1789, the year George Washington was chosen President, and John Adams was chosen Vice-President by the electoral college of the newly formed United States of America, the Bastille Prison in France was stormed by the commoners, thus kicking off the French Revolution, and, among other momentous happenings, the now famous Mutiny on the Bounty occurred, later to be immortalized by the films of the same name starring such luminaries in various versions, as Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando, and Mel Gibson. The electoral college has withstood the test of time, as has the French Revolution. However, without the wonderfulness of Hollywood, captain William Bligh, Fletcher Christian, and the crew of the HMS Bounty would have been but a brief footnote in British naval history. The reason that the Bounty boys figure into this narrative is that following the mutiny, Bligh, along with a few loyal shipmates, was set adrift in a dingy that he somehow managed to navigate to the Cook Islands, the setting for this, I hope, enjoyable South Pacific story, featuring my wife, Naomi, and me. By the way, yes, Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, along with Ai Tutaki Island, where captain Bligh landed, are both as shockingly beautiful as the movies show them to be. There is no color enhancement necessary.
After a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from LAX, and a fifteen-minute shuttle ride to our hotel, the Sunset Resort, we were greeted by a phantasmagorical display of island flora and surf, so colorful, that it looked like an out-of-control Technicolor movie of days gone by. We were told by the desk clerk that there is little, or no wifi, or off-island phone access. Thus, we determined to shed our pecuniary ways, and simply wallow in the sybaritic surroundings for the next two weeks. As luck would have it, to aid these endeavors, our apartment, #4, was beachside.
Following a short nap, we had a fish ‘n’ chips lunch at the Anchorage Restaurant, located in the resort, which was terrific. Obviously, the fish was fresh. At least it wasn’t moving.
Dinner was a barbecue buffet and show, which consisted of Polynesian dancing and sarong wrapping lessons that would have made Dorothy Lamour proud. All of this was to the accompaniment of 8-stringed Tahitian ukuleles, pronounced oo-ke-le-lees. Their sound is incredible. The three musicians allowed me to pluck one of them for a little while after the show. The strings looked very strange to me. I asked what kind of strings they used for their instruments. All three answered in unison, “twenty-pound fishing line.” The tuning is also different from a Hawaiian ukulele. For those of you who play, here it is: Sol Do Mi La, all ascending. One of the “pluckers” used an ukulele made from a coconut. It had only four strings, but was tuned the same way as the others. After the dinner/show we went outside to check out the stars. We were not disappointed. What a magnificent display in the sky, and what a fitting way to end a fantastic, and lengthy day.
Up bright and early for a terrific breakfast of tropical fruits, toast, served with New Zealand butter (which is incredible), and New Zealand (ETA brand) peanut butter. The peanut butter tasted like the peanut butter in Reese’s Pieces. The pineapple was non-acidic. The papaya is called “paw paw fruit.” The language of the locals is a dialect of Maori. A few chosen words in the right situation smoothed over what could have been some bumpy interactions. Here’s a list that came in handy:
KIA ORANA (KEE-AH-OR-AHNA)….HELLO
AERE RA (EYE-RAY RA)…GOOD BYE
MEITAKI (MAY-TAH-KEY)…THANK YOU
TEIA RA (TAY-EE-A-RA)…TODAY
Strangely, the only people we had a bit of trouble understanding were the New Zealanders, who are called Kiwis by the islanders and by the New Zealanders themselves.
Public transportation consists of taxis and two buses that circle the island. One goes clockwise. The other goes “anti-clockwise,” or as we say, counter-clockwise. The cars and buses, as well as the streets are set up for UK style driving, which makes for some fun situations if you’re not used to it.
