Kia Orana. These are the first words you’ll hear when you step off the plane and onto the hot tarmac at Rarotonga airport, and that won’t be the last time you’ll hear them.
The stallholders at the Punanga Nui markets will shout it at you as you buy fresh coconuts by the armful, the locals who charter the snorkeling tours around Aitutaki’s glittering stretches of azure blue water will welcome you onto their boats with it, the shopkeepers along Rarotonga’s main road selling local black pearls will say it with a smile.
The literal translation is ‘May you live long’, but it’s also a greeting, a welcome, a way of saying thank you. And it’s at the core of Cook Islands culture, centred on family, friends and hospitality.
An archipelago of 15 islands clustered together in the Pacific Ocean, the Cooks (as they are known) are only six hours away on a direct flight from Sydney. It’s the South Pacific’s best-kept secret, the perfect mix of a thriving nightlife and cultural scene on the main island of Rarotonga, peak relaxation on the outer lagoon island of Aitutaki and some of the most stunning beaches in the region.
Think: uninterrupted stretches of icing sugar sand, dotted here and there with a towering palm tree, crystal-clear water for as far as the eye can see.
Its reputation as an island paradise is already set in stone. But the region is slowly making a name for itself for its local cuisine, where tropical fruit, unbelievably fresh seafood and the humble coconut reigns supreme. Here are five of the best things to sample the next time you journey to this sunny destination.
Ika Mata: Think of this as Cook Islands ceviche: raw fish cooked in lemon and coconut cream and served with tomatoes, onions and local root vegetables (taro, kumara, arrowroot and breadfruit) to soak up the juices.
You can get a stellar version at Michele’s café in Avarua or at the progressive dinner, a fantastic initiative in Rarotonga where you travel to three different family homes for three different courses, eating Cook Islands food as it was intended: en famille.
An Umu lunch: There are versions of underground ovens across the South Pacific, but in the Cook Islands they are called Umus. Stones are heated and then lined with sugar cane before chicken, pork and thick slices of pumpkin and unskinned bananas are placed on top. The whole thing is then covered with leaves and left for a few hours to slow cook.
The result is tender, chargrilled pieces of meat and veggies that fall apart when you pick them up. You can get the authentic experience (including building one for yourself) at Punarei’s cultural tour in Aitutaki. For something a little different, try Flambe restaurant at Ratotonga’s Crown Beach Resort, where fire is the key element in all the cooking.
Coconuts: The humble coconut reigns supreme in Cook Islands cuisine. There’s plenty of ways to enjoy it – in coconut oil that you drizzle over your food as a dressing (Rito in Rarotonga is your best bet for that, with chili, lime and original versions, not to mention coconut oil-based beauty products too), roasted and toasted and sliced into salads, or even just drunk fresh from the tree.
You can get a fresh coconut at the Punanga Nui markets and stroll around, picking up breakfast and checking out the stalls retailing local fabrics and souvenirs.
Tropical fruit: Leave the main ring road of Rarotonga and take a detour along the winding backstreets and you’ll find trees laden down with the freshest, sweetest fruit you’ve ever eaten. Passionfruit, guava, starfruit, sometimes even mangoes and the dreaded Noni, a *unique*-smelling fruit that is supposed to be fantastically healthy to drink, if you can stomach it.
The Cook Islands also play host to plenty of starchy alternatives to potatoes, from breadfruit all the way down to taro and arrowroot. Locals slice them thinly and fry them into chips, or boil them and mash them up. You can see all of the fruit and vegetables on Crown Beach Resort’s cultural tour, only available to guests of the hotel, which gives a local view of the island’s rich, pre-colonisation history.
Fish: To paraphrase The Devil Wears Prada: “Seafood? On an island? Groundbreaking.” But seriously, you’ve never had fish fresher than this, caught by anglers who learnt the craft from their fathers and served simply at seaside shacks dotted around Rarotonga.
Our favourite is The Mooring, a café in trendy Muri beach, where fat slabs of seared tuna are sandwiched between soft slices of turkish bread and slathered in spicy lime mayonnaise.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Sydney every Friday night. Air Rarotonga flies between Rarotonga and Aitutaki daily. The marie claire team stayed at Crown Beach Resort in Rarotonga and Tamanu Beach Resort in Aitutaki. Main image shot on location in The Cook Islands for marie claire by David Gubert.