Having a Gale of a Time on Rarotonga

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
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Trip End Oct 22, 2004


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Saturday, October 16, 2004

02/10/04

It was time to leave Fiji, but with a 5pm flight out of the country we had a few hours to spare, so outside our hotel we hailed a taxi being driven by the tiny but capable 'Deo' and headed for Nadi Town.

We'd heard on the Cyber grapevine that Nadi wasn't a town to spend too much time in, so we heeded the advice of the numerous faceless web chatters and just did what was necessary, our mission was simple: Go in; Do Internet; Buy Souvenirs; then Get Out.

Once in town we were surprised to find a regular busy Saturday morning high street, a high street that could have been anywhere in the world with its department stores, clothes shops and loitering kids.

After what seemed a lifetime on our desert island we were eager to log on and see what was happening back home, but some things never change: Blair under fire; Chelsea winning; and Noel Edmonds still out of a job.

Once our Internet fix had been satiated we headed across the road for little touristy trinkets at Nads souvenir shop, including a mini-Kava bowl, a mini-four pronged cannibal fork and a mini-lucky turtle. These will be utilised this Christmas as presents to disliked relatives (you'll have to let us know which one you want Brandon).

Once we'd handed over wads of Fijian Dollars, the shop kindly rang our little taxi driver for us and in no time Deo had arrived. DEEEEEEOOOOO, Deo come and he take us back home.

Back at Wests Motor Inn we killed time by the pool enjoying our first blue sky on Fiji's mainland, and at 2.30pm, Jone our driver from Sun Vacation magically turned up poolside in Mr Ben style.

After a fifteen-minute trip to the airport we bid farewell to Jone and checked in at a nice empty counter for flight NZ44 to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. At the airport's Italian restaurant we sliced through pizza slices in record time before negotiating our way through security checks. Once frisks were completed we ran a corridored gauntlet of duty-free shops all promising better prices than the next. We tested this promise by offering the last of our Fijian Dollars that amounted to $19 in exchange for two bottles of Jacobs Creek that were on offer at $24 and they accepted. Bartering at an airport duty-free!

Our quarter-full flight left on time and as soon as we were airborne it was time for musical chairs as aisle-seated Japs made kamikaze dashes for the nearest window seats.

The free seat in front of me was snapped up in no time and after dinner it was reclining-time for the land of the rising sun. With my laptop open and primed and a nice hot cup of coffee at my lips, the chair in front flipped back to horizontal mode without a word of sayonara or konichi-wa. Well, I could have eaten a plate of raw fish, I only just managed to stop the hot contents of my cup spilling onto expensive Apple circuitry. I've never had a man's face so near to my groin . . . honestly.

I'm ashamed to say the air turned blue for a minute and karate chops at 32,000 feet beckoned but after getting the attention of a stewardess she suggested we take the row of seats behind us. Well we would have hated our Japanese friend to have been inconvenienced in any way so we retreated from enemy lines one row. Just remember Pearl Harbour friend (damn, they won that didn't they?).

Later on the stewardess came over and asked what I'd like to drink.

"White wine please" I answered.

"Still?" she questioned.

"Yep, still on the white wine, I just can't say no."

[Ph-naar, ph-naar]

Soon we were crossing the International Date Line, a topic I'd touched upon in an earlier dispatch, and in the blink of an eye, 8pm on the 2nd of October had turned into 10pm on the 1st. In the time it had taken us to travel back one row; we'd travelled back in time 22 hours. 22 hours more life, yay!

We'd spent most of last year 11 hours ahead of the UK and now, in one foul swoop, we were 11 hours behind. If we thought about it too much our brains would have ached so we left it there.

Soon we were within range of the Cook Islands, a country that gained its independency from New Zealand in 1965, but still remains closely linked with benefits such as NZ citizenship and financial aid.

