The Farthermost Seas of the South Pacific

The Cook Islands

The South Pacific appears on my desktop globe as a swathe of blue speckled with distant dots of land. The 15 Cook Islands are some 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand and 3,000 south of Hawaii. 700 miles east lies the nearest neighbor, Tahiti. These isolated outposts at the end of the Earth make the great expanse of South Pacific, if nothing else, a convenient location for the mapmaker’s logo.

My wife, Jessie, and I visited three of the Cook Islands on our honeymoon. The main island, Rarotonga, and two outer islands: Aitutaki and Atiu.

The islands are not crumbs of continents that drifted over a Tectonic timescale. Bursting tens of thousands of feet from the ocean floor, these volcanoes are among the highest peaks on Earth. (Mauna Kea, the Big Island of Hawaii claims the title for tallest mountain in the world, from base to peak.) 

Some of these volcanoes receded into the ocean over tens of millions of years and no longer exist. Atolls, ring-shaped islands composed of islets connecting around central lagoon like a string of pearls, formed from the coral reef that once circled a volcano. Today, this ring remains like a chalk outline of the volcano’s body. Aitutaki is a partial atoll. The Northern Group, with the exception of Nassau Island, are all atolls. 

During the planning phase, I corresponded with David Stanley, the author of the Moon South Pacific Handbook. The South Pacific Handbook is the definitive travel resource for the region. As publication ceased in 2004, this might be the best book for a generation. Given the scope of coverage both, geographic and cultural, it belongs in the cannon of South Pacific writing. The words within describe a quarter of the planet’s surface in 900 pages, covering history, travel guidance, and an unfiltered look at contemporary South Pacific society.

I asked David if he could recommend gifts to bring as our visit coincided with Christmas. He suggested military-style pocket can openers. I couldn’t find any in the days before our departure, so I settled on bottle openers and pencils from an NYC tourist shop: I heart New York logo pencils and Statue of Liberty bottle openers that freed beer. As a bonus, I brought my favorite can opener as a special gift, the EZ-Duz-It Made in USA special. It proclaims itself the world’s best can opener and screams America louder than a bald eagle flying in front of the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July. Regardless of its provenance, it is an exemplary can opener.               

Introduction to the Islands

You see the tallest building in the Islands immediately upon arriving in Rarotonga—the air traffic control tower. We took the once-weekly overnight flight from L.A., via New York, and were greeted at the international terminal by Jake Numunga serenading us on guitar with Polynesian songs, and customs dogs sniffing our stuff. We retrieved our bags, got a trolley and wheeled over to the Air Rarotonga terminal for the flight to Aitutaki.

Once there, two guys weighed our bags on a manual scale like fruit market tomatoes, and gave us a slip of a paper for a boarding pass. There is no security.

The open air Air Rarotonga lounge—a cross between a bus station and a Southern California high school courtyard—introduced us to island fashion. NFL and NBA jerseys were the rage, with Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls jersey the most common example. (Remaindered stock specials?) The national dress for 20-something guys in the Cooks was shorts, a basketball jersey and flip flops. I left a Mets t-shirt at home thinking I would look out of place (probably a better gift idea than can openers). I saw a woman wearing a Brooklyn Nets t-shirt. I pointed to her shirt and told her we were from Brooklyn. She blushed and said she was from Sydney.

Nearly everyone in the islands wore flip flops. The CITC (Cook Islands Trading Corporation) department store in downtown Avarua might carry the largest selection of flip-flops on the planet.


The flight from Raro to Aitutaki took a one hour hop in a prop plane. The passengers consisted of locals heading back to the island for the holidays with gifts and bulk necessities like 12-packs of toilet paper, and us. 

We were met by the hotel driver at the airport and draped in flower leis like a medal ceremony. Though the quintessential honeymoon sacrament, the display made me feel self-conscious as we wanted to avoid looking like tourists. But, in the Cooks it’s sometimes hard to tell visitors from locals. The locals haven’t been forced into cultural self-awareness by the imitation of too many tourists reflecting customs back to their creators like mirrors. The Cooks are islands that were described to me by a man born and raised on Hawaii as the Aloha State 50 years ago; the outer islands 100 years.

(When we left Aitutaki we again received flower leis. A guy on our flight donned a dozen around his neck like a Polynesian Mr. T.)

We stayed a few wonderfully uneventful days in Aitutaki at a small set of villas on the lagoon. Reception was an open hut with a side room for periodicals and DVD’s to borrow. The villas faced the ocean. Cats roamed throughout the property.

