Posted in Travel

Cook Islands Essentials

We had a great Christmas week in the Cook Islands – and hopefully one day you will too! This post is a collection of some of the things to know before you go there: from the car hire experience to the food to the local flora and fauna. (You can read more about our holiday in my first post, second post and third post.)

Eating out in Raratonga

While we were planning this holiday, we weren’t sure what the food situation was going to be over Christmas so we booked the various lunches and dinners in advance. We had Christmas Eve dinner at Crown’s (see post) and Christmas Day lunch at Nautilus (see post). We had booked Boxing Day brunch back at Crown’s Ocean’s Restaurant and it turned out to be basically just the hotel breakfast, with eggs and bacon, cereal, cake, tea and coffee. It hit the spot however, and we also scored a couple of individual packets of Vegemite for later use!

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Because we were staying self-catering with a kitchen, we only ended up having two other dinners out. We chose a couple of restaurants that had free transfers from our accommodation. For dinner on the day of our epic cross island hike, we decided to go to Vaima Polynesian Bar and Restaurant. We started with cocktails and a local fish starter called Ika Mata (per the menu: A traditional Island delicacy… a delicious tropical combination of Fresh Tuna Fish marinated in reme (lemon) & creamy akari (coconut) served with tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, shallots and coriander) then fish and chips for me and fish curry (house special) for Jonathon. The food was excellent and even though we were completely full, we had key lime pie and pavlova for dessert. Our table was under palm trees in the sand with the waterline a stone’s throw away: very convenient for photographing the sunset.

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Ika Mata
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Fish Curry
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Fish ‘n’ Chips
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Pavlova
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Sunset from Vaima restaurant (300mm lens)

On our second last evening we went to dinner at “On the Beach” which was a restaurant not quite, but nearly, on the beach, part of the Manuia Beach Resort. I started with grilled and chilled ratatouille, which was possibly a mistake because it came in aspic and was just ok. Jonathon started with scallop and leek tart (spelled “leak” on the menu). For the main course we both had ocean fish: swordfish and somewhat rare yellowfin tuna. It was delicious. From our table we saw a beautiful sunset, which included another green flash.

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Sunset from On The Beach

Birds and animals in the Cook Islands

Stray dogs are a big feature of the island although it’s possible some of these dogs aren’t stray, just roaming free. During lunch on the deck one day, two local dogs came racing along the beach and threw themselves in the water, doing their best impression of gazelles. They appeared to be hunting the small fish that go around in schools in the shallows, and while they didn’t seem to catch any, they seemed to be having a good time. We saw the same thing – different dogs – on another day.

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This fella was waiting for me as I was walking on the beach then followed me most of the way home

There are also quite a few hens, chicks and roosters around. In fact, if you are unlucky you will be woken up by rooster. It was fun to see chicks following their mother hen around, and the roosters were quite pretty.

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Chicks!
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Rooster: half way up the hill on the cross island hike

Drive around the island of Raratonga

One thing to know about Raratonga is that it’s small. While it has an international airport it has just one road circling the island (and an inland road which is not continuous) which is 32 km (20 miles) long. One afternoon we decided to take an hour and drive the whole way around. The speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph) and the road, while sealed, is pretty appalling most of the way. It probably took us 30 minutes to get up to the main town, Avarua, where we stopped at the (only?) post office to get stamps, and the handy shop next door for postcards. We found that the rest of the island was just as beautiful as the area we were staying: more of the same coconut palms, scattered houses, dogs, occasional food places, and glimpses of the magnificent lagoon.

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A sign greets you at each of the quadrants of the island
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Typical house and yard
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Bananas!
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Looking towards the center of the island
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Frangipani

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Car hire in the Cook Islands

While we are talking about driving, as mentioned in my first post, our experience of car hire was less than brilliant. We made allowances because we were picking up our car on Christmas Eve but we got the last car on the island and its warrant of fitness was going to expire during our rental.

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So, on Boxing Day, after breakfast we decided to solve this problem. We had spotted that the Island Car and Bike Hire branch near to Crown was open, so we parked up, and went inside. We explained that we’d been rented a car with a warrant that was expiring and could they sort it out please, and within 10 minutes we were driving away in a different car. It was the same model and color as the first, and had twice as many scrapes and dents, and what looked like at least one bald tire, but otherwise seemed in better working order.