Having a full kitchen in our apartment, we decided to avail ourselves of the local fruits, vegetables, meats, and other sundry victuals available at the local markets. After securing NZ peanut butter, and NZ butter, we found what we were looking for in the produce section. Because almost all of the produce is imported, the prices are a bit steep. For example, one head of cabbage was $15.00. Nonetheless, we loaded up on groceries so that we weren’t at the mercy of the local restaurants, which seemed to have the same prices as each other for similar entrees, which were, of course rather inflated to say the least. Perhaps due to the proximity of New Zealand, the least expensive meat, including chicken, was ground lamb. Thus it was, that lamb-burgers were on our home menu. Finally, we found a wonderful restaurant, Trader Jack’s, that was located beach-side with a wonderful view, great service, and fabulous food…value received. Naomi had the fish ‘n’ chips, which was fabulous. I had what they called “crawfish,” which is actually a large lobster tail, done to perfection. Needless to say, there were no leftovers.
The daily snorkeling was incredible. One day, however, a huge wave came in to shore and tossed us around a bit. It really taught us what a champagne cork in a flushing toilet feels like. We both sustained some bruises and scrapes. Oh well, such are the hazards of a hard day at play.
One afternoon, while prowling around, we came upon the World War I tribute to the 500 Cook Islanders who served in Europe during that massive misunderstanding. The islanders were used mainly to operate small boats for delivering ammo to the front lines. They were obviously suited to the job, and acquitted themselves quite well.
We saw an advertisement for a snorkeling trip to Muri Beach operated by Captain Tama’s organization. It was an all-day trip, including snorkeling at various choice locations, where we saw, and photographed a blue starfish, among other denizens of the not-so-deep. Following this, we were treated to a barbecue lunch, and entertainment that included palm tree climbing, singers with their ukuleles and percussion instruments, coconut husking, and more sarong wrapping. The song lyrics were mainly in the Maori dialect that they speak on the islands. When we got back to our hotel, we were just in time for an incredibly dramatic sunset. If all of this, thus far sounds like a non-stop feast for the senses, you’re correct.
Following this, and cocktails and dinner, it was time to hit the sack after another hard day at play.
After breakfast, we headed for the surf for some more sub-ocean ogling. We weren’t disappointed. There was lots of good stuff to see.
Now it was time to buy some of the local fruits. First on the list was Paw Paw (Papaya). It was fabulous. We had a bit of an adventure with a fruit called Sour Sop. It not only looked terrible, but tasted awful. I guess there’s something to be said for “truth in advertising.” The evening was reserved for the island show, “Highland Paradise.” There were three busloads of people for this Vegas-type extravaganza. Each busload, group of people, was assigned a color. Ours was orange. A group is called “vaka.” Each vaka elected a “chief.” For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was chosen “chief” of the orange vaka. I was bedecked with banana leaves to show my rank. Upon arriving at the venue, we were given a wonderfully informative tour of that portion of the island by a guide named Danny, who also MC’d the show. He explained many of the customs, ceremonies, and history, along with a hefty amount of mythology of the Cook Islands. It was quite enlightening. As the chief of the orange vaka, I was called upon to perform duties in some of the ceremonies that were part of the tour. At the end of the “Cook Islands 101”course, we were invited into the great hall for the show, which featured top-notch dancing, singing, and some of the most incredibly orchestrated percussion ensemble work I’ve heard in decades. If Las Vegas lounges still existed, this show would definitely be a headliner. As a side-note, the chief of the orange vaka won the amateur dance contest. Yes. I was kissed by four of the lovely hip-shakers! The buffet was also excellent. If you’re ever in this neighborhood, be sure to see this show.
After so much “culture,” and funzies, we needed a good night’s rest, following which, we were up-and-at-‘em, bright and early for a jeep tour into the center of the island. Our tour-guide/driver, “Useless,” lived down to his name. He found every chuckhole in the roads. I think he made a few himself. However, he did teach us the difference between male and female coconuts. Not everybody knows that there is a difference, but I imagine it’s rather important to the coconuts on date-night. Here’s the solution to this time-honored puzzle. The female coconuts sprout new growth from the middle of their shell. The male coconuts sprout new growth from the end of their shell. Boy oh boy would Freud have a ball with this stuff. Imagine sprouting improperly on your first date with a potential mate?! How calamitous would that be? If you shake a coconut, and there is no sound, it is filled with a gelatinous cream. If you shake it, and there is a sloshing sound, it is filled with coconut water/milk. Oh well, so much for coconut etiquette.
