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Once offering luxury only to honeymooners seeking seclusion, the Cook Islands are now dishing up the perfect recipe for a five star family break.

WORDS: Hilary Doling

Almost as soon as we land Aunty Nane garlands our necks with frangipanis, then envelops us in an embrace so expansive that she somehow manages to enfold all three of us at the same time. Her hair is crowned with a flowery ‘ei tatu, her voluminous mui mui billows as she directs us towards our hire car. Official greeter-and-Cook–Islandspersonality, the irrepressible Nane sets the scene for what is to follow.

There are a lot of ‘aunties’ in the Cook Islands; the word is a term of respect for the island matrons. As we wander around the stalls at Punanga Nui Saturday market we are greeted by other local ladies all of whom wear capacious coloured kaftans and equally wide smiles. It is hard for our family not to feel at home when everyone is an ‘aunty’.

The main island of Rarotonga is a friendly place, perhaps because tourism is still low key. There are no tower blocks here, no chain hotels and not a lot of paved roads either.

The road that rings the tiny island is tarmacked, but venture inward to the island’s mountainous heart and the asphalt gives up.

Not that it matters because everything you really need is on that ribbon of road: sapphire-blue lagoon swimming, silvery beaches, beachside restaurants and, more recently, five star family luxuries.

We drive around the entire island in 45 minutes and don’t see a single building ‘higher than a coconut tree’ because that’s the local rule. Instead we see coloured houses like Lego blocks, roadside stalls and iridescent turquoise water.



Nautilus Resort where we are staying has snorkel equipment and kayaks on site, so getting into the shallow lagoon is just a matter of walking a few steps across the sand. Families can even take a picnic and explore the deserted island off shore. When the sun goes down, Ariki Holidays has a 90-minute paddle board tour with special LEDs on the board which spotlights the night-time lagoon. “Wake up Dory,” says one little girl on our tour as the blue glow illuminates the fish.

For a slightly less tranquil water experience, Rongohiva Watersports in downtown Avarua offers speed boats and banana boat rides as well as organised snorkel tours.

However, the ultimate water experience has to be a day trip to Aitutaki.

This island is known for its honeymoon options, but its 50 square kilometres of warm lagoon make it a must for families. A day trip from Rarotonga domestic airport will have you winging your way to Aitutaki and aboard a local Vaka sea craft before you can say “snorkel”. And snorkelling is what this day is all about; even novices will be finding Nemo in no time. The Vaka stops off at tiny islands en route; our favourite is One Foot Island where children can get their passport stamped with the imprint of toes.


On day three the clouds begin to gather and our endless blue horizon turns grey – and we don’t mind at all, because Raro’ is that rare thing: a paradise with plenty to do. A round-island tour on one of Tik-e Tours’ little orange tuk-tuks is great fun. Our guide takes us to Tinomana Palace, the botanic gardens, a banjo-making factory and an organic coconut plant. We also drive past tiny farms in the foothills of the mountain and learn that baby bananas grow upwards first (who knew?).

Adventurous families can join Coconut Quad Adventure Tours for an adrenalinepumping off-road ride in the Turangi Valley. I count it a point of pride as we splash through a stream that my teenage son riding pillion actually says, “Mum, slow down.”

Other ways to explore the interior include buggy rides or a guided hike from one side of the island to the other, which takes you right to the top of the cloud-shrouded summit. Raro Safari Tours will also take you to a private picnic spot with a close-up view of the Te Rua Manga (The Needle) rock formation.

High in the hills is also where we find the last village settlement on Rarotonga. The Highland Paradise Cultural Centre was created by the Tinomana tribe, and the moment we arrive, drums start to beat out a rhythm. After a village tour, a spiritual marae tapu ceremony and a traditional umu feast, we watch the E Matike dance troupe stamp their feet to the sound of the drums.

This article appeared in volume 8 of Five Star Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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