Perhaps it is the rugged beauty, rivalling that of the more famous Tahiti. Maybe it is the warmth and friendliness of a proud Polynesian people who love to talk about their islands, and do so in English. It could be the old south Sea charm of a small island nation whose little capital is like Papeete was a very long time ago. Whatever the reason, there are few old South Pacific hands who aren't absolutely enraptured with Rarotonga and the other beautiful Cook Islands. As soon as you get there, you'll see why the local tourist authority wasn't far wrong in calling the country "Heaven on Earth."
The Cook Islanders have more than beautiful islands in common with the people of French Polynesia, some 900 kilometres (550 miles) to the east. they share with the Tahitians about 60% of their native language, and their lifestyles and religious were similar in the old days. Like many Tahitians, they have a keen interest in their eastern Polynesian past, but they are better at showing it off, at explaining to visitors both the old ways and the new. They also enjoy having a good time, and this lust for happiness very quickly rubs off on visitors. with tourism their primary industry, the Cook Islanders offer a surprising lot to do in their very small islands, from swimming in the lagoon to climbing to the top of the rocky outcrop known as "The Needle" to crawling from one charming pub to another. Indeed, no other place in the South Pacific has so much to see and do in so small a space.
And you don't have to spend a fortune once you get here, for the Cook Islands are at least 40% less expensive than Tahiti and French Polynesia.
1. The Cook Islands today
Rarotonga and the other 14 Cook Islands are tiny specks scattered between Tahiti and Samoa in an ocean area about a third the size of the continental United States, yet all together they comprise only 93 square miles of land. Rarotonga is by far the largest, with 26 of those square miles, yet it is only 32 kilometres (20 miles) around. A microcosm of modern Polynesia, Rarotonga has enough island activities to satisfy almost anyone, whether it's snorkelling, shopping, sightseeing, scuba diving, or several other pastimes. Its cultural tours are the best in the South Pacific.
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT The Cook Islands are divided both geographically and politically into a southern and a Northern Group. Most of the nine islands of the Southern Group, including Rarotonga, are volcanic, with lush mountains or hills. The islands of the remote Northern Group, except Nassau, are typical atolls, with circles of reef and low coral islands enclosing central lagoons. The sandy soil and scarce rainfall support coconut palms, scrub bush, and a handful of people. Although they can be reached by air, the remote northern Group received few visitors.
Rarotonga, the only high, mountainous island, is in many ways a miniature Tahiti. It is the jagged peaks and steep valleys surrounded by a flat coastal plain, white sandy beaches, an azure lagoon, and a reef extending about a quarter of a mile offshore. In most places the shoreline consists of a slightly raised sandy but backed by the swampy flats, which they used for growing taro and other wet-footed crops. They built a remarkable road, actually paved in part with stones, from village to village almost around the island. That "back road" still exists, although the paved round-island road now runs near the shore. The area between the two roads appears to be bush but is in fact heavily cultivated with a plethora of crops and fruit trees.
While Rarotonga masquerades as a small version of Tahiti, Aitutaki plays the role of Bora Bora in the Cook Islands. Although lacking the spectacular mountains that Bora Bora has, little Aitutaki is nearly surrounded by a large, shallow lagoon whose multi-hued beauty and abundant sea life rival those of its French Polynesian counterpart and make this charming, atoll-framed outpost the second most-visited of the Cooks. The vegetation of the southern islands is typically tropical. The mountains and hills are covered with native brush, while the valley floors and flat coastal plains are studded with coconut and banana plantations and a wide range of flowering trees and shrubs.
GOVERNMENT The cook Islands have a Westminster-style parliament with 25 elected members led by a prime minister. Parliament meets twice a year, in February and march and from July to September. There is also a House of Ariki (hereditary chiefs), which advises the government on matters of traditional custom and land tenure. Each island has an elected Island Council and a Chief Administrative Officer, who is appointed by the prime minister.
THE ECONOMY The economy is based on tourism and agriculture, mainly tropical fruit and fruit juices. Some revenue is derived from the Cook Islands' status as a tax-free haven. Without overseas aid, cash sent home by islanders living abroad, and the money earned from tourism, however, the country would be in serious financial trouble. In fact, it ran into a great deal of difficulty in the mid-1990s when the debt-ridden government failed to back its local currency with adequate New Zealand dollars, thus rendering the local money worthless. When foreign lending organization forced the government to mend its ways (see "History," below), expenditures were drastically reduced and more than half of all government workers were fried. Before the cutbacks, more than 3,300 islanders - almost 30% of the total population - were civil servants. overseas traders now insist on being paid in New Zealand dollars, which is why your credit card statement will refer to Avarua as being in New Zealand. Many Cook Islanders pulled up stakes and left for New Zealand, resulting in a decrease in the islands' population.
