Leaving French Polynesia behind, we are now heading into New Zealand territory. Our stop for today was the island of Rarotonga, one of the 15 Cook Islands. These 15 specks of land are spread out over an oceanic space the size of India. The population is 19,600 Maori and English-speaking people. They enjoy heady, but smoky, South Seas air, pristine beaches, blue lagoons, and fish and fruit a-plenty. The interior hides valleys and volcanic peaks as high as 2142 feet. The driest season, April to November, are the best months to visit. January and February have the highest temperatures, and needless to say, it is also humid. Cooler months are May to October.
Things to do here: stuff your face while enjoying the dancing, singing, and fire-juggling at many nighttime extravaganzas. At least, that’s what the booklets say. The Cook Islands are also the second largest producers of black pearls in the world. And their next largest industry is tourism.
Now, getting onshore is not easy most of the time. This is the island where Captain Mercer had to use an alternate landing spot two years ago. One of the tenders “floated” over a mound of coral, and was damaged badly, stranding many guests for over 3 hours. Our buddy, Barb, happened to be on that boat, and joked later that it was the best 3 hour “tour” she ever had. She has indeed earned the title “Barbie on the rocks”.
So today, we half expected the captain to abandon the attempt at Avatiu Harbor, since the swells were border-line dangerous. But by 8am, an announcement was made that only the able-bodied folks would be allowed to leave the ship. This meant that there would be no wheelchairs or scooters going off today, even if they had booked tours. Wonder how that is going to work out?
Usually we have breakfast, then leave. But since there were going to be challenges today, we skipped eating, gathered our things, and went to the top of the stairs to proceed down to deck A to mix in with the line. That was a mistake, because the line was not moving. It was then that we realized that the tour groups were filing down the secret doorway from the show lounge to board first. This process has changed since last year’s world cruise, when these groups went down to deck one to use the stairway. Must have been a fire hazard to block the hallways, we’re guessing.
About six of us President’s Club members went down to mix with the groups. The first boat had loaded, and left. But the unpredictable swells kept us waiting for at least 20 minutes, before we began to load. Dolly decided it may be too risky for her, so she bailed. And as one might expect, there was one couple, the wife in a wheelchair, waiting to board, despite the fact they had been banned. This fellow argued with Henk M that they had paid a lot of money for this cruise, and they resented being denied access to the shore. In our opinion, there was no way she could have gotten into that boat today, let alone a large wheelchair. Henk stood his ground, and suggested that they see the captain. With that, they left the platform area, mad as heck. We did learn later that those who were fearful of the procedure did get their money back for a missed tour.
We were the first ones to board, but it took at least ½ hour before the rest joined us. The boat dipped at least 4 to 5 feet with the swell, and slapped into the side of the platform sideways, sending folks flying. One poor lady fell the minute she got inside the boat. Three crew members, including Henk, could not lift her up. Finally getting up on her own, we all realized that her pride was hurt more than anything else. To ease her embarrassment, we all clapped for her. Once we were on our way, Henk M also got applause. We would not want his job for all the tea in China.
The ride over was easy, and the harbor sheltered us from the wave action, making debarking much easier. We had intended on buying some New Zealand dollars onboard, but sort of forgot to do it. The souvenir vendors always take US dollars, and the restaurants always took credit cards. We thought we were covered, but more about that later.
No doubt in our minds, it was going to be a hot day. There were clouds passing over, which helped cool things off every now and then. That’s part of the reason a lot of folks did ship tours today. There were four offered. Two were sight –seeing….one in 4x4’s going up into the valleys and peaks, and the other was an island drive. Both were three hours and $70 to $100. The other two involved the water. A Muri Lagoon cruise and a beach break would cool folks off for 3 to 3 ¾ hours for $100.
Beginning at the souvenirs tents, one of us purchased three silky pareos. They are much lighter weight that the typical rayon ones, and seem to last forever, and very useful for home and travel. Other items being sold were jewelry made with black pearls. These necklaces, bracelets, and earrings could run from hundreds to thousands, depending on the quality of the pearls and whether or not they are set with diamonds.
Continuing up the road, we came across their Avarua Punanga Nui Market, the biggest produce market in the country. Saturday happens to be their busiest day to sell food, arts and crafts, and island clothing. Produce comes from the many plantations that grow citrus, bananas, tapioca, papaya, and taro root. Many little huts were set in a row with a variety of fast food items. Most were not opened yet, since it was only 10am.
