Rarotonga. 10 hours flight from Los Angeles. Pretty much in the middle of the South Pacific nowhere. There are 15 Cook Islands in total, scattered over two million square kilometres of ocean, extending from Penrhyn, 9 degrees south of the equator, to Mangaia, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The Cook Islands are home to 19,00 people, half of whom live on Rarotonga.
We arrive very early in the morning, the Coronas we drank at our stop-over in Tahiti wearing off. We are in that fuddled, time zone weary state as we enter the arrivals building and stand in line. There is the distinct sound of Pacific Island singing floating accross the building, melodious guitar and wailing. It's not coming from a speaker. There is a man on a box, with a guitar...and a microphone. Serenading us, with a necklace made of flowers. Apparently, he is there at every flight arrival and departure from Raro' airport, and he hasn't missed a flight for fourteen years. It is 5am, there is no other flight until midday, and he is there to sing us into his country. Welcome to paradise.
We are in Rarotonga for the wedding of our friends Steve and Sonya. Fran has worked with Steve for years in numerous bars. Originally at Pharmacy together (bar and restaurant in Notting Hill) there are tales of Fran being tied to a chair and left on the traffic island in the middle of the main road, topless and gagged after a night working together. Steve and Sonya were born in New Zealand, live in London and met in Lapland.
We are ushered through customs and greeted 'Kia Orana' by our bungalow host Akaita. We pile into the back of the van with Tim and Suzie, our friends from London who we bumped into at LA Airport, and ask how far to our destination, Aroko Bungalows. 'About 10 minutes' we are told....and it only takes about 30 minutes to drive round the whole island (or about 1 1/2 hours of hard slog on a push bike as we were later to find out). We arrive at the picturesque bungalows and immediately settle on the deck to watch the sun come up. Tim and Susie have been flying for about 23 hours but are wide awake and we decide to stay up and top-up the Coronas we had drunk earlier. Fran takes in upon himself to persuade the local shop keeper to sell him beers at 6am ('Just don't tell anyone I sold them to you'). Out comes the coffee favoured Tequila and by 8am we're pretty sozzled. In the resulting carnage, Fran and Timmy decide they are going on a Ninja Warrior treck across the lagoon to the small island opposite. Fran falls over drunk continually in the shallow waters and flails after his fast-disappearing floating flip flops as they drift off in the strong current. The boys finally reach the island where Timmy rips a coconut husk off with his bare teeth and Fran is attacked by hundreds of killer mosquitos. The whelts take days to die down.
We spend the rest of the day sleeping off our early excesses then head down the road to the wedding party base Sokala Villas for the first night meet and greet BBQ. 35 people have decsended from New Zealand, Australia, England, Thailand and Japan to join in the celebrations.
By 10pm the guitar has come out and Sonya is wearing a red veil. The party has begun. Beth (the best woman) and Sarah race to change into bikinis to win the prize for first in the pool but are beaten by another Sarah who jumps in fully clothed. 10 minutes later and everyone's in (whether they like it or not).
Friday. The big wedding.
It is hard to put into words just how magical the day was. The boys congregate at noon to learn the Haka. There are 15 Kiwi men, and 2 English guys. The practice session lasts about 12 minutes. The Kiwi's know the Haka already. David and Francis nervously copy the words (included phonetic spelling) on a scrap of paper.
By 4pm, the wedding party is assembled on Muri beach, outside sails restaurant. Everyone looks amazing...all dressed in white. The groom has scrubbed up well, and everyone tries to get a flash of his floral underwear which matches his shirt. Beth (Steve's best woman) almost upstages the bride by being the last to arrive, muttering something about applying Tit-tape (see photos for explanation.)
