Short Break: South of Eden

Mark Rowe is seduced by lagoons and coral sands in the Pacific's Cook Islands

Though they're well worth a holiday in their own right, the Cook Islands, located 2,000 miles north of Auckland in the South Pacific, can also be visited as a stop-over on the way to New Zealand and Australia. They are named after Captain James Cook, though he only visited one of the smallest of the 15 islands in the late 18th century. Today they are semi- independent, in free association with New Zealand. They are also a strong candidate for the happiest islands of the South Pacific - even car number plates have the words "kia orana" (good day) written on them.

Though they're well worth a holiday in their own right, the Cook Islands, located 2,000 miles north of Auckland in the South Pacific, can also be visited as a stop-over on the way to New Zealand and Australia. They are named after Captain James Cook, though he only visited one of the smallest of the 15 islands in the late 18th century. Today they are semi- independent, in free association with New Zealand. They are also a strong candidate for the happiest islands of the South Pacific - even car number plates have the words "kia orana" (good day) written on them.

Rarotonga, the main island, is just 18 miles round and is the classic South Seas idyll: tranquil lagoons fringed with coral sands, a mountainous interior and beautiful flowers everywhere. On arrival you will have an ei - a necklace of flowers - placed over your head (wearing a single flower behind your left ear means you're single, behind the right tells everyone you're "booked"). Thanks to the link with New Zealand, everyone speaks English and prices are up to 50 per cent cheaper than in neighbouring French Polynesia.

When to go

You can expect warmth and sunshine all year round, though the wet season runs from December to March when it is more humid. The coldest it ever gets is 20C, with daytime averages usually around 26C. However, combining a visit with one of the many festivals that take place is a fine way to learn more about the culture of the islanders. The Island Dance festival takes place during the third week of April, a haze of grass-reed skirts, coconut bras and ceremonial spears in which hip-wrigglers from all over the islands compete for the coveted Cook Islands dancer of the year award. The National Song Quest takes place over five weeks from the start of July, while music of a more religious tone takes centre stage on Gospel Day, 26 October.

The most visually striking event of all is the magnificent Tiare (floral) festival, which takes place in late November when the whole island seems to be bathed in gardenia and frangipani (hayfever sufferers should dose up well). The food festival also takes place in November, when the titles up for grabs include the Great Cook Islands Chicken Curry Cookout. If you want to visit for this, it may be wise to start dieting now.

How to get there

Air New Zealand (tel: 020-8741 2299) has daily flights from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, with connections to Rarotonga three times a week. Return flights to Rarotonga cost from £ 900 plus tax, dropping to £ 750 plus tax from 16 April. Returns to Auckland with a stop-off in the Cook Islands cost from £ 720 plus tax.

Getting around

Two buses circle Rarotonga in opposite directions, with a single ticket costing 60p. You can hire scooters for £ 10 per day, while cycles can be rented for £ 2 a day. Air Rarotonga offers air passes with discounts for multi-flights within the islands. One of the best ways to get around is by bicycle. Cycling the flat ring road gives wonderful views of the sea and the mountainous exterior.

What to see and do

Snorkelling is the top pastime. The coral reef has created a lagoon around much of the island and in places you need wade out barely 10 metres to encounter dozens of colourful and exotic fish. You may even spot a turtle. If you don't want to get wet, there are several glass-bottomed boats and a semi-submersible vessel giving great views. The more experienced can also go diving.

Island nights are unmissable, combining local food with astonishing dancing (don't be deterred if, like me, you usually run a mile at the words "local dancing"). Island nights take place everywhere but the one at the Edgewater Resort (tel: 00682 25435) on the west side of Rarotonga is difficult to beat.

Visit the Cultural Village where local guides show you how Cook Islanders used to live off the land. Learn, Blue Peter-style, how a coconut tree can sustain you for life, how to blow a conch and make baskets from the hibiscus tree. A cross-island trek will help blow away the cobwebs from the long flight and introduce you to an altogether different world. Thick jungle marks the way for the most of the three-hour walk, which takes you up to the Needle, a distinctive stone pillar offering views right across the island. Contact the Takitumu Conservation Area (tel: 00682 29906) for more information.

Try and take a flight to one of the other islands. Aitutaki - the mutiny on the Bounty took place after the ship left this island in 1789 - has the best lagoon of all. Atiu has raised coral cliffs and caves to explore, while Mauke is home to a divided church, which is half Cook Islands Christian Church and half Roman Catholic - a dividing line runs through the pulpit. Mauke also claims to have the most beautiful women because, so the story goes, cannibals from Atiu are said to have eaten all the ugly ones.

Food and drink

Good food is found everywhere - if anyone were to be served a bad meal it would probably be reported in the local paper. Cook Islanders are often a little broad in the beam, so they must be eating more than the abundant mangos, bananas, pineapple, paw-paw and coconut. The explanation lies in the vast portions you will receive and the delicious pastries, including frangipani cheesecake, paw-paw crumble and coconut and lime slices. Fish and seafood dominate most menus so make sure you enjoy the catch of the day. Vaima restaurant (£ 15 a head; tel:00682 26123), located on the south side of the island, has possibly the most romantic ambience. Flame Tree (£ 12 a head; tel: 00 682 25123) is a Kenyan restaurant and serves some of the best food on the island. Curried octopus (£ 4) is available at the Pacific Resort's Barefoot Bar, where you can also enjoy scrumptious toasted chicken sandwiches. Trader Jack's (£ 10 a head; tel: 00682 26464) in Avarua has a fine view of the harbour and serves giant dishes of chowder. Emil's Cafe (£ 4 a head), near Muri Beach, is a cheap and extremely cheerful location.

Where to stay

Rarotonga has some of the best hotel bargains in the South Pacific, offering comfortable rooms for all budgets. Pacific Resort and Villas (tel: 00682 20427; e-mail: thomas@pacificresort.co.ck) has charming bungalows set in a lovely wooded location right by Muri Beach for £ 80, all the way up to the mind-boggling luxury of a lagoon-side villa for £ 280. Honeymooners should head for the Manuia Beach Boutique Resort (tel: 00682 22461; e- mail: rooms@manuia.co.ck; rooms from £ 70) on the west side of the island, which offers front-row seats for those romantic sunsets. If you're single but get really carried away, then the hotel can even marry you in its beach-side chapel.

The Kiikii Motel (tel: 00682 21937; e-mail: relax@kiikiimotel.co.ck ) on the edge of the main town of Avarua has spotlessly clean rooms from £ 22 with a swimming pool overlooking the ocean. The owner was recently voted the friendliest hotelier on Rarotonga. Backpackers International Hostel (tel: 00 682 21849 ; e-mail: backpackers@oyster.net.ck), on the east side of Rarotonga, has rooms from £ 8 a night.

Nightlife

Friday night is party night and everyone heads into Avarua for drinks and dancing. Live bands perform at Trader Jack's while the nearby Staircase Restaurant also lays on music and dancing. Late-night buses will transport you home.

Packages

TransPacific Holidays (tel: 01293 567722) offers a week's accommodation at Pacific Resort and Villas in March for £ 1,555 including flights, dropping to £ 1,185 in May. OzTravel/Great Escape (tel: 020-7584 0202) offers tailor-made holidays, and has a one week all-inclusive break from £ 1,157 per person.

Further information

Contact the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (tel: 020-8876 1938; web: www.tcsp.com). Lonely Planet's Rarotonga and the Cook Islands (£ 8.99) is the most comprehensive guide to these lovely islands.

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