About the Islands
First stop: Rarotonga
Rarotonga, one of 15 islands in the Cook Islands, is one of the last remaining paradises on Earth. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. It’s often been described as a miniature Moorea. Travel writer Arthur Frommer lists Rarotonga as the 3rd most beautiful island in the South Pacific (behind Tahiti’s Moorea and Bora Bora). James Michener said it’s even better than Tahiti, in terms of beauty, climate, and hospitality of the people.
Because Rarotonga is so remote from Europe and the United States (the closet nation is New Zealand, over 1700 miles away), it has never become densely populated, as Hawaii and Tahiti have. In fact, because so many Cook Islanders are moving to New Zealand, the population has been dwindling for years. Currently, the entire nation has about 20,000 people scattered across its 15 far-flung islands. The largest island, Rarotonga, has a population of around 10,000 people. Barely a speck on the map, Rarotonga measure just six miles from end-to-end. The interior of the island is virtually uninhabited. The coast is sparsely developed. If you want to go shopping you can visit every store on the island in an afternoon.
For the last 1000 years, Rarotonga has managed to retain a unique South Pacific culture. But about ten years ago, the Sheraton chain broke ground on the island to build a huge destination resort. When we visited the island in 1994, construction workers were just beginning to build the hotel. We were sure the hotel would ruin this island. Eventually, planeloads of tourists would start rolling in, and the place would resemble the garish Kaanapali Beach on Maui. The postage stamp sized capitol, Avarua, would soon have a Gap and a Starbucks.
Fortunately, the Sheraton project went bust when it was about 80% finished. An Italian investment company tied to the Mafia had embezzled the remaining funds out of the country. The ruins of the resort are now covered in rapacious island vegetation creeping in from the jungle. Horses and cattle contentedly graze in the shadows of the unoccupied concrete structures.