Legend says that the first Polynesians arrived in the cook Islands by canoe from the islands of modern-day French Polynesia about A.D. 1200, although anthropologists think the first of them may have come much earlier. In any event, they discovered the Cook Islands as part of the great Polynesian migration that settled all of the South Pacific long before the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana laid the first European eyes on any of the cook Islands when he discovered Pukapuka in 1595. The Spanish at that time were more interested in getting from Peru to the riches of Manila than in general exploration. thus, except for Rakahanga, which was discovered by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros during a voyage along the same general route of 1606, the islands did not appear on European maps for another 170 years. And then, as happened in so many south Pacific island groups, along came Captain James Cook, who stumbled onto some of the islands during his voyages in 1773 and 1777; he named them the Hervey Islands. In 1824 the name was changed to the Cook Islands by the Russian cartographer John von Krusenstern.
Captain Cook sailed around the Southern Group but missed Rarotonga, which apparently was visited first by the mutineers of H.M.S. Bounty, official record of the visit, but oral history on Rarotonga has it that a great ship arrived offshore about the time of the mutiny. A Cook Islander visited the ship and was given some oranges, the seeds of which became the foundation for the island's industry. When the first European arrived, the local Polynesians were governed by feudal chiefs, who owned all the land within their jurisdictions and held life-and-death power over their subjects. Like other Polynesians, they believed in a hierarchy of gods and spirits, among them Tangaroa, whose well-endowed carved image is now a leading handcraft item.
MORE MISSIONARIES The man who claimed to have discovered Rarotonga was the same man who brought Christianity to the Cook Islands, the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society. Williams had come from London to Tahiti in 1818 as a missionary, and he soon set up a base of operations on Raiatea in the Society Islands, from which he intended to spread Christianity throughout the South Pacific. He set his sights on the Hervey Islands after a canoe-load of Polynesians from thee was blown by a storm to Raiatea. They were receptive to William's teaching and asked that missionaries be sent to the Herveys.
In 1821 Williams went to Sydney and on the way dropped two teaches at Aitutaki. One of them was a Tahitian named Papeiha had converted the entire island. Pleased with this success, Williams and a new missionary named Charles Pitman headed off in search of Rarotonga. It took a few weeks, during which Williams stopped at Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, and Atiu, but he eventually found it in July 1823. Until the day he died yeas later in a cannibal's oven in Vanuatu, Williams insisted he had discovered Rarotonga - never mind the inconvenient fact that the Bounty mutineers wee there or that an American sandalwood trader almost certainly stopped on the island in 1814. William, Pitman, and Pepeiha were joined in 1824 by Aaron Buzacott, another missionary. Pitman soon left for the village of Ngatangia on the east coast, Papeiha went to Arorangi in the west, and Buzacott took over in Avarua in the north. Williams spent most of the next 4 years using forced native labor to build a new ship, The Messenger of Peace, and eventually sailed it west in search of new islands and more converts.
Meanwhile, the missionaries quickly converted the Cook Islanders. They overcame the powerful feudal chiefs, known as ariki, whose titles but not their power have been handed down to their present-day heirs. On Rarotonga, the missionaries divided the island into five villages and split the land into rectangular parcels, one for each family. Choice parcels were set aside for the church buildings and rectories. Rarotongans moved down from the high ground near their gardens and became seaside dwellers for the first time. The religion the missionaries taught was rock-ribbed and puritanical. they blamed the misdeeds of the people for every misfortune, from the epidemics of Western diseases that came with the arrival of more Europeans to the hurricanes that destroyed crops. they preached against sexual permissiveness and cut off the hair of wayward women. The Rarotongans took it all in stride. Whenever the missionaries would shear a woman's locks, she would appear in public wearing a crown of flowers and continue on her merry way. for the most part, however, the transition to Christianity was easy, since in their old religion the Rarotongans, like most Polynesians, believed in a single all-powerful Tangaroa, who ruled over lesser gods.
