When New Zealand skies are grey, tropical islands beckon. Former OHbaby! Editor, Ellie Gwilliam, packed up the family and made the dream a reality in beautiful Rarotonga.
Arriving in Rarotonga is an assault on all your senses, in a good way. The warm, thick, seaside air envelops you like a hug as you walk off the plane, down those good old-fashioned stairs onto the tarmac. A man is playing the ukulele behind the baggage carousel and frangipani eis (flower garlands) are handed out to the tourists with perfume that fills the air. Cool drinks and even colder face cloths were passed to us in our airport transfer van. This was going to be a good holiday.
When we arrived in the dark at the Pacific Resort Rarotonga, our home away from home for the next five nights, our three-year-old, Abigail, simply said, “It smells so good.” In the morning, when she could actually see where she was, she was speechless.
Pacific Resort Rarotonga is “so good.” Family-friendly sounds trite, family embracing is more accurate. You bring your family here and not only feel welcomed and well catered to, but everything is incredibly easy. And ease is what you are looking for on a holiday like this. Our premium garden suite was insightfully well appointed. Cool, tasteful and luxurious throughout without an inch of fussy. Two bedrooms and two bathrooms, so erring slightly towards extravagant, but when travelling as a family of five, highly appreciated.
Our suite also had a full-sized kitchen with a large fridge. One of the many perks of a Rarotongan holiday is that they don’t seem to mind you bringing groceries from home, so we quickly unpacked our frozen two litres of milk and block of cheese.
The resort itself is delightful, set amongst a lush tropical garden, right on the beachfront of Muri Lagoon. You can opt for beachfront accommodation, but we felt our garden suite offered more privacy, while still feeling part of something really special. A daily tropical breakfast is a standard inclusion and this soon became a highlight. We especially looked forward to the arrival of the ‘ukulele boys’ each morning, sometime around 9:00am, who serenaded guests from a cabana over the water from the resort’s Sandals Restaurant.
Now, I should be honest – we’re not a resort family. We’re a camping, baching, bludging off doting grandparents type of family. This holiday was a very special treat and my theory is that families need special treats. If this sort of vacation is not in your annual budget then my advice is save up and splash out when the kids are old enough to enjoy it (and require less baby paraphernalia. Oh, and being old enough for the kids’ club is handy too, just quietly). Yes, you could hire a holiday house on the island for a lesser fee and sure, roughing it is sometimes fun, but parenting can be hard work so a family holiday should be easy.
Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruises
If you do one touristy thing on the island you might as well make it one with a boat. Make it a glass-bottomed boat while you’re at it and prepare to get wet. And if tours featuring slightly questionable political correctness are your thing, then book yourself a spot on Captain Tama’s.
Captain Tama’s is a Rarotongan institution, operating for over 21 years. Crewed by a collection of passionate locals armed with ukeleles, drums and ridiculous nick-names – Captain Chocolate, Captain Happy and Captain Trouble – we were in for a hugely entertaining day. Thankfully the more dubious jokes went over our little ones’ heads.
The boat takes you out to the reef where tropical fish abound. They anchor up and everyone can have a go at snorkeling. Even if your children are too young to do this, Mum or Dad can go snorkeling and the kids will be happy on the boat looking at all the reef fish through the glass bottom. Even happier if they spot their “merDad” swimming right under the boat below them.
It was then on to a little island in the lagoon for lunch – barbequed fish, fresh fruit, fried bananas, bread and salads. And then the ‘live entertainment show’ really kicked off. The coconut tree climbing demonstration was a highlight, especially for Abigail who later interrupted Captain Chocolate’s coconut husking monologue with “excuse me, that other guy was amazing!” Our captain’s ego was dented only momentarily.
We were then educated with sarong-tying demonstrations and a cringe-inspiring haka lesson for two poor blokes from Melbourne, still wearing their man-wrap sarongs which now also supported a coconut each.
I love the way Rarotongans always seem to have an eye out for kids. As the only littlies in the group, Captain Happy wove our three girls flax headbands and Rarotongan Rubix Cubes as they sat in the sand watching the show.
After a short walk all anyone wanted to do was swim. We made use of the resort’s snorkeling gear and it was great to see our eldest quickly getting the hang of a mask and snorkel and loving all the fish she could see out in the deeper part of the lagoon, while holding tight to Dad’s hand. The younger girls pottered about with the buckets and spades, happy as sand girls. And I stretched out on the lounger under the shade of the coconut trees, legs in the sun – I know, poor me.
Lunch and some quiet time in our suite was next on the agenda. Late flights and hot sun are exahusting and besides, we had a big night out to prepare for.
