The Outsider’s Guide to the Cook Islands
If you read last week’s post, you pretty much know how this trip came out of nowhere the week prior. Air New Zealand phoned me up, offered me a trip, and since it sounded fun, I said yes.
Was it worth it? What happened? Details here, in 1300 words + photos.
Despite it being such a far distance, this was one of the easiest trips I’ve ever prepared for. I was only going to one place (usually I go to several), I’d be gone for less than a week, and, for the first time ever, someone else was arranging my lodging and other logistics.
In other words, my preparation consisted of 25 minutes of packing on Sunday afternoon before riding the train to the airport. Super-easy. If anything, I overpacked, since I only needed two outfits.
I flew United down to LAX (it wasn’t that bad, but I have low expectations for most U.S. airlines) and connected to Air New Zealand – more on that in a moment.
About the Cook Islands
The Cooks consist of 15 small islands in the South Pacific, with Rarotonga being the capital and largest island. There are currently no franchise properties anywhere on the island, a fact that the local hospitality reps are proud of. In addition to a plethora of scooters, there are two buses that travel back and forth along the main road, designated as “Clockwise” and “Anti-Clockwise” to help keep you oriented.
Sometimes people wonder how much you can see of a place in a relatively short time. I always answer that it depends on the place and what you actually do. In the case of Rarotonga, I feel like I was able to see quite a lot. We had an island tour, harbor visit, lagoon cruise, mountaintop trek, various dinners with people who live there, and a hotel located right on the beach. In a place like Rarotonga, those are pretty much the highlights, and as much as I like to travel independently, I probably wouldn’t have done all of those things if I was on my own.
I’m much more of a city person than an island lover, but I liked the Cooks better than most Caribbean islands I’ve been to (about 15 so far) and certainly better than Hawaii. There’s not much left in the world that remains undiscovered, but if you’re looking for relatively unspoiled, the Cook Islands are a great choice.
The Travel Style
In addition to the New Zealand journalists who came along to cover the event, a number of U.S. and Canadian travel writers were also along for the fun. Since this was the first time I’ve been to this kind of thing, I was curious to hear more about how it works for them. They told me stories of going to exotic destinations every couple of months with all expenses paid. One guy said he had been to India five times, but didn’t feel like he had really seen it because each trip was a junket. Another guy told me that the city of Cleveland kept calling him up, trying to get him to come out and write about them. No offense to anyone living in Cleveland, but I don’t think that’s an offer I’d accept.
Normally I pay my own way everywhere I go. It was a little unusual to go to dinner at nice restaurants where everything was paid for by sponsors. The upside of this experience was free cocktails and bottles of wine that kept reappearing at the dinner table. The downside was loss of freedom, and for me, that’s a big downside.
I think it would be easy to adjust to this kind of travel if it’s all I did, and to be honest, I don’t really want to adjust. In the end, freedom is worth more than free wine. This is not really a criticism of traditional travel writers; just a differentiation. I’m doing something completely different that isn’t really comparable to what they do.
Air New Zealand Service
Before the trip, Air New Zealand asked if I’d consider writing about their service when it was over. Keep in mind my first-ever writing disclosure – they brought me over and paid all expenses – but they also made it clear that this was optional and I could say whatever I wanted.
In the Koru Lounge heading down, (LAX Terminal 2), the service was great – I had a reserved table when I showed up after walking across the street from United’s Terminal 7. No Sauvignon Blanc had been reserved for me, but I managed to reserve it myself by visiting the complimentary wine bar. I picked up a copy of the New Zealand Herald before heading out on the flight.
On the first ANZ flight (LAX-RAR), I wasn’t that impressed. The Business Class seats were the older style, and the service was a bit abrupt. At the same time, transferring to any decent airline from a United Airlines connection is kind of like checking into the worst hotel in Guyana after sleeping in a Haitian guest house – it’s definitely a step up. I stayed up for most of the overnight flight and watched New Zealand sitcoms to acclimate myself. (Kiwi readers, I’m now quite familiar with the antics of Jacqui Brown and the interesting career of the Topp Twins.)
I arrived in Rarotonga at 6:00 a..m., and things got better on the ground. The local Cook Islands Tourism staff had joined up with a couple of people who came over from Auckland to arrange everything. As mentioned, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip where I didn’t have to think about paying for my drinks and dinner – that was definitely nice.
The flight back home went via Auckland, and I traveled halfway with a couple of journalists based in New Zealand. All three of us were given seats in a Business Class service that I found to be a lot better than the longer service from L.A. Four hours later I wandered for half an hour in AKL airport, popped into the Koru Lounge (it’s appropriately comfortable), and got on the plane for a 12 hour flight back to the states.
