A warm place to sway

Shaking off the world in South Pacific paradise

By T.C. Brown
Plain Dealer Reporter

Rarotonga, Cook Islands - You don't need a week on the South Pacific island of Rarotonga to understand why the H.M.S. Bounty's mutineers were so eager to jump ship in 1789.
The jagged mountain greenery of this lush island is ringed by bleach-white sand, swaying coconut palms and the waters of a transparent turquoise lagoon.

Add tropical breezes, brilliant sunsets and more than 8,000 laid-back, superfriendly Polynesians, whose shake-your-booty dancing is hypnotic, and you start looking for ways to lose your airline ticket home.

Not enough? OK, tipping is frowned upon here.

Rarotonga, all 26 square miles of it, is like Hawaii 50 years ago - no high rises, no megaresorts, no elbowing swarms of tourists around every corner. Small resorts and hotels dot the island's perimeter, mostly on the west and south coasts. It's not glitzy Cancun, but neither is it a potential location for the television show, "Survivor." However, China has begun promoting the Cook Islands as a tourist spot, and more development is  expected.

Rarotonga is capital of the Cook Islands. The islands, south of the equator, are east of the International Date Line.

But what counts here is "Raro time," which basically means "eventually," especially on a weekend. The only business center in the only town, Avarua, shuts down from noon Saturday to Monday morning.

Raro, as the island is called, remains a mystery to many Americans. None of my friends had heard of it, and on my trip we saw few Americans, though lots of Australians and New Zealanders. For Kiwis, Raro is a three-hour plane ride. Cook Islanders use New Zealand dollars. We got $1.30 NZ for each U.S. dollar.

The South Pacific is not an easy flight from Ohio. We flew first to Detroit, Los Angeles and Tahiti, touching down in Raro about 27 hours after we left home.

We arrived before dawn and took a surprisingly chilly eight-minute bus ride (August is winter here, so it  is cool after sunset and 80s in the day) from the airport to the Edgewater Resort on the west coast. With 180 rooms, it's the island's largest resort. The adequate but not fancy rooms were dressed in island motif and included a small refrigerator and ceiling fan.

From the restaurant/bar patio and poolside, we watched combers boom across the reef that separates the ocean from the crystal-clear water of the lagoon. Several days we saw humpback whales, which migrate between July and October, surface and disappear.

We rented scooters, a hot item on Raro, and small cars to get around. The buses are cheap ($4 NZ round trip) but usually crowded. You drive on the left here.

The food is good, moderately priced to expensive. We found Trader Jack's in Avarua on our first visit, and I had the largest and best-tasting fried ocean calamari I've ever eaten.

My favorite restaurant was Vaima on the south  coast, with its bamboo walls, splendid island art and gorgeous flowers. Service was excellent, as was the Broadbill in a white sauce.