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Top Five Things to Do on Rarotonga

Stepping out of the airplane and onto the warm tarmac, arrival in Rarotonga is a relaxed affair. There’s a tiny terminal ahead, containing a man strumming a ukulele in welcome, with the sweet floral smell of hibiscus and tropical humidity in the air.

In an atmosphere like this, it’s easy to succumb to immediate relaxation and languid bliss. After all, most travellers come here for the slow Pacific Islands life and a week or so on the beach. But in the Cook Islands there’s also room for measured exertion and a few activities to ensure you get the most out of your time.

You’ve just arrived in paradise. Welcome. Here are five things to keep you busy, but remember to slow down. You’re on island time now, as liquid and changeable as the seas themselves. Take the time to smell the frangipani.


1. Take a self-guided scooter tour around the island. Join the locals on the preferred island mode of transportation: the scooter. You’ll see everyone cruising the island on two wheels, from children to old ladies in Sunday dresses. Zipping down the road, you’ll make excellent time and see the whole island in less than an hour if you drive continuously, but why not stretch it out over a day and take the time to explore? Scooters are widely available for hire from just about everywhere, and chances are good your hostel will have a few. If not, any number of local shops can probably help.

But first things first: you’ll need a license. If you’ve never driven a motorcycle or scooter before, fear not. A valid drivers license from another country will get you a 24-hour Cook Islands drivers license. With a quick primer on the basic scooter operations, you’ll be sent off on your own.

If you plan to hire a scooter for more than a day on Raro, or want a cheap and personalized souvenir, you’ll need to get a proper drivers license from the Police office in Avarua. You’ll take the world’s easiest driving test (little more than a figure eight around some cones) before receiving an official card. Mine came with a voucher for a free congratulatory drink. Got to love that island hospitality.

There’s only one main road that rings the island, so you can either go clockwise or counterclockwise. Pick a direction and off you go. Take frequent stops to visit roadside stands, cool off with a swim, or nip into a café. Trader Jack’s, a venerable pub in Avarua, is a fine place to conclude the day’s adventures.


2. Walk with Pa to The Needle. Now that you’ve explored the outer fringe of Rarotonga, it’s time to plunge into the rainforest-covered interior. Raro is actually an extinct volcano, and the high peaks across the center are all that remains of the crater. The tallest promontory, known as “The Needle,” juts out above the landscape and makes for a worthy objective on a day hike with island’s most colorful resident, Pa.

A local man with a thousand stories, Pa has been hiking across the middle of Rarotonga for more than 20 years, entertaining thousands of visitors with stories of the islands’ history, flora and lore. Departing several days per week and with transport included, his half-day hikes are probably the best way to enjoy the beauty of Raro’s wild interior. Pa walks barefoot “to help heal mother earth,” but don’t be fooled. Combined with the tropical heat and humidity, this is a serious outing that requires proper footwear and perseverance.

Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with fabulous views that take in the island from coast to coast at a lookout atop the rocky crag. The rocks here once bore the faces of ancient idols, and were the site of sacred rituals before the arrival of missionaries. Today, you can still make out the profile of the deity Tangaroa carved into the rock face.


3. Snorkel the sheltered waters of Muri Lagoon. You’ve seen it all on land, so now it’s time to plunge into some undersea exploration. The southeast corner of Rarotonga holds the sheltered waters of Muri Lagoon. Encircling a few small islands and covered with soft white sand, this section of the island hosts a few resorts and a backpacker hostel in prime beachfront position. Not only is this the best section of the island for swimming, but it’s chock full of interesting undersea life in clear warm water. Hire a snorkel, mask and flippers from your accommodation or bring your own.

4. Take in the local culture at an island night performance. The people of Rarotonga are perhaps its greatest attraction. Faultlessly friendly and welcoming, greeting anyone with a hearty “Kia orana!” will inevitably bring a smile and warm exchange with the local Cook Islanders. Their ancestors settled these islands from elsewhere, bringing with them a rich Polynesian culture with distinctive dance, drumming, and dress. At island nights, this heritage is on full display as locals share their food and musicality with guests. Many local bars, restaurants and hotels put on these island night performances, where visitors can try traditional Cook Islands foods and watch superb drumming and dancing troupes – maybe you’ll even be invited to take part.