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A fine model – Toyata Vitz

We used Island Car and Bike because they have a relationship with Sea Change Villas but I’m not sure we’d go with them again!

Supermarkets on Raratonga

As I mentioned in my first post, on Christmas Eve Wigmore’s supermarket was packed with people and there wasn’t much on the shelves to choose from. On Boxing Day, however, it was a different story: it a lot less busy with a lot more fresh items available.

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Inside Wigmore’s
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Inside Wigmore’s
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‘ei katu (head garland) for sale at Wigmore’s

On our around-the-island drive we also stopped at the main “big” supermarket – CITC supermarket – in Avarua. This had a lot more on offer than Wigmore’s, but the prices were the same (i.e. expensive). We stocked up on essentials like coke and chocolate and somehow our total was ~$40 NZD.

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Inside CITC supermarket

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Raratonga Lagoon activities

The lagoon is the main feature of the island of Raratonga. We were fortunate enough to be able to get into the water straight from our deck and Sea Change Villas had reef shoes, snorkels and masks, canoes and SUPs for use by the guests. The lagoon is not very deep and I was nearly always able to put my feet down. We spent a glorious amount of time in the water and got to recognize the different kinds of fish: the biggest one we saw was the size of a watermelon and there also were also a scattering of big blue starfish, and “giant” clams with blue mouths.

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The lagoon – the surf line indicates the reef barrier

A couple of times we went quite far out towards the reef barrier where there was much more coral – once in a canoe and once swimming. We had seen people go right up to the breaking waves in canoes, but we weren’t that brave/stupid.

We waited until the high tide each time we went out so we had some clearance.  We borrowed canoes and paddled quite far out but noticed we really couldn’t see fish from that vantage point high above the water. The coral was still worth it, as was just being out on the water.

The time we swam out as far as we could I found it quite hard work – perhaps we were going against the current or the tide. When we finally got to the dense coral we found it was all reef and no sandy spots to stop and rest! Still, we saw a lot of different fish as well as a more of the giant blue starfish and clams.

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Our look, multiple times a day

Our last day

Our flight back to LA left at nearly midnight and we were given use of the villa until our departure. The (mostly outdoor) airport was pretty chaotic but because everyone had been relaxing all week, so no-one was stressed out about anything.

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Last sunset of the holiday

Summary

The Cook Islands is truly a spectacular holiday destination. Everyone was extremely friendly in that antipodean, “she’ll be right”, “island time” kind of way. It seems like an ultra-laid-back version of New Zealand, if such a thing were possible.

Our accommodation at Sea Change Villas was all around excellent, having great lagoon access, high quality furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and lots of peace and quiet. The car rental situation was fairly dodgy but also fairly cheap, much safer than riding a bicycle or a scooter, and more convenient than trying to catch the bus. Food was expensive, but when one remembers that in restaurants you don’t have to tip, it’s actually not bad – the restaurants we went to had NZD $30-$35 mains.

There are plenty of outdoor activities, and equally all the time in the world to just sit and look at the view. I realize we got lucky with the weather – normally at this time of year it rains more. Being pretty well cut off from mobile and internet access was a real plus.

I would highly recommend the Cook Islands as a place to visit, but at the same time, I don’t want any more tourists to come and spoil it!

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Sea Change Villas from the lagoon

Things to know about the Cook Islands

  1. The time zone in Cook Islands at Christmas is just -2hrs from LA (12pm LA time = 10am Cook Islands time)
  2. The power and sockets are Australia/NZ.
  3. The currency is the NZ dollar, although you can pick up some Cook Islands coins.
  4. Cook Islanders drive on the left and the max speed is 50 km/h (30 mph)
  5. On AT&T it costs $3/min to call and 50c per text. There is no cellular data. Google Fi has no reception.
  6. The water is apparently safe to drink, though we only drank to bottled water.
  7. Christmas time is the rainy season.
  8. When arriving at Raratonga from LAX, sit on the left side of the plane to catch the sunrise, or on the right side of the plane for a view of the island on landing. On departure to LAX, it’s night time so you can’t see anything from either side!

Check out my previous posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

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Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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Posted in Travel

Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).