Cook Islands, South Pacific Hoist a frosty fruity, sniff the hibiscus, imbibe the swaying palms. The South Seas are still the spot for Everyman's tropical fantasy.

Nov 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
Isle File

The Nastiest Cocktail
Not on the menu but available upon request is an aphrodisiac called chu: The gag-inducing elixir of SORGHUM DUM WINE, dochi berries, dried sea horse, spider legs, and (ahem) horny goat weed is brewed at Indigo Euroasian Cuisine in Honolulu on OAHU.

Access & Resources

I was floating about eight feet above a sandy-bottomed reef, staring into the Day-Glo face of a sunset wrasse, when the notion struck me. Fish are not generally known for their prodigious brains, yet when you come face-to-face with poisson of the non-man-eating variety in their natural element, a strange exchange can take place. This one, for instance, seemed intrigued. Unlike the octopus that had shot under a rock, fast and bulbous, when I'd surprised it only moments earlier—shedding light on that obscure adage "Never trust a mollusk"—the wrasse seemed to want to dialogue. Most of his neighbors were too busy munching on coral to care, but he was trying to make a connection. When I blinked, he blinked back. When I raised my eyebrows, he emitted a stream of bubbles. Something was happening here. One small step for me, perhaps, but one giant leap for piscine-hominid brotherhood.

You could call it a eureka moment, I suppose, but it was really nothing more than the product of many hours of painstakingly indolent and hedonistic study. I had come in search of the True Essence of Nowhere, and had adhered to a strict regimen of snorkeling, lollygagging, and consuming exotic fruits, big blue drinks, and much fresh fish (sorry, bro). My wilderness study area, in this case, was the island of Rarotonga, a lush, craggy mountain of green that erupts out of the otherwise wide blue expanse of the South Pacific. At a humble 40 square miles, Rarotonga is the largest of 15 atolls, volcanic outcroppings, and sandy mounds that make up the Cook Islands, a far-flung group of landmasses that hover between French Polynesia to the east and New Zealand to the southwest. Which is a diplomatic way of saying the middle of nowhere. So I'd come to the right place.

Nowhere, I found, has its advantages. Being in the middle of it means that McDonald's, Sheraton, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Chanel, and the like have yet to establish beachheads, and that walking around in a loud floral shirt is construed as a fashion-do.

It also means that dogs and roosters pretty much run the joint. Roosters let you know this by crowing at 5:30 a.m. and at precise 20-minute intervals thereafter for the next 13 hours. Dogs let you know this by taking their own sweet time crossing the road—usually at the exact moment you've had the first of many lazy island epiphanies like "Hey, I'm driving 30 miles an hour on an island in the middle of nowhere. What do I have to worry about?" Roosters and dogs have their own worries, though. Due to their annoying punctuality, roosters get a lot of stuff thrown at them, so they're a little skittish around humans. When it comes to dogs, well, as one guidebook flatly states, "Dogs are sometimes eaten by young men on drinking sprees"—in some parts of the world a fashion-don't.

My search for the True Essence of Nowhere was arduous and thorough. The art of doing nothing is very hard work. You have to unhinge the shackles of time and space and bob on the slipstream of whatever slipstreams bob on. Rarotongans make it look easy. When not tending the papaya and taro crops that dot most patches of cleared land, or managing a host of businesses in the bustling, postage-stamp-size capital of Avarua, or cruising Muri Lagoon in an outrigger to inspect the traditional nets and traps they've been using for centuries, they can usually be found plinking ukuleles and singing old Maori folk songs to the wind. They're not slacking, they're just...passing time. It's no wonder the standard greeting on the island is Kia orana—"May you live on."

My wife, who threw herself into the search with vigor, became obsessed with finding the perfect abandoned shell—no easy task. Rarotonga is the tip of an ancient dormant volcano girdled by 20 miles of submerged coral and rock. The nubbly white-sand beaches are therefore spangled with a fresh crop of seaborne detritus with each new tide. You'll never see more shells, and you'll never drive yourself more crazy.