We also saw some Noni fruit trees. Apparently Noni fruit is very pricey, or so we were told. Strangely, we saw no tropical birds, such as parrots, toucans, et cetera. After “Toad’s Wild Ride,” we were ready for dinner and a hot shower, as well as entering the realm of Morpheus.
The next day, we rented a car, a Toyota Vitz. Needless to say, driving a car appointed as they do in the UK, and driving on streets laid out UK style was an experiment in terror until I got a handle on it. We drove completely around the island, stopping briefly here and there for some treasures that until that very moment we didn’t know that we needed, as well as some photo stops, accompanied by snacks. All-in-all it was a ball.
As if Rarotonga wasn’t enough of an orgy for the senses, we heard about a small island named Ai Tutaki, pronounced “eye too takee.” This was where Bligh actually landed while searching for Paw Paw fruit. The 40 minute flight to Ai Tutaki from Rarotonga took off at 8:00 AM. We were greeted by our tour-guide, Aki, who turned out to be not just a merry greeter, but also quite knowledgeable regarding island lore and history. He shepherded us onto the bus that would take us to the boat that would take us to a number of small islands, along with Ai Tutaki. One of the islands is named “One Foot Island,” which reportedly has the smallest post office in the world. It was here, we were told, that we could get our passports stamped…When we got there, we were also told that it would cost $2.00. It was funny to see the “go-getters” who made a beeline for the postal stamping, ambling back to the boat to get some cash. Oh well, as it is said, “The early bird gets the worm.” But, “The second mouse gets the cheese.” How’s that for a non-sequitur? After the “Stamp Act,” we were off to the main snorkeling area, where giant clams and huge fish abound. Apparently, Aki and his cohorts have a pretty set routine with the fish. Aki tosses hunks of dead fish into the water, and the big fish come around to eat them and get petted by Aki and tourists. Were we suckered in by this jive display of pre-fab fish-batics? Absolutely. And it was a ball. Yes. We snorkeled, photographed and petted to our heart’s content.
After this splashathon, it was time for lunch, which consisted of barbecued tuna, unlimited carbohydrates, and fresh tropical fruits, followed by a show that included sarong fashion-folding, coconut cracking, and some wonderful music. The only bit of concern that Naomi and I had was when we realized that the fellow pounding the tabla was also intermittently steering the boat. We finally landed at the most beautiful island in the whole group, from which we could walk to an island that was just being born. Apparently, a cyclone had hit the area, and left a spate of land exposed. Subsequently, birds flew over it, and did what birds do to anything under them. What they deposited on the spate of land grew into waist-high palm trees by the time of our arrival. It’s not every day that one gets to see an island being born. Ai Tutaki is lush beyond belief. No color enhancement is needed for photography or painting of this cornucopia of natural beauty.
It was now time to re-board the boat, go back to the bus, and fly back to Rarotonga. All that I can say for Ai Tutaki is that anyone who doesn’t like Ai Tutaki is not going to enjoy Heaven.
Upon our return to Rarotonga, it was time to do our laundry and pack. To get to the laundry room I had to pass by the hotel restaurant where I heard a “live” piano player performing dinner music. I stopped in, and listened to the gentleman playing. His name is Garth Young. He has been doing a five-nighter there since 1980. He’s 84 years young. He took a short break, during which time we introduced ourselves. We swapped some stories, as we got acquainted. Now for the “freaky” part. He knows the Australian piano player, Mike Nock, with whom I roomed in 1966 while touring with the Tony Pastor Band. How’s that for a small world?
Well, all good things must come to an end. We packed and left Rarotonga the next evening, saturated with great memories of images, sights and sounds that will linger with us forever. The one question I have is, “How did Bligh ever coax his men to board his ship, and leave the islands in 1789 to return to England?”