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Australia’s major papers all ran photos of a beaming Prime Minister Gillard enjoying the biggest lift in her leadership to date as she rode high on a ceremonial throne (called a pa’ata) through welcoming crowds at the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga last week. Savvy Australian travellers are also finding plenty to smile about when they visit this gorgeous, yet largely undiscovered holiday gem, now less than a six hour direct flight from Sydney.
Where exactly are the Cook Islands?
This modern Polynesian nation of 15 islands is scattered across 2 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean midway between New Zealand and Hawaii, six hours north east of Australia, flanked by Samoa to the west and Tahiti to the east.
Rarotonga – a spectacular island of lush mountain peaks dropping to a reef-encircled turquoise lagoon – is the most populated island (10,000 residents) and the capital of the Cook Islands (total population 15,000). This is where the international airport is and the main town of Avarua. Though self governing, the nation has close links with New Zealand (including great value NZ$ currency) and a high standard of living. Both English and Cook Islands Maori are widely spoken.
How do you get to the Cook Islands from Australia?
Last year Air New Zealand introduced direct flights between Sydney and Rarotonga on Saturdays and has just introduced Seats to Suit on the route, with fares starting at $320 one way for travel from 3 November. The flight takes just under six hours. There are also services via Auckland with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia.
How many Australians are visiting?
20,565 in the year ended June 2012 (up 22% on the previous year and 40% on 2010.)
More than 112,000 international visitors arrived in 2011, mainly from New Zealand, and tourism is vital to the economy contributing around 65% of GDP.
What can visitors do?
At just 32km in circumference, Rarotonga – or colloquially ‘Raro’ – feels like one big resort. Lazily admire some of the world’s best beaches (Trip Advisor recently named 3 in its top 10 for the Pacific) or actively explore the exquisite lagoon by kayak, kite surf or with a snorkel. It’s balmy year round.
Venture beyond the reef to exhilarating diving, deep sea fishing and cruising. Hike or 4WD into forested highlands, enjoy the Cooks’ renowned dancing and drumming at a cultural show, scooter around the island’s markets and galleries, or relax in the beachside bars and open air nightclubs.
Many consider the local cuisine to be the best of the Pacific Islands, with abundant seafood and locally grown fruit and vegetables featuring on the menus of more than 50 inexpensive restaurants.
The Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ retreat was held on the coral atoll of Aitutaki, a 45 minute flight north. Aitutaki is even more achingly beautiful, boasting arguably the most spectacular lagoon in the world. Aitutaki (population 1600) simply exudes romance and is a magnet for wedding parties and honeymooners. Snorkel, dive, kayak or swim in the exquisitely coloured lagoon and its many dazzling white sand motus (islets). Other popular diversions are kite surfing, bonefishing or lagoon cruises – get your passport stamped at One Foot Island – or delving into Aitutaki’s interesting history on a cultural or 4WD tour.
When is the best time to visit?
The Cook Islands enjoy a pleasantly warm and sunny climate all year round. The temperature seldom drops below 25°C and the lagoon is always warm and free of stingers. June to August are the cooler months, whilst November to March marks the warmer season, with occasional tropical showers expected. It is also known as cyclone season – something to be aware of although not necessarily a deterrent as they are not a regular occurrence.
The drier months, from April to November, have an average of about 26°C, whilst the warmer, more humid and damp season runs from December to March. During this season the temperature ranges between 22°C (min) and 30°C (max).