My notes about Rarotonga, its people, diving, and guide books

The following are my notes, as I wrote them there and then. No nice formatting here, just plain conversion to HTML. What follows is of course my personal opinion only. Note that this refers to Rarotonga (main island) only. Aitutaki and expecially Manihiki are quite different.

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I am writing these notes during my trip to the Cook Islands.

I am so disappointed by all the bullshit that I have read and that I have heard about these places, that I think I should try, at least, to provide an independent account.

Take what you like from it, discard the rest, and above all do not bother to criticize or comment what I am writing: these notes are my own account of what I have seen, and you are free to read something else if you don't like it.

First of all, a few words about me so that you understand my point of view.

I am travelling alone, male, late thirties, from Europe, my main aim is free diving, and I am looking for places away from big crowds, even better if no tourists are around.

Free diving: diving holding your breath, without tank. I have to clarify, since I am always bugged by those idiotic holiday scubadivers that think they are so cool and always look at me on the boat and say "ah, you are snorkeling" (meaning: "you are in the wrong place").

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Rarotonga is, in my opinion as well as that of other travellers I have met, a place to avoid. Local people involved with tourists are mostly fed up with them, have more work than they want to handle, and in general have an attitude of contempt and diffidence. It has happened to me that people not only do not care at all to service you, but they do not even answer when you greet them. I have had a hard time to obtain information in two travel offices, to the point that it was impossible to obtain what I wanted (typical case: agent: when do you want to fly? Me: On which days does Air Raro fly to Mauke? agent: On many days. On which day do you want to fly? Me: I will know after you tell me on which day they fly. Can you tell me the days of their flights please? agent: I am trying to book you, on which day do you want to fly?).

I finally bought and paid a flight-accomodation "package" from one agency, for a value which let me tell you was not negligible. The next day I went to collect the tickets. I entered the office, said hallo with a big smile, nobody answered and basically a woman threw the documents over the counter without even raising her head.

I do not want to say that everybody is like that. Some people, expecially those which do not have to handle tourists every day, still have a polite attitude and some are very friendly. However, the enthusiastic reports of friendly people everywhere are obviously either a legend from ancient times before mass tourism hit the island, or are told by persons that booked a few days at one of the expensive resorts and never had to deal with locals outside their resort.

I also do not mean to say, that the obvious unfriendliness of many locals is totally their fault. I am sure that many of us papa'a have caused, or still are causing, this kind of reaction with our own attitudes when we are in the Cooks. I myself have witnessed a few cases of american and european tourists that were absolutely shameful in their behaviour.

I should also note that I visited Rarotonga at the worst time of the year (Christmas/New Year) of one of the worst years (2000, the coup in Fiji convinced many to relocate their holiday destination to the Cooks instead).

In summary: for different reasons, Rarotonga is not exactly a friendly place. It's still quite ok if you have not seem other decent tropical destinations before, as is the case for the majority of visitors here. But if you have seen other places on Earth, you will be wondering why bother to come all the way here to find such attitudes.

Rarotonga is a beautiful place when seen from the air. Which by the way not everybody does, since all Air NZ flights land and take-off at night. The interior is lush and thick with different types of vegetation, and offer several walks and hikes of various level of difficulty.

If you are interested in handicrafts and local products (expecially black pearls) the island also offers several opportunities.

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These are the aspects on which specialized guides (such as the Lonely Planet, expecially in the version revised by the much-dreaded Nancy Keller) linger the most.

The authors of these books somehow do not care much about activities in the sea, since in a book like LP about 1% or less is dedicated to activities such as swimming and diving. Which makes me wonder, since I would have thought that people come all the way to the South Pacific to be in the water, not to visit a 100 years old church or hike a 200m peak.

So let's say the truth about the waters and beaches of Rarotonga: they suck.

Unless you are happy to splash around in 1m-deep water, looking at a scarce population of tropical fish of minimal size, there's nothing else to do inside the lagoon.

What the books usually don't say, or say only between the lines, is that along about 90% of the island perimeter there is no beach worthy of this name, and for about 80% there is no swimming possibility. In the remaining 20%, which is usually located on the premises of expensive resorts, you can barely swim in maximum 2m of water at high tide, well below 1m in low-tide. To reach the reef, where some nice corals are, you need to swim for several hundred meters zig-zagging to avoid the sand patches. It is amazing that some operators offer "tours" inside the lagoon, which amount to little more than a visit to an acquarium. It is even more amazing that some people are absolutely enthusiastic about this lagoon. It comes to little surprise, that these people have never put on a mask and snorkel in any other tropical destination.

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As for diving, I was shocked. Three operators "work" in Raro. It is funny to note that two of them close down for 10 days during the busiest period. They probably already earn enough money, and have decided to enjoy vacation during Xmas-New Year. It's their right I suppose. But as a result, the dive trips of the remaining operator are always overbooked, and some people book for days ahead, weeks ahead, and I have seen people booking for their next holidays in 12 months.

As a poor (literally) free-diver, I was always in stand-by since the boats are small and they did not want to take an extra person even if my gear is essentially a pair of fins.

it took me 4 days in Raro, before I could finally go out with one diver operator. After that, the idiotic owners and the even more idiotic scuba divers realized that a free diver is an interesting person to dive with, and I never had a problem again in finding a place on the boat.

Diving outside the reef is worthy once you are there. I would not say that it is particularly worthy to travel all the way down to Raro for it (if you come from Europe like I do).

The water was generally warm, even in depth. Only on one day I found a cold layer at 30m. There are no dangerous sharks (a fact that the LP has automatically assumed also for the rest of the Cooks, which is not true).

The visibility was generally at or above the standards of other places where I have dived. However, it was also variable, sometimes within the same dive. You could start with 30m, and end up with less than 20m. On two occasions I have seen 40m or more, which in itself was a great experience.

One of the main things to note is the presence of the so-called drop-off, which from depths of 30-40m runs down precipitously. The drop-off is within 100-300m of the reef, so once you are out of the reef you can always reach it. Unfortunately, the scuba divers do not go there, if not for a brief look. And I don't like to dive below 30 or 40m completely alone, so that was a bit of disappointment.

There is a good variety of fish, and a good number of them. However, on both accounts Raro is not particularly outstanding when compared to other islands in the world.

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