Out of the seeds planted by Williams and the London Missionary Society grew the present-day Cook Islands Christian Church, to which about 60% of all Cook Islanders belong. The churches, many of them built by the missionaries in the 19th century are the center of life in every village, and the Takamoa College bible school that the missionaries established in 1837 still exists in Avarua. The cook Islands Christian Church still owns the land under its buildings; the churches of other denominations sit on leased property.
COMING OF THE KIWIS It was almost inevitable that the Cook Islands would be caught up in the wave of colonial expansion that swept across the south Pacific in the late 1800s. The French, who had established Tahiti as a protectorate, wanted to expand their influence west, and in 1888 a French warship was sent to Manihiki in the northern Group of the Cooks. The locals quickly sewed together a British Union jack and ran it up a pole. the French ship turned away. shortly thereafter the British declared a protectorate over the cook Islands, and the Union Jack went up officially. The islands were small and unproductive, and in 1901 Britain gladly acceded to a request from New Zealand's Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, to include the cook Islands within the boundaries of his newly independent country. In addition to engineering the transfer, Seddon is best remembered in the cook Islands for his vehement hatred of the Chinese. he instituted the policy that has effectively barred the Chinese - and most other Asians, for that matter - from the cook Islands to this day.
Otherwise, New Zealand, itself a former colony, was never interested in becoming a colonial power, and the kiwis never did much to exploit - or develop - the cook Islands or Western Samoa (over which they exercised a League of Nations trusteeship from the end of World War I until 1962). For all practical purposes, the Cook Islands remained a south Seas backwater for the 72 years of New Zealand rule, with a brief interlude during World War II when U.S. Troops built and manned an airstrip on Aitutaki.
SIR ALBERT GETS THE BOOT The situation began to change after 1965, when the Cook Islands became self-governing in association with New Zealand. Under this arrangement, new Zealand provides for the national defense needs of the islands and renders substantial financial aid. there is an official new Zealand "representative: in Avarua, not an ambassador or consul. for all practical purposes, the Cook Islands were independent, although the paper ties with new Zealand deprive them of a seat in the United Nations. The Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship, which means they can live there. New Zealanders, on the other hand, are not citizens of the cook islands. The first prime minister of the newly independent government was Sir Albert Henry, one of the south Pacific's most colorful modern characters. He ruled for a controversial 13 years, during which the cook Islands were put back on the map.
That came in 1974. Using aid from new Zealand, which wanted to provide an independent source of revenue for its former colony, the government enlarged Rarotonga's airport. Queen Elizabeth II was on hand for the new strips grand opening. Three years later The Rarotongan Beach Resort opened and the Cook Islands became an international destination. Sir Albert ruled until the national elections in 1978. Even though his party won a majority, he and it were indicted for bribery. Allegedly, government funds had been used to pay for charter, flights that ferried his party's voters home from New Zealand on election day. The chief justice of the High Court agreed, and Sir Albert and his party were booted out of power. Queen Elizabeth then stripped him of his knighthood. He remained highly popular with his supporters, however, and many Cook Islanders till refer to him as "Sir Albert." When he died in 1981, his body was taken around Rarotonga on the back of a pickup truck, the road lined with mourners.
MORE MONEY, NO MONEY Sir Albert was succeeded by Dr. tom Davis, who had worked in the United States for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration until returning home. To avoid a repetition of the scandal that caught Sir Albert, he added a seat in Parliament for voters living overseas. The constitution also was amended to include a bill of rights. Davis ruled until 1987, when his own party deposed him in favour of Dr. Pupuke Robati.
the premiership returned to Henry hands in 1989 with the victory of Sir Geoffrey Henry; Sir Albert's cousin. Sir Geoffrey's tenure has been marked by scandal, first when a long-planned and almost-completed Sheraton Hotel project was caught up in a Mafia scandal in Italy. Although thee has been talk about reviving the project, the hotel's unfinished buildings sand hauntingly like ancient ruins-in-the-making. Sir Geoffrey also allowed too much Cook Islands currency to be printed, which left it valueless outside the country, and he caught severe criticism for signing letters guaranteeing billions of dollars in loans that the Cook Islands didn't make and can never repay His government also doubled the government workforce, from some 2,000 employees to more than 3,600 - early 60% of the total employment here.
International lending orgnizations cracked the whip in 1996, forcing the debt-strapped government to cut expenses by laying off more than half of the bloated civil service and seriously cutting the salaries of those who remained on the government payroll. Many axed civil servants and other islanders left the country for New Zealand and Australia (the population dropped from an estimated 22,400 to 16,5000 between 1995 and 1999). After a close election in 1999, which he apparently had won, Henry stepped aside when members of his own Cook Islands Party switched to the opposition.
