What's a nice Jewish girl doing in church on a Sunday morning? Well, if that girl happens to be in the Cook Islands, it's because she's seeing the sights and that's the place to be on this day of rest for a tourist, when the islands shut down, and everyone, but everyone, heads to church.
My husband and I had done the beaches and seen the sights, so we figured when in Rarotonga, do as the Rarotongans do. That's how we found ourselves in formal attire, shirts and blouses clinging damply to our bodies as a result of the sudden downpour, in a local church. We had no comprehension of the Maori language, so the service was mostly inaccessible to us, but the singing we heard that day was not.
Descending to the islands from the air, all you see is a massive, seemingly uninterrupted stretch of South Pacific Ocean. So when the "fasten seat belt" instruction comes from the cockpit, I was staring intently out the window, trying to spot land in this vast blue sea.
Then, just a few thousand meters from the ground, the island of Rarotonga made a truly dramatic appearance, its rugged mountains thickly forested with palm trees and tropical foliage. We disembarked, and that thick humidity, inseparable from the tropics, hit us like a wall, announcing undeniably that we'd arrived.
As the international gateway to the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is the buzzing metropolis of the Cooks, which means only that this island has a better infrastructure and more restaurants, hotels and stores than its sister isles scattered to the north and south.
Is This Paradise?
A volcanic island with no written or oral records of its last eruption, Rarotonga is a place of contradictions.
At first glance, you think you're in paradise. Beaches with silky, soft sand are fringed with palm trees, and the water is pleasantly warm and completely opaque. Brightly colored fish dart between your legs, and the water near the reef is that magnificent turquoise that tempts you from tourist brochures and looks too good to be true.
Rarotonga is a fruit-lover's dream, we noticed, as we hopped aboard a jeep for a back-roads tour of the island with Raro Tours. Islanders grow their own pawpaw, bananas, arrowroot and oranges, and wild guava trees yield prolific produce, ensuring there's no such thing as a hungry traveler.
The island also exports a fruit known as the nono, which apparently has medicinal properties that can cure everything from headaches to diabetes, but is said to taste something awful. "We market it under the name Noni Juice," a local tells me. "You can't very well market anything under the name Nono!"
Spend a bit longer on the island, though, and you begin to observe that everyone has a different idea of paradise, and to many Cook Islanders and those of Cook Island descent, Rarotonga is far from it.
That, and the unavailability of employment, might explain why the country with a population of 18,000 has, in fact, 54,000 of its residents living abroad, mostly in the larger neighboring isles of New Zealand and Australia. They still own land, though, for each of the Cook Islands is sliced like a cake to ensure that each family has land to farm and live on.
Islanders and descendamts can lease that land to outsiders for up to 60 years but may never sell it; for better or worse, it stays in the family, whether the family has emigrated or not.
This explains why large hotel chains like the Sheraton, Ramada, Hilton and Radisson are nowhere to be found on the Cooks.
"Before the missionaries came here in 1823, the land was owned by chiefs, and there was lots of infighting," our tour guide explains of the turbulent era. "After their arrival, the land was split up for the Cook Islanders' families."
The town center is nothing to write home about unless you visit on the weekend and explore its market. Confession: I'm a sucker for markets. I love the feeling of festivity that hangs in the air at a public market, and the one-of-a-kind items you can procure there. The color and vitality of local talent, produce and personality is nowhere more-evident than in a market — and Rarotonga is just a perfect example.
To get there, we rose early, finding the usually quiet street-front a mass of colorful umbrellas and makeshift market stalls offering farm-fresh vegetables. The air pulsated with the beat of local performing musicians, and around us locals were guzzling traditional Cook Island meals-to-go. (Keeping kosher? There's fish aplenty here!)
The heat was sticky, and our clothes were drenched by 9:30 a.m.; but, lost in the sights and smells of the market, with the wondrous, cool taste of coconut milk on our happy lips, we barely noticed. The vibrancy of this tropical island was intoxicating.
For information, visit: www. cookislands.com.