Any guilt I had about leaving Tahiti earlier than I planned melted away the moment Rarotonga appeared in the window of the plane.
Like all Pacific islands, Rarotonga was created via vulcanism. You can think of islands on a continuum from the Big Island of Hawaii down to coral atolls. The Big Island is an active volcano with new land being created. Because it’s a geologically young island, there has been very little erosion and very little coral reef formation. Mauna Loa, the most active, is a classic shield volcano. As you look at older and older islands, their peeks get smaller and smaller and erosion creates dramatic valleys. Look at the next island over in Hawaii, Maui, and you can see exactly that. Peeks second only to the Big Island, but much more erosion evident, and more reefs than you will find on the Big Island.
Rarotonga is a small island which still has some evidence of the volcano which once created the island. The erosion of the volcano is very evident here. Valleys, cliffs, and needle formations are the most prominent features on the middle of the island. Unlike any of the main Hawaiian islands, Rarotonga has a a reef which is well developed and surrounds the island. As a result, there is a beach which surrounds almost the entire island and a lagoon area of about 200 yards from the beach to the reef where the water is relatively calm. Most of the surf breaks out on the reef and not on the beach.
As a result, you get the classic south pacific island white sand beach with palm trees lining the sand.
Just looking at the island, you can see how this island will one day (maybe a million years) become an atoll. The volcano will erode away and sink, the reef will grow, and all that will be left is a ring of coral and sand.
*Fun Fact* The theory of how atolls were formed was developed by Charles Darwin on the same trip to the Gallapagos where he developed his theories of natural selection. The Gallapagos, like Hawaii, are volcanically active and he was able to observe how the islands changed at they went away from the volcanic activity.
The Cook Islands issue their own passports and have their own currency and stamps. They are in a state of “free association” with New Zealand. This means that New Zealand is responsible for their defense and foreign policy, but they are not part of New Zealand per se. They are not 100% independent and do not have their own seat in the UN, like other Pacific nations like Samoa, Nauru, or Micronesia. I’m not totally sure what New Zealand gets out of the deal. The US also has a country that is in free association with us and most people probably don’t know it: The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. (CNMI) The US free association compact with CNMI is a total scam, but that’s another post for another time.
The Cook Islands parliament building is on Rarotonga across the street from the Airport. I think they only meet briefly a few times a year.
Their currency can be exchanged 1-to-1 with the New Zealand dollar and both currencies float around freely on the island. All of the cash I got from the ATM was New Zealand dollars. I don’t know if the Cook Islands have a paper bill over $3.
One interesting thing about their coins is that many of them appear to be non-circular. I have come across a $1 coin that is almost circular with a wavy edge, and a $2 coin that is a triangle.
The exchange rate is about NZ$1 = US$0.75, which is a historic low for the Dollar.
They drive on the left and use Australian/NZ electrical outlets. (imagine US plugs bent inward at 45 degrees).
Its a polynesian country. The people are culturally and linguistically similar to those I met on Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. I know I’ve encountered “Kapu” in the same context and spelling as you see it in Hawaii.
Everyone seems really nice. No resentment towards tourists whatsoever. When I arrived, I had a problem with my reservation. I walked from the airport to town (not that far) and some random stranger stopped to give me a lift. Hitchhiking is legal and very safe.
Everyone speaks english, usually with a New Zealand accent mixed with a polynesian accent. The degree of mixing can vary considerably.
Favorite sport seems to be rugby. Higher obesity rates here than Tahiti and Easter Island, but not as high as Hawaii. (Polynesian obesity rates are something I’ll address in a separate post some other time)
I’m staying at Rarotonga Backpackers. They have two facilities, one on the beach and one just up the road on the hill. I’m currently staying on the hill. Its a bit cheaper and the beach was full. The couple that owns it is very nice and they had an excellent BBQ last night with lamb and swordfish. The other residents are from all over, but mostly New Zealand and Australia. This is their “cold” season now and I guess this is the busy time for the Cook Islands.
Its a very nice place with a great location and super cheap. Something is usually going on every night. Wednesday night is an organized trip to a local bar. Fun.
If you ever fly to New Zealand and get a chance to stop over on Rarotonga, for the love of God do it. From what some people have told me, its only $150 more to do a Rarotonga stay over, especially if the dollar should ever rebound in the future.