Before transferring to United Economy Class for my final connection, I got to fly in Air New Zealand’s nice long-haul Business Class product. This product is based on the style pioneered by Virgin Atlantic a few years back, where each Business passenger gets their own lie-flat bed and panel dividers that provide more privacy than most other cabins. Check out the photo tour to get an idea of what it’s like, and remember that these seats usually go for thousands of dollars each way.
A big thanks to Karen, Tracy, and other Air New Zealand staff who helped to organize the trip. They did a great job.
Overall, I had a good time on the trip. I’m not ready to jump on a plane to Cleveland, and I don’t want to make a career out of these trips – but I think if the right opportunities came along, I’d be up for checking them out a couple of times a year.
Now that I’m home, I have two domestic trips coming up in June – a family vacation in Utah followed by a working trip to New York, but otherwise, I’m home for about five weeks. During that time I’ll be working on the book, launching Art and Money (Thursday morning! It will be fun!), and thinking ahead to a few other summer projects.
I hope all is well in your world. See you Wednesday with a special edition preview of the new product.
Photos courtesy of Ryan Boswell
It’s awesome to hear about your trip. I find it much more intriguing to read about your ventures when you are “free”, but I don’t mind these sort of things at all.
I think it provides your site with a good mix and you should talk more of these opportunities (as long as it’s not Cleveland, trust me I’m from Indy). I’m very interested in New Zealand and the Cook Islands as my wife, daughter, and I are going to be relocating to Australia soon. We’ve been told we definitely need to swing by these places.
Thanks for the update and looking forward to Wednesday’s post!
Sounds wonderful! And the cook islands is somewhere I’ve always dreamed of going.
Alright, Cook Islands is now officially on The List. I`m just hearing too many good things about them, so now they have a spot. I don`t take The List lightly.
Sounds like a pretty cool experience. (I can’t decide if the no planning part or the no cost part is the bigger bonus.)
Nothing wrong with taking a free trip as long as you’re up front with readers that that’s what it was.
How was the servize on NZ’s Business Premier from Auckland to Los Angeles?
I’m not really an island sort of gal–although I did spend some time on Bora-Bora and Moorea which was pretty spectacular–so I can relate to this piece. Sure, I would have gone and been happy to write about the adventure, it’s just not the first place on my must-see list–but neither is Cleveland 🙂
As always, you added your trademark outlook and impeccable ethics to a unique opportunity and I applaud your willingness to try something different from your standard m.o. One day I will be your stowaway on one of these jaunts!
Hey guys, thanks so much for your thoughts.
I’m sure we’ll meet up somewhere! I’m usually a city person too.
Actually, the RAR-AKL service was the best of all three flights. They really did a perfect job from start to finish. On the flight home, the service was good but not fantastic – with that I was mostly happy about the seat, which is definitely one of the best in the world.
(In case ANZ people are reading, I believe the cabin attendant on RAR-AKL was Michelle.)
I love this line “In the end, freedom is worth more than free wine.”
What event did you cover and where can we read it?
I love the islands and I’m totally jealous…what a cool story.
Cook Islands are definitely at the top of my must visit list – must say, I was never much of a beach and snorkeling fan until I spent two weeks on the West Island of Cocos Keeling Islands of the Western Coast of Australia (try to get there, its not a country but still a pretty spectacular spot to visit!); I’d like to try and get to the island of Aitutaki (Cook Islands) – apparently its pristine.
I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about freedom; I’ve done two “expenses paid” trips, one to Bali and one to Vanuatu and while I enjoyed both, I still feel that I need to go back and experience both places on the back of my own wallet, my own way.
I’ll be honest. When I first saw that Air New Zealand’s offer of a fully paid trip had been accepted, I thought, “Oh, no. Not another one. Trusted writer who used to give straight talk now loves every place because he traveled business and stayed in first class hotels on someone else’s dime.” I have egg on my face now, don’t I? Really, I need to be a bit less cynical. Thank you for staying true to your principles–you made it clear from the get-go and throughout that this was paid for by somebody else, and you were honest about how you felt about it. You are resourceful in a different way from those who go on junkets–and that’s why I read your blog.
The cook islands sound awesome. I would love to visit somewhere that’s unspoilt, and by the sound of things this seems to be one of the better options.
Like the way you handled the “commercial” nature of the trip, and as ever I find your outlook refreshing. Unconventional indeed!
Hmmm Jacqui “move over Petri Dish, out of the way Mellow Dellow, Brown is coming to town” Brown, I guess that is some introduction to NZ! Not the best though.
Good to hear an honest appraisal of Air NZ, I fly with them regularly and it can be hit and miss (mostly hit). But as they are my national airline I try and support them if I can.
