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June 24, 2009

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Rarotonga, Cook Islands

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Kia orana! We left off last week just after touching down in the tropical Cook Islands. If you're interested in an affordable South Pacific getaway for families and honeymooners, then you won't want to miss the island of Rarotonga. We also have pictures from jetBlue's celebration last week at LAX, where they have just begun twice daily service to New York's JFK and Boston (rates from $109). You also won't want to miss William Darrow’s weekend in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Cook Islands, named after Captain James Cook who first sighted them in 1770, are comprised of 15 small islands (total land area of 240 square kilometers or 92.7 square miles) in the South Pacific: 620 miles south of Bora Bora, 1,870 miles north of Auckland and 1,500 miles east of Fiji. The two main islands are Rarotonga (it's been compared to Tahiti minus the French) and Aitutaki (an exclusive island like Bora Bora). They both have peaks and valleys that are surrounded by beaches, a blue lagoon and a reef. Many Tahitians and Cook Islanders are related.


  • The Cook Islands used to belong to the British, then New Zealand but in 1965, they became a self-government in "free association" with New Zealand.
  • The total population is just under 12,000 but in New Zealand, there are over 58,000 Cook Islanders.
  • The official language is English but many speak Cook Islands Maori as well. One phrase you'll be sure to learn is Kia orana. It's the standard greeting and is the Cook Island license plate - it translates to: May you live forever.
  • The main industries are fruit processing, tourism, fishing, clothing and handicrafts.
  • There is no tipping in the Cook Islands as it's considered contrary to the Polynesian way of life.
  • You can drink the tap water on Rarotonga but not in Aitutaki. I bought bottled water just to be safe.
  • The Cook Islands are on our side of the International Date Line so it's just a two- or three-hour time difference from Los Angeles. There's no Daylight Savings here, same as Hawaii.
  • No need to worry about poisonous insects or snakes here -- there aren't any.
  • There's one streetlight in Rarotonga and it's the only one in all of the Cook Islands.
  • For the cheapest deals, book directly with the hotel or go through a wholesaler.

The international airport is on the main island of Rarotonga. After exiting down the plane stairs, it was just a short walk through Rarotonga's thick warm frangipani-fragranced air to immigrations. I was one of the first off the plane, there was no wait. Working were about six friendly agents who quickly stamped passports and welcomed passengers to their islands. It was so quick I didn't even get to enjoy Papa Jake, their famous singer, singing local songs to welcome all the international arrivals and departures.

Next stop was customs and the agent didn't look at my bag so I was in the main arrivals hall in no time. The first thing I did is what I always do; I hit the airport ATM to get some local currency. In the Cook Islands, they use New Zealand Dollars, which means our money goes far. Currently, 1 NZD = $0.64 USD or $1 USD = 1.55 NZD. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, our dollar has been sagging because it was even more of a bargain when I was there.

Once in a while, you may get one of their own colorful local bank notes, which I kept for a souvenir. My favorite is Ina and the Shark. The back story goes something like this: In ancient times, there was a beautiful woman named Ina who asked a shark to take her to a neighboring island so she could hang out with her boyfriend who lived there. During the journey, she got hungry and decided to open one of the coconuts she'd brought for the ride by – get this – cracking it open on the shark's head. As you may have guessed, it was bad idea! The shark didn't think that was too cool. He shook her dumb ass off his back and ate her. Legend has it that this is the reason sharks have dents on their heads. For more Cook Island legends, click here.

When Papatua, my 10-minute late (island time, I know) tour guide arrived, he greeted me with an incredibly fragrant welcome lei (photo by Peter Zaremba). It smelled like flowers and basil but it was a local mint. If it weren't so scratchy, I'd still be wearing it.

Attention all you CrackBerry addicts: My T-Mobile BlackBerry had a strong signal but the data portion didn't work. But I use Skype when I call home.

First stop: the hotel. The drive from the airport was less than 10 minutes. There's one main road on the island, which is flat and it takes only 50 minutes to go all way around doing the speed limit (40km = 25 mph). There are taxis (for a list of them, click here) and it's best to negotiate a price before getting in if the driver refuses to go by the meter. But the easiest public transportation is to take one of the two buses (one runs clockwise and the other counterclockwise -- how funny is that?) They leave from the Cook's Corner shopping center, basically every hour and passengers can hop on and off. When I rode, it was half filled with locals, tourists and school kids. The one-way fare is NZ $4 (US $2.56). There's a discount for round-trip, one-day passes or a 10-ride book of tickets.

If you prefer to be in control, you can rent a car or a scooter; this is the best and most fun way to get around the island. The most reputable companies for both are Budget Rent-A-Car and Avis. In order to drive, you need to get a Cook Island's driver's license, which requires a trip to the modern police station, where you'll have to present your current driver's license. If your license doesn't have the correct class for motorcycles, you'll need to take a short practical test; the whole thing takes about an hour and costs NZ $20 or US $12.84. Minimum age to rent is 21 years. Unfortunately, when I was there it was pouring and on top of that, the one day I went to get my driver's license as a fun souvenir. their computer system went down and I never made it back.

Driving in the Cook Islands is on the left-hand side of the road and can be dangerous. Just be careful of slick roads and be on the alert for wild dogs and other animals darting out. I was told that the trick is to just keep going straight at them and they will move, instead of you swerving and playing the guessing game.

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Copyright 2009 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Arriving In RAR


Welcome to The Cook's


Arrivals Hall


Welcome Lei


Cheese (photo by Peter Zaremba


Cook Islanders


Cook Islands News


Cook Island ATM


NZ Dollars


Cook Island Bank Note


Tour Operators


Leaving The Airport


Clockwise Bus


Riding The Bus


Police Station


Budget Rentals


Rental Prices


Rental Agent


Best Way Around The Island



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