It was a benign lunacy. Myself, I became transfixed by the waves. On the west coast of the island, near the village of Arorangi, the reef is only about 200 yards offshore. You can sit for hours and muse on fish brains while watching meaty turquoise rollers pound the barrier with metronomic precision, only to flatten out like backwash on their final dash to the beach. I took about 30 snapshots of this phenomenon (known in common parlance as, uh, breaking waves). Hear me, fellow pilgrims: I was trying to capture that sublime moment when a wave flips up to a perfect pre-curl, like a jaw about to slam shut. I never got it right on film, but I could have watched them break for the rest of my days.

Our days, however, were numbered, and we caught only occasional glimpses of pure Nowheresville. Like the morning I opened the door of our bungalow in time to see a coconut fall and hit the sand with a tremendous thud. Or the afternoon we snorkeled the calm, cerulean lagoon at Aitutaki, an "almost atoll" about 140 miles north of Rarotonga, and communed with a school of bigeye bream. They just hung there, suspended in tight pods, beckoning me with their big freaky eyes, as if to say, "One of us, one of us..." (Oh yeah, they can think.)

Then one evening, while strolling on the beach as dusk succumbed to nightfall, we looked up and beheld the True Essence. Above us, the Milky Way had cracked open the heavens, spilling stars like snowflakes on black velvet. "Can you believe where we are?" I asked my wife. "No, I can't," she said. Pause. "But where are we?"

We were Nowhere and Everywhere at the same time. And we were doing nothing. And it felt great.

Access & Resources: Rarotonga

You know that Gilligan's Island cliché of South Seas islanders as lei-wearing, ukulele-playing, hula-dancing happy people? Well, it's not just a cliché; here it's a refreshing reality.

GETTING THERE: Fly Air New Zealand
(800-369-6867; www.airnewzealand.com), the only major carrier that lands in Rarotonga. Direct from Los Angeles takes just under ten splendid hours (prices start at about $1,200).

WHERE TO STAY: Crown Beach Resort in Arorangi (011-682-23-953; www.crownbeach.com) has 22 one- and two-bedroom wood-paneled and thatch-roofed villas with eat-in kitchens ($214­$281 a night) perched directly on or just off the strand. Bungalows at the Muri Beachcomber ($93­$138; 682-21-022; www.cookpages.com/MuriBeachcomber) and Palm Grove ($69­$108; 682-20-002; www.cookpages.com/PalmGrove) are only slightly less posh—think linoleum rather than stained wood. Most units come with kitchens, and many sit right by the beach. For those hitchhiking their way across the Pacific, the ack-packers International Hostel ($6.50­$11; 682-21-847; or e-mail [email protected]) is surprisingly homey, with a big communal kitchen and a rooftop sundeck.

WILD RAROTONGA: Car, scooter, and bike rental shops (in Avarua try Budget/Polynesian Bike Hire, 682-20-895 or Avis, 682-22-833; car rental is about $22 per day) pop up all over the island, making transportation easy. You can snorkel almost anywhere, but the best site is on the south side off Titikaveka. Expect to see sunset wrasses, Moorish idols, yellow boxfish, and the occasional octopus. Barry Hill at Dive Rarotonga ($22­$26; 682-21-873; www .diveraro.com) knows every cave, drop-off, and wreck around the island, and has swum with humpback whales ("That'll give you dreams for a week," he says). If you're keen to hook fish rather than swim with them, Trevor Yorke at Manatee Fishing Charters can take you out beyond the reef to troll for barracuda and dogtooth tuna ($27; 682-22-560).

ISLAND EATS: You can't take a step without tripping over pawpaws (papayas), star fruits, bananas, or guavas. And then there are the fish: oysters, lobsters, wahoos, eels, yellowfins, scallops, green mussels, parrot fish—all just-off-the-hook fresh. Check out the Windjammer, Tumunu, and Flame Tree restaurants for steaks and seafood, fine New Zealand and Australian wines, and utensils. Other roadside attractions: the Ambala Garden & Café in Muri for organic breakfasts and lunches in a private botanical garden; in Avarua, Raro Fried Chicken, where the chicken-and-chips combo will easily satisfy your daily grease-'n'-salt quota.

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