At 10pm we landed on the main island of Rarotonga, where we were met by the very school-mistressy (bordering on Gestapo), Akaiti Daniel, who one-handedly lassoed a couple of flowery necklaces over our heads and led us to a waiting pickup truck. For 45 minutes we sat in the back waiting for another flight to land which held another couple staying in the same bungalows, until finally we were on our way to Muri Beach and our home for the next week, Aroko Bungalows.

Once there, we were shown to a lagoon facing self-contained bungalow. Everything seemed nice enough in the dark and our home had a cooker, fridge freezer, sink, safe and bathroom with a verandah overlooking Muri Lagoon and two of Rarotonga's four motu (islands).

We then went for a quick moonlight stroll around the grounds where we came across our neighbours, a couple of Sydneysiders, although Paul was originally from Sarf London and Leisha was a Kiwi. Typical Sydney residents. After they'd filled us in on Rarotonga's finer points we withdrew to bed suffering from International Date Line Lag.


02/10/04 AGAIN!

We woke to our second 2nd October in 24 hours, and to the 7am sound of beating drums signalling the lead runner in this year's 30km Round Rarotonga Road Race. The island was beginning a week-long festival of running events including a relay and a cross-island jaunt.

Also on the island's activity list today was the Saturday morning Punanga Nui market held in the main town of Avarua. While waiting for the bus that would take us there we bumped into the other couple who checked in with us last night, a German guy with lower lip hair to match mine and his English-born girlfriend who now lived in Stuttgart. Can't anyone live in their own countries nowadays?

From what we could see from the bus, Rarotonga seemed a lovely island, well looked after by the locals with nice looking restaurants en route to the town. The main town of Avarua itself looked clean and tidy, with a little shopping mall, supermarket, cafes and was as civilized as anything we'd seen in New Zealand.

We strolled around a market bustling with local produce but with an air of a village fete, and today it was doubling as the finish line for the round-island road race where we saw the last couple cross the finish line, covering the 30km ring road in a little over 5 hours. This was a happy market, full of smiling Polynesians who didn't seem all that desperate for your trade, and treated the morning more as a chance for a chinwag to catch up on each other's weeks.

We then walked into town and headed straight for the police station to turn ourselves in. To get around the island you need a scooter, and to get a scooter you need a Cook Islands drivers licence, and to get a drivers licence you need to pass a short test, so after booking our tests with the local fuzz we headed next door to the Polynesian Bike Hire where we hired a 125cc Suzuki for the outrageous sum of $113 for six days (£40) before popping next door again to await our test.

After a 40-minute wait a rotund policeman appeared and gathered the five of us who were waiting for a quick rundown of the route and what he would be looking for. Our route would take us half a mile round the block and he'd be looking for us to indicate at turnings and stop at junctions. Straightforward?

As Soph and I were sharing a scooter I'd take my test first with three others and Soph would have to be subjected to a solo test. The four of us set off and after three minutes we'd all passed with flying colours. Enter Soph.

Soph hadn't ridden a scooter for a good fourteen years and on the policeman's command she shot off out of control like a Hell's Angel on speed, finally coming to a standstill forty yards up the road whereupon the policeman signalled her to push the bike back. On our test form he scribbled: Mr Pass and Mrs Fail.

For the first time in twenty years someone had failed the Cook Islands Scooter Test and Soph was distraught, even more so than when she failed her driving test. The PC offered his advice which was to get a more manageable lightweight 50cc scooter. I didn't mind chauffeuring Soph around the island, but Soph wanted her own bike, she wanted her independency. She was an Independent Lady.

Back at the police station I had my photo taken and received a snazzy little laminated drivers licence. When Soph saw the licence she didn't care about being able to drive solo around the island, she just desired a Cook Islands Licence that she could flash like a Platinum credit card. The brunette was now on a mission to get that card and nothing was going to stop her.

After a quick supermarket shop we cruised back to Muri Beach for lunch at Sails restaurant, a nice eatery overlooking a lagoon full of small boats, canoes and windsurfers. After a bit of an explore we changed for dinner and ventured down the road to 'That's Pasta' - they were Italian.