5. Shop the Punanga Nui Markets. Each Saturday the whole of the island turns out to shop, gossip and take it easy at the Pananaga Nui markets in Avarua. Get there early to mingle with the Rarotongans; it can get touristy in the late morning hours. This is the place to fill your bags with delectable fresh tropical fruits and locally grown vegatables. In particular, go for the starfruit, pawpaw or passionfruit. There’s also handicrafts like woven pandanus mats, woodcarvings and fans. The biggest splurge purchase might be one of the black pearls farmed on the northern Cook Islands; you can get a cheap one for a mere NZD$10, while the top-quality specimens fetch $1,000 or more.

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Coffee in Melbourne: Make your Way to Degraves

When two seats opened up at the small table to our left, I nearly shoved the previous occupants out of the way to duck under the umbrella canopy and slide sideways into the wicker chairs. It was shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow amidst the packed tables in the narrow laneway, and the competition was intense for some of Melbourne’s finest coffee, and by that measure, some of the finest in the whole southern hemisphere.

On bustling Degraves Street in downtown Melbourne, opportunities for seating don’t come by often. It seems that half of Australia’s second-largest city has packed into a slim cobblestoned street to sip the morning’s first caffeine and take a hearty brunch amidst conversation of Saturday night’s conquests.

Coffee in Melbourne
© Kevin Ptak

Degraves isn’t a very long or especially scenic spot, but it is packed to the gills with small coffee shops and brunch bars. Squeezed tightly together and marked by small placards hung overhead, it can be difficult to distinguish just where the seating for one café ends and the next begins. Among the dozen or so cafés on offer, it’s a tough task to decide which is the top spot. In fact, there wasn’t much favoritism observed among the less fortunate still waiting for a table. Just look for someone to get up and dash in while you can.

Coffee in Melbourne
© Kevin Ptak

Underneath the umbrellas, women in large sunglasses gossip and haggardly blokes laugh amidst the clack of china and the scraping of plates. The food is good here; particularly if you need some eggs and bacon to help your constitution after last night’s follies. But the coffee is transcendent.

If you hail from North America, it’ll take some getting used to the antipodean version of coffee. The filtered coffee we’re used to is widely viewed as an abomination. Our watered-down brew us blasphemous to those who worship the coffee bean. Down here, they like espresso. You can have it as a cappuccino if you want, or with a bit more milk and froth in a latte. But when we backpackers travel, we always want to try the local food and drink. So instead, opt for the flat white, made like a cappuccino but using the bottom froth for a silky drink with finer foam. Or if you’re really having trouble giving up the old familiar, go for a long black: a double espresso shot cut with hot water that can be made to resemble something close to what’s back home.

Coffee in Melbourne
© Kevin Ptak

Backpacking means we have to cut corners on cost sometimes, but coffee on Degraves is worth the few bucks for a proper cup. The people watching, motley street art and eavesdropping make this stop on your Melbourne itinerary a compulsory stop.

Degraves isn’t terribly hard to find. Catch any tram to the central Flinders Street Station, and it’s a half block west headed away from the nearby Yarra River.

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Swimming with Humpback Whales in Tonga

Travel writing is rife with “life changing” “unforgettable” or “spiritual” experiences. It’s good practice to approach these with a degree of skepticism; many of us have had experiences like these, all of which are interpreted differently by the participants.

Swimming alongside the planet’s largest creatures was different. Floating eye-to-eye with a baby whale 40 times your size stirs emotions you’ll never forget.

