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.