I hope you do get some more opportunities to do some paid for travel, intermingled with your own stuff, it is good reward for awesome work.
Keep up the good work!
hey Chris – you didn’t mention much about the islands, or what else was really going on over there other than scooting about and seeing a few sites – surely there must have been something worth writing about! : )
Thanks! I’m writing about the event for my newspaper column next month, but you can read about it now at recessionfreeoasis.com.
Not to worry; this community is worth far more to me than any trip to anywhere. Although as mentioned, they did a nice job and I’m happy to commend them.
Nice to hear from one of you guys from NZ. To some extent, every airline is hit-and-miss from time to time – I think the goal is to get many more hits than misses, and ANZ does that well.
Well, it’s an island – a nice one, but aside from what I wrote I didn’t do a whole lot. The people are great, but you certainly wouldn’t want to go there expecting a lot of activities. Feel free to head down that way and give us another perspective. 🙂
I’m born and raised in Hawaii, and I have to say that this sounds a whole lot more relaxing and au naturale than any day on Oahu, the biggest tourist destination in Hawaii, would be.
As a former Clevelander, I’ve got to say you got my back up in a huff with the Cleveland comments! In it’s defense, it actually is an incredibly interesting city. So that’s where my comment actually comes in. I know that your thing is to see every country in the world. That’s cool. To a great degree, however, travelling is travelling and I think it’s a fallacy to think that travelling is only legitimate, exotic, etc when it’s out of your home country. The message seems to be that travelling to Cleveland (or Kansas City or Minneapolis or…) is less desirable, appealing or interesting. That feels like a lack of adventure and imagination to me.
Thank you Chris!
It’s always great to hear about your adventures!!!
It definitely has its drawbacks to going on a sponsored trip. I’m sure you have much more interesting encounters and experiences than what an expenses paid trip could manifest for you. At the same time, that’s pretty awesome that you’ve gotten to a point in your career that people want to send you on vacation for free 🙂
Nice detailed review. I’m psyched to see that you’re going to be coming around my way. I’m not too far from New York and would love to join you for coffee. Shoot me an e-mail with the general time vicinity that you’ll be around.
Great post – I have always wondered what the Cook Islands were like. As a resident of Utah, glad to hear you will be visiting in June – if you are around the SLC area I highly recommend these gardens – they are a family favorite for us. Hope you enjoy your time here! Love your blog.
Looks like a beautiful place, thanks for the trip…
Glad you had a good trip. Thanks for the updates and I’m looking forward to Thursday!!
Hello – Your most recent post about The Cook Islands is wonderfully informative. Funny, but of all the places in the world, this was the place I wanted to be when I was fifteen. (That was many, many years ago and another world away.) Thank you for sharing your information. May your adventure continue to be safe and true.
Hi Chris! I was going over an article of the cook islands the other day, and I kind of found it interesting, and I thought.. “Has Chris gone to the Cook Islands?” and I visit your site and an article about them.. funny thing! Hope you enjoy your weeks at home!
Ah, a kindred traveling spirit! I, too, prefer independent adventure & your trip sounded a bit too controlled. It’s cool that you got to see so much in a short time, but I bet you’ll agree that sometimes less is more. I like to go slightly off the beaten path, pick a few things to do at a leisurely pace, and dig deeper into the experience. But, hey, what’s not to like about “Free trip to Polynesian Island?” And the Cook Islands are certainly off the “usual” path… hmmm, guess it’s now on my travel list, too.
Nice read. However, I did want to set the record straight as a professional travel writer for the last six years and a backpacker for many years prior.
The freedom being exchanged for wine is not always the case. It is different for each writer and how they set up a trip. Yes, on press trips there is plenty of wine (I don’t drink so this has always been moot for me) because it always makes sense for a tourism board to make sure they put their best foot forward and create the best generic trip possible. The tourism board will plan out an itinerary to hit the high points. However, if I ask for something particular like more time on your own because you want to immerse yourself in the culture, be a fly on the wall, or whatever to cover for you readers, request (as early as possible) and, in general, receive.
As an example, when I was in the Cook Islands I asked the van to pull over to the side of the road because I needed some space and time to explore Avarua on my own. I needed to be a fly on the wall.
I recommend next time one of these trips comes up to help the host make your trip more to your liking — it can be done.
As a side note, going to the Cook Islands and enjoying Rarotonga is highly recommended, but visiting Aitutaki and taking a lagoon cruise as an absolute must. It is about 45 minutes from Rarotonga and maybe the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
Kia Orana all commenters!
My name is Laura and I represent the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation in the US. If you are interested in our islands and want to find out more please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or you can go to our website http://www.cookislands.travel for more info!
Meitaki (Thank You)
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