Aitutaki is known for its world-class lagoon. In the 1950’s the lagoon functioned as a seaplane refueling stopover for the Coral Route across the South Pacific. Today, Aitutaki is the second most visited Cook Island.

A teardrop shaped landmass—containing the only settled population— and some islets encircle the lagoon. The main town is small and dusty with a community center and small general store carrying typical outer islands fair with a touch more tourist regalia. We biked to the town and took taxis to dinner.

On a ride to dinner one evening, we made conversation with a couple from Sydney, Australia. Kris, a Belgium native; and Hayley, from Australia. We introduced ourselves and asked them to join us at our table. At first, they demurred for the sake of our honeymoon. However, we would be spending the next two weeks traveling together as a couple, so we welcomed the company.

We learned Hayley was making a go of it as a country singer, a more impressive fact once I learned the couple met at Accenture, a consultancy best known to the outside world for its advertisements featuring Tiger Woods. (Businesses appealing to golfers don’t usually inspire pop princesses, so she deserved extra credit.) She sheepishly revealed her dreams of country stardom figuring two New Yorkers might not find it cool. Jessie let her know that her dad played guitar in a bluegrass band (not sure it stuck, but she got the idea).

We first me the couple earlier that day on a snorkeling excursion run by a local outfit, named for and run by Teking. Teking’s beat up boat zipped us across the lagoon to various snorkeling spots and motus (islets), skipping across the waters, dodging chunks of coral dunked in the lagoon by memory map. A less sure skipper could have slammed the boat into the sharp coral, capsizing us. Our crew was a collection of ten 30-somethings, all European, and us.

Teking sold water and “local beer” onboard, Heineken. (First time he used that line I’m sure.) Beer for us, a loaf of bread for the fish. Teking leaned over the boat and tossed us snorkelers slices and urged us to stick them in our mouths. We watched the fish swim towards us to grab the bread from our gums. Giant trevally, big fat fish the size of skateboards, lulled past inspecting us. The blue and green water, a mottled mix of tropical shades from the light refracting off the coral formations, spread before a coconut tree covered horizon. My wife remarked that the scene looked like a computer screen-saver.

We visited a couple of small islets where we could play castaway for a few moments before jumping back onto the boat. I tried to open a coconut on one of these stopovers. The only thing I managed to cut open was myself.

Fish proliferate. Aitutaki is known as one of the best bonefishing spots on the planet. A Patagonia sponsored documentary called, Itu’s Bones, follows a local guide and the effects of ecotourism on his livelihood.

For lunch, we visited a small island owned by Teking. I expected sandwiches, an apple, and chips for lunch. Instead we were treated to a feast of pineapple, curried chicken, plantains, papaya, and pork served in heaping quantities from giant clam shells. The assembled picnic tables and primitive campsite location made me want to pitch a tent and spend the next two weeks there doing nothing but living a fantasy.

We said goodbye to Aitutaki and the Australians the next morning when we flew to Rarotonga. They stayed there; we flew on to Atiu. (Haley came to the states in October. She visited Nashville for a recording session, then came north to New York. Kris joined her in town for some sightseeing and to propose marriage. She accepted! A few days later they visited our place to carve jack-o-lanterns—a first for them. I’m not sure how they’ll top the Cook Islands when they decide on a honeymoon destination.)


Only 400 people live on Atiu, in five villages concentrated in the center of the island. There is one takeout place and a couple of small shops that stock the same stuff: canned food, ice cream, soda, sweets, and rolls of floral fabric.

While food for purchase is limited, locally raised food supplements diets. Fruits, taro for starch, pigs, goats, fish, crabs, and greens abound. (However, the Cooks have some of the highest incidence of diabetes anywhere in the world. Soda doesn’t grow on trees.)

Jackie from Atiu villas met us at the airport and draped us with the now familiar flower leis. She toured us around the island in a Toyota pickup for a few minutes, then took us uphill to our home for the next four days.

The Atiu Villas are an institution in the Cooks. The proprietor of 30 years, Roger Malcolm, was away when we stayed. His friend Jim oversaw the property in his absence. A native of Hawaii of European descent, Jim had recently retired as the owner of the Shipwreck bar in Raro. An expatriate from American Polynesia, he compared Atiu to Hawaii 100 years before.

The Villas were A-frame cabins with back porches overlooking the island’s only swimming pool and the dense rainforest interior beyond. The intense humidity made for great photos. It gave off a glow that rendered our skin like a photoshopped magazine cover of BeyoncĂ©.

