I was relaxed as I lay on the beach sipping my frozen pina colada. The white sand, the hot sun, the gentle sway of palm trees – when bang – a dirty match-box car sailed into my temple at top speed. It was to be a double-pronged assault, next toddler Ted threw sand in my mouth and collapsed in a rage on the beach. You see, occasionally, even in a paradise like Rarotonga, children will lose their rag.
For the most part travelling with children is a brilliant, balmy escape. You take a break from the daily rush-hour of school and work and get to laze about by the pool and spend long stretches of times agonising about which type of tropical fruit to select from the breakfast buffet. And indulge in some quality family time together, of course.
But there is one inescapable fact about travelling internationally with young children. You’re going to have to get on a plane, with people you don’t know, and inflict your unpredictable child/children on them for several hours. This brings me to one of the very good things about going to the Cook Islands – the flight is short (under four hours from Auckland) and before long you will be disembarking onto the tarmac with that hot, sweet air signalling your arrival far from home.
When our family of three departed for Rarotonga earlier this year, Ted was a squirmy 20 month year old, small but quite large like a shaggy King Charles Spaniel. This meant, that with Air New Zealand, he still qualified to sit on our laps.
* My best ever holiday was in Rarotonga
* The Cook Islands are a perfect family escape
* Paradise is just four hours away
We had prepared for months for this moment and consequently had downloaded many Netflix episodes from the lofty heights of Thomas the Tank Engine, to the brain-numbing lows of Bananas in Pyjamas. As the engines on the plane began to whirl, I pulled the iPad from below the seat with confidence. It was disappointing to discover I had forgotten to charge it. We reverted to option B, a giant bag full of baby snacks and the on-board screen.
When we landed, the temperature was a balmy 30 degrees. This is a good thing obviously, especially when you are escaping from the rabid northerly gales of Wellington.
After a quick rental car pick-up (there are several companies located right at the airport) we were on the road. It is pretty easy to find your way around the island, the main Ara Tapu Road stretches for 32km around the whole place so you often just need to decide to turn left or right.
We were hot and smelly when we arrived at the tropical oasis that is the Pacific Resort at Muri on the south east of the island. One of the big drawcards here is location. It is right on Muri Beach, which is safe for swimming and boasts that crystal clear water you imagine when dreaming of a Pacific Island getaway. The resort also has a family friendly swimming pool, a babysitting service and a cool kids club (for kids aged 6 and up). The food at Sandals Restaurant is cracking too, with options for all ages, and on a nice day you can even sit on the sand at the Barefoot Bar, just metres from the water. Make sure you try the island fries.
Just a few moments walk up the driveway of the resort and you are transported into the bustling amenities of Muri village. There are the busy night-markets (open on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday nights from 5pm – 9pm), the French cafe LBV that boasts excellent coffee, and an assortment of general stores and shops. If you are in need of some child or teenager free relaxation, pop just down the road to another of Pacific’s resorts, Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa, for a massage or facial. The setting is a dream with high levels of peace and tranquility and no match box cars in sight.
When it finally comes time to get off the beach-lounger, a great way to get off the beaten track and explore the island is by bicycle. Even if you are not the outdoorsy type Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours have got it sorted for you – from the most novice beginners to experienced cyclists.
We took the leisurely “Discover” tour (complete with our 20 month old) which slowly winds through the island’s back roads over three hours.
The tour ambles through paddocks and taro patches, winding through the ancient coral road and includes regular stops for fresh fruit (we tried pineapple, passionfruit, papaya and mango) and chats about the area. The storytelling focus is at the heart of the tour and our guide was a gifted yarn-teller from history to interesting back-stories of island. The trip ended with an delicious lunch (sticky chicken and fresh papaya noodle salad) and a swim at the beach. Kids of all ages will enjoy this one, we put our active toddler in the tow behind bike trailer and he loved it. He saw wild piglets, and ate freshly cut pineapple to his hearts content. Our tour lasted around half a day, and they even pick you up and drop you off from your accommodation.
Another popular family trip on the island is the Koka Lagoon Cruises. This lively, music-filled trip is a great one for kids and teens of all ages. It leaves from the white sands of Muri Beach taking us out in a glass bottomed boat into the lagoon for a snorkel. After your swim, you are taken to the small un-inhabitated island in the Muri lagoon for a tasty fish barbecue and the ever compelling coconut tree climbing show.
If you are looking for a bit of adventure, even on a rainy day, it is well-worth going on a Raro Mountain Safari Tour. The trip takes you all around the island, and off the beaten track. A highlight is a jaunt up the steep 4WD only road for a closer look at Te Rua Manga (Needle rock) in the centre of the island, through dense tropical forest. Our travels also took us for a quick peek at the fascinating and derelict Sheraton Resort which lies abandoned in southern Rarotonga.
If you are in the market for a delicious dinner out and a family friendly cultural show, pop down to Muri to see the Te Vara Nui night show. You’ll eat dinner perched above the water and a luscious tropical garden and be treated to a high-energy show complete with dancing and fire twirling.
After a few days of island life, you, like us will find you have reached peak relaxation mode. The phones have been put to one side, meals are leisurely and time goes slowly. If you need some warm weather, and a family recharge, there is no better destination than Rarotonga.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH YOUNG CHILDREN
In no particular order, here are our tips to save your sanity and keep your kids happy when travelling internationally with a little one.
– PACK MORE SNACKS THAN SEEMS REASONABLE, SERIOUSLY
I had an adult sized backpack filled with snacks. I packed that sack with more corn-puffs, crackers and organic quinoa pouches than you’d imagine possible. The only thing worse than a grumpy baby on an international flight, is a hangry baby on an international flight. Also, baby food is expensive in Rarotonga. So are nappies and baby wipes.
– CHECK OUT YOUR CARRY ON ALLOWANCES
Most airlines have generous allowances for baby gear. Air New Zealand lets you check in a car-seat, stroller and portacot all for free on flights to the Pacific. You can also hire baby products on the island for a small charge.
– HIRE A CAR
Rental cars are very affordable in Rarotonga and it is a convenient way to get around the island. The roads are easy to navigate and you even drive on the same side of the road as New Zealand. We used Polynesian Rental Cars and Bikes.
– GO OUT FOR DINNER, WITH OR WITHOUT THE KIDS
If you want a night out without the kids there a number of reliable babysitting services on the island. For a special treat the award-winning Nautilus Restaurant in Muri Beach has great food and an unforgettable view. For a super-family friendly dining spot, look no further than the beachside Charlies. Their fish sandwich is the stuff of legends!
– DON’T FORGET SUNBLOCK/TAKE INSECT REPELLENT
This stuff can be expensive in Rarotonga. The sun is bright and the mozzies are hungry in certain parts of the island, so make sure you bring your own. Don’t let itchy children ruin your holiday!
– FORGET YOUR PREVIOUS HOLIDAYS
Look, it just isn’t going to be relaxing as those days of old when your biggest concern was whether to choose a Mai Tai or a Mojito at the pool-side bar. But it will be fun, and your kids will love it and you’ll remember it forever. (You might even have very-well behaved children who never have tantrums, in that case, congratulations.)
More Information: cookislands.travel
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies Auckland to Rarotonga. See airnz.co.nz.
Staying there: See pacificresort.com for current rates and offers.
The writer travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism.