Fwd: Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Tue 11 Jan 2011 03:29

Position Report – 21.12.730S  159.47.917W

Aviatu is the small commercial harbor just outside the capital city of Avarua on Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  It is predominantly used by large cargo ships and military vessels that tie up along the west seawall leaving very little room to maneuver in the harbor.  There are no mooring balls and pleasure yachts tie up stern-to the north side of the dock and set out an anchor to hold them off the cement wall.  There is only room for 12-14 yachts on the dock so the BWR participants had to spread out their arrivals and departures so that everyone could experience this popular stopover on the way to Tonga.  We arrived just as Jackamy, Chsalonina and Blue Magic were leaving so there was plenty of room for Peregrina.
We were definitely looking forward to our arrival in the Cook Islands where English is the predominant language and the prices for just about everything would be much more reasonable than in the French Society Islands. (FSI) The minute we came into the harbor, we could feel the difference between Rarotonga and the FSI that we had left behind.  Avarua was bustling with activity and there was clearly a tourist-y feeling to the area.  While the FSI attract a high-end, luxury travel clientele from around the world who remain pretty much ensconced in their mega resorts and exclusive over-the-water bungalows, here in the Cook Islands, there were all kinds of travelers mingling together.   The majority were from New Zealand and Australia so there were lots of “Hello Mates” cast about…

They ranged from youthful backpackers to families and couples of all ages roaming around the city, spending money in the giftshops, dining in the excellent restaurants or the bargain basement “roach coaches” set up along the harbor, buzzing around on motorscooters or doing the local thing by traveling via buses that constantly circle the 20-square mile island distinguished only by signage noting “Clockwise” or “Anti-Clockwise.”

We booked a motorscooter for two days and the first day, we traversed the entire circumference of the island in a “Clockwise” direction.  The following day, we circled round again going “Anti-Clockwise.”  This way, we figured that we wouldn’t miss a thing on either side of the road.  It was lovely and, actually pretty cool, temperature-wise, compared to the FSI.  We are in the Southern Hemisphere and it’s winter here.  Rarotonga is the furthest south we have ventured.  The days were pleasant enough but the nights got downright cold!  We had to dig out our goosedown comforter that we hadn’t used since we left Miami last January.

Back at the dock, we also had to get use to a constant stream of motorcycles and cars, many filled with families, cruising along the edge of the seawall to take a look at the sailing yachts tied up there.  Apparently, it’s a popular sightseeing activity for the locals to check out the scene at the waterfront.  Since we were tied up stern-to, they got an up close and personal look at our cockpit and most evenings, we had an audience watching us eat dinner or popping our heads out the aft cabin’s overhead hatch cover in the morning.   
I must admit, there were some advantages to this set-up.  One enterprising young man operated Snowbird Laundry, a pick-up service from his cargo van.  Let me state unequivocally…Clean laundry that someone else does for you is worth its weight in gold!  Sometimes we paid the equivalent of gold standard prices for this luxury but, truth be told, hand washing soggy, smelly, downright moldy towels and bed linens in the galley sink is just too much work!  (Was that more information than you needed???)
Anyway, this guy had carved out a niche for himself at the docks and every morning, he would arrive at 8:30am on the dot and we would throw our laundry bags off the stern of the boat to his waiting pushcart.  He’d load it into the van and then would return at 3:30pm on the dot with our clean, folded, sweet-smelling laundry identified by boat name and we’d be on the receiving end of the bag toss this time.  It was a great system!  I loved him…

On Saturday mornings, everyone heads to the Punanga Nui Market (conveniently located right next to the harbor) where fresh produce, bakery goods, delicious take-out foods and island crafts are sold from literally hundreds of stalls under a large stand of Casuarina trees.  It’s one of the best markets in the South Pacific as far as we were concerned and we spent several hours poking around the stalls and exchanging pleasantries with the locals who are just so darn friendly it makes you want to lay down roots here. 

