a descent into an island paradise

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands After nine and a half hours of cruising at 30,000 feet, plus or minus, we were almost there.

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands

After nine and a half hours of cruising at 30,000 feet, plus or minus, we were almost there.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are about to begin our descent into Rarotonga.”

All of North America seemed impossibly far behind us as we peered out the windows.

The 15 islands that comprise the independent nation of the Cook Islands are located above the Tropic of Capricorn, spread between 9 and 22 degrees latitude.

The largest island, Rarotonga, appeared to have a circle drawn all the way around it. The vast Pacific Ocean lays outside the ring, a calm lagoon on the inside.

The surf breaking on the coral reef, where the one meets the other, defines the apparent circle. It was all blue and turquoise and green.

Passengers quickly finished their coffee, pushed away pillows and blankets, and organized their personal belongings.

When the doors of the aircraft opened, the warm tropical air rushed in to greet us.

It was 6 a.m. local time and our clothing already seemed too heavy. In the week since then, “Raro” is a bit more familiar but no less fascinating.

The coral reef surrounding the island protects a life-size aquarium that invites constant exploration.

At different times, tides, and beaches, snorkellers peer through their masks at tropical fish of every imaginable colour, shape and size darting around the blobs of coral; bright blue starfish stretched out as if to protect their claims; black fuzzy sea cucumbers resting in the white sand; turtles that appear to fly through the water with their flipper-wings, and beaked manta rays that disappear into the surf, or the sand, when startled.

Even on land you can’t forget the ocean.

The distant booming of the surf breaking on the reef and the salty air of the trade winds blowing across the waves follow you past hedges of brightly coloured hibiscus flowers and trees of sweetly fragrant frangipani blossoms.

Mynah birds scold you as you chat with roadside vendors selling pawpaw, tomatoes and eggs.

The local language is Cook Island Maori, yet virtually everyone speaks English — and the people are very friendly.

More than half of the approximately 15,000 Cook Islanders live on Raro.

You can wave down the local bus as it makes the 32-kilometre round trip of the island — on the “wrong” side of the road — to explore another beach or try a different restaurant.

Visitors and locals alike often travel by scooter or bicycle, and rental cars are available.

There are tours for everything from cross-island hikes to diving. The main town of Avarua, the centre for shopping and banking, is on the north side of the island near the airport.

Black pearls and carving are just two of the local specialties.

While there are no tall buildings on Rarotonga, the peaks of the inland mountains reach heights of 650 metres and are often wrapped in Shangri-la like mists.

They shoulder the Takitumu Conservation Area, home of the endangered Rarotongan Flycatcher and other native birds, and the Whale Research & Education Centre; humpbacks migrate through the area between July and October, The green jungle covers of the islands are made up of 100 native ferns and 200 native flowering plants.

This is indeed a Polynesian paradise.

Kia Manuia. May good fortune shine on you.

Catherine Miller is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.