There were no locks on the doors. Bundled mosquito netting hung from the ceiling above the beds. The intricate knots used to tie them up made the white netting look like chandeliers.

The Villas had the welcoming feel of a hostel, especially the main dining pavilion that was festooned with flags of many nations and had enough picnic table seating for half the island. The dining area overlooked a tennis court famous for its grass skirt net. Drinks at the Island’s only bar preceded the daily dinner offering. A larder in each room stocked with coffee, tea, crackers, cheese, beer, wine, and eggs supplied our other meals. Lunches consisted of cabin bread, canned tuna or sardines on biscuits, pepperoni, and fruits, all grown on the property: passion fruit, paw paw (papaya), and pineapple.

On Christmas eve morning, we took a tour with Marshall Humphries, a New Zealand native married to a local woman named Jeanne Humphries. After a career in hotel management, Marshall settled with his wife in the Cooks. Marshall’s son was due to move back to Atiu from New Zealand a few days before. However, the barge carrying a shipping container with the entire contents of their entire house, sank. (This was the only inter-islands barge. One of the two inter-island ships was moored in Rarotonga with motor problems.) The sunken barge took all their possessions, and seven tombstones to a deep-sea grave.

The period between Christmas and New Year’s is homecoming time in the Cooks. Reunions, weddings, and ceremonial tombstone unveilings— sometimes three or four scheduled at once—jam together. As families lay claim to all plots of land, the last resting places are often in the front yard of the family home. The elaborate displays follow a similar design: the stones feature a glossy, marbled picture of a smiling senior citizen (wearing a flower lei if female) with an inscription below. The tombstone sits atop an elevated concrete burial platform. Often, a canopy erected above makes the structure look like a Victorian bed of granite. (During the holiday period, one prominent site in Rarotonga had functioning Christmas lights strung along the canopy.)

Marshall’s wife, Jeanne, was the daughter of Tom Neale, the Hermit of Suwarrow, who lived alone on that island for many years. His book, An Island to Oneself documents the first two stints on Suwarrow, from 1952-1954 and 1960-1964. Marshall didn’t have much to say about Neale other than his role as a father was biological only. He probably suffered from undiagnosed PTSD from World War II as did many servicemen at the time, he said.

Marshall escorted us to three caves in the island’s interior that functioned as burying grounds well before tombstones became the custom. We didn’t have to descend far beyond the cave entrances to see skulls and bones laid out on the dirt surface. While dead for centuries, the displays of perfect pearly whites set in the skulls made me jealous.

The second half of the tour took us to a large amphitheater-like cave that is the only known habitat of the Kopeka bird. The species navigates the darkest areas of the cave by echolocation—the only avian species to do so.

(A week later in Rarotonga we bought a painting by Marshall’s wife of a giant trevally—the same big fish we saw snorkeling in Aitutaki. The work was the first piece of art Jessie and I bought together. Thanks to David Stanley I knew to avoid bargaining in the Cooks, but the New Yorker in me couldn’t resist. Though you can ask about “specials,” I thought that would be the wrong approach for artwork. So, I tried the “can you do any better” routine. It didn’t work.)

Carving out a new beer barrel.
The evening after the tour, Jim from the Villas took us to a Tumunu to hang out with a bunch of welcoming local guys. A half-dozen of these bush beer huts operated on the island, the Cook Islander’s version of a social club.

Home brewed beer with a hint of citrusy spice was served from a coconut husk that looked like a pointy shot glass. The shell was dipped in a beer bucket, handed to a participant to drain, and repeated by the next person. Taro, salted fish, and pork cracklins were laid out on a small table in front of us. I caught the English name of the club as Big Nut Boys. I winked an “oh yeah!” to my wife. (I soon learned that “Big Night Boys” was the proper name, but the way I heard it wasn’t such a bad thing, right?)

On our way out, the Toyota pickup we took there wouldn’t start. When a washing machine breaks down in the United States, you call the Maytag repairman. On an outer island in the Cooks, you throw it away. I detected a dysfunctional undercurrent to life on the islands, maybe on account of this jury-rigged nature of living at the end of the Earth. You can’t call a repairman or run to the hardware store to fix things. And who can afford to consider a large appliance disposable?

So, we ditched the pickup. Jim called for a ride on a scooter. We decided to walk back to the Villas. We stopped by a Christmas show on the way, hoping for a traditional dance. It turned out to be a kids’ pageant, the kind with earnest off-key singing and costumed children shuffling on and off the stage from one skit to the next.