[pullquote]For reasons of safety and conservation it’s illegal in most places to actually observe a whale in the water unless part of a scientific expedition.[/pullquote]The problem with conventional whale watching is that it’s always from the same vantage point. You’re elbow-to-elbow on a boat with a gaggle of other tourists, all waiting for the same shot of a broad back sliding above the waves marked with a jet of whale breath. For reasons of safety and conservation it’s illegal in most places to actually observe a whale in the water unless part of a scientific expedition.

There are two notable exceptions: The Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, and the Kingdom of Tonga, set in the South Pacific.

Whale Tail by Kevin Ptak
Whale Tail by Kevin Ptak

Humpback whales migrate to Tongan waters each winter after spending the summer feeding in the Antarctic. In the warm, sheltered waters of the island groups, the whales birth, nurse and rear their calves in a giant aquatic nursery safe from predation or hunting.

When Tonga outlawed whaling in 1976, it left a unique opportunity for the country to capitalize on the whales in another way. The nation has built up a tourist industry centered on snorkeling alongside the Humpbacks and observing them in their natural habitat.

It’s a rare chance to have an up-close encounter with one of the world’s largest animals. For perspective, baby humpbacks weigh three tons when born, and gain 330 pounds every day feeding on their mothers’ rich milk.

While it’s possible to swim with whales in a few different areas of Tonga, the best place is in one of the two northern island groups: Vava’u or Ha’apai.

Vava’u is the capital of Tonga’s fledgling tourism industry. Popular with backpackers and visiting yachties alike, it’s not uncommon to find the islands fully booked in Winter with tourists flocking to see the whales.

[pullquote]Ha’apai is a place where time seems to have stopped[/pullquote]By contrast, Ha’apai is a place where time seems to have stopped. If you can get past the grit of the main island of Lifuka, the other islands of the group offer a piece of South Pacific paradise. With sparse electricity and few boats, it’s a chance to kick back with a book and doze with the soft breeze and lapping waves.

Whale by Fins 'n' Flukes, Ha'apai
Whale by Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Ha’apai

There are two whale-swim operators in Ha’apai: one services the two upmarket resorts and guesthouses on northern Lifuka and Foa islands. The second, and more proximate to the backpacker accommodation in Pangai and on Uoleva island, is Fins ‘n’ Flukes, run by the betrothed duo of Irishman Brain Heagney and his German fiancée, Sabine Frank. While their specialty is whale swims, Fins ‘n’ Flukes as a fount of knowledge for Ha’apai and Tonga in general. Brian and Sabine can arrange almost any activity or accommodation, which can be a challenge with Tonga’s spotty infrastructure. Just getting a timely email response is a pleasant change.
But on to the whales. Most tour operators use small boats less intimidating to the whales. Groups of swimmers are constrained to no more than four plus a guide to oversee the experience. You’ll get a mask, snorkel and flippers to complement your wetsuit. Even though these are tropical waters, the short suits help keep your core warm in the water. After all, you’ll be trying to stay as still as possible, bobbing gently at the surface. And you did bring a waterproof camera, didn’t you?

One of the keys is to slip quietly into the water. In haste to get into the water for what might be only a fleeting glimpse, it’s easy to flop in with the grace of a large stone. But it’s important to not spook the whales during the critical introduction period. Your boat will have been idling in on a slow approach for the last 10 minutes, so try not to blow it now. The whales are naturally quite protective of their young, so any splashing or unnecessary disturbances lessen the chance they’ll want to stick around when you kick into view.

Swim out about a hundred yards from the boat, and look down. With any luck, you’ll see the huge dark shape of a fully-grown adult Humpback. At 10 meters out, you form a line and let the whale decide what happens next.

The mother and calf usually travel with a third escort whale. This is one of the mother’s other now-grown offspring, returning as a nanny of sorts to help keep an eye out for trouble and help with the rearing duties. You could see the escort only fleetingly, or perhaps not at all, as they stay deeper than the mother or calf. Not that you’ll have a problem seeing deep, as the exceptional clarity of the water in Tonga means 40 meters of visibility is typical on all but the most turbulent days.

