BRETT Atkinson keeps busy on the ultimate Rarotongan (Cook Islands) weekend.
Prepare for an active day with breakfast at Avarua's cosmopolitan Cafe Salsa. Secure a table on the outdoor deck and tuck into cafe favourites with a local Cook Islands spin. Try the coconut pancakes with grilled banana, bacon, and maple syrup, or Eggs Avarua, combining poached eggs, rukau (local spinach), and smoked marlin. Try to squeeze in a second helping of Rarotonga's best coffee. You'll probably need it.
Join local hiking legend Pa to conquer Rarotonga's iconic Cross-Island Track. Apparently he's more than 70, but has the energy and physique of a much younger man. Forgoing shoes for dreadlocks and a backpack of fresh papaya and banana, Pa is the ultimate guide to reach the base of the Needle, the 413m peak punctuating Rarotonga's verdant interior. After a few hours negotiating steepish mini-ravines of tangled roots and tropical bush, dissolve your weary muscles in the cool waters of the Wigmore Falls.
Kick off a lazy afternoon at the beach with a tropical smoothie or fruit juice at Fruits of Rarotonga, a cute roadside stall opposite Tikioki Beach on the island's southeast coast. Tikioki encompasses one of the Cook Islands' marine parks and is a haven for rainbow fish, parrotfish, angelfish and trevally.
Bring along snorkelling gear and flippers to explore the sprawling reef, and don't leave without buying homemade jams and tropical chutneys from the stall. The friendly owners will even look after your gear while you're meeting Tikioki's piscine residents.
Join Avarua's mix of locals and expats for drinks on the absolute waterfront deck at Trader Jack's Bar & Grill. Rarotonga's most famous drinking hole was devastated by cyclones in 2005 but has been rebuilt better than ever. Refuel with a frosty pint of locally-brewed Matutu Pale Ale, or a flash Yellow Fin cocktail with peach schnapps, vodka, Malibu, pineapple and cranberry juice. It's okay, you're on holiday. Trader Jack's seafood-infused menu is also excellent. Try the Te Ika Mata, local tuna marinated in coconut and lime juice, or the super-fresh sashimi.
Catch a local bus - make sure it's a Clockwise departure - four stops along to the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club at Tupapa. Get off at Club Raro and walk about 250m back towards to Avarua. Grab a cold beer or glass of wine in the bar, then adjourn to the adjacent Flying Boat Fish and Chips. Some of Rarotonga's best cheap-eats are from a funky reconfigured fishing boat and the sunset views from the simple outdoor tables are sensational. Watch your favourite footie team in the bar, or catch the Anti-Clockwise bus back to Trader Jack's for regular Friday night gigs by local bands.
Get to Avarua's weekly Punanga Nui Market early for the best selection of local flavours for an eat-on-the-go Raro breakfast. Kick off with a robust brew from the market's coffee caravan before exploring the laidback labyrinth of food and craft stalls. Essential eats include freshly-baked coconut buns and creamy paw paw smoothies and most days there's live music. Other market discoveries include quirky T-shirts putting a spin on international logos - look for CNN Coconut News Network or Hardly Davidson Scooters. Playful puppies and cute kittens are on show at the Esther Honey Foundation, a volunteer organisation supporting the welfare of animals in the South Pacific.
Join Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruises and explore Muri lagoon's underwater environment by snorkelling or viewing from a glass-bottom boat. Most of the crew double as ukulele maestros and stand-up comedians, so look forward to lots of laughs from effervescent local characters, including Captains Fantastic, Trouble and Awesome. Highlights include a seafood barbecue lunch on the tiny islet of Motu Koromiri.
Book ahead for a table on the elegant veranda skirting the beautiful colonial villa of Tamarind House. Set in a sprawling tropical garden, the building was built in 1910 as the residence of the managers of the Union Steamship Company. After time as the British Consul's residence, the heritage home now features one of Rarotonga's best restaurants. The menu combines Asian, Pacific and European flavours. Try the Burmese-style fish or the Pacific seafood ragout with prawns, calamari, mussels and game fish in a coconut, lemon and cashew nut sauce. Tamarind House is also a popular venue for weddings.
Break out your Sunday best and attend church at the Cook Islands Christian Church on the outskirts of Avarua. Built in 1853 from whitewashed local coral, the church's most-popular service is on Sunday mornings, when the beautiful wooden interior is filled with soaring Pacific harmonies and Avarua locals wearing wide-brimmed hats. Visitors are welcome, and are usually invited to stay after the service for morning tea. Essential etiquette to observe includes no shorts or bare shoulders.
Look forward to more irresistible local humour on a rollicking 4WD island expedition with the crew from Raro Safari Tours. Funniest of all is the wisecracking Mr Hopeless, a name apparently borne from his unwillingness to join other family members in the bright lights of Auckland and Sydney. Highlights include a rock'n'rolling journey to Rarotonga's highest look-out point, and the spiritual remains of the Arai-te-Tonga marae, a legendary meeting place for the great chiefs of pre-missionary Rarotonga.
Find a beautiful beach and lie on it, moving only to take a dip in the clear Cook Islands sea.
Travellers tips ...
Where to stay:
On Rarotonga stay at the Manea Beach Villas, well-priced one- to three-bedroom villas and bungalows just metres from Muri Lagoon.
Where to eat:
Cafe Salsa: next to CITC store in Avarua.
Trader Jack's Bar & Grill: Avarua.
Flying Boat Fish and Chips: At the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club, Tupapa.
Tamarind House: Tupapa
What to do:
Punanga Nui Market: Avarua; from around 8am Saturday morning.
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruises: Muri Beach, 11am to 3.30pm Monday to Saturday.
Raro Safari Tours: 9.30am to 12.30pm Monday to Friday, and 1.30pm to 4.30pm Sunday.