We left after a half-hour and watched the remainder from outside. We met a woman standing next to us from Sydney who had returned to her home island to get married that Wednesday. She invited us to the wedding ceremony.

We were honored, but didn’t feel that special a moment later when she said the whole island would be there whether invited or not. We gave her our regrets. Too bad, the can opener would have made for a most elegant wedding gift.

The next day we attended Christmas service at the Cook Islands Community Church. We walked a sweaty half-mile from Atiu Villas. We arrived just in time for the service and didn’t have the nerve to turn on the wall fan nearest us. The beautiful ethereal singing that announced the start of the service soon made us forget the heat. My wife felt compelled to surreptitiously record the chorus in her purse, echoing my thoughts. Thunderous appeals by the preacher in Maori interspersed the singing.

A family of six from the hostel attended the service too: husband and wife, their son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The mother was an Atiu native. The Australian father, a boilermaker, ran a business out of Melbourne that specialized in servicing breweries; his son was poised to take over the company.

After church, the mother invited us to Christmas dinner with family in the village. Though we wanted to join them we decided to hit the beach instead. Though a tough decision, it rained much of our time in Atiu making Christmas our only beach day. (If we changed our itinerary, we would have spent more days in Atiu and less in Rarotonga.)

Besides a small harbor, the entire Atiu coastline is undeveloped beach. A dirt road followed behind the dunes. Here we found the greatest of secluded spots in the world. The trick was getting there.

The baby blue clear water afforded an open view of aquatic environment before us. Turd-like sea cucumbers sat on the seabed interspersed among the corals. The sea cucumbers helped filter the water by extracting algae and other micronutrients and purging pure sand, giving the water its glassine clarity. I saw few urchins; their overabundance is often the scourge of coral reef ecosystems.

The islands we visited were ringed by coral reefs a mile or so from shore. The waves crashed on the corals with the cumulative force of thousands of miles of open ocean. Continuous sets of six foot waves barreled on the reef in an endless loop. The distant boom and roll played like a sleep inducing soundtrack back on the beach. Despite the big waves, the only surfboards I saw were plastic refrigerator magnets at a gift shop in Rarotonga.

Returning from the deserted beach on Christmas day, I decided to take a shortcut. The path lead through a coral forest that looked like a bomb had a hit a parking garage, leaving sofa-sized rocks strewn about the bush. I was convinced they were concrete ruins of WWII vintage, but the coral continued as we walked and my common sense restored itself.

Our short cut turned into a long cut. As we traipsed along overgrown roads, my wife threatened to divorce me. But what is a honeymoon without at least one good threat like that? We made it in time for Christmas dinner at the Villas with guests, staff, and their children, but missed grace. The Christmas feast included all the fixings; turkey, ham, and canned cranberry sauce. I donated one of the sausages I packed for the trip and walked around slicing half-inch thick man slices—as my wife calls them—of pepperoni goodness.

After dinner, I did stupid magic tricks for the kids like making a water glass disappear. (Big reveal: put an upside-down glass on a table, place a piece of newspaper over it, and shape it over the glass. Slide it around the table top and drop the glass in your lap while the paper retains the form of the glass. Then, dramatically smash down the paper. Ta-da! A moment later reveal the intact glass.) And levitating. (Truly magical, though much harder to pull off in flip flops.)

We became friendly with the staff during our stay; Jackie wore many hats and came across as refreshingly cynical for the Cooks. Like many islanders, she received her education in New Zealand. She returned to her native Atiu to make $6 an hour helping run the residence as a twenty-something with a two-year old. She was gracious enough to take a picture of me looking silly on one of their rental scooters. (Though her lesson was helpful, I never made it out of the driveway.)

Andrew served as the island’s only bartender and offered fishing tours for guests. Though he didn’t drink, I gave him a statue of liberty keychain bottle opener which I’m sure he somewhat appreciated. I gave the Statue of Liberty pencils to the kids. Five-year olds generally don’t get too pumped about pencils, but I tried.

Of the guests, a favorite was Kim, an affably fat founder a medical device company in Montana. Upon selling the business and retiring, he decided to spend three months on an island to improve his health. Out of all the places in the world, he chose Atiu. (It is one of those places.) He was interested in New York City politics and keen to hear my thoughts. Unfortunately, we were interrupted by the more extreme views of an aging bald guy from Saskatchewan with a central casting Canadian accent. A Jim groupie, he hung out at Jim’s former bar in Raro and it sounded like he only came to Atiu to linger around Jim (though I am not sure Jim returned the love). We later saw him holding down the fort at Jim’s old bar a week later in Raro.

