The Cook Islands, an independent nation in the South Pacific near French Polynesia, is a unique place–quite unlike any island where we have lived or worked. It is what tropical travel used to be like before the arrival of infinity pools, big dollar casinos, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, and slickly
packaged lounge shows. The place is so low key the largest hotel is only two stories high and most people, ourselves included, prefer to stay in modest bungalows or cottages situated on the oceanfront.
In the Cook Islands you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, and walk (or motorbike) to one of the little mom-and-pop food shacks on the beach. You eat at picnic tables on the sand, enjoying fish brought in on boats just that morning, while sharing stories with others at the table, and those others are often locals as there are not a large number of tourists. The locals are of Polynesian descent. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture and are trying to maintain it in the presence of powerful Western influences—rock music, cable TV, and the ubiquitous Internet.
For example, many women dress in sarongs, men still wear those flowery short-sleeve shirts you see for sale all over Hawaii, and they prefer to speak their traditional Polynesian language–Cook Island Maori—rather than English even though everyone is fluent in both. Boys and young men still climb palm trees to harvest coconuts and make them into food, baskets, and fishing nets, and they still fish on foot in the shallow, clear blue lagoons. The things we often associate with high-end tropical island resorts are mostly absent–no parasailing, no jet skis, no tennis courts, no golf, no swim-up bars–just lazing on the beach, sitting on the porch reading, going out to eat, and (there is a lot of this) enjoying beer and rum drinks in the evening.
We did a lot of snorkeling–good coral, lots of colorful tropical fish–and we did go to the Cook Island equivalent of a luau with dancing, singing, and fish barbecued over an open flame. We also did a lot of hiking since the center of the island is mountainous and filled with scenic jungle walks–it looks a bit like the site where they filmed the movie Jurassic Park.
The Cook Islands today are what Hawaii must have been like 50 or 60 years ago before the arrival of Sheraton, Hilton, and the Intercontinental. I do not doubt it will change dramatically in the coming years (as I am sure it already has) because of the dominance of Western culture and the financial lure of large-scale tourism. But, right now, the Cook Islands is certainly is one of the least stressful, most enjoyable, and most beautiful places we have ever been.
(Read more about our travels to the South Pacific in my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)