Photo: Pacific Resort Aitutaki
You’ve seen the pictures. The amazing pictures. They’re in calendars and glossy magazines. Those volcanic atolls surrounded by coral motu and pale turquoise water and not much else. Dense jungles ringed by untouched beaches. Soft, sugary sand and swaying palm trees and white Tahitian Gardenias. The 15 Cook Islands are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between French Polynesia and Samoa. They’re up there with Bora Bora and Fiji and the Maldives as dream destinations. So let’s dream.
Photo: Pacific Resort Aitutaki
After landing on Rarotonga, take a smaller plane to Aitutaki. The hook-shaped island is known for its postcard-worthy lagoon and beaches. Search for giant clams as you snorkel around uninhabited Tapuaeta’i. Visit the oldest church in the Cook Islands. Eat just-caught seafood. Cafe Tupuna lists the catch of the day on a blackboard. The Boat Shed offers coconut-crusted shrimp. Samade on the Beach is known for its Sunday afternoon BBQ. Koru Cafe has Atiu coffee and local artwork. And browse black pearls, weavings, woodcarvings, and tivaevae–patchwork quilts with island scenery. You’ll want something to remember this trip by, not that you’re likely to forget it.
Photo: Pacific Resort Aitutaki
But it just keeps getting better. And better. Ride a bike or a scooter to Pacific Resort Aitutaki. You’ll be welcomed by Cook Island hospitality, a chilled coconut drink, and a flower garland. The beachfront suites and bungalows have timber furniture and private sun decks. Have crepes with caramelized bananas delivered in the morning. Swim in the infinity pool, explore the rock pools, or snorkel through the Aquatic Eco Trail after breakfast. Drink a lychee colada at lunchtime, and a lemongrass and ginger tea during afternoon tea. Learn how to tie a pareu or schedule a Rapae massage in the afternoon. Watch for migrating humpback whales as you sip a Matutu Mai beer at dusk. Eat ika mata for dinner at Rapae Bay, or better yet, in a Bedouin tent, surrounded by candles and flower petals as you drink champagne. And watch a fire dance, with traditional chants and costumes.
This peaceful, secluded paradise is even better than you ever imagined. All of those best-in-the-world lists got it right.
Photo: © Xaviermarchant | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
Returning from your last beach vacation, you were relaxed and slightly sunburned. The week had been amazing, but one little thing was missing. The island itself. Whether you were whisked away on a speedboat in the Maldives or a van deposited you at a beautiful, gated resort in Montego Bay or Punta Cana, you didn’t get to see much beyond the property’s grounds. Not that you minded at the time. With sparkling turquoise water and a swim-up bar, you happily embraced the “no worries” attitude.
Heading to French Polynesia though, you’re determined not to remain as secluded. At least not the whole time. An international flight brings you to Papeete, the bustling capital. But your trip is not finished. Your destination is a mere 12 miles away–a half-hour catamaran ride–over the Sea of the Moon. Lush green mountains rise from the ocean. White-sand beaches meet crystal-clear water. Outriggers glide into shallow lagoons. Ia Orana, Moorea.
Photo: © Sburel | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
When the catamaran docks in Vaiare Bay, jump on Le Truck, a brightly colored, open-air bus that circles the island’s ring road. It’s a cheap, safe, and entertaining way to tour the heart-shaped island. Bob Marley and Madonna songs may be blaring from the radio, but you’ll barely notice with the stunning scenery. Coconut trees and hibiscus flowers are everywhere; the water usually only a few steps away. Hairpin turns around Cook’s and Opunohu Bay. In between resorts, there are pastel houses, freely roaming chickens, and small stores to buy picnic supplies or black pearls. Baguettes, cheese, and Tabu beer make a perfect lunch. On the beach. Or on a motu.
You’ve probably found your perfect spot in the sand by now, but a visit to Moorea wouldn’t be complete without venturing in and up. Walk to Belvedere Lookout for views of the bays and valleys around Mount Rotui. Visit the remains of ancient temples. Hike to Atiraa Waterfall. Go on a 4×4 off-road tour. Ride by pineapple plantations on horseback. You may be exhausted by the time you return to your overwater hut, but this time you saw a lot more than the view from your resort.
In search of the perfect beach? No, not the perfect beach resort. Just the perfect beach. Fine white sand. Crystal-clear water. Bathing-suit temperatures. An uninterrupted view of sparkling blue. Maybe even a shady spot for an afternoon nap. That’s all. Not asking for too much.
Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island in Australia is the perfect swath of sand. 3.7 miles of it. You’ve probably seen pictures; it’s used in almost every Down Under ad and commercial. It’s that picturesque. And its location on an uninhabited island in Whitsunday Islands National Park ensures it will remain undeveloped, despite being one of Australia’s most popular destinations.
The only way to reach Whitehaven Beach is by boat. Sail over from a resort at Hamilton Island or Hook Island, or join a tour from nearby Airlie Beach on the mainland. Spend the day swimming, snorkeling, or picnicking. Hike to Tongue Point to look out over the beach. Walk to Hill Inlet–at the northern end of the island–to watch the water change colors at the turn of the tide. Try to find secluded Betty’s Beach. Find a great camping spot. Yes, this paradise can be yours, and if you’re lucky, only yours, for an entire night. There’s only a pit toilet, and no running water, but even those who swear they don’t camp can handle this.
You’ve been bungee jumping, glacier hiking, and jet boating during your Kiwi adventure, and now you’re ready to let your muscles relax for a few days. With a glass of wine. Marlborough, New Zealand’s most popular wine region, has incredible Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. But perhaps a quieter area and a heavier red is what’s in mind. Time to head to Hawke’s Bay in the northeastern part of the North Island.
Photo: N Preseault
Due to its remote location, Hawke’s Bay is off the regular tourist path. It’s also one of the driest and warmest parts of the country, creating the perfect climate for Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot grapes. The vineyards are located on the outskirts of the small, friendly city of Napier, whose Art Deco architecture lures visitors to the waterfront area after a day of tastings.
Photo: Esk Valley Lodge
To really embrace the goal of relaxing, stay at one of the area’s vineyards. The Esk Valley Lodge is a restored farmhouse surrounded by vineyards and orchards. With only three rooms–all named after a type of grape–peace and quiet is guaranteed. The helpful owners serve a full breakfast that features local ingredients and homemade jam. Wine and nibbles appear at dusk in the common area, along with help suggestions of activities and great restaurants.
Lots of sunshine, great wine, and a low-key, waterfront city sounds like the perfect place for some down time before your next adventure. Zorbing, maybe?