We're off to the Island of Motu Oneroa, a short hop across the lagoon in the glass bottomed boat. The bride is rowed out on another, smaller boat, and is carried onto the island. Sonya looks amazing. The ceremony is my idea of perfection...short, intimate and romantic. Best of all, we are right next to the couple, able to hear every word they say...a million miles away from sitting in the back row of a church surrounded by camcorders and screaming children. We both cry....in fact, pretty much everyone cries. It's a thing of beauty.
After the ceremony, Steve and Sonya plant a coconut in the ground (they name it Bruce), and they are urged to "go away and make lots of baby coconuts" of their own. We get back in the boat and head for the mainland. The newlyweds are taken off for numerous photo opportunities in the palm trees while we are served champagne and canapes on the beach as the sun goes down.
In keeping with the wedding's unconventional theme, the bride has a male 'bridesmaid' and the groom has a best woman and a best man. We were lucky enough to have speeches from all these plus the bride's mum and the groom. Sonya's mum (described in the guest list booklet we have all received as 'the best mum anyone could wish for and a great friend') has everyone in tears as she talks about the bride.
Davey, Little Rich, Chris, Ringo and Kerry have a special band tribute to the couple, including several specially written numbers. Sonya and Francis play percussion with maraccas, rice-filled eggs, the table, cutlery, everything. The night wears on. Everyone blows bubbles. The dancing starts. Kerry falls over. Francis has to go and do something on the beach after downing sambuca. He looks much better when he comes back, and carries on drinking. Chris goes a bit strange. At 1.30, Steve has a whip round, and we buy most of the booze left in the bar, and head back to Steve and Sonya's. The restaurant staff look really glad.
The following night the celebrations continue with Sonya's Mum Sue's 60th Birthday and Bestwoman Beth's 30th. Beth has a much younger boyfriend who thinks she's only 28 so this becomes a running joke....aswell as the 'food poisoning' which she aquired after the 1st night in Raro which could only be put down to an excess of white wine. We love her. She's fun. We can see why Steve chose her as best woman.
We could go into loads of detail about the rest of the holiday, but to be honest, we don't need to....so I'll give you a summary.
Rarotonga is a truly beautiful place. The people are almost all friendly, and almost all very large. Size is something to aspire to, and with the help of local specialities such as Taro (unbelievably carbohydrate-rich vegetable, would be used to kill slim people in the event of a war), and the other national dish, imported meat pies, the Rarotongans stay in really good shape.
The island is stunning, 32 kilometres in circumference, and almost all of it is surrounded by a lagoon.
Imagine that the land-mass of the island is the yolk of a large egg. The point where the yolk meets the white is the beach. At the edge of the egg is a coral wall, and the sea beyond, with the waves crashing against the edge of the egg white. The bit between the egg yolk and the edge of the egg is a clear, shallow lagoon filled with beautiful fish. I hope that clarifies things.
We loved it. We spent our days sunbathing, cycling, cooking, eating, drinking, sunbathing, snorkling, shopping, fishing, sunbathing, playing boules, sunbathing, watching the coconut crabs, visiting crap waterfalls, going deep sea fishing, really regretting going deep sea fishing, cycling the wrong way round the island, getting burnt, swimming, cycling, eating, drinking, sunbathing, eating, drinking, drinking. In that order.
It's truly a perfect paradise island holiday. Big love, respect and thanks to everyone at the wedding; Steve, Sonya and all your family in particular. We met some wonderful people, got really good tans, and loved every minute. Special additional big love to Tim, Suzie, Beth, Phil and Demelza. WE HAD FUN. xxx
Small example of why we love Raro'. Our departing flight to Fiji leaves at 23.59.
We check in at 22.00 (check in takes about 3 minutes.) We cross the road and go to the really busy bar opposite (the RSA.) It's packed. The music is terrible. We think it must be a special trash 80's revival night, but we're told it's always like this. Everyone has white hibiscus flowers in their hair. The drinks are really cheap. Everyone is dancing. We leave 20 minutes before our flight departs, and walk to the boarding gate. Imagine doing the same at Heathrow.
We're on our way to Fiji.