Considering the owners were from Milan our meal couldn't have been less Italian if they'd tried. Our overcooked pasta was served without Parmesan, without bread, without a pepper grinder, without candles and without an espresso to finish. They did have a CD playing Pavarotti's greatest hits though, but that soon started jumping only to be replaced by country and western. Still, it filled a hole.


3/10

However much Rarotonga seemed better than Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, it still had the same characteristically cloudy and windy weather. Nevertheless off we went on a round-island tour on our scooter stopping first at Avana Harbour and a circle of seven stones commemorating the starting point for seven canoes that sailed all the way to New Zealand in the fourteenth century, carrying settlers that were the ancestors of today's Maoris.

Next up was an old church in the town of Matavera, oddly built from limestone and slabs of hard coral, it's now looking a little weathered, and as we passed through Avarua once more a rusting boiler from the shipwreck of the SS Maitai could be seen offshore jutting out of the water. It had wrecked in 1916 with no loss of life but with total losses to its cargo of Model T Fords.

Through the main town we passed the airport, parliament, a golf course and Black Rock from where spirits of the dead supposedly commence their journey to the afterworld.

We then made our way south along the west coast, past a massive concrete jungle called the Edgewater Resort and soon stinging rain began to fall. Being a Sunday, the Cultural Village and the Highland Paradise, the star attractions on this side of the island, were both closed so on we sped through puddles down to the south-western corner of the island where we stopped briefly at the colourful resort of The Rarotongan to try and reserve a table for their weekly Island Night show but were informed that all 200 places had sold out.

We continued east along the south coast and past the abandoned ghostly site of an ambitious government project to build a Sheraton Resort, but it went belly-up in the early 90s. Nowadays it's just as much a tourist attraction as if had been finished, but it's responsible for half of the country's national debt.

After 30km we were arriving back on the east coast and Muri Beach, and in dire need of some lunch we burnt rubber in a mad dash through the rain in a vain attempt to catch lunchtime at Tamarind House, a nice restaurant near town, but arrived five minutes too late and had to settle for meat pies and pate from the local 7/11 store, the only shop seemingly open on a Sunday. We even got through a bottle of red wine, our first red in a while as it was that type of weather. It rained for the rest of the day forcing us to stay indoors and enjoy a protein-packed dinner of nuts and crisps.


4/10

The temperamental South Pacific weather had calmed down this morning, but heavy cloud still hung overhead. Nevertheless we scooted into town and straight to Rarotongan Rentals, a company that hired out little 50cc runarounds suitable for driving test flunkies like the brunette. Soph's ride resembled an Eastern Bloc bicycle but could reach a top speed of 50kmh with a tailwind, of which Rarotonga had an abundance. We then headed for the Cop Shop for Soph's re-test, where I popped off to an Internet café to avoid putting her off by pulling immature faces.

An hour later I arrived back at the Nick where Soph sat clutching a piece of paper that had a four-letter word scribbled onto it. Pass? Fail?

PASS!

Soph had completed four left hand corners without a hitch and had gained her little laminated licence of success. We went off to the popular Mama's Café for a slap up brunch to celebrate then headed to the nearest dive shop to invest in masks and snorkels for our two weeks in the Cook Islands.

Mrs Kneivel and I promptly shot straight back to Muri Beach where we pulled up in a cloud of dust opposite a little roadside joint called 'Fruits of Rarotonga' selling jams and chutneys. Apparently this section of sea offered the best snorkelling on the island so we adjusted our newly bought snorkel gear and headed into the deep. Being windy again, the waves were a bit choppy leading to inhalations of salt water every now and again, but in between coughing fits we spotted heaps of fish that we'd seen in Fiji including some really big tasty looking ones that would have gone down very well with some dill sauce. At times the water was a bit murky due to the conditions and nice coral was few and far between but we did spot Cornetfish, Goatfish, Butterflyfish, Trevally, Unicornfish and my favourite the Adidas fish due to it's similarity to a three-striped running shoe (it's since been identified as a Picasso Triggerfish). Our newly acquired fish 'ID' card was beginning to come in very handy. Sadly we never spotted a Michael Fish as apparently he's retired.

