A paradise of fruit and fish awaits you in the Cook Islands. And there's this guy called Bruce... By Malcolm Senior
Fat, freckled and full of taste, the Cook Island banana is beyond compare. Alas, due to market economics the only place to eat it is in the islands themselves.

Travelling halfway around the world for a piece of fruit may be an eccentric reason to visit Rarotonga - but there are others. The Cook Islands stretch over a huge expanse of Pacific Ocean, south of the equator and east of the International Dateline. In spite of this apparent remoteness, the Cook Islands are the most accessible part of Polynesia. A direct flight with a brief stopover in Los Angeles is all that separates Britain from the laid-back life of Rarotonga.

And the islands need you right now; after all, they are technically bankrupt. Not that you'd notice. For, as one local told me, all you need to live simply is here.

You want fish? You wade into the lagoon that surrounds the island. You want fruit? Well, take your pick. Paw-paw - you bang that tree. Mango - it's the next one along. Thirsty? Then it's the coconut routine, for the best liquid that nature can offer. And then there are the bananas.

So why are the Eden-like Cook Islands bankrupt? The reason can be put down to a fiasco of a joint business deal involving the government and an Italian group to build a huge Sheraton resort hotel on the southern part of Rarotonga. All was going well until a few years ago, when investigations into corruption began in Milan and the rest of Italy; then the promised millions to build this example of Euro-Polynesian co-operation suddenly dried up. Now the only inhabitants of the half-built complex are packs of dogs that amble about from one shaded palm to another.

Just up the road from the Sheraton, a new place to stay has been set up. Bruce Young and his Cook Island aristocrat of a wife, Nga, have four chalets available for hire, operating under the name of Daydreamer. The spotless, spacious rooms with air-conditioning would be reasons enough to recommend staying there, but Daydreamer's strongest feature is Bruce himself. Perpetually clad in vest and shorts, he is the very definition of the avuncular host.

From the moment that he meets you at the airport, where you are bundled into a sweet-smelling lei, or floral necklace, to the time of your departure, Bruce will keep you occupied. There is the grand tour of the island, done in a battered Ford estate, where the island's history is mixed with a spot of cricket-watching, a trip to the hardware store and an exclusive visit to a mate's garage, before ending up at the game fisherman's boat, where Bruce will gleefully admit never to going fishing himself because he gets seasick. The only charge made is the payment of the tab at each of the many spots that will serve a beer. As for the evening, there is always the chance of one of Bruce's many barbecues, where the guest's role is to provide some food and more beer, and then eat as much as possible.

Across the circular road which is Rarotonga's M25, and just up from Bruce's Daydreamer, is some of the best snorkelling on an island that is abundant with accessible coral in a shallow lagoon. Less than a minute of wading will get you to beautiful coral gardens, full of mostly affable, multicoloured fish. Best of all, if you get tired there is no swim back to the shore - instead, you simply plant your feet on the sandy bottom and have a rest, contemplating the clear skies around you and the beach a few yards away.

Mind you, there is one thing to warn you of as you muse on your good fortune. Rarotonga lagoon has the most fearless parrotfish I've encountered. These brightly coloured chaps are no more than a few inches long, but are fiercely territorial. At the earliest opportunity one will come charging out from a coral crevice, with nothing but marine evil in its small mind. My attempts to scare one away, by forlornly beating my snorkel at it as it puffed out its fishy chest, were met with contempt.

If all this feverish activity has given you a hunger that cannot be satisfied even by the Cook island banana, then rejoice. Rarotonga is blessed with at least three excellent restaurants, the best of which is the Flame Tree. A journey to it is not easily forgotten, either. Most diners take the round-the-island bus, which ferries everyone around throughout the day for a few dollars. Having caught sight of the restaurant in the near distance, visitors become alarmed as the bus turns down what looks like little more than a dusty track. The concern grows as the driver appears hell-bent on taking his bus and passengers to a watery grave as the ocean looms. A sharp left reveals rugby posts on a playing field right next to the Pacific Ocean and the bus bumps to the far corner, before emptying its bewildered customers to the back door of the restaurant. "I'll be back at 10.15," shouts the driver as the diners disappear into the dark.

The Flame Tree is run by Sue Carruthers, a Kenyan, who named her superb restaurant after the trees that bloom scarlet at the height of the southern hemisphere summer. The food is a South Pacific melting-pot of some European cuisine mixed with South-east Asian styles and made with local fruit and vegetables. The restaurant is airy, and its dining area is surrounded by small pools, and linked with specially made footbridges.

Speedy diners, waiting for the return bus and arriving early to the corner of a far-flung field that will be forever a bus queue, have the prospect of a sumptuous night sky to gaze at. Vast numbers of bright stars seemingly at fingertip proximity, swished around with what looks like wispy cotton wool.

There are things to do, if this prospect is not enough to keep you occupied. The sharp, tooth-shaped ridges of rocky hills that from the centre of the island allow for one trans-island path, and a hard, sweaty slog over the narrow pass between two of the island's larger hills. Again, the round-the-island bus will pick you up from either end. But much the most pleasant form of exercise is to borrow Bruce's rusting mountain bike and pedal around the island, working up just enough of a sweat to warrant yet another dip in the warm waters of the lagoon before flopping down on to a towel on the empty beach. Now, where's my bag of bananas?

Getting there

Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299) has a connection to Rarotonga each Friday from London Heathrow via Los Angeles. The journey time is just short of 24 hours. The lowest official fare for travel in May or June is pounds 794 including UK tax, but the discount agency Flightbookers (0171-757 2444) quotes pounds 752. A round-the-world itinerary, including a stop at Rarotonga, is available for only a little more. Malcolm Senior paid pounds 845 to Austravel (0171-734 7755) for a London-Auckland ticket, travelling out on Air New Zealand via Rarotonga and returning on Britannia.

Sleeping and eating

Malcolm Senior paid 77 Cook Island dollars (equivalent to New Zealand dollars, pounds 33) per night to stay at the Daydreamer. You can book direct on 00 682 25965. Austravel's new South Pacific brochure includes details of more expensive hotels, such as the Rarotongan Resort, costing pounds 80 per room per night.

More information

South Pacific Handbook by David Stanley (Moon, pounds 14.95); Rarotonga and the Cook Islands by Nancy Keller and Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet, pounds 6.95).