It’s hard to stay anxious with a view this beautiful. Having steadied my legs, found my balance and become used to the gentle lapping waves of the lagoon, my only job now is to watch for coral close to the surface.
Paddle-board tail fins and coral don’t mix, apparently. Having taken off from Muri beach on the south-east side of Rarotonga, we’ve paddled just a little way out to the cluster of small islands in the lagoon. It was still light when we picked up the boards, which had colour-changing lights on the underside to allow us to continue beyond sunset.
I feel my shoulders drop as we stop to simply bob around and take in the moment. Lowering myself onto the board, I dip my legs in the warm waters. The evening winds have dropped to a gentle breeze.
“You can jump in if you want,” says our instructor, Emma. But I want to just sit still right here. Ahead of me, the sky is stretching into a muddle of reds and yellows, streaking through a vivid purple, as night-time slowly makes its way across the mountains.
Palm trees from nearby tiny island Taakoka stand black and gently swaying against the sky. Surely there can be no place and no time of day more romantic than this.
Having spent the past five days here, I can truly say that travelling to the Cook Islands feels like getting away from it all.
Firstly, there’s the destination’s undeniable beauty, a key draw for weddings and honeymooning visitors. Boasting shallow, crystalclear blue lagoons, spotless white-sand beaches, lush tropical landscapes and year-round warm weather, the 15 islands comprising the Cooks are the picture-postcard embodiment of an island paradise.
But the island nation’s remote location in the heart of the Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, combined with its rich Polynesian culture, lack of highrise chain hotels or bustling resort towns mean it’s also attracting an increasing number of travellers looking for “authentic” and “unspoilt” destinations. That’s only set to increase with the start of a new series of E4 reality show Shipwrecked this week, filmed on two uninhabited islands in Aitutaki lagoon.
“‘Live like a local’ is what we say about the Cooks,” says Tom McKee, assistant sales manager at Turquoise Holidays. “If you go to Tahiti or even Fiji, you’ll have a more glitzy, polished five-star experience. But the Cooks is just complete immersion.
“We sell it on the basis that you go, meet local people, and immerse yourself in local life in a way that you can’t really do elsewhere.”
The biggest island, Rarotonga, is home to about 14,000 of the Cook Islands’ 17,500 population, but it still only takes about an hour to circumnavigate its ring road, with the blue lagoon on one side and towering mountains on the other.
“The great thing about having a wedding here is that they are not a mass business for us,” says Karla Eggelton, director of sales and marketing at Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.
“On any one day, you will never have more than three or four weddings in the entire country. So that means if you are looking for that private stretch of beach or that beautiful white church, or that private island just for you and your wedding party, then it’s absolutely available.
“You are also allowed to get married wherever you like here… the mountains, the churches, the interior of the island or our small islands. We had our first underwater wedding not too long ago.”
If your clients wish for private candlelit dining on uninhabited islands in the lagoon or couples’ massages on the beach, the consensus is that, within reason, most requests can be accommodated.
Though it should be noted that same-sex marriages are not currently legal here.
Activities cater for both the romantic and adventurous alike. Even if hiking Rarotonga’s mountains, night paddle-boarding to the small islands dotting the lagoon (£37pp with Ariki Tours) and enjoying a fish barbecue and local drumming
(£42pp with Captain Tamas) isn’t for your clients, the night market in Muri beach is a great place to suggest for local food and mingling with locals.
Accommodation tends to be villa-style or self-catering. The five-star villas at Rumours are split across two sites and have their own private pools. There’s a spa, welcome hampers are provided, and weddings can be arranged on the beach.
Next door, five-star Te Manava also has villa-style accommodation and a spa, with beachfront plunge pools. The 13 properties are part of, but physically separate from, the Pacific Resort Rarotonga. Featuring 64 rooms, suites and villas across 5.5 acres, the four-star property is one of the Cook Islands’ largest, and also offers wedding packages.
But no romantic holiday would be complete without a trip to Aitutaki. Located 136 miles north and an easy 45-minute flight from Rarotonga, Aitutaki boasts what many have described as the most beautiful lagoon in the world. Waking up in my bungalow at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, I have to agree.
I nurse a coffee, watching tropical fish dart through water that’s as still and clear as glass. So beautiful is the property – a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World – it’s a wrench to leave.
The main island is surrounded by 15 islets, so exploring by water is a must. Suggest clients land at One Foot island on a cruise with Bishop’s Cruises (£48pp). Couples looking for their own private island can take a half-day private charter priced from £186.
As one of just two boats here, it’s not hard to find a totally empty beach all to myself. A vast sand bank stretches under the water, the sea a vivid blue. Palm trees dip and bend in the slight breeze, while waves gently lap it. Yes, this is paradise for sure.
Book it: Gold Medal offers a 10-night Honeymoon package from £4,099pp for travel from November 23-29, 2019. Price includes Air New Zealand flights, domestic flights between Rarotonga and Aitutaki, five-nights’ B&B at Pacific Resort Rarotonga, five-nights’ B&B at Pacific Resort Aitutaki, and shared transfers.
Karla Eggelton director of sales and marketing, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation
How popular are weddings here with UK couples?
We complete more than 1,000 visitor weddings on an annual basis. The UK and continental Europe are our third-biggest market, with about 100 of that total. A wedding licence costs £53 and takes three working days, or for an extra £27 you can get it within 24 hours. For both, you have to apply in person.
What are the USPs of the Cook Islands as a wedding destination?
We speak English. We have a very simple and easy to understand wedding licence. And it is very price-competitive, as we use the New Zealand dollar. Most of the weddings take place on Rarotonga, and the natural honeymoon destination is Aitutaki. We also have boutique-style resorts and facilities that cater for romance.
How can Cook Islands culture be incorporated into weddings?
Polynesian culture is about peace, love and celebration, and it’s easy to have elements of it included in weddings – from dances by island maidens and floral archways to blessings in the local language or the introduction of local cuisine. They’re all easily accessible, as we live our culture on a day-to-day basis. If people are interested, all they have to do is ask.