The Cook Islands: Island Hopping, White Sand Beaches, and The Best Seafood Sandwiches in the World

The Cook Islands are a chain of 15 tropical islands located in the South Pacific Ocean between her neighbors, French Polynesia (Tahiti) on the East, and the Fiji islands to the West. Lush vegetation, warm blue lagoon waters, secluded white sand beaches, and the charm of her people make The Cook Islands a Paradise. The local greeting is “Kia Orana” meaning, “may you live long.”  It should mean, “may you stay long,” because it will be difficult to leave this little corner of paradise.

The Island of Rarotonga

The largest Island is Rarotonga, the commercial centre with one main road that circles the island (20 miles) and only one stoplight.  Snorkeling and scuba diving are very popular activities as the lagoon surrounding the island is tranquil, inviting, and booming with marine life. One other popular activity is daily fishing.  Almost every man on the island lives to fish every day. 

Photo taken by Frank Greco

A local resident I met named Captain Moko is a very quiet man and enjoys nothing better than fishing the deep water around Rarotonga.  His wife (Jilly Mae) likes her feet planted on land.  She founded “The Mooring Fish Café” at Rarotonga’s Avana Harbour.  Her place is not normal by local standards or other restaurants on the island; she built her restaurant out of an empty shipping container and instantly became the go-to place for her fish sandwiches.  Her customers can’t get enough of the fresh catch of each day.  

Photo taken by Frank Greco
Photo taken by Frank Greco

What makes The Mooring Fish Café work?  That’s simple Jilly Mae states, “My husband, Captain Moko goes out each and every morning to catch us fish and delivers them to me and my team of ladies so we can prepare them for the daily rush.”  The menu features mahi-mahi, tuna, wahoo, and other fish straight from the ocean to Captain Moko’s boat and on to the plate. Their signature sandwich is called the FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), consisting of fresh Turkish bread, local organic lettuce, tomatoes, breadcrumbs, and the freshest mahi-mahi on the island, topped off with their own delicious lime mayo.  This sandwich will take your taste buds to that culinary paradise.  t

Driving around the island and not far from The Mooring Fish Café, is the “SS Mai Tai.”  Why is a ship important? It has been wrecked in the lagoon since it hit the reef in 1916.  The wreck is nestled between 6 to 15 feet of water. Its main structure, the engine block, and boilers stick out of the water and can be seen from the town of Avarua (Northwest side of the island). 

Underwater, the ship is scattered over a large area, making this site fun to snorkel and scuba dive.  Although a shallow dive, it should only be done when the ocean conditions are extremely good.  Rough waters in and around the wreck have a heavy undertow.  When the conditions are good, divers and snorkelers can even jump-off the parts of the ship that are protruding above the water.  Always use a locally certified dive operator, they will make sure you have a great and safe experience exploring this wreck. The underwater intactness of the SS Mai Tai and the marine life you will encounter makes this an unforgettable experience.

SS Mai Tai Ship Wreck – Photo taken by Frank Greco

The Island of Atiu

Traveling to the other islands is best done by the local island airline, Air Rarotonga.  Located 135 miles Northeast of Rarotonga (a 45-minute flight) is the island of Atiu (Yes, it’s actually pronounced like you are sneezing) and is the most visited of the Cook Islands.  Often described as a jungle-clad makatea (a raised terrace of coral limestone).  The island is lush with vegetation, coconut trees, small unspoiled beaches, 5 small villages, rugged roads, and underground caves.  The caves have been carved out over the millenniums by the ocean surrounding the island.  A must visit cave is Anatakitaki (pronounced Ana-taki-taki).   It is home to the small Kopeka bird unique only to Atiu.  Coincidently, Atiu is a bird watcher’s paradise, some of the rarest birds in the world can be spotted on the island.        

A moderate hike through an unspoiled tropical rainforest, many twists and turns then climbing through rugged/jagged coral rock formations and you reach the entrance of the cave.  Climb down a ladder through a ground opening and a magnificent scene unfolds. The cave gets more intriguing with each chamber explored. Water flows from its walls, an eerie silence all around, sunbeams breaking through holes in the cave light the path, Kopeka birds flying from crevice to crevice, mystic vines hanging down along the cave at every corner. It’s a whole new world in this cave.   

