Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is the Cook Islands.
The Cook Islands are a Polynesian paradise unspoiled by the modern world, said Anne Cooke at Tribune News Service. Last August, my husband and I headed to this South Pacific nation — a cluster of 15 tiny islands west of Tahiti — "lured by the thought of shimmering blue lagoons, gentle breezes, hometown smiles, and fewer tourist visits per year than Florida's Disney World gets in two days." A friend had cautioned us that the Cooks were 50 years behind the rest of the world. But we weren't looking for spotless luxury. And as our flight from Los Angeles descended over the green volcanic peaks that rise from the main island of Rarotonga, "my first view of the lagoon, its sandy shoreline, scattered roofs, and rows of palms was reassuring."
I figured we'd start our first day cooling off in the lagoon, and maybe "snorkel near the outer reef, where the coral clumps into mounds." But my contact in the tourist office had a request. So before hitting the water, we visited marine environmentalist Kevin Iro to hear about conservation efforts in the Cooks' 770,000-square-mile ocean domain. Our education continued over lunch at one of Rarotonga's many seaside cafés. As I savored a grilled fish sandwich, our tablemates — islanders on a lunch break — described the Cooks' historic ties with New Zealand, where almost all the locals have relatives. At another café, "I was thrilled to sit with people speaking Cook Island Maori, one of the few Polynesian languages still in common use."
Eager to see the rest of Rarotonga, we rented mountain bikes and cycled the island's 20-mile perimeter road, stopping at vista points, looking for craft shops, and waving at friendly passersby. "No visit would be complete without a couple of days on neighboring Aitutaki," so we flew over and booked a cruise around its world-famous lagoon. As we sailed across the fish-filled turquoise waters, our guide peppered us with Maori legends and celebrity anecdotes. On our last evening, we dined at Rarotonga's Plantation House, where chef Minar Henderson serves a feast for 25 guests twice a month. Already swooning over the prawns with lemongrass and the pan-seared mahi-mahi with ginger and garlic, "I was boggle-eyed to find I was sitting next to the prime minister, Henry Puna."