3. The Islanders
POPULATION About half of the 16,500 or so people who live in the cook Islands reside on Rarotonga, and of these, about 4,000 live on the north coast in Avarua, the only town in the country. Some 80% to 85% of the entire population is pure Polynesian. In culture, language, and physical appearance, this great majority is closely akin to both the Tahitian and the Maoris of New Zealand. Only on the Pukapuka and Nassau atolls to the far northwest, where the residents are more like the Samoans, is the cultural heritage significantly different.
COOK ISLANDS CULTURE Modern Cook Islanders have maintained much of the old Polynesian way of life, including the warmth, friendliness, and generosity that characterize Polynesians everywhere. Like their ancestors, they put great emphasis on family life. within the extended family it's share and share alike, and no one ever goes without a meal or a roof over his head. In fact, they may be generous to a fault, since many of the small grocery stores they run reputedly stay on the verge of bankruptcy. Although not a matriarchy, cook Islands culture places great responsibility on the wife and mother. The early missionaries divided all land into rectangular plots (reserving choice parcels for themselves and their church buildings, of course), and women are in charge of the section upon which their families live. They decide which crops collectively and within t he churches, they decided how the village will be run. The land cannot be sold, only leased, and when the mother dies, it passes jointly to her children. Since many women prefer to build simple homes so as not to set off squabbles among their offspring when they pass away, most houses provide basic shelter and are not constructed with an eye to increasing value. in fact, when a women dies, the house occasionally is left vacant by succeeding generations.
The burial vaults you will see in many front yards are the final resting places of the mothers who built the houses. Their coffins are sealed in concrete vaults both for sanitary reasons and because to shovel dirt on a woman's dead body is to treat her like an animal. (Likewise, striking a woman is the quickest way for a Cook Islands man to wind up in prison.) The survivors care only for the graves of persons they knew in life, which explains the many overgrown vaults. Eventually, when no one remembers their occupants, the tops of the old vaults will be removed and ground plowed for a new crop. Cook Islanders have also retained that old Polynesian tradition known as "island time." The clock moves more slowly here, as it does in other south Pacific Islands. Everything will get done in due course, not necessarily now. so service is often slow by Western standards, but why hurry? You're on vacation.
In addition to those who are pure Polynesian, a significant minority are of mixed European-Americans, and Europeans, most of whom live on Rarotonga and seem to move to the beat of "island time," too. There are very few Chinese or other Asians in the cook Islands - thus the relative scarcity of Asian cuisine here.
Nearly everyone speaks English, the official language. All signs of notices are written in it. the everyday language for most people, however, is Cook Islands Maori, a Polynesian language similar to Tahitian and New Zealand Maori. A little knowledge of it is helpful, particularly since nearly all place-names are Maori.
HOLIDAYS & SEASONS
Legal holidays are New Year's Day, Anzac (Memorial) Day (April 25), Good Friday, Easter Monday, the Queen's Birthday (in June), Gospel Day (July 26 on Rarotonga only), Constitution Day (August 4), Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 26).
The busiest season is from late June through August when New Zealanders and Australians escape their own winters. Make your hotel reservations early for those months. Many Cook Islanders live in New Zealand and come home for Christmas; you can easily get a room, but airline seats are hard to come by during that holiday season.
The Cook Islands Calendar of Events
THE CLIMATE - The islands of the Southern Group, which are about as far south of the equator as the Hawaiian Islands are north, have a very pleasant tropical climate. Even during the summer months of January and February, the high temperatures on Rarotonga average a comfortable 29 degrees C (84degF), and the southeast trade winds usually moderate even the hottest day. The average high drops of 25degC (77degF) during the winter months from June to August, and the ends of Antarctic cold fronts can bring a few downright chilly nights during those months. It's a good idea to bring a light sweater or jacket for evening wear anytime of the year.
December through April is both the cyclone (hurricane) and rainy season. There always is a chance that a cyclone will wander along during these months, but most of the rain comes in short, heavy cloudbursts that are followed by sunshine. Rain clouds usually hang around Rarotonga's mountain peaks, even during the dry season, from June to "August. In short, there is no bad time weatherwise to visit the cook Islands, although the "shoulder" months of April, May, September, and October usually provide the best combination of sunshine and warmth.
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