Dinner that evening was spent just along the road at 'Flame Tree', which used to be the best on the island, saying that, if 'That's Pasta' is all it's up against, that claim to fame couldn't be hard to attain.

We'd go as far as to say the food was 'nice' especially the seafood chowder, the staff were 'nice' and the décor was 'nice'. The Flame Tree was nice, but we were sure the island could offer more on the restaurant front.


5/10

On the way into town today we stopped by 'Tamarind House' to book a table for dinner before heading to Mama's Café where we . . . OK I, indulged in a colossal $12.95 'Power Breakfast' of fatty fried fare, while Soph had a wimpy breakfast of fruit and cereal.

Suitably stuffed we set off along the road to the Philatelic Bureau to buy a set of two quirky Cook Islands $3 notes in mint condition for $6 (funnily enough). Another souvenir that's going to end up in the attic collecting dust, we just can't get enough of them.

Our old foe, the weather, was behaving himself today and at times the sun would peak out from behind it's cloudy curtains, at which point we'd strip off and drop spread-eagled to the pavement to soak up gold-dust rays of sunshine.

We set off once more to 'Fruits of Rarotonga' where we braved a strong current that had us doggy-paddling like mad just to remain still in the water, but after fifteen-minutes of thrashing around we retired to the beach to read, battling a gale that would flick our pages over relentlessly. Although this didn't bother Soph, whose reading prowess has reached Superman proportions due to the 4,384 books she's read on our travels, and a two-second scan per page is all she now needs.

We drove back to Avarua for a swift beer before heading towards the airport to watch the beginning of the 'Round Rarotonga Relay Race', featuring unfit teams of five or ten runners from local companies, schools and families, and a team from the USA full of finely tuned athletes who were here to win even if it meant not having fun. U-S-A, U-S-A . . .

While the relay race made its way clockwise around the island, we made our way anti-clockwise on our scooters to see of we could complete a loop without encountering rain, but sure enough the west coast delivered a passing rain cloud that followed us all the way home where we bypassed the relay going the other way.

Our restaurant of choice tonight was 'Tamarind House', and it had a reputation as being the finest on the island. Once again, reputations count for nothing when a couple of gluttons like us are in town so off we went to claim our reserved table for two.

First impressions were good as we took our table in a newly renovated open-sided plantation house. The staff were probably the smartest dressed waitresses you're likely to see, and our view was across an immaculate lawn and out to sea.

We ordered glasses of bubbly and multi-national starters of Vietnamese fishcakes and a Tunisian salad. Everything was 'good slop' as we like to say in the restaurant-trade and we followed with mains of chicken curry and chicken Creole which were superb in taste and size of portions. The waitresses manners were as sharp as their tropical uniforms as well as every five-minutes one would come over for a lengthy chinwag to see if everything was OK, and they even seemed genuinely interested in where we'd been for the past year without even a hint of a yawn (take note everyone).

We finished with ice-cream and liqueur coffees at which stage there wasn't a free table to be seen in all the restaurant. Word gets around quickly and this would have to be the finest restaurant in the Cook Islands, if not the South Pacific.

We scootered home at a steady 30kmh along pitch-black roads, keeping an eye out for wandering dogs, of which this island has many.


6/10

Once again we headed into town for a poached egg breakfast-cum-lunch at Mama's Café followed by a leaf through the local bookshop.

Having tested all the Internet cafes in town for speed and cost, we shot back down to Muri Beach Internet café which was proving by far the quickest and cheapest on the island. After a quick browse we headed to the south coast with a view to sampling another recommended snorkelling area opposite the Starfish Café, but once again Rarotonga was proving a bit too gusty for watery pursuits so we zipped back to Muri for a nose around some swish lodgings called the Pacific Resort before heading home under threateningly dark clouds.

