The Quiet Paradise

Getting Away From It All in the Cook Islands

Imagine a South Pacific paradise, steeped in the 18th century history of Captain James Cook and William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. You can almost smell fragrant frangipani blossoms, taste sweet papayas and feel cool breezes. Now add to that vision: blue starfish, a sparrow-size-bird threatened by extinction and a tree-climbing senior citizen.

The Coconut King of the Cook Islands, Piri Puruto III, still practices the old ways—and teaches them to tourists.© Kelly Pucci

Welcome to the Cook Islands, 15 small atolls in the South Pacific spread over an area the size of India with a population of just 14,000, where Maori traditions and international programs seamlessly protect and nurture the environment. This small nation has no fast-food chains, no large resorts and fewer tourists than neighboring Tahiti and Fiji.

A healthy coral reef surrounding Rarotonga, the principal island, harbors a clean lagoon rich in marine life, including curiously bright blue starfish. Under a centuries-old conservation system, traditional leaders protect the marine environment and allow it to replenish by declaring a "ra"ui," a sort of time out, as needed. Swimming and snorkeling are permitted during a ra"ui, but take care not to disturb the delicate plant and animal life.

With assistance from the governments of New Zealand and Switzerland, and the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project researched more than 1,000 reef invertebrates in the Rarotonga lagoon. Some are edible, others are used for medicinal purposes and some, like the Christmas tree worm (which looks like two tiny yellow Christmas trees), are just interesting to watch.

While the reefs remain healthy so far, there is rising concern in the Cooks about global warming. Like the Marshall Islands (whose Majuro Island has lost 20 percent of its beachfront to rising waters), the Cook Islands are only a few yards above sea level. The South Pacific Forum has met on the Cook Islands, where delegations from several island nations protested Australia’s opposition to the Kyoto Treaty.

The Bird Sanctuary

Ian Karika of the locally well-known Karika family leads nature walks through the Takitumu Conservation Area on Tuesdays and Thursdays, proudly identifying flora and fauna, explaining traditional use of plants, offering chunks of bush marshmallows (the spongy flesh of a sprouted coconut), and perhaps a glimpse of a rare bird. Thought to be extinct by the early 20th century, the kakerori, or Rarotonga flycatcher, began to recover in 1996 with the establishment of the conservation area. In 2003, the population was 239.

The Takitumu Conservation Area, a hilly, 380-acre tropical forest, is home to tree hibiscus, which has heart-shaped leaves and large red flowers that turn yellow at night, candlenut trees (appropriately named for the oily nuts traditionally burned for light) and the Polynesian Chestnut, which provides the main ingredient of a national dish.

Procuring land for the conservation area posed some problems. Land ownership is hereditary among Maoris, and Cook Islands law prohibits its sale. But three families—the Karikas, the Kainukus and the Manavaroas—felt strongly enough to lend their land to the recovery project. Admission fees ($26), a portion of the airport departure tax and funds from the multi-nation South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) and New Zealand help maintain the conservation area.

Senior Tree Climber

If you visit Rarotonga you can’t avoid Piri Puruto III, the self-proclaimed Coconut King of the Cook Islands. This small but energetic 62-year-old will probably greet you at the airport. If you watch television he’s hawking his "amazing one-man show" between Seinfeld reruns and the Jerry Springer Show. Open the newspaper and there’s a photo of Puruto atop a coconut tree. Despite the cheesy marketing campaign, an afternoon with Puruto, which includes a traditional feast, is worth the ticket (again, $26).

Out of context, his show, a 15-second bare foot climb up a 100-foot coconut tree, would disappoint. But Puruto’s climb is no stunt. As he explains, coconut climbing is a lifesaving skill that the Cook Islands" men acquire in boyhood. Pregnant women, the sick and newborn babies are dependent upon the nutrient-rich milk of unripe coconuts harvested from atop the trees.

Puruto’s beachside backyard provides most of his supplies. Following Puruto’s enthusiastic directions, diners prepare an Umukai or traditional meal using resource-saving customs practiced for centuries. Tourists set to work picking herbs and spices, weaving plates from coconut fronds, and wrapping chicken and sweet potatoes in banana leaves.

Using a coconut husk and tree hibiscus branch, Puruto lights a fire without matches. While the meal slowly cooks in an underground earth oven, guests swim in the lagoon, or walk along the white sand beach.

Non-stop air service to Rarotonga is available from Los Angeles and Honolulu. Prices for motels start at $45 a night. Villas and bungalows are also available, and backpackers are accommodated in guesthouses and private homes.