was born in New Zealand.

A company headhunter offered Jack a job in 1983 to help turn around a hotel having problems on the southwest coast of Rarotonga. Jack loved challenges and accepted the offer.

That sounds straightforward. Wrong! Just 8 weeks after Jack arrived in Rarotonga, the United States management company ousted him because the U.S. did not want any interference in their operation.

Jack stayed in Rarotonga and went into a restaurant partnership with a friend for a couple of years, thinking about his future. Jack was successful but he wanted to achieve more in life. He realized the following.

There was always something I just couldn’t figure out about the Cook Islands. It was surrounded by water but there were few watering holes to actually sit down and drink and watch the ocean, the sunrise or sunset, or just contemplate the waves out on the reef. That was what tourists wanted, but it felt like no one provided it.”

Jack now had a vision and began taking action. After looking and asking around, Jack finally discovered the ideal plot of land right on the shore practically in the center of town.

However, there was a gotcha. In the Cook Islands, it is impossible to truly own property on your own; you must either lease it or obtain an allocation through family ownership. How did Jack deal with this? It was pure luck.

Jack negotiated a 60-year lease directly with the Cook Islands Investment Corporation (CIIC). Why was he allowed to negotiate? Well, this plot of property at the very head of Avarua Harbour was reclaimed, meaning no families had ever owned it. Score!

Jack’s restaurant was built in six months. Just six weeks before the opening on June 6, 1986, he needed a name. Now, what would be the name?

General traders are popular throughout the Pacific, and a few Trader brand names were already in use, with Trader Joe's in the United States being the biggest. There was also a Trader Vics in Rarotonga. Jack liked the thought of naming his restaurant and bar Trader Jacks, and so he did.

The Cook Islanders

The warmth and spontaneity of Cook Islanders' hospitality, along with their dynamic dancing, created a laid-back atmosphere and a memorable experience for us.

Their culture is unspoiled by the turmoil of the outside world. Songs, dance, and a relaxed pace of life continue to preserve their Polynesian heritage.

Rarotonga is one of the last remnants of a Polynesian culture dating from the 1950s and earlier. To this day nothing has been updated to the 20th century's expectations.

The survival of the Islanders depends heavily on coconuts, which provide water, meat, oil, and medicinal value. The Islanders cook with coconut, eat coconut, drink coconut as a juice or milk, and wash clothes in coconut. In fact, everything smells like coconut. Therefore, you better like coconut and not be allergic to it.

Parting Comments

We had a fun-filled and adventure-packed vacation. It turns out it was a wise decision to rent a jeep because it did rain every day. The local newspaper stated the weather to be “mostly fine” each day and we would chuckle. On our last day, the newspaper stated the weather as “some rain.”

It was fun riding in the jeep, more so than riding bikes. We became very familiar with Rarotonga because it took only 45 minutes to drive around the island.

Oh, did I forget to mention that we went to the Cook Islands in July of 1994?

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