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Destination: Cook Islands

Great Escape to Rarotonga

Jumping on a discount, a daydreamer savors what's real in the 'touristy' South Pacific

July 12, 1998|ANN McKECHNIE | McKechnie is a librarian and teacher at Santa Monica High School

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands — I was having a blissful vacation in the Cayman Islands five years ago when I happened to meet George Nowak, who wrote a book called "Which Way to the Islands." He told me that his favorite tropical island was Rarotonga in the South Pacific. The word-picture he drew of the lush island and its gracious people made me resolve to see Rarotonga before the arrival of golf courses and Big Macs.

This past February, I read in these pages that Rarotonga was finally affordable because Air New Zealand (the only carrier to the Cooks) was offering discounted air/hotel packages through travel agents. As soon as my school's spring break came around, my friend Kelly and I were off.

We landed in Rarotonga at 5 a.m. after an 11-hour flight (with one stop) from Los Angeles. By sunrise we were in the hamlet of Titikaveka on the southeastern side of the island, settled into our bungalow at the Little Polynesian Motel. The cotton-white beach was 10 steps from our door.

The Little Polynesian was not a motel in the U.S. sense but a cluster of cottages with kitchens, a style popular in New Zealand, of which the Cooks were once part. The island state has been self-governing since 1965 but remains "in association" with New Zealand.

We planned to economize by preparing some meals on our own. But we'd arrived on a Sunday, when commerce is forbidden in this seriously Christian country. Even the fruit stands on the road outside the motel were shuttered. Fortunately, Papa Joe's bakery was open (for two hours only), and the fresh doughnuts were worth the 15-minute walk.

The air was hot and sultry with a breeze from the sea, which, on this side of the island, is caught in a large lagoon surrounded by a coral reef. We had chosen the Little Polynesian because it is known for having the best snorkeling spots. But where exactly were they? The motel manager was nowhere to be found. No one was around, period. We grabbed our masks and snorkels and headed out anyway.

*

The underwater landscape was filled with neon light and color, teeming with fish of luminescent yellow, blue, green, red and purple, in stripes and dots and patterns.

After a lunch of Power Bars we had fortunately brought from home, we went for a walk. The island is only 20 miles around, ringed by a two-lane road. From the paved roads, pebble roads that shortly become trails twist inland and up steep ridges into the mountains. The 2,000-foot peaks, left by a volcanic eruption 2 million years ago, were wreathed in mist during most of our stay.

From "our" hill behind Titikaveka, we looked down on Muri Beach and felt as if we were in the mythical Bali Hai of "South Pacific." The Muri area boasts the prettiest beaches and the best swimming on the island, and as we later discovered, it too has good snorkeling, as well as low-tide walks to three deserted mini-islands.

Every one of our eight days was filled with exploration, on foot or by kayak, canoe, motorbikes or swimming. Cars are few, and renting one is unnecessary. We learned the local bus schedule: One came by every 15 minutes on the circumference road, passing every sizable hotel and tourist service on a loop to the main town of Avarua. And many restaurants will pick up and return patrons to their hotels.

Five days into our visit came the high point: a trek up Te Rua Manga mountain (the Needle) with the most celebrated guide on the island, a man known simply as Pa. The seven-mile hike included Pa's explanations of how various flowers and roots cure everything from arthritis to acne. These remedies have been used for at least 500 years, about as long as the Needle trail has been in existence.

Pa told us that the kotcucola leaf enhances memory, the mimosa cures fish poisoning, ginger root treats colds and stomach upset, the copianua plant is used for shampoo and certain ferns heal cuts.

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The discomfort of my twitching thigh muscles and labored breathing as I climbed the volcanic slope was assuaged not by plants but by Pa's gentle humor and subtle encouragement. With his good looks and indecipherable age, Pa kept us smiling with such remarks as, "I have many children, seven kids with my wife and 11 with my other friends."

When he learned where we were from, he said, "Oh, you live near Malibu? I have a friend in Malibu named Ali. She owns a restaurant. Her friend told me she's an actress, but she's too nice to be that. Yeah, McGraw, that's her name. You know her?"

Much of the trek was almost vertical, and tree roots served as a ladder. Sweat was pouring off me when we reached the top, and blisters were surfacing on my toes. What a pleasant surprise to see that Pa had brought tuna sandwiches, star fruit and juice from mandarin oranges grown in his garden. After our picnic the spectacular view was even more appreciated, as were the giant ferns, streams and waterfalls along our descent.

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