(Australian Associated Press)
Visitors to the Pacific island of Rarotonga – the largest of the Cook Islands and the land of the long, white beach – never want to leave.
For the locals, though, it’s a different story.
By law, land can’t be sold to offshore buyers, so the tourism industry isn’t what it could be. A 1980s attempt at a Sheraton on the island’s northwest coast stands eerily abandoned as a testament.
Rudy, the softly spoken Hawaiian-born custodian of my bungalow, provides an insight.
“I love it here. It’s not so American,” he says.
“But the young people don’t stay too long anymore.”
Pae, a local pool shark, was once a chef at one of the resorts.
“Just got sick of it, hey,” he explained as he potted the 8 ball on the best of Raro’s three pool tables. Now he works as a bricklayer, supplementing his income in other ways.
Ken runs a nondescript store along the main road that runs around the island.
“I’m actually a chief,” he says as he wipes his moist forehead.
Even in the dingy little shop, it’s hot – the kind of thick humidity that makes you want to run down to the nearest beach and wash it off.
Fortunately, that’s entirely possible from almost any point along the main road, Ara Tapu, a 32km round trip that passes the villages, resorts and beaches so vital to the tourist experience.
To city slickers it’s a dream: no gridlock, no traffic lights, and peak hour comes when there are more street dogs wandering across the road than usual.
It’s a novelty that’s lost on Ken.
“I moved to New Zealand when I was young,” he says. “And I was glad to leave.”
It’s a familiar tale. For every tourist eager to spend a fortnight soaking up the sun and leaving life behind, a local heads to the nearest country of opportunity, usually New Zealand, in search of a life.
“I had to come back in the 70s after my father died, because he was a chief. And his father was a chief. And now …”
He gestures around the shop; his fiefdom.
Still, it beats an office.
There certainly are offices in Raro. And a court. And a landfill. Most tourists get off the plane thinking it’s a tropical paradise untouched by the western world.
They’re not entirely wrong, but between the bars, the nightclubs, the surprisingly modern cinema and the ubiquitous Party Bus, Rarotongan society remains a curious mixture of colonialism as local customs.
“If I wanted to cut your head off,” Ken says dryly, “I’d have to have about five separate tribal meetings.”
“By the time we’d all voted, you’d have already run off with your head intact.”
I step out of the shop and into the shrill afternoon sun as two holidaymakers zoom past on one of the scooters preferred by the islanders. I knock back my Coke and look across the road to the cool, inviting, impossibly blue water of Muri lagoon.
It’s got to be worth risking your neck for.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Rarotonga is a 7hr flight from Sydney, 8hrs from Melbourne and 9hrs from Brisbane, including stopovers.
Air New Zealand operates flights to Rarotonga six times a week from Auckland (4hrs), and once a week from Sydney (6hrs). Go to airnewzealand.com.au Flights to Aitutaki and the other Cook Islands from Rarotonga start at $A340 per person return.
For more, go to airraro.com
STAYING THERE: Tropical Sands offers five self-catering beach houses with large balconies and a laid back atmosphere. It’s five minutes from the popular Muri Beach. Prices start at $A160 per night for the beach bungalow. For more, visit tropicalsands.co.ck Muri Beach Club is Rarotonga’s premier adults only resort located in the heart of Muri. It’s a popular choice for couples and has a pool, a restaurant and a spa. Prices start at $A240 per night for the premier garden room. For more, visit muribeachclubhotel.com
PLAYING THERE: Snorkelling, scuba diving and glass-bottom boat tours are available all year round.
Bicycle and scooter hire is widely available. For other activities in the Cook Islands, check out cookislands.travel