On January 26 we were scheduled to stop in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands. These islands are “associated” with New Zealand, which means they use NZ currency & New Zealand handles their foreign affairs, but internally they are self-governing. In 2016 we visited here, but one of the tenders was shipwrecked on a coral reef, resulting in some injuries & expense to Holland America, including the Captain having to go to the Netherlands for an inquiry. You can read all about that incident (and our visit to Rarotonga) here:
As a result of all this, it was quite clear that the Captain would not send in the tenders unless conditions were quite reliable. During our sea day there were some sizeable ocean swells, so it didn’t look good for a visit. Ships often miss this port because of sea conditions (there is no reef creating a calm water space around the island, as there is in Moorea & Bora Bora); most recently just a few days before we arrived. The Cook Island newspaper had an article (edited by me) anticipating our arrival:
Cruise ship to call, weather permitting
With the scheduled arrival of the cruise ship MS Amsterdam this morning, local tourism operators are praying for a good weather so passengers from the cruise ship are able to come onshore.
The cruise ship which belongs to Holland America Line, an American/British owned cruise line originating in the Netherlands, will stay in Rarotonga for a day, leaving later in the afternoon.
It is expected to be off Avatiu harbour at around 7am.
Turama Pacific Travel’s Nina Webb said 340 passengers were booked for various tours during the day.
Webb said they were hoping for a better weather to allow the local tourism operators to maximise on MS Amsterdam’s Rarotonga tour.
On Friday last week, some tourism operators suffered a loss of business after efforts to get passengers onshore from the cruise ship Viking Sun proved futile. The cruise ship, with 930 passengers aboard, arrived on early Friday and was to call at Avatiu, but high swells made it difficult to get passengers onboard the cruise tender.
The ship was then directed to the Arorangi jetty where the sea was much calmer, but the passage through the reef proved too narrow for the tender to get through safely.
“We hope the weather is good enough to allow passengers from the Amsterdam to come onshore and enjoy what Rarotonga has on offer for them.”
Fourteen different ships will visit six of this country’s islands in 24 separate voyages, this year.
We arrived off the coast at Avatiu early in the morning. To make a long story short(er), the Captain maneuvered the ship around to protect as much as possible from ocean swells, then after lengthy consideration they lowered the tenders & tender platform. So we were going in (yay!).
We were on a HAL excursion so we were sent into the first tender. As luck would have it, this was the same tender that had been shipwrecked in 2016. Our friends Bill & Robert, who had been on the tender for the incident in 2016, were on the same excursion. From the look on Robert’s face we weren’t sure he would board the tender, but he did in the end. Boarding the tender was unusually treacherous, since it was going up & down several feet in the waves, and also drifting several feet away from the platform then smacking back against the platform again. So the crew helping people board were repeatedly yelling “hold on” as we hit the platform. It took a while, but everyone boarded & we sailed for the harbor. We noticed that while loading the next tender they had a second one acting like a tug, pushing the tender against the platform so it couldn’t drift away & back.
Because of the treacherous conditions the Captain had restricted tender access to those who could walk on their own, or with easily portable assistance (like a cane). We were told that one fellow wheeled his wife to the tender bay in a wheelchair and loudly demanded that she be admitted to a tender. With fully mobile people finding it so difficult to board the tender there was no way a wheelchair could have done so safely. Reportedly, he actually said (this is kind of a running joke on board) that he had paid a lot for this cruise (who hadn’t ?) & resented being denied access to this island. He was properly told to take it up with the Captain. You see a whole lot of strange behavior on a cruise ship; if you have a relaxed attitude this is one of the more entertaining aspects of life on board.
We boarded open trucks for a trip around the island and into the mountains. Unfortunately, three people hadn’t made it on time for the first tender, so we didn’t leave for about half an hour as we waited for them to arrive on the unusually slow tender service today. This had consequences for everyone on the tour later; we would have left them since it was their own fault they didn’t get themselves to the meeting point for the first tender on time. But lucky for them it wasn’t up to us. Finally, we all boarded the back of the trucks & drove through some rough landscape to reach a high viewing point.
Before we get to the tour, however, we wanted to mention one of the musicians on board. Hyperion Knight is a Julliard trained pianist from California. He put on three shows during his stay, including some truly virtuoso piano performances and some entertaining music history. But on most days he also performed informally in the Explorers’ Lounge. He called it practice, but he took audience requests & interacted with his listeners. Very unusual and a nice bonus.
Getting back to our story, we drove through some very rough & steep terrain to a viewing point in the mountains. At one point on a very steep climb the back door of the truck flew open & a step stool fell out on the road. Fortunately the passengers at the end were able to hold on and stay in the truck, because the driver wasn’t stopping for anything; if he had stopped he probably would not have had the momentum to make it to the top. At the top he stopped, then walked down the hill & retrieved the step stool. The viewing point was worth the drive & gave the closest view available of “the Needle,” a rock formation near the top of the tallest mountain.
We drove down from the mountain, the highest point vehicles can reach, to the only waterfall on the island. Called “Papua Vai Rere,” we were told that this was where women came to bathe in the old days. Men were not allowed. On the way we passed a goat & a bust of what looked like a Roman sitting on a pillar, weirdly placed in the middle of the jungle. Go figure.
After a long drive across the island, passing the hospital (why?), the jail & the airport, etc., we visited a large & beautiful beach with water so clear you could see the fish swimming under the surface.
We went to see an ancient marae, a sort of platform that was sacred to ancient Polynesians on all of these islands. This one, called Arai-Te-Tonga, was the site of the royal court of the Makea tribe, built shortly after they first settled Rarotonga round 1350 AD. These sites are still considered tapu (taboo).
Because of our late start, they skipped the site we most wanted to see: the place where the sea canoes left to settle New Zealand. It was on the tour program & even announced at the beginning of the tour, but in the end they drove us back to town from the marae. We were not happy campers!
Back in town, we set out on foot. Our primary objectives were the local libraries. We found the town’s public library first, but it was closing so we only had a minute inside. It is quite small & unassuming with very few bookshelves. But it has a colorful mural on one outside wall.
We walked on to find the National Library. It wasn’t far away but was tricky to locate. It is in a much larger cultural center complex, amid lush greenery. It is bigger than the local public library, but not much.
Near the libraries was a lovely small “Peace Garden.” There was also a church with a cemetery & a tsunami warning instructing you to seek higher ground if there is an earthquake. We walked by the University of the South Pacific, which we think may have been the first university in Polynesia. There were a lot of trees near the church with huge trunks & roots but very delicate leaves.
Rarotonga is a very lush island, so there are a lot of beautiful flowers all over. Here are some.
We also saw some distinctive Polynesian stone sculptures.
After walking through town & visiting some shops we headed back toward the tender dock. On the way we passed a building with an interesting wall painting and a “fish tree.” Unique to the Cook Islands, a fish tree is used for fishermen to display their catch for sale. The fishermen sew their catch together in what is called a “tui,” then hang it from the tree. This large tree has been used for this purpose for many years.
At the dock we passed a water playground ($20 per hour), then boarded the tender for the much easier ride back to the ship.
So that was all, after a very full day on Rarotonga, an island we didn’t expect even to be able to visit when we arrived this morning. We sailed away toward another island that is often missed by cruise ships because of iffy ocean conditions. Would we get lucky twice in a row? Tune in next time to find out.