The Kopeka birds are very small and cannot see in the dark but they are able to echo-locate their nest in the cave…do not worry about ducking, they will not strike anyone as they “see” all obstacles.

Only visit this cave or any cave on the island with a local tour company specializing in cave explorations, your guesthouse or lodge staff will provide you the contact. The Anatakitaki cave holds a surprise for everyone and it is the candle-lit cavern of the water pool.  A heavenly place deeper in the cave that is magical to experience.  Yes, jump in, the water is cold, but the shock is only momentary.

The Island of Aitutaki

Approximately 160 miles north of Rarotonga (a 50-minute flight) is the breathtakingly beautiful island of Aitutaki (pronounced At-u-taki).  The island is surrounded by a triangular-shaped, unspoiled, sun-drenched turquoise lagoon and coral reef. Within the lagoon are 15 tiny islets, referred to locally as motus.   This is one of the most spectacular lagoons in the world.  Aitutaki is blessed with glistening white sandy beaches, hot weather, lush greenery, crystal clear shallow lagoons, and tall swaying palm trees that line the coastlines. The main island is dwarfed by the vastness of its lagoon.  The highlight of any visit to Aitutaki are its motus, especially “One Foot Island” motu.

Why is this tiny, uninhabited motu so popular?  The answer is simple, the motu has a great legend, it houses the smallest post office in the world a small restaurant and souvenir counter (all open only when tour groups visit).  If that was not enough, the beach here has been voted the best in the Pacific region.  Tourists love the tranquility, getting the collectible “One Foot Island” stamp in their passport and sending a postcard from the small post office… Who would believe this without the proof!  

Local legend says that long, long ago, a father and his young son became lost in the lagoon and were spotted by a rival tribe.  That was a time that cannibalism was prevalent on these islands.  Fearing for their lives, the father landed his small boat on this island, carried his son, and hid him in a tall coconut tree.  The father escaped and went to get help.  When the rival tribe reached the motu and saw only one set of footprints coming and leaving, they left thinking their prey had escaped them.  The father later returned with help and retrieved his son, hence the name “One Foot Island.”  A great legend, but looking at the island from a bird’s eye point of view, it actually looks like a foot too.

When the lagoon water becomes very shallow at low tide and you see the white sand beaches from neighboring motus or sandbars sparkling as they soak up the sun’s rays, it is time to walk through the water and hop to the next motu, no boat required. This is what paradise is: motu hopping in knee-deep warm water, blissfully knowing that you will be setting foot on another amazing beach, or going to get a fresh coconut right off the trees. Be careful though, too much coconut water is not good for you.

A little word of caution, there are friendly bonefish and large tarpon that swim around the lagoon and do not bother anyone, until a breadcrumb (or any piece of food) is dropped into the water.  They circle as their radar picks-up the location of the morsel and may jump out of the water to snatch the food, even from your hand-not too worry, they are harmless.

Food is culture in this earthly piece of tranquil paradise.  Before leaving the Cook Islands, try an Umu meal (Umu means “earth oven”). It is the traditional way of cooking on the Cook Islands.  A shallow pit is dug, a fire is started heating volcanic rocks until they are red hot.  Food is then wrapped in banana or palm leaves and placed on top of the hot rocks and covered with a mound of palm leaves so the heat does not escape and the food cooks in its own juices.  This ancient cooking method takes about four hours to complete and the result is culinary heaven.

When ready, the palm leaves are removed, items unwrapped, and ready to eat. Many types of meat like fish, pork, chicken, lamb, and a variety of other delectable items like potatoes, taro root will make up the meal.   An umu dinner is not complete without traditional music and the Ika Mata salad, freshly cut raw fish garnished only with coconut milk and lemon juice… It is delicious!  Locals will tell you with a smile that this is the original sushi. The food is placed in a handwoven palm leaf plate, which your hosts will teach you to make…washing hands before and after eating is a must because most of the time that is what you are eating with, the traditional way.

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