The baby will nurse under mother for a few minutes at a time before needing to surface and get another breath of air into its small lungs. Nudging out from underneath mother’s fins, the young ones rise vertically to the surface like a cork, sometimes capping their ascent with a short leap out of the water.

Whale by Fins 'n' Flukes, Ha'apai
Whale by Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Ha’apai

Its not uncommon for the young ones to swim close and have a look; they’re incredibly curious about their new world and the strange creatures awkwardly floating nearby. The calves are a bit like a huge Labrador puppy; they’re a little bit clumsy, wildly playful and enthusiastic, and a bit too curious for their own good. While everyone wants to get close the whales, too close of an encounter with an errant flipper of fluke would not end well.

The thing about swimming with whales is this: when it’s good, it’s absolutely fantastic. When it’s average, you can expect only a fleeting glance under the water as the whales swim off into the deep. When it’s bad, you may see no whales at all, though it’s extremely rare in the high season when the water teems with whales. These are wild animals, capable of accepting or rejecting our presence in their element, and no human could ever swim fast enough to catch up with a whale that wants to get away. The whales are really in control of the experience, and we have to humbly accept our place as guests in their backyard.

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Five Things to do on Tongatapu, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is a collection of specks in the vast Pacific Ocean. It’s also one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world, and a land of immense churches and modest houses. A place where you can swim with baby humpback whales by day and quaff kava by campfire at night. So why is there nothing to do on Tongatapu, the main island, where you’ve inevitably just landed?

Backpackers should absolutely visit the other island groups of Tonga, and you probably will in due time. But before you write off Tongatapu and the scars of its pro-democracy riots, here’s five things to do while you’ve got the time.

1. Take an Island Tour with Toni’s Guesthouse – Tongatapu is a small island, but the major tourist sights are geographically dispersed around the island perimeter. You can take tours arranged by the visitor bureau or Friends Cafe in downtown Nuku’alofa, but you’ll pay more and see less than on a tour arranged by Toni’s Guesthouse, a popular hostel. Irascible Toni is almost a tourist attraction in himself. The exact circumstances that led him to a life of Tongan exile from Lancashire in northern England are a bit murky, but his reputation is almost legendary on the backpacker circuit. Toni leads a full-day van tour that costs half the price of other companies. Prepare to gaze at the world’s only three-headed coconut tree, watch the surf break at Ha’atafu Beach, or mill at the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, a Tongan version of stonehenge.

2. Jump a boat to Pangaimotu – Sunday in Tonga starts at 5 a.m. when the first church bells peal in the predawn calling worshipers to service. If you’re so inclined, go to a mass and listen to the soaring voices of the Tongan people. The rest of the backpacker population will be down at the wharf across from the visitor bureau in Nuku’alofa waiting to catch a boat across the harbour to nearby Pangaimotu island. There’s a small resort there with a bar and restaurant permitted to operate on Sunday when everything on the mainland is closed. Leave lunch at home; the 15-minute ride is only TOP$20 because you’re not permitted to carry food and must buy it once you get there. You’ll have the day to wander the soft sand beaches, hire some snorkeling gear to explore the half-submerged wreck offshore, or tilt back a Mata Maka beer with your fellow travelers. It’s not necessary to book in advance, as the ferry makes runs to the mainland throughout the day. Better still is a visit on a weekday; you’re virtually assured to have the island almost to yourself.

Chill out on the beach at Pangaimotu
Chill out on the beach at Pangaimotu by Kevin Ptak

3. Check out the blowholes at Keleti Beach – The surf on the southern shore of Tonga rolls in unimpeded for thousands of miles, crashing on the rocks with enough force to be felt underfoot. Small vents and tubes in the breakwall relieve the surging pressure and shoot seawater into the air in a spectacular display that can be seen along the length of the coast. The blowholes are best viewed from the overlook south from the village of Houma. At Keleti Beach, the breakwall is robust enough to permit swimming during in the placid pools, but remain wary of venturing too close to the suction of the spurts. Above the beach is a simple resort with a restaurant and bar that are also open on Sunday.

