After a lifetime of adventures to all seven continents, SHANEY HUDSON and her husband find the Cook Islands provide the perfect balance for a family getaway with their son, returning time and again
At dusk, a ripple breaks the surface of the lagoon. There is no wind, and the sky fades from blonde to deep blue. Despite being fully clothed on the shore with my three-year-old, I hoist him onto my shoulders, and we wade in. I inch in slowly, partly to avoid squelching the sea cucumbers underfoot, but also so as not to startle the green sea turtle in the shallows before us.
Our patience is rewarded. Waist deep in water, the kiddo peers over my shoulder to get a better look at the turtle munching away, with its back fins manoeuvering first that way, then this way towards us, in search of dinner amongst the sea grass. As the darkness sets in, we watch quietly, until it feels like it is just us three and the sea.
After two decades of adventures across seven continents, my husband and I first chose the Cook Islands for a much-needed family break following the birth of our son, assuming it would offer little in the way of adventure beyond sunshine and beach time. We were wrong. The group of 15 islands scattered between New Zealand and Hawai‘i swallowed my heart, and we’ve begun to return every year.
The charm of the Cooks lies in its deceptive simplicity: there are no big international hotel chains, no high rises, no tourist traps and, compared to other tropical destinations like Fiji and Bali, it’s just that little bit harder to get to, rewarding a more discerning kind of tourist. But once you’re there, it’s an easy place to be.
Rarotonga, the main island, is surrounded by a 32km ring road and anchored by a volcanic interior filled with lush jungle. If you fancy driving around the whole island, it will take you less than an hour; if you stop for a fish sandwich at Charlie’s, a well-known burger shack by the sea, or if a patch of palm-fringed beach catches your eye, it might take you a little longer.
But it’s the kind of place where time melts, and the things that matter – family and being in the moment – centre your travel experience. It also helps that alongside blockbuster experiences, from trekking the island’s interior to diving shipwrecks and off-roading in the hills, there’s plenty of everyday adventure on hand.
Staying on Muri Beach, I begin each morning with a paddle on the lagoon, setting off to round one of the four different motu (offshore islands of Muri Lagoon), each day. Using a stand-up paddleboard from my hotel, I glide over giant clams and watch as startled tropical fish flee into coral shelters, battling the wind one morning, and being pushed along by a gentle sea breeze the next.
As I pull into shore, one of the local beach dogs jumps on the nose of my board wanting a ride. My kiddo clambers on as well, and I find myself acting as gondolier for a scruffy mutt and a toddler, paddling across the shallows. The dog tucks his paws over the nose of the board, while the kiddo sits mesmerised. Defying expectations from everyone watching from the shore, none of us end up in the drink.
What makes the Cook Islands special is its incredible underwater ecosystem. On my first trip, I had snorkelled in the Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve at night while staying at The Rarotongan Beach Resort. Donning wetsuits and using underwater flashlights, we spied moray eels and the spectacular (if slightly formidable) lionfish – but it was floating under the stars, away from the light pollution, that embedded itself in my memory.
This time, I was off to swim with turtles. There are series of tidal channels that break the reef surrounding Rarotonga, and one of these is a favourite with the creatures. I head out to explore it with Ariki Adventures, who not only donate part of their tour cost to the local not-for-profit Te Ara O Te Onu Cook Islands Sea Turtle Conservation Society, but also make use of one my favourite marine toys: motorised sea scooters.
With the tide going out, we save our scooters for the journey back in, when it will be more of a battle. Before we dive in, our guide tells us we’ll see plenty of green sea turtles, but we’ll only see the rare, critically endangered Hawksbill turtle if we’re lucky.
Naturally, the first turtle we spot is a Hawksbill. The ocean pulls us with the tide, and it’s as if we’ve entered a spa resort for turtles. There are so many green sea turtles that I stop counting when I get to 34. This is their realm – a place where they rest, recover and relax, and they are completely oblivious and indifferent to us bobbing above. Overwhelmed and grateful, I return to my family with a lighter heart.
When we leave this time, it’s on the last direct flight out of Rarotonga to Sydney before the Cook Islands shuts it door to protect itself from the COVID-19 pandemic that consumes the rest of world. The island chain has no confirmed cases, but as I check out of my hotel the staff at the front desk process a sobering stream of cancellations and postponements. At the airport, I watch the last flight take off to the outer islands amongst weeping locals who have sent their elderly family members to outlying islands, in an attempt to keep them safe.
I leave Rarotonga knowing how hard hit it will be by the economic impact of the coronavirus. But I am also determined to return to support the islands once the storm passes. The Cook Islands might have stolen my heart on my first journey, but on this trip, I left a little of it behind. And I know the islands will keep it safe.
Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Air Tahiti fly from Australia to the Cook Islands.
The recently refurbished Rarotongan Beach Resort & Lagoonarium at Aroa Beach offers everything from rooms overlooking the pool to interconnecting oceanfront family suites. It has a kids’ club, creche, gym and a restaurant, Captain Andy’s Beach Bar & Grill.
Centrally located on Muri Beach, The Pacific Resort Rarotonga has rooms, suites and villas to accommodate every family. Eat with your toes in the sand at Sandals Restaurant, or enjoy casual beachside dining at Barefoot Bar.
WHEN TO GO
The Cook Islands is perfect year-round, but it is warmer, more humid and wetter from December to April. The trade winds run from May to October, when it is slightly cooler. The water temperature never drops below 25C.