I don’t know if Kim’s health improved after spending three months in Atiu, but with all the walking he did, I wouldn’t be surprised if they named a new trail after him.

The next morning, Boxing Day, we left for Rarotonga. One of the Big Night Boys checked us in at the Atiu airport. I was impressed he remembered my name (I had forgotten his) but then again, he took our tickets. The airport boasted a ridiculous sign that I didn’t bother photographing as I figured it could be easily found on the internet. Of course, this was probably the last airport where anyone would care about carrying a bazooka aboard. (It would fit nicely in the aisle.)

The Cooks in Literature

Tom Neale wasn’t the first writer to stay on the island of Suwarrow. Robert Dean Frisbie, the doyen of South Seas writers from the Western World, lived with his family on the island in 1942. Frisbie’s most famous tale tells the story of his family’s stay on Suwarrow, recounted in the book The Island of Desire (though the title refers to the island of Pukapuka).

When Frisbie returned to the States after serving in World War I, his doctor advised him to relocate to a place where he could flee the cold that took the blame for his ailments. He chose Tahiti.

Few American expatriates settled in Polynesia 100 years ago. Connections with follow countrymen were quickly made. Frisbie befriended the author James Norman Hall, who co-authored the Bounty trilogy with Charles Nordoff.

Hall and Frisbie remained friends for over 25 years, until Frisbie’s death in 1948 from Tuberculosis. Hall details their friendship through a series of letters between the two in the “Frisbie of Danger Island” entry in his book, The Forgotten One and Other True Tales of the South Seas.

Frisbie and four of his children.
Frisbie arrived in Pukapuka in 1924 to administer the trading station on the island for A.B. Donald & Company. The job couldn’t have been too demanding—a supply ship only visited the island once or twice per year. (Their frequency today isn’t dramatically different. Air Rarotonga offers no regularly scheduled flights for the four-hour trip. When they do occur, cheaper flights can be found to Sydney. The monthly, five-day voyage on the interisland ferry charges similarly high fees.)

For all its remoteness, Frisbie found Pukapuka overcrowded. He often fled to the uninhabited islets of the atoll to escape from his escape. (His anxieties weren’t far-fetched; most of the island’s 500 inhabitants settled on a 0.5 square mile horseshoe of land.)

Frisbie lived in Pukapuka from 1924-1928 and again from 1934-1938. Despite his need for solitude, he met his wife, Ngatokorua, there. Her name could be translated as “Desire.” They had five children together.

Frisbie opens his first book, The Book of Puka-Puka (sic) in 1929, with a description of the drive that propelled him to the remotest corner of the Earth.

“Since childhood I have always liked to reach the end of things, finding a curious fascination in walking to the farthest point of a promontory, in climbing to the top of a mountain, or exploring the headwaters of a river.” “I have wandered on…to strange and lonely places dear to my own heart, hidden in the farthermost seas. Such a place, I knew, was the atoll Puka-Puka.”

It was 35 years into my life before I read this passage. I can’t remember anything coming close to speaking to my travel philosophy and yearnings of adventure.

Frisbie made his first visit to Suwarrow (he spelled it Suvarrow) with his new wife. He called the island “the loveliest, loneliest atoll in the South Pacific.” Not much was written about the first visit.

After his wife died of Tuberculosis in 1939, he returned with four of his children on New Year’s Day 1942. A hurricane hit a few days after their arrival. Frisbie details the event in The Island of Desire and letters to Hall. Their tale of survival is one of the great stories of the South Seas. While the hurricane obliterated the island, the Frisbies survived by lashing themselves twenty feet up a tree. The force of the gales tore the clothing from their bodies, otherwise they endured unscathed. The Frisbie family remained on Suwarrow for three months following the storm.

In 1943, the family settled in Rarotonga. Besides a sojourn to American Samoa for medical treatment, Frisbie spent the remainder of his life there.

During this stay in Rarotonga, the lives of Frisbie and Tom Neale interconnected. Neale became fascinated by Frisbie’s tales of Suwarrow, setting in motion what would become Neale’s legacy as the Hermit of Suwarrow. Frisbie had been dead four years when Neale finally made it to his island paradise in 1952.

The larder in our room at the Atiu Villas included a couple of books for perusing and purchase. I picked up From Kauri Trees to Sunlit Seas by Don Silk, the longtime harbormaster at Avatiu Harbor in Rarotonga and one-time owner of Silk & Boyd shipping.

