Los Angeles International Airport is crowded and boiling over. Wherever people need to be, they can't seem to get there soon enough. Dozens of signs advertising flashy products ambush my exhausted attention, the temperature swings between too hot and too cold, and loudspeakers warn of security alerts in sinister voices. Security treats me as guilty before I even have the chance to open my case. LAX is the kind of airport you wish you could avoid, just like traffic on the freeways. Finally, I board the Air New Zealand overnight flight to Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, a tiny chain of islands in the South Pacific. Three movies and a nap later, I am greeted by flowery bouquets, big smiles, warm tropical sun, coconuts, ukuleles, white beaches and an infinity swimming pool. Same world, different planets.
The Cooks, as they are affectionately known, consist of 15 islands in an area of ocean covering 1.8 million square kilometres. Traffic on Rarotonga follows two circular roads, an inner and outer ring. To go one way, take the Clockwise bus; to go another, take the Anti-Clockwise bus. Better yet, hire a scooter, which you may ride without a helmet, to feel the warm sea breeze in your hair. I appreciate the value of helmets - my own cracked in a scooter accident many years ago. But I appreciate that some places must offer the personal freedom, space, beauty and everything else that is the antithesis of a choking urban centre. If the city is getting you down, take one week in the Cooks and you won't need to call anyone in the morning.
Zooting about on my scooter, I see not a single McDonald's, Starbucks or glitzy resort chain. The Sheraton tried many years ago, but its development sits idle after plans were abandoned. With boutique all the rage in the world of hotels, here is a boutique island. Tiny craft shops sell colourful
Polynesian fare, while the festive weekend market smells of flowers and homemade barbecue. And by law no building can be built taller than a coconut tree.
The population on the main island is 14,000, and just 20,000 over all - not enough to turn the Cooks into Cancun or Barbados, but enough for fun cottage-tourism industries. Locals of all ages perform in various music and dance outfits at the hotels. One night at the Crown Beach Hotel, I learn to shake my hips and thump my chest and, much to the delight of my eight-year-old instructor, I end up winning the Maori dance competition. Don't forget to pick up the Cook Island News, the cheeriest local newspaper I've ever read. Perfect for a hammock, just before you fall asleep, rocking in the breeze.
A short propeller flight away is the lagoon island of Aitutaki, where I am greeted by more smiling faces and ukuleles. From above and below, the colour of the water in its protective reef is mind-boggling: a bright turquoise, flecked with blues and purples. That night, I tweet: "You see pictures of places like this, but you don't expect them to actually exist."
Teking, a local tour operator, takes me on a boat ride in the lagoon, where I snorkel with thousands of tropical fish, walk around my own private island in the midst of the lagoon, rest under the coconut trees and eat grilled tuna steaks.
Early the next morning, Mike and Mere from Black Pearl Fishing Charters take me out beyond the reef, where the high seas rock our boat at sunrise. It's my first attempt at big-game fishing, and with abundant schools of tuna and wahoos surrounding the island, my chances are good. Eventually I catch "a 400-pound barracuda - the biggest fish you've ever seen!"
When it comes to big game fishing, I learn quickly that exaggeration is a key skill, and fishermen tell no lies. The barracuda was actually only five kilograms, but Mike did what Cook Islanders seemed to do all week - he smiled wide, laughed deep and made me feel better about myself.
Most visitors hang around Rarotonga, with its low-key beach resorts and 300 private rentals. Honeymooners and couples beeline to Aikutaki, where luxury hotels such as the Pacific or Aitutaki Lagoon Resort might set up your dinner on the beach under the stars. Adventurers will want to explore the island of Atiu, population 400, protected by its raised coral reef. Spending the night in a simple homestay, I explored limestone caves, joined in a splendid feast of swamp taro and game fish, and tried unsuccessfully to climb a coconut tree under the tutelage of a local birdwatcher named Birdman George. Atiu is an island full of characters.
We all ended up at a tumunu, one of eight bush pubs, where tribal chiefs gather with the community to drink homemade hooch from a single coconut cup, singing folk songs and listening to the ukulele. Tourists are welcome and accepted as honoured guests, so the group I was with introduced ourselves like long-lost relatives. The coconut cup was handed to me to a dozen times, by which stage I was especially joyous over the authenticity of the moment, this island and its people.
"People love coming here because Cook Islanders know who they are," explains Bill Rennie, a Canadian transplant who owns the Royale Takitumu back on Rarotonga. They're Maori Polynesians who take genuine pride in their culture and heritage. Tourism might drive the economy, but locals appreciate their visitors. Foreign land ownership, however, is heavily restricted. "The islands are as developed as locals want them to be," Mr. Rennie says.
Pa, a 72-year-old local hero, takes me on a strenuous four-hour, cross-island hike. It's his 4,031st trek over the hump of Rarotonga, and anyone can join him. After dispelling his trademark wit and wisdom, Pa lets me sit at the base of the Needle, the highest point, surveying the beautiful green island before me. He tells me to breathe. Come midnight, I will be boarding my return flight to LAX. It's time to return to the crowds, the signs, the rules, the smog, the reality.
But I'll have this moment - one of many - to hold onto when things get a little too hectic. Some books, movies and songs stay with you long after they're over. When I'm stuck in traffic, with a little piece of the Cooks in my heart, some destinations do too.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Watch a video of Robin's catch of the day.
Robin was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism. He is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels . robinesrock.com.
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly named Bill Rennie and the Crown Beach Hotel. This version has been corrected.