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COOK ISLANDS

(Daily Mail – 1999)
Not as friendly as they say they are


If anywhere is the South Pacific paradise of fantasy, it's surely the Cook islands. Here are the palm trees, the pristine white sand beaches, the blue lagoon, the beautiful brown girls in grass skirts, swivelling their hips to the island beat. If you holed up in one of the resorts, lay back in the sun on your lounger, and sipped the strong (if somewhat sickly) local cocktails, it would be quite easy to imagine you had stepped into one of those dream-posters that ad agencies use to titillate deskbound office workers in rainier climes.

Indeed, at the resort I started off at, on the main island of Rarotonga, there were plenty of people doing just that. Most were Kiwis of a certain age, giving their parchment skins a break from the New Zealand winter. There were also Americans, Italians, Germans, and a sprinkling of Aussies, including one pair of newlyweds who had brought a gaggle of their mates with them on honeymoon. His mates, I should say, since there was not one woman among the beer-swilling loudmouths who provided chorus for the grey-haired, pillow-bellied bridegroom and his lovely (if rather gormless-looking) young bride.

Stepping outside the cocktail-compound is not as alarming as it can be in some paradise idylls. The Sacred Road that circumnavigates Rarotonga is potholed, but not disastrously so. The island dogs, who with their comically short legs have the appearance of being the descendants of one particularly rampant Victorian corgi, are charmingly unaggressive. The jungle that covers the steep mountains that form the island's spectacular, cloud-kissed core, is dense and green, but entirely free from snakes. The locals are not unfriendly.

This last is a precise description, because they're not unduly friendly either. The brochures put out by the tourist office bang on endlessly about how welcoming the Cook Islanders are, and there are plenty of shining examples of individuals who are warm and upbeat with visitors. But quite a number of the people you deal with on a day-to-day basis, in shops and in the resorts, give the impression that they'd be quite happy if they never saw another tourist in their lives. 'The last lot were delicious,' says the ubiquitous T-shirt that features a bunch of tourists being tossed into a large cooking pot, 'please send more.' Sometimes I got the feeling that this was more wish-fantasy than joke.

But who can blame them? Rarotonga is ten kilometres long and six wide. It takes thirty minutes to drive round completely (and that's at the top island speed of 40 mph.) Up on the slopes of the mountains you may be able to get away from the international fluorescent horde, but even on the single quieter Back Road there are adventurous characters like myself buzzing noisily along on their rented 50cc hairdryer at odd times of day and night. And however much the Rarotongans exhort us to slow down to 'Cook Islands time', we visitors of a week or two still want the islanders to dance their traditional dances and behave like our new best friends, while simultaneously giving us five-star Western service and not mislaying our incoming faxes.

The problem is compounded because we are of course their main source of income. When you want TVs and computers and cars and mopeds and all those twentieth century things you can't just go on growing taro and pineapples, trawling the lovely lagoon and reef for parrotfish and crabs. Tourism is a necessity, and you like it or lump it or leave the island.

Paradoxically, it's surely this very obvious ambivalence towards outsiders that has kept the Cook Islands as relatively unspoilt as they are. If you want to buy land on the Cooks you can forget it; the only way in is to marry a local (not an unappealing proposition once you've seen one of the Island Nites.) If you want to start a business a Cook Islander has to be a 60% shareholder. The rather spooky half-finished buildings of the Sheraton-that-never-was on the island's west side are a testament to the attitude that has left the Sacred Road intact and windowless shacks with gorgeous beach frontages just a stone's throw from pricey resorts.

Hearing that a true, old-fashioned Cook Islands welcome was to be found on one of the outer islands, I flew the hour's hop north to Aitutaki, by all accounts the most visually stunning.

I wasn't disappointed. The main island sits, green and forested, at one side of a huge turquoise lagoon enclosed by the usual gorgeous necklace of surfswept reef. Other, smaller islands dot the perimeter. On one is a luxury resort, but I avoided that, taking the empty bus into the centre of the main village of Arutanga.

The contrast with Rarotonga was complete. My apartment on the beach had a rattling fan above the wobbling bed, a giant winged cockroach by the sink, and a mild smell of drains under the wooden balcony with the perfect lagoon view. It was self-catering, which meant a walk to a local shop where paw-paws cost 15p and white wine £10. And when I mounted my new hairdryer and headed off on the dirt road round the island I found not just children but older folk waving and smiling at me.

For all the relative lack of creature comforts, Cook Island friendliness was clearly intact here. As were other bits of old-worldliness. The Island Nite on the Saturday was more hilarious local knees-up than well-rehearsed tourist-fest. Church on Sunday was preceded by a procession of drums and Union Jacks that wouldn't have been out of place in Portadown. Then everyone inside stood at attention in their straw hats while 'God Save the Queen' was played.

Down on Ootu Beach afterwards Sam and Adrienne of the shacklike Samade Bar were cooking up a barbecue for locals and visitors alike. Under the palm trees, ladies with flower-garlands in their hair were drinking and singing traditional songs - as well as the odd burst of Whitney Houston. And when I went down to the lagoon's edge to snap the kids hooting around in the shallows, a cry of 'James Bond' went up. Obviously some Western influences had reached this remote place, but not, I thought, looking down at the belly that 007 would never have allowed himself, that many.

(ends)
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