Rarotongan Heart and Soul.
After lolling about in the iridescent lagoon, Mike Yardley ventured into the hinterland, where Rarotonga's real riches await.
I awoke each morning to the “Tail of the Sky,” Mt. Ikurangi, gilded in the glow of the rising sun, while basking in the environmentally-friendly embrace of Ikurangi Eco-retreat.Suitably, this leader in sustainability-focused luxury accommodation is nestled in the heart of Rarotonga’s interior, because it’s absolutely where the magic happens. Beyond the beach, the broad arc of sugar-white sands and the crisp lagoon palette of electric blues and turquoise hues, the hinterland of Rarotonga vividly reveals the life and soul of this South Pacific island jewel.Locals loosely consider the coastline-hugging main circle island road as the “tourist road.” The backroad, Te Ara Metua, and its adjoining lanes is like entering another world, where the beating heart of Rarotongan authenticity slaps you in the face at every turn with its living history and village vitality. Much of the backroad is a 1000 years old, constructed from coral stone and basalt rock, by the great chief Toi.Prior to European contact, Rarotongans predominantly lived in the foothills of the island, in the shadow of the towering volcanic peaks that serrate the skyline with a Jurassic Park-style aura. Villagers would only venture down to the coastline to fish and collect seafood. The interior provided much greater protection from tropical cyclones and potential enemy attacks. Ireland’s fabled “40 Shades of Green” would meet their match on Rarotonga’s backroads.
The rich, volcanic soils and tropical climate conspire to produce rampantly fertile growing conditions for a kaleidoscope of lush and verdant species. The backroad is like an open-air supermarket and pharmacy, where trees groan and heave with succulent fruit ripe for the picking, alongside an encyclopaedia of traditional medicinal plants. As I picked giant paw-paws from a roadside tree, playful piglets cavorted in paddocks while goats munched contentedly on the leftovers of a freshly harvested taro plantation. The interior's modest village homes are cherrily painted.The backroad ushers you into a timeless world of free-range harmony in abundance. On my various forays along the backroad, I also lustily feasted on freshly-plucked mango, guava, bananas and star-fruit. If you’re doing a self-drive, keep an eye out for roaming animals. A massive pig barrelled out in front of me, staring out at me in panic before frantically hoofing it across the road. I slammed on the brakes of my rental, gripped by the fear of the insurance excess, managing to save his bacon and my bank account.
There are many ways to get a flavour for Rarotonga’s green heart, including taking a ride with the recently launched Tik-e Tours. These tropical 3 wheeler luxury tuk-tuk limousines are fully electric, so unlike the racket they make on the streets of Bangkok, these beauties will glide you around Rarotonga’s ravishing interior in virtual silence. 100% electric, 100% fun.And with well-padded cream-coloured seating, they’re supremely comfortable. My driver/guide was a worldly elder called Mata, who had spent most of his working life as a prison guard. And yes, he even took me to Rarotonga’s Prison, as part of the tour! (In trademark South Pacific style, it was a very low-key, laidback kind of lock-up.) Mata is a natural and charismatic raconteur, who effortlessly shared his richness of knowledge and know-how, across a full spectrum of topics, spanning culture, history, the economy and village life.Throughout my tour, every passer-by warmly waved out to Mata, or stopped to chat. One chap we talked to was busy cultivating noni fruit by hand. Lauded by locals for centuries for its numerous health benefits, noni juice has taken the world by storm, widely prized for its multiple preventative and healing properties, from arthritis to cholesterol. Left to ferment for several months in plantation barrels and cold squeezed to extract the juice, this herbal tonic is the Cook Islands’ No.1 agricultural export product. You’ll see sprawling noni fruit plantations all through the interior.My two hour tour traversed a slew of insights, including stops at ancient marae sites, a rendezvous with Government House, which proudly hosted Hillary Clinton a few years ago, the magnificently carved new war memorial in honour of the 500 local soldiers who fought in World War I for the New Zealand Army, the new Rarotonga Brewery ( serving highly thirst-quenching lager on-tap), Tinomana Palace, the National Cultural Centre and back out to the coast, to the sacred site of Avana Harbour.It was here in 700BC that Polynesian voyaging canoes made their first Rarotonga landing, arriving from Tahiti and Samoa. Avana Passage was also the departure point for the great migration to Aotearoa, in approximately 1350AD. Mata remarked that although the names of the 7 lead canoes are proudly emblazoned on the hoardings at Avana, it’s believed 200 canoes actually took part in the great voyage south. The great chief, Kupe, and his brother Ngake (Ngahue) are credited with discovering Aotearoa around 900AD.Today, Avana is the home to Marumaruatua, a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe. It’s an evocative sight. Operating for just over a year, Tik-e Tours offers personalised island tours, transfers, cocktail happy-hour hopping, corporate and private events, and even wedding limos. The people behind Tik-e Tours are Cook Islander Tania Farman and her husband, Karl, who have swapped corporate life in Auckland for the Rarotongan lifestyle, while injecting an innovative and eco-friendly tourism product into the mix. www.tik-etours.com
Sustainability in Paradise
Rarotonga’s sustainability credentials are rapidly spreading, as exemplified by the increasingly prolific sight of solar panels across the island. Some islands in the Cooks are now solely reliant on solar energy, with Rarotonga on-track to being totally powered by renewable energy by 2020.Established by Luana and Matt Scowcroft last year, Ikurangi Eco-retreat is a thoughtfully created accommodation offering which treads a very light footprint. Swaddled in banana, coconut palm and flame trees, the two Are and four glamping tents are perched on meticulously tended lawns. You’ll notice the sustainability elements wherever you turn. The toilets are self-composting, the beautiful toiletries by Ashley & Co are studiously organic, the natural and biodegradable cleaning products, a sustainable waste management system, all materials are sustainably sourced, there’s free use of bicycles to go exploring…and so on.Being uber-boutique, the experience is absolutely distinctive, personalised and ultra-attentive. Luana says “We think of it as a unique combination of the allure of a safari with the romance of the South Seas…where luxury meets sustainability!” I loved sleeping in my luxury safari tent, stunningly furnished, and perched on a deck to allow airflow. A tropical breakfast was delivered to my deck each morning and I adored the locally-roasted, fair trade plunger coffee.Revel in the novelty of showering in the open-air bathroom, swaddled by bountiful banana trees. And when the heat of day started to take its toll, I happily lolled about in the beautiful on-site pool. Set amid the bountiful hinterland beauty, but just minutes from the beach, Ikurangi Eco-Resort is a masterclass in sustainable paradise. Five per cent of Ikurangi Eco Retreat profits go to local conservation initiatives. www.ikurangi.comOn a similar note, I do love how Rarotonga is replete with colourful roadside stalls brimming with freshly picked produce and alluring treats, like organic fruit ice cream. I implore you to stop by and shop at these stalls, which directly helps villagers supplement their incomes. It’s a great way to give back and share the love in this little paradise. And if that all sounds a little bit too virtuous - just enjoy the bargain buys! www.feelraro.co.nzAir New Zealand operates up to 11 flights weekly, direct from Auckland to beautiful Rarotonga. Enjoy the wide-bodied comfort of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner that services the route. Bag a flight time and fare that suits at www.airnewzealand.co.nz