Back home I got stuck into the chunky tabloid that is the eight-page Cook Islands News which scraped the bottom of the information-barrel for interesting news but found nothing. The weather forecast did say 'isolated showers' though, so they were spot on, and at that precise moment a passing cloud let go of its isolated shower, duly isolating our bungalow.

For fear of running into another downpour we dined that evening on home-cooked pesto spaghetti that would have shamed the little Italian restaurant down the road.


7/10

On our regular sortie into town this morning we gave Mama's Café a miss to try out another greasy-spoon imaginatively called 'The Café', a place our trusty Lonely Planet guide had raved about as it roasted its own coffee on the premises.

Although their cooked breakfasts weren't as nice as Mama's, their bowls of latte were delectable, and a table packed with all the latest magazines allowed you to read 'Men's Fitness' while tucking into a greasy mound of streaky bacon.

It was about as sunny as it was ever going to be today, so we made our way back to our bungalow to catch some rays on the lagoon-side decking in front of our verandah.

While Soph read, I fired up the laptop for a quiet spot of laptopping. Suddenly a Kiwi lady, as mad as cut snakes, announced herself and invited us to hang around tonight as she and her husband were going to have a barbecue. Sadly we were both washing our hair this evening so we couldn't make it. While she hung around chatting, the Anglo-German couple who had arrived with us made an appearance with Gerhard wearing a multi-coloured posing pouch that left nothing to the imagination, but safe to say I won't be eating bratwurst in the near future. To complete the gang, Mr Kiwi-bloke then turned up fresh from the Ministry of Funny Walks, and if I had a Pound for everyone who said "I hope that's not work you're doing", I would have had £4 within five minutes.

We left our four neighbours chin-wagging and crept away under cover of a predictably strong wind, and before long we were back down the road at the Fruits of Rarotonga snorkel site to brave a two-foot swell. As soon as we dived beneath we saw probably the biggest fish we'd ever seen, an 80cm long Bluefin Trevally that swam away as soon as we clocked him. It's funny but in the snorkelling world it's the bigger fish who are more nervous than the little tiddlers, unless of course it's a shark. Maybe they realise how delicious they are steamed in banana leaves and served with a timbale of rice and a soupcon of parsley sauce?

We watched a fellow snorkeller hand-feeding droves of pecking fish with what looked like fish skins, until the food fell from his hands and was gobbled down in one by a seabed scavenger that crawled out from beneath a rock. Back on the beach we endured the relentless wind for as long as we could before heading back home to splash on cheap cologne for dinner.

During a previous visit to the local Internet café we'd overheard the owner raving about another Italian restaurant in town, so we thought we'd give it a go tonight as the chances of two awful Italian bistros on the same island was a long shot.

Being famished, as usual, we turned up on Portofino's doorstep bang on opening time and we're courteously met by a proprietor with a very Canadian Italian accent. We were shown to a table whereupon our hostess began a well-rehearsed robotic rundown of the menu, reciting more learnt lines than Vinnie Jones has ever had to deal with in his movie career.

She began:

"Hello, my name is Nancy McCartney and my husband Bruce and I would like to welcome you to our restaurant. We have gained a reputation for making the best pizzas and garlic bread on the island, among other things . . ."

And on she went, flicking over our menu pages as she went.

A quarter of an hour later and she'd left us to scan the menu ourselves. The guy in the Internet café had gushed about 'The Meat Lovers' pizza non-stop so my mind was made up immediately. 'It's superb but it's expensive', the guy had repeated five times to a customer. Soph went for the lasagne, a dish our Nancy had talked up to a pastafied fever pitch, and on the back of the menu was Nancy and Bruce's life story telling the love story of how they met in Montreal and got married four years ago on Rarotonga. Falling madly in love with the island as well as each other, they decided to relocate for good and bought the Portofino restaurant last year. Aaaaaah, you couldn't help but flood with fondness for our Bruce and Nancy.