HOWEVER, we did stop by a real estate office (closed on Saturdays, I might add) and we noted a sign on the outside listings display that basically said, and I’m paraphrasing here…. “Dear Foreigner, we know you’d like to move to Rarotonga in a heartbeat but, you can just forget about it.  You must live here at least three years before you can “lease” property because we will never sell it outright to someone who is not a native Cook Islander.  And, don’t even think about living here six months of the year and renting it out during “tourist season” because, we do not like the idea of absentee ownership.  Basically, unless you intend to retire here or you want to operate a full time business, you cannot lease property. Sorry about that!”  Of course, my interpretation is a little harsher than they put it but, the message is still the same.  The Cook Islands are not selling out anytime soon. 
But don’t let that stop you.  This is an amazing place with some of the most beautiful beaches (Muri Beach and my favorite, The Fruits of Rarotonga Beach), spectacular mountains (Peter and our friend Phyllis from Spirit of Nina climbed almost to the top of “The Needle” at Mount Te Rua Manga) and great snorkeling/diving.  The Polynesian dancers here rival anything you might have seen in Tahiti and, it’s hard to believe but they move their hips faster and even more suggestively than anywhere else, plus the music’s louder (deafening comes to mind…)

There are hotels and resorts, bed and breakfasts and hostels to accommodate the most discriminating traveler such as the Pacific Resort Rarotonga which has a wonderful restaurant open to the public and a fabulous “Island Nights” Show to the beach huts and mountain chalet operated by Rarotonga Backpackers – perfect for those on a shoestring budget and great for meeting young people from around the world.  It brought back so many wonderful memories for Peter and me when we stopped by on our round-the- island motorscooter tour.

And then it was Sunday and time to leave…but not before church services at the Cook Islands Christian Church which was built in 1855 and is a lovely white-washed coral structure that was SRO on this beautiful Sunday morning.  We walked to church with John and Gillian from Spirit of Nina and had one moment of panic when, at the entrance we noted a sign saying “Ladies, please wear proper church attire!  No pants, shorts or mini-skirts allowed!”  I was suitably dressed in a conservative skirt and blouse but Gillian had Capri pants on.  God would NOT be pleased!

But, luckily, she was able to improvise with a rain poncho that transformed into a skirt with a few nips and tucks here and there and we were welcomed into the fold.  Seated midway down the nave, we marveled at the assortment of beautiful white straw hats encircled with flowers that the women all wore along with their Sunday best outfits.  The children (from toddlers to teenagers) were hustled towards the front of the church in the center pews surrounded by numerous surrogate mothers who kept them under control with eagle eyes and lots of hugs and kisses.  The men sat together at the back of the church and, apparently, these seating arrangements have existed for generations with the random tourist unknowingly upsetting the pattern by inserting themselves in the thick of things.  But, from the moment the service began, the visitors were welcomed with open arms and gracious “Thanks be to God” for our presence on this day.  It didn’t matter that the sermon was in Maori, the music was the message this morning and it was transcendent.  The standard hymns, in both English and Maori, were displayed on wide screen monitors on both sides of the pulpit, but this was clearly for the benefit of the visitors as everyone in the congregation seemed to know all the words by heart.  The music was sweet and joyful and, as the Maori language vocalizes each and every vowel separately, it is actually not that hard to follow along with the lyrics.  That is, until they came to that part of the service when the “Traditional Maori Hymn” was sung and it was at that moment that the magnificent harmony of the Polynesian voices - both men and women - shook the rafters of the church and brought our hearts to our throats.  It is a sound like nothing you’ve ever heard with back and forth “rounds” designed for sopranos and baritones building with such a visceral fever pitch that you’d think the roof would blow with an explosion of musical notes gently falling on your body and resting in your soul.  It was sort of a born-again “Dueling Banjos” but, this time, with voices sent from heaven.  We were astounded and, when it was over, we were literally spent from just listening.  I will never forget that feeling…

And then, we were invited back to the Fellowship Hall for some light refreshments which turned out to be a 30 foot long buffet with fruits and baked goods and cheeses and sandwiches and a host of church elders eager to introduce themselves to us and answer questions about their church and the Cook Islands.  It was a very special day.  But, it was time to move on as we were at the end of the fleet and had to catch up with our Blue Water buddies so, as much as we would have liked to stay, we had to say “Here Today, Gone to Niue!”

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