Downtown Avarua has many little boutiques and restaurants. Government buildings are here as well, such as a large police station, a post office, and a courthouse. There is also a very convenient bus system here. Since the island is only a bit under 20 miles around, there are two buses that travel it. One goes clockwise, while the other goes counter-clockwise. Their timetable is printed in all of their maps and brochures. The cost of the 50 minute ride is $5 New Zealand. It’s also an easy way to get to Muri Beach and Lagoon, the hot spot of the island. One can snorkel, swim, or dive in the protected coral gardens there. There is a 2 kilometer white sandy beach there, protected by some islets and reefs. Vacationers can rent a boat for the day to fish for marlin, tuna, sailfish, and wahoo. And during the months of August and September, boats take folks out to watch for humpback whales that have migrated from Antarctica to calve and breed. Bet that is a thrill.
Once past the main part of town, we strolled by a number of seaside homes with shops and restaurants dotted here and there. One place advertised goat meat, slow-cooked with ginger and coconut cream. Or grilled flying fish and free range chickens, another island favorite. The only pizza place we spotted was in the center of town, but way too early to be opened for lunch.
We made it as far as the gas station where we knew we could get something cold to drink. This is when we could have used the proper currency. They did accept US dollars, but as an equal exchange. As the rate is 1.35 NZ to $1. US dollar, they were making a better deal on their end. For soda, we did not mind, because we already sipped and finished our bottles of water.
Heading back brought us to a place we have dined twice in the past. It is the Tamarind House, a restored colonial home, described as exclusive, private, and romantic. This establishment also doubles as a venue for wedding receptions. The food has always been good, and they have always accepted credit cards. We did ask before ordering about the credit cards, and the waiter said yes, they did take them.
We had two small salads, a bowl of French fries, and a shared plate of linguine with puttenesca sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Tui beers helped to re-hydrate us, and the dessert of an apple/walnut cake with ice cream finished the meal. When the bill arrived, we gave them the Am Ex card, only to be told that they don’t take Am Ex anymore. Not good….we did not bring another card with us, as they took that same card two years ago, no problem. This is when something strange happened. The waiter suggested we could pay in US dollars, but at the equal rate. The bill had come to $77 NZ, which should have been about $55 USD, plus maybe 3% for the exchange rate at the bank. We were not pleased with that, but at least, we would not have to wash dishes the rest pf the afternoon.
Well, this did not sit well with a couple of locals, who were sitting at a table next to us. Turned out, they were two ladies in the tourist business, and really went the mile to stick up for us. Horrified that the waiters were taking advantage of American tourists, they read the riot act to the owner. We did not say a word….we didn’t have to. Two more tables of locals also agreed loudly with the other ladies. Now, this is how it went down. The tour guide gals paid for our lunch with their credit card, and we gave them cash to cover it. They insisted that the current rate was enough for them, and would not take any more than that. We thanked them, and made a promise to ourselves, we will never leave the ship without some local currency. What we did not know, was that these Cook Islands stopped accepting Am Ex for the last year or so. Now we know.
On the way back, we stopped at the Cook Island Christian Church and cemetery. Interesting to read the crumbling tombstones, and find the oldest dates were in the 1800’s.
It was good to get back to the tender pier at 3pm, where a boat arrived within minutes. Seems that the waves and swells had calmed quite a bit since this morning, and off-loading was fairly easy. This time, an officer informed us that only one at a time would be helped off the boat. It was orderly and successful…..no accidents.
Cooling off until 4:30pm, we went to the sail away at the Seaview Pool, which was advertised at 5:30pm. Captain Mercer announced that one of the stabilizers was out, and if we all wanted to see it, they could hang over the starboard railing, before he retracted it. A slight shadow of the “wing” was visible under the surface, then it was gone. The hot appetizer served at the sail away was a beef meatball, rolled in coconut, and served on a bed of sweet mango salsa. Really good.
Quite often, one of us is asked to take departing photos (video) at sail away. Always happy to oblige, the many “forms” of cameras these days are not cameras really. Cell phones or tablets are the usual culprits, and are not familiar for one of us to use. Just show us the button to push, and we will give it a shot. Today a nice couple wanted a video of the island disappearing in the distance. Guess it worked OK, since they came back and thanked us profusely, although we’re not sure they had turned the sound on.
One of our favorite dishes was on the menu tonight - sweet and sour breaded shrimp. They don’t have it often enough in or opinion. Brenda also ordered it, and savored every bite, as we did. Dessert took forever to arrive, and, our table was the last out of the room. So we did not even consider checking out the show : Irish Party in 3rd Class” by Gary Arbuthnot. A high-energy show packed with music from movies, rock and pop icons would not have kept us awake tonight.
Looking forward to a relaxing day at sea tomorrow, and more so, because the clocks went back one more hour this evening.
Bill & Mary Ann