We were treated to dinner and a show at Te Vara Nui, a couple of minutes walk from the resort. Te Vara Nui offers an exceptionally well-presented cultural evening set on a dramatic stage surrounded by water. The buffet dinner was delicious and the show, which began as darkness fell, had the kids spellbound. It is a tad late for littlies, but they can cope while in holiday mode. And when it all got a bit much for Abigail she just fell asleep on my knee, lulled by the warm breeze and drumbeat.
Today’s itinerary featured the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre, a fascinating education centre run by people passionate about passing on environmental care and concern to kids. Abigail touched a friendly eel, Johanna fed fish and we were all shocked to see Rocky the rockfish annihilate his lunch, a live and tiny sprat of a thing, in one sudden gobble. We learnt about whaling, coconut crabs, turtles and more – a rather noble way to spend the morning we felt.
Later in the afternoon we wandered along Muri Beach in search of ice cream. We found the very cute Ice Cream @ Muri, run by a Kiwi couple escaping the NZ weather. Next door was a black pearl outlet store, how convenient – treats all round.
Then some more pool time (very hard to get the kids out of the pool) before a stroll along the beach in the other direction to Muri Night Markets where we let the kids chose their dinner. Chop suey for Lottie, a BLT for Johanna and a green smoothie for Abigail. The two former were hits, the latter not so much and consequently Josh and I enjoyed the smoothie and Abigail ate half my coconut fish curry.
As resort newbies we were very curious about this whole kids’ club thing. The kids’ club at the Pacific Resort is only licensed for over six-year-olds but this was easily solved with the help of a lovely local babysitter to accompany our girls.
Now footloose and fancy free, Josh and I set off to hire a car and do some exploring. The first car had a flat tire, but the second soon had us on our way.
The thing with resorts is that you really don’t have to go anywhere else, but they can be a tad isolating. When I travel I like to get a feel for the place I’m visiting. A drive around Rarotonga, right around in less than an hour, helps with your bearings and also opens your eyes to real life. There is plenty to see – roadside stalls, a peek at other resorts, a nosey into locals’ back and front yards. And of course stop at any point for a dip in the lagoon, never more than a stone’s throw away.
We were back at the resort with an hour to spare before ‘show time’ at the kids’ club. Josh wanted to snorkel again and I did what I figured I was meant to do on a tropical island holiday – lie in the sun with a book.
Meanwhile, back at the Beach Hut it was ‘cultural day’ so the girls made grass skirts, learnt some Cook Island Maori, had lunch in the restaurant (highlight!) before practicing hard for their ‘performance’ – a captivating dance show featuring just our three blondies, and a local girl who’d been called up for support.
We had a delicious early dinner at The Mooring, a must-see diner where fish is caught on the charter boat and then prepared in a shipping container/café conversion. This place is what island dining is all about. And tucked away off the beaten track on the edge of a little cove it is the perfect location to experience an otherwise missed view of Rarotonga.
One final lap of the island before returning the car. We found a charming roadside sarong stall, just near the island’s half way mark, where a local lady hand dyes and prints sarongs and bags. We let the girls choose one each as a souvenir and they then had lessons in tying them. Simple and beautiful, and really the only shopping we needed to do the whole holiday.
Josh then discovered the island’s one and only brewery, Matutu, and the owner welcomed us in for a quick tour. This was a timely moment of man-time for Josh, while the girls sat in the shade and watched the local chickens pecking in the dust.
LBV is a great spot for a drink or a meal, right next to our car rental dealer at Muri Beach. It’s a lovely old villa with a wrap-around deck and shady garden. The French inspired menu made it a rather random island dining experience, but we would still highly recommend it.
Back at the resort we managed to squeeze in a complimentary scuba lesson in the pool for Josh, followed by packing and an early dinner. Then one last stroll on the beach.
The hardest part about a holiday in Rarotonga is leaving, quite literally. Our 9:00pm flight was delayed and it was 3:00am before we were finally tucked up in our beds at home in Auckland.
Each day at 4:00pm a staff member walked around the resort blowing a conch shell to signal happy hour, or ‘Happy Time’ as our kids referred to it. I once sneaked away to the Barefoot Bar (right on the beach) for a lemonade with Johanna, our eldest, much to her absolute delight. These are the magical moments of an unforgettable holiday, and worth every cent.
Ellie Gwilliam and family stayed at Muri Beach, courtesy of Pacific Resort Rarotonga. Thanks also to Cook Islands Tourism for arranging activities for the family to enjoy during their stay.
Photography: Ellie & Josh Gwilliam