Watch the blowholes blast on the southern coast
Watch the blowholes blast on the southern coast by Kevin Ptak

4. Hire a car and explore – The natural sights around Tongatapu are interesting, but the challenge is the relative distance between them. There’s a bus service from the city centre of Nuku’alofa, but timetables are difficult and the routes aren’t always convenient. Instead, try pooling some money and hiring a car to explore for yourself. You’ll get way off the beaten track, and have a better chance to see parts of the island few tourists have. Two cautionary notes: the speed limit is often only 40 km/h and police are out in force. Second, roads in Tonga are often in terrible condition. Take it slow and steady.

5. Island and culture night – Polynesian cultures are renown for their singing and dancing, and Tongans are no exception. Every hostel has a favorite show they recommend, but for ambiance it’s hard to beat the performance in Hina Cave at Olehi Beach, held in a natural subterranean amphitheater. Get a seat up front for the fire dance.

A fire dancer in Hina Cave
A fire dancer in Hina Cave by Kevin Ptak
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The White Lady

The White Lady - Auckland, New Zealand

The White Lady only comes out at night, towed by a tractor to Commerce Street in downtown Auckland, just behind the train station and around the corner from Showgirls. With bright Christmas lights along her flanks like a beacon to the congregating barflies, the White Lady has been serving New Zealand’s late night crowd for more than 60 years, piling burgers high with pineapple, eggs, beets, and a series of accoutrement most would never consider atop on a beef patty.

The White Lady - Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand is an amalgamation of cultures and foods. For backpackers, there’s excellent cheap Asian food on offer at one of the many food halls in the Central Business District. Cafes boasting outstanding coffee seem to be situated every hundred meters (tip: try the distinctive flat white). For classic New Zealand fare, any number of restaurants will offer lamb or green-lipped mussels.

But none of those are as intrinsically Auckland as a heaping burger, served in the wee hours of the morning from a trailer downtown, bathed in the neon glow of the night lights, mixing among the carousing revelers freshly emerged from the refuge of the area’s bars and nightclubs.

A word about New Zealand hamburgers: they’re probably different than what you’re used to. For starters, it’s not uncommon to find a slice of pickled beet tucked under the bun, tinging the bread pink and with a little juice running out. You’re also likely to find a bit of shredded carrot or a fried egg hiding in there. But it’s also likely to be surprisingly fresh, well-prepared and delicious. The lettuce will be crisp, the patty hand-formed. Exhibit A: The White Lady.

The White Lady - Auckland, New Zealand

You’ll line up along the counter, likely behind a small group of tipsy travelers, and the first thing you’ll notice is the selection. You’ve got a choice of a dozen hamburgers, plus a selection of toasted sandwiches and even a few vegetarian options. A sign with pictures is a helpful guide for those calculating their hunger against progressively taller stacks of beef. The big one, The Aucklander, includes the works for $18.50; smaller ones, less ambitious ones are under $10.

The staff are also surprisingly helpful and friendly for a late night joint. Years of dealing with vagabonds and late night partiers can take their toll, but the crew behind the counter is patient, friendly, young and happy to have a chat between shouting out orders. They’ll even recommend a few good pubs in the area if your refueling stop is only a break in the action.

The White Lady Burger - Auckland, New Zealand

The burger will arrive carefully squeezed halfway into a paper bag. Leave it in there. You’ll need the bag as a backstop to keep all the good stuff together and from sliding out into a beefy, saucy mess. Tuck into it as best you can, adopting either the polite bites or ‘shove and love’ approach. Sit on one of the upturned milk crates lined up against the wall and feel like a local.

The White Lady can be many things to Aucklanders and travelers. It’s been a source of artistic inspiration, a landmark, and much needed post-bar sustenance at only a mere stumble from a series of hostels. It’s a conspicuous and easy way for visitors to get a taste of the city’s distinctive late-night legend, and worth a pit stop on any visit.