Nono Henry’s family home has always had an open door policy.

Sitting on the tiled porch of the 140-year-old house once owned by her great-great grandfather, Nono tells of how locals find refuge here during the wet season. When their homes are flooded, Nono’s – sitting up from rising water levels – is a safe haven. Nomad tourists are given a bed too, in exchange for some help around the house and garden.

Tonight is no exception. Nono has welcomed a group of relaxed holidaymakers, including myself, into her home. We’re part of a Progressive Dinner Tour and enjoy a dessert of fresh tropical fruit, cakes and ice cream prepared by Nono as we listen to stories of life here in Rarotonga.

Earlier, we had relished lovingly prepared courses at two different homes in local villages; a taste of authentic island life we wouldn’t have experienced if not for the tour. The gentle strums of a ukulele were the soundtrack while we ate and, as twilight fell, we watched the homeowners light candles around the gravestones of their ancestors in celebration of Turama or All Souls Day – a festival to honour and remember those no longer here. Land in Rarotonga can only be leased, not sold. So it’s common to have loved ones buried on private property. Cook Islands INP1

It’s no secret the Cook Islands have a reputation as a warm and welcoming place. But sitting with locals in their own home literally reflects that generous hospitality. Twinkling stars reflect in crystal waters; the gentle fizz of waves a nearby whisper. The air is thick with the sweet fragrance of frangipani and gardenia and the glow of candlelight as other families come together to celebrate Turama. With a full stomach and an even fuller heart, I make my way back to my accommodation, Ikurangi Eco Retreats.

Built for the conscious traveller, the hideaway comprises of luxury glamping tents, each complete with a composting loo and an open air shower hidden beneath towering coconut palms. Ikurangi is the name of the mountain watching over Matavera village and translates to ‘tail of the sky.' Its dramatic rainforest terrain is often overlooked by visitors seeking white sand and aqua waters, yet I find its beauty equally alluring.

Instead of exploring the island atop one of the retreat’s bikes available to guests, I join a Storyteller’s Eco-Cycle Tour. I trace the tyre tracks of my guide, affectionately known as Uncle Jimmy. We go off road, pedalling past crops of taro and sweet potato and ripening mango trees. “These ancient back roads are known as the pathway of our ancestors,” Uncle Jimmy explains.

Listening excitedly to stories about the island’s rich culture and heritage, we weave our way to higher ground: Uncle Jimmy has a surprise in store. The day is hot and despite our easy pace, beads of sweat form on my skin. Parting overgrown palms, we clamber down a steep track and are met with a waterhole complete with its own waterfall. 

For a small island with a 32km border, Rarotonga has a huge heartbeat. There is lots going on here: biking with Raro Quad Tours, paddle boarding at Muri Beach, a soothing yoga class, or a walk through the tranquil Maire Nui Gardens. But I have a mission to conquer: swimming with turtles.

Biting into a juicy fish sandwich at The Mooring Fish Cafe is the perfect fuel for an afternoon on a Sea Scooter Safari with Ariki Adventures. Gripping the device that allows me to travel up to 4km/h underwater effortlessly, I gaze down at clusters of coral and schools of bright, shimmering fish in the blue lagoon; our guide keeping us a safe distance from the edge of the reef. A pang of nerves shoots through me but only for a second as I realise the reef sharks circling gracefully underneath are harmless. Hovering above amber coral is what we’ve come to see: the Hawksbill turtle. The endangered species glides inquisitively alongside us before picking up pace and disappearing into the void ahead. Cook Islands INP2

Back in the comfort of my tent, I’m tempted to order another Island Platter packed with fresh produce and prepared by local chef Jenni Stewart. The previous night, Jenni had delivered delicious morsels, including succulent tuna caught that day. But a short drive along the ribbon of road cloaked in dripping banyan trees takes me to Muri Beach Club for its Island Night Extravaganza. The traditional soulful song and dance performed by local dance group, Akirata, reverberates through my body and gives me a spring in my step which I carry with me for days to come.

Less than an hour’s flight to the north of Rarotonga is Aitutaki. One of the 15 clusters making up the Cook Islands, it sits inside a vast, mesmerising lagoon encircled by coral reefs and small, sandy motus or islets.

Puna, our guide on board Aitutaki Adventures lagoon cruise, serves freshly carved coconut and watermelon as he steers his boat through the water. I gaze out toward a constellation of luscious green islands floating in idyllic pale water with sandy yellow rings around them, ethereal like Saturn. Snorkelling is otherworldly here. An octopus finds breakfast among the coral and a turtle paddles briskly through a light current. A barbecue lunch awaits us as we moor on One Foot Island.

What an incredibly indulgent day it would be to relax on the shores in front of my accommodation, Tamanu Beach Resort, but it would be a wasted opportunity to not explore the little island. I battle the balmy air up to Maunga Pu summit; spindly coconut palms guiding my weary physique toward a magical vista of panoramic views. The sight of the dreamlike turquoise lagoon is rejuvenating. After all, Aitutaki means ‘to keep the fire going.’ It most definitely has a way of reigniting the soul. 

Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue

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The writer travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism

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