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Rarotonga – Part 1

By Chelsea McBroom

April 8th, 2014

The day before we arrived in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, as we were sailing the Picton Castle from Huahine in French Polynesia, we had a workshop to introduce the island of Rarotonga to the crew. Everyone who had been to Rarotonga before gave the others advice on visiting the island, what to see and do. Captain Moreland and voyage coordinator Maggie also sent me a long list of things which I posted on our scuttle doors for the crew to read. Here’s what they sent:

“Rarotonga is a fantastic port, and a pretty special one for Picton Castle because it’s our home port. Avatiu, as painted on the stern of the ship, is where the ship will be tied up. Picton Castle has a lot of friends and supporters on the island and you’ll be welcomed home, even if you’ve never visited before. Wear your Picton Castle t-shirt proudly here so you’ll be recognized as crew.

Here are a few hints and tips to make your time in Rarotonga pleasant and fun:

– The common greeting is Kia Orana, which technically means Long May You Live.

– Avatiu is just to the west of Avarua, which is the main town on Rarotonga and the biggest town in all of the Cook Islands. It’s the centre of government and commerce for the country.

– Don’t try to bargain or barter. The asking price is the price, and offering less is rude.

– The island is pretty easy to get around – there are two public buses that take the road that runs around the perimeter of the island, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. They’re great in the daytime but stop running in the early evening most nights. The bus ride all the way around is an hour or so. Renting a car, a scooter or even a bicycle will also get you far. And it’s pleasant to walk, too.

– Getting a Cook Islands drivers’ licence makes a good souvenir, and technically it’s required for car and scooter rental.

– Scooters are fun, but be careful. We’ve had crew have scooter accidents on previous visits and it’s not pretty.

– If you like the beach, go to Muri Beach. There are a number of resorts and restaurants and shops along the beach and it’s beautiful.

– At the north end of the Muri lagoon is Avana, where the vaka is often anchored if it’s in port. This is where a number of vakas met to set out from for Pacific exploration hundreds of years ago. Vakas continue to be a big part of Cook Islands culture, both sailing and rowing vakas. Along with the vaka in Rarotonga, Picton Castle is the co-flagship of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society.

– Speaking of paddling vakas, the vaka teams often practice in the late afternoon after work, setting out from Avarua harbour, right next to Trader Jack’s (our unofficial hangout spot – check out the Picton Castle art and memorabilia that decorates their walls).

– On Saturday morning is the Punanga Nui Market, right next to the ship. It’s one of the best markets in the world, with fresh produce, things to eat, black pearls, handicrafts, even dancing and entertainment. Definitely worth checking out, even if you’re not a shopper. It’s frequented by tourists and locals alike.

– There are lots of great places to eat in Rarotonga – try a beach BBQ night at the Aro’a Beach Resort on the west side of the island, or the Ariki Cafe just inland in Avarua, or Cafe Salsa near the CITC department store in Avarua.

– Even while you’re on watch, keep an eye out for whales, they tend to swim close to the island and you can see them spray and sometimes breach just outside the harbour. The whale research centre is just inland from Avatiu.

– Go to an Island Night. There are plenty of them, on all different nights of the week at all different resorts and restaurants. It’s a dinner and entertainment kind of night, and mostly for tourists, but there are a lot of excellent local dancers and great local foods. It makes for a fun night!

– Go to church on Sunday morning, even if it’s just for the cultural experience. There’s a big Cook Islands Christian Church in Avarua and the singing is absolutely amazing.

– Not much else happens on Sunday in Rarotonga. If you have errands to do, don’t even try to do them on a Sunday. It’s best to find a beautiful spot on the beach to relax and enjoy instead.

– If you’re considering getting a tattoo, Rarotonga is a great place to do it. There are lots of talented tattoo artists on the island and many previous Picton Castle crew have been tattooed by them.

– Try the cross-island hike. It takes a few hours and is somewhat physically demanding, but it’s gorgeous. The trail starts behind the hospital and lets you out on the south coast near a waterfall (and a bus stop).”

It was easy to tell the crew was excited to experience the island people on board talk so much about. We docked at a familiar spot on the wharf when we arrived – near the warehouse, the market, CITC (a big grocery store), Palace Burger (a small burger stand with fish and chips and milkshakes too) and the road into town. The greeting often used here is “Kia Orana” which means “Long May You Live” otherwise the smiling people of Rarotonga will say “hello” as you pass them in the street.

I feel very lucky to be here with the ship. One day as Lily and I were ordering provisions from CITC (the perfect day for me to wear a Picton Castle t-shirt) a gentleman came up to ask me about the ship and its trip to Palmerston. He smiled recalling the ship from last year.

Alex, the engineer; Pania, our bosun; Lian and Nolan, long term trainees; and Finn, a lead seaman, had all been to Raro previously and recounted their positive experiences visiting the island. We were told often locals will meet you and invite you to their private parties or events. Teis and Erin were invited to a bachelor party when they were out on a Wednesday and Averil was invited to hang out with a group of local teachers for the rest of the week. Trader Jacks, a restaurant with a patio overlooking the shore, has walls of ship memorabilia including images of the Picton Castle. You can sit on the patio there at a picnic table and watch people kite surf and swim.

From where the ship is docked in the bay, there is a small bridge that connects us to the area of the Saturday Market. It’s rows of little one room houses painted in many different bright colors and in the middle, a courtyard area with covered stands for vendors. The little houses are shops; cafes, a fish fry, a place to buy sarongs, a tattoo parlor etc.

There’s one movie theatre further down the road through town. It has one screen is playing “Captain America” for the month. Next month it’s the new “Spiderman”. A hot dog stand is set up outside the building if people are hungry. To get a ticket everyone lines up inside at a table where a woman sits with a cashbox. There’s also a line-up inside to get candy, popcorn, an ice cream cone, or a can of pop. The locals fill up the back two rows of the theatre first – the ones with plush leather seats. The night I was there the room filled with kids and a few adults for the six o’clock showing. It was one big community of people in the theatre that knew each other and they talked over their seats as they waited for the previews to start. When I exited the theatre the room was filled with a crowd of more kids and teens with tickets to the eight thirty showing.

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