Silk recounts his adventures from four decades sailing in the South Pacific. He operated the main inter-island shipping operation in the Cook Islands in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The Cooks are a ten-day trip from New Zealand and another ten days to the Northern Group. Moving cargo to the far ends of the world was met by Silk with the typical nonchalance I came to expect in the Cooks. One photo shows a Toyota pickup transported to shore by two longboats, with one axel in each hull.

On a stop at the island of Mangaia, an engineer named Jimmy lost an arm. As the ship approached the island, a rope lodged in the propeller. Jimmy leapt overboard to free the rope and prevent the vessel from slamming into the reef. Unfortunately, the ship collided with a nearby barge instead, severing his arm.

The next morning the ship arrived back in Rarotonga: “A crowd was on the wharf, including Jimmy’s family and an ambulance to take him to the hospital. Jimmy came ashore unaided and not requiring an ambulance, but when his wife saw him with only one arm, she screamed and fainted, so they put her on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, while Jimmy rode in front with the driver.”

Tom Neale, The Hermit of Suwarrow.
Naturally the lives of Silk and Tom Neale intersected. Silk transported Neale to Suwarrow on his last stay in July of 1967. Neale was to act as the government caretaker for the island during a period of pearl harvesting. The government gave its approval with two stipulations: the harvesting team would need to leave before hurricane season and Neale needed to go with them. Silk details the “mountain of cargo” Neale brought: two boats, crates of chickens, cats, and roofing iron—clearly more than three months of supplies. Neale stayed for ten years, until he was stricken ill in 1977.

Silk passed away in 2012; his business partner, Bob Boyd the following year.


We spent the last week in Rarotonga, at the Pacific Islands Resorts on Muri Lagoon. We ate at the restaurant once; the complimentary breakfast became our daily day opener. The beach offered kayaks and other water craft and accessories, but the beachside beds were the most important offering. We read, drank beer, and snoozed.

We found the Cooks a quiet place; the people friendly and easy going. Even the dogs didn’t bark. I wish I could say the same for the roosters. That roamed everywhere, from downtown Avarua to the interior of the outer islands. They were clearly wild as any sensible poultry farmer employs one rooster per flock of hens. (As Calvin Coolidge and his wife famously illustrated.) The Cook Islands News recently suggested wild chickens as a food source.

The Cook Islands News, published Monday to Saturday, covered nearly every court case in the country, beauty pageant proceeding, and the shipping news.

The fight over proposed helmet laws became the ongoing story during our stay. The legislature had recently reached a compromise, settling on compulsory helmets at speeds over 40 kmh. (30 is the limit on much of the island.) Many people get around on scooters or motorcycles; you can easily crack your coconut if you slip at that clip. The victims were often inebriated young men. We learned from a bus driver that church ladies impeded the bill’s passage, motivated by their desire to preserve their Sunday hairdos. To be fair, flower crowns are most conveniently carried on the head.

Our big Rarotonga adventure was a hike up the most well-known peak on the island, Te Rua Manga, known as “The Needle” for its shape. (Pencil head would have been a better but less enticing descriptor.) The cross-island trek from one side of the island to the other made the needle its centerpiece. The South Pacific Handbook said no guide needed; our hotel newsletter advised otherwise.

The trip began at a waterfall where the road ends. We went from south to north. Signs at the start recommended going in the opposite direction (I considered it an invitation). A rainy day made for a slick slog through roots, muck, and gushing streams as the poorly marked trail twisted up the mountain. Though close to civilization, the ruggedness of the trail surprised me, the tenacity of my wife didn’t. She pushed us to the top, brushing off soggy feet when she slipped into a stream up to her thighs.

We passed groups of locals with radios blasting music as they hiked. We encountered three groups of people pushing along to tunes, a new phenomenon to me. (A couple of the guys wore flip-flops to complete the picture of nonchalance.) Tourists with local guides made up the other hiking parties.

We summited with a group from Mangaia that hiked in from the opposite direction. A chain anchored into the rock provided access to the spire itself, though a sign advised of the danger of continuing further. Slip and die. But it felt reassuring in a way, knowing there are still places in the civilized world that allow you to do stupid shit that could result in the ultimate penalty.

Rather than go back the long way we came, we continued across the island to complete the full trek. We found the other side a much easier walk. After a short spell in the jungle, the trail turned into a woods road through taro plantations that met a paved road into town. The journey ended at a takeout burger place on the other side of the island.

