Carly Flynn returns to her Rarotongan childhood home

Looking for a short-haul holiday destination that’s fun for all the family? The Pacific island that Carly Flynn grew up on has the answer.

When I think about the perfect family holiday, there are a few boxes the destination has to tick.

Warmth. A different culture. Great food. The ability to be independent, and, with a four and five-year-old in tow, preferably a fairly short flight away from NZ. We’ve done the long flights, and they can be a bit of a mission; three-plus hours is just about perfect. And so, ticking all those boxes this time is beautiful Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

The flight to Raro on the always-impeccable Air New Zealand is actually enjoyable. Our phones are off, voicemail and out-of-office are on, and a cheeky glass of bubbles sends me off into a quick slumber while the children are glued to aforementioned entertainment.

The first thing you notice when you arrive into Rarotonga is just how friendly people are. Families with young children it would seem are often given priority at customs to skip ahead of the rest. We have arrived, disembarked, been through customs, grabbed our bags and picked up our rental car in a mere 30 minutes. No time for any kid fussing here!

I pinch myself as we head out of the airport, turn left and are confronted by a familiar turquoise ocean paradise. Familiar because it used to be home. I still think of it as my other home, especially as we now try to return with our own family every year.

In the early 90s my dad (and later my mum) took up a teaching post here so we lived on Raro for almost three years. I was a gawky 12-year-old, furious at having been torn away from my hometown of Taupo. I pined for six months, until one day, my eyes were opened to the paradise we now called home. I made friends, got into sailing, and cruised through my early teens living completely free.

It was safe in Raro, sailing and socialising was prioritised over homework, we didn’t wear shoes to school, and we danced in a local troupe every Friday night to Kiwi tourists.

I want my children to feel as close an affiliation with another culture as our own family did, so I vowed to come here as often as possible. I want them to get Raro in their blood too.

Back then visiting tourists would bring suitcases of food. But these days, we travel lightly; from fresh meat to fancy cheese, there’s nothing you can’t get here any longer. The currency is the same and the food prices are so similar there’s no point bringing anything in. Every time we come we bring less and less.

Our premium family room at Pacific Resort on the stunning Muri Beach is perfect. It’s directly behind the newly renovated pool area and, while open-plan, there are two outdoor decks for the adults to stay out on while the kids sleep soundly.

We swim in the pool daily and I reminisce about my teens here.

We used to sunbathe pretending we were tourists, and dream with my girlfriends of the day we’d bring our own families back here. It’s hard to believe it’s now a reality, and is better in real life than I could have ever imagined.

I’ve always championed Rarotonga as the jewel of the South Pacific. It’s just too easy here. And while we have gorgeous accommodation, it would be a waste to sit by the pool all day; there’s too much to see.

As the kids get older, they remember more of our visits, and this is what my return to paradise is all about – giving my kids a Cook Island experience like I had as a kid. These days I look at families from New Zealand and Australia who are repeating my own childhood experience, and I dream of ways for us to return a bit more permanently.

Back in the 90s, Muri was a quiet place. There was a single shop for emergency supplies, the Pacific Resort, the Sailing Club and not much else. It’s a bustling ‘metropolis’ these days; about a kilometre in length, it’s now home to fantastic street food and restaurants, and activities galore.

It feels a little like a mini Thailand, with the excellent night markets and motorbikes whipping past. But you only have to cut through any of the amenities here to reach the bliss of Muri Beach. With its white sand and tropical water, kite surfers, windsurfers, snorkellers and sun worshippers all make the most of this little paradise.

The annual Tin Man Triathlon, a popular circuit series, is on while we’re here, so we’re inspired to get out and to exercise. It also helps to wear the kids out so they get to bed early and we can chat away over a cocktail or two late into the evening!