Our large starters of chicken liver pate and garlic bread served as a precursor for what was to come. My large pizza was the size of a wagon wheel, and I'm not talking about the chocolate variety, and was smothered in sliced meaty goodness with a thick base of Bolognese. Soph's lasagne was served in a casserole dish and had more thick layers than an Eskimo in winter.

Fifteen minutes later and we were both beaten hands down even with the help of an ice cold bottle of white to wash it all down with, but it wasn't for wont of trying because both dishes were scrummy. These Canadians could sure show the Milanese down the road a thing or two.

By the time we'd finished the restaurant was as full as our bellies, and Nancy would flit around all the newcomers' tables with her Budget length speech, and not a line would be bodged or forgotten.

After crème brulees and coffee we endorsed the guestbook with a glowing tribute and signed a credit card stub for $115. Cheap at half the price, the high quality matched the big portions, and somehow our 125cc scooter creaked home with its cargo of fledgling Pavarottis.


8/10

This afternoon we were to leave Rarotonga to head for another Cook Island, or atoll to be more specific. Aitutaki was our next destination, a 40-minute flight north, so bags were to be packed once more.

What our hosts failed to tell us though was that they only do international flight transfers, even though we'd already paid in advance for them. International flights to and from Rarotonga only come and go at night, and our domestic flight was at 5pm.

We deduced from our hostess' attitude that a fifteen-minute drive to the airport would obviously have broken her daily routine of doing absolutely nothing. Nevertheless our hostess offered:

"If you pack ze bags in ten minuten I vill drop zem at ze airport!"

Akaiti Daniel, who'd picked us up from the airport and had nonchalantly slung a couple of flowery necklaces over our heads, definitely had had a bit of German in her . . . probably Goebbels in 1942.

With the threat of a South Pacific firing squad looming over us, we packed our rucsacs in a new record for the year and dumped them in the back of her pick-up truck, and soon she was off down the road with her KraftWerk tape blaring.

We scootered into town a little later with our hand luggage and stopped off at The Café for our last Rarotongan fry-up before wasting an hour in town checking we hadn't missed any attractions.

One attraction was the National Museum, housed in a newish-looking cultural centre just outside town. We hovered at the doorway peering in to see if it looked worthy of a $5 entry fee, but decided against it. Besides, the T-Shirt factory outlet shop down the road looked a lot more inviting with its rows of tacky tops. We somehow resisted the urge to fork out $10 on a 'Rarotongan Ruff Ryderz' vest and headed further into town for my monthly trim-up.

Hermie's Beauty Salon was at Cook's Corner and was run by a Phillipino duo. After I'd made the sharp-eyed observation that Rarotonga was a bit quieter than Manila, the hairdresser asked me if I'd been, as if my face looked familiar. I said no, resisting the urge to say 'Do I look like a forty-something saddo? After which I looked straight-ahead into the mirror and caught sight of a forty-something saddo staring straight back.

With hair shorn we stopped by Cook's Corner Café for a cold one before dropping my scooter off at the rentals, leaving just Soph's 50cc bone-shaker to get us to the airport. We still had an hour and a half to eradicate so we headed for a local beach a stone's throw from the airport, and as luck would have it the sun was out and the sky was blue, then again it usually is when we're just about to leave.

After 90-minutes bronzing we dropped Soph's not-very-mean machine off and walked across the road to the airport to catch our flight.

Rarotonga had been a windswept, rain-lashed paradise island and funnily enough we liked it. It's hard to explain but there was just something about the place. It was just the right size, neat and orderly, had very good restaurants and cafes, quiet roads, happy people (except for our hostess) and plenty of things going on to keep everyone occupied.

It was lucky the weather was ordinary or we may never have left, we just chose the wrong week of the year, still, we did get Cook Islands Drivers Licences, our favourite souvenirs so far. It was clear to see the island's handsome big brother, New Zealand, must have rubbed off on little Rarotonga.

Week 49 of 50 was unbelievably nearly upon us in the shape of another slice of paradise, Aitutaki, so get your spikes on, we're on the home straight . . .


Mr Pass & Mrs Fail
xx
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