I left my wallet in the car (I swear this never happened while we were dating), so we decided to hitchhike back. This was my wife’s first time sticking her thumb out. She started complaining after the forth car passed us, a hangry whine that hitchhiking was “depressing.” Luckily, we only waited for a few minutes.

A Filipino guy in a minivan stopped for us and we jumped in. I noticed a stash of road sodas in the compartment above his head, though he was not drinking. (I’ve found that half the people who pick up hitchhikers have a beer in their hand.) Our ride moved to the Cooks to work in a bakery with his wife, who had just given birth to a daughter born premature. A container of home cooked food prepared for her rested on the passenger seat.

We traveled a windy road up a hill above downtown Avarua to reach the hospital. We learned the location protects the facility from flooding in case of cyclones. He drove to the back entrance of the hospital, parked, and delivered the food to his wife. A wheelchair left outside that looked like a prop from a 1950’s film didn’t leave me feeling reassured.

15 minutes later our host dropped us off at the foot of the dirt road leading to the trail terminus. We walked up the road and back to our car for a complete cross-island trek, and our marriage still intact.

We returned to the waterfall a few days later on a buggy tour. Our bad luck with engines stayed with us. Third gear on my buggy wouldn’t catch, but gunning the motor to jump from second to forth gear made it manageable. The buggies caravanned in a parade of diesel shrieks to a series of greatest hits around the island: the waterfall for a chance to swim, a deliberate splash through a creek, turn around and do it again. A couple of teams had trouble making it through, delaying the group.

After a break for lunch, the buggies stormed through the grounds of the Sheraton Hotel, a complex that was 90% completed before abandonment in 1990’s. When the developer (said to have mafia ties) pulled out of the project, locals stripped the property of anything not concrete and left graffiti in its place. It is now considered cursed. Goats foraged in room 113. Cows ruminated in the courtyard. The dune buggy tours shared the space with a firm that held paintball parties during the day and laser tag at night. Entrepreneurship at its finest in the most faraway of places.

The ruggedness of Rarotonga’s mountainous interior doesn’t bestow backwater status to the rest of the island. You could buy $300 dresses at Tav’s where a picture of Kate Middleton wearing one of their styles hung above the clothes racks (the dresses were sewn next door by a seamstress in the picture window overlooking the parking spaces), get your oontz oontz on at Rehab, and order the pork belly dish on the beach at Vaima. But, we didn’t travel to the other side of the planet for first world fixings.

Besides a location of Avis Rental Cars, we saw no chain stores on any of the islands. Polynesian Rental Cars dominated the market. They rented us an orange Mini Cooper convertible that made my wife happy. Good Instagram bait, but I’ve driven better Buicks. The radio and electronic key opening never worked. The transmission was trashed. Brand new, said the guy at the rental counter. (New to you.) When I told him we were from Brooklyn, he said “Notorious B-I-G. Biggie!” I said Biggie is way better than Jay Z. He agreed. Good man, the cars not so much.

The odometer showed 80,000 kilometers and said something cute, I presume, in Japanese when it started up. The sunroof worked, but the mechanical groan it gave off each time it opened worried me enough that I left an umbrella in the car in case it wouldn’t close. The car didn’t make it back to the rental company with us. It died after a kite surfing lesson on New Year’s Day.

I researched travel options to other outer islands, hoping to make a short jaunt to Mangaia, but Air Rarotonga had a limited schedule around the Holidays. To satisfy my curiosities, I enquired at the government office building about finding a boat to Suwarrow.

The structure looked like a three-story motel; the offices inside reminded me of a high school central office. My answers were received skeptically, the only encounter like this in our two weeks in the Cooks. This was as big and bad as government got. Eventually a visit to the environmental office was suggested.

The environmental office sat on a side road behind the movie theatre. In addition to registering shells and other natural souvenirs, it handled logistics for Suwarrow. The guy behind the desk advised me that Elizabeth Munro, who oversaw the Te Ao Ora Natura (Biodiversity Unit) and the Te Puna Orama (Island Futures Division), could answer my questions, but she was out that day.

Two caretakers spend half the year on Suwarrow—during non-cyclone season—as stewards of the island, still using some of Tom Neale’s dwellings. It’s five hundred nautical miles by boat from Rarotonga to Suwarrow and 170 from the nearest island, Puka Puka. Sailboats are permitted landings for short stretches. The route to Robert Dean Frisbie’s beloved Puka Puka remains equally out of reach.

Our cabdriver (a maritime attorney on most days) from the airport in Raro to our hotel was originally from Puka Puka. He recently visited after more than a decade away. The government funded a free ship from the outer islands to and from Rarotonga for the Cook Islands 50th anniversary celebrations held in July. After a five-day voyage, the ship stopped at the island for the day, and then sailed five days back again. Not much had changed, he said. But, seeing his old friends on scooters surprised him. On a tiny atoll getting around too quickly would seem counterproductive, though a tank of gas goes a long way.

Taio Shipping ran the inter-island shipping lines. I enquired for rates at their office on the Avatiu wharf. The next trip to the Northern Group was not yet scheduled. The 737-mile voyage to Penrhyn listed $750 NZ for a cabin and $500 NZ on deck.  

A competitor, Pacific Schooners Limited sailed the Tiare Taporo, a rust stained, wind-assisted vessel. On a recent journey, the Cook Islands News reported that 60% of the cargo delivered to the Northernmost Island, Penrhyn, suffered water damage due to stormy weather on the 10-day voyage. It stopped in Penryhn the old-fashioned way. Due to technical difficulties, it rammed the wharf.

The Cook Island Herald quoted one passenger describing the journey as “going to hell and back.” (The Herald reserved its fiercest invective towards the government of Henry Puna whose political patronage endorsed the venture and may have been directing their ire at him by way of the shipping company.) The ship required an airlift of two drums of oil from Rarotonga at a cost of $14,000. Reading more about the voyage, they deserved the criticism. “The last port of call, Manihiki had their cargo on the top and the first port Penryhn’s cargo was right underneath everyone else’s thus suffering the most water damage.”

Cooks Islands Today

The Hula Bar is the place in Raro for reunions, post-match rugby team celebrations, pizza, and $3 drinks all night long. During the Holiday season, many of the expatriates who return home to visit family head to the Hula at night. The scene feels like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in bars across America. Locals who never left, hipsters in from Auckland, the pretty girls who sought greater fortune off island, and tourists like us taking it all in.

A group of long-haired Australian backpackers sat smoking at a table. I asked if there was anything else to smoke and made small talk when they commiserated. They asked where I was from. When I said Brooklyn, they said Biggie! So much better than Jay Z, right? “Jay Z sucks!” Two for two.

The Cooks are conservative, Christian islands. I only saw one group of locals in bikinis (believe me, I looked) and did not see swimsuits for sale anywhere in the Cooks. Most people wore t-shirts and shorts on the beach. We noticed no outwardly gay men or women on the island, but the service industry employed a visible transgender population.

We found the food better than on other islands. Simple presentation and lack of farm to table pretension let the freshness of the food and the setting shine. Vaima served the pork belly on the beach at sunset. A walkway lined with birds of paradise budding into shape revealed the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens café within. Fittingly, salads were their signature dishes. Pizza at the Hula Bar tasted better than the cheap drinks. We tried Thai, Mexican (the margaritas were the most expensive drinks we ordered on the island), and lots of seafood. The Pacific Resort served the only obviously frozen food we encountered, a prepackaged hamburger patty on our first day in Raro.

We did the resort thing on our last night in the Cook’s. Jessie booked us for the Pacific Resort’s New Year’s Eve party. A local wedding style band held it down for hours, interspersed by an emcee, food, a traditional dance group, and fireworks to mark the start of 2016. After midnight, we walked down the beach to iSobar to catch their New Year’s club bash (minus the bottle service). The staff from Pacific Resort made their way over as we called it a night.

Return Home

After our overnight flight from Rarotonga to Los Angles, a canine stopped us at customs. (I had packed taro, and the top of a coconut shell to make a cup like we saw at the Tumunu in Atiu.) The customs agent asked if we had any fruits, vegetables, or plants. I said, no. He asked if we had any palms. I dipped my hand into my luggage and pulled out the woven palm bookmarks I bought for a buck each at the Saturday market in Avarua. The dog nosed the bookmarks and confirmed them as the culprits. As the palms were dead and dried, he allowed us to keep them. With that settled, he let us through.

Back in Brooklyn, the coconut quickly shriveled and shrunk, hardening into an unusable triangular wedge that might work as a doorstop. Only the taro survived. I cooked a Saturday night dinner using recipes from The Cook Islands Cookbook I bought at the Bounty Bookshop in Raro. I cut the taro into chips, seasoned with olive oil and salt, then baked the dish for way too long. The tubers turned into charred black poker chips, in both appearance and texture. I sure showed those guys at security.

The bookmarks still work and the Cook Islands koozies I bought still keep my beer cold. Of everything we brought home, memories are the most important. But, the can opener will outlast them all.

We’ll be back, with better gifts.


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