Travel Story 

Cook Islands paradise

Relaxing on Rarotonga

A brightly coloured, foot-long fish darted out of the coral and charged straight at my mask. It glanced off my head, gave my arm a nip and wheeled around for another attack. It is early November, spring in the South Pacific, and in the spring the thoughts of trigger fish turn to – well – protecting their breeding territory. The testosterone-driven attacks are harmless but no less startling to an unsuspecting, jet-lagged northern interloper.

I moved away from the disputed coral head and tipped back my mask and snorkel. Two hundred yards from shore, in the middle of the lagoon, the incredibly clear, warm water is still only chest deep so I let my fins settle to the bottom and take a good look around. The white sand beach where I started my swim is lined with a double row of coconut palms. Behind the palms a dense growth of flowering trees screens the thatched roofs of the Pacific Beach Resort where we are staying, and behind them the rugged, jungle-draped mountains of central Rarotonga, largest and youngest of the Cook Islands.

We arrived at Rarotonga after a four-hour flight from Auckland and checked in at the Pacific Beach Resort at 2 in the morning. Four hours later we were wakened by the persistent crowing of a rooster perched on one of our patio chairs. A fussy old hen, waiting outside our door, demanded that we feed her nine chicks before allowing us to leave, bleary-eyed, in search of morning coffee.

From the private patio of our spacious room the cobbled walkway leads past flowering trees and shrubs (fragipani, hibiscus, and bougainvillaea), across a bridge where we paused to stare back at wide-mouthed tropical fish, and finally to the dining room where we were greeted with a friendly "kia orana." The atmosphere reminded me of Hawaii 40 years ago, when tourism was still blended with the bucolic charm of rural Polynesia.

Helping ourselves to tropical fruit and fresh baked bread we sat at a table overlooking a pond dotted with purple water lilies and shared our breakfast with the resident rooster who had earlier shattered our brief night's sleep. The thatch-roofed dining room has no walls so chickens and mynah birds come and go at will, adding their chatter to the rustle of palm fronds in the morning breeze and the sound of surf breaking on the reef – beckoning us to the ocean.

Revived by an early morning swim we traded our snorkels for a couple of kayaks and paddled out to the reef. Wind-blown swells from the open Pacific curl into steep-sided breakers and crash against the shore sending streamers of white foam skittering across the coral rings, around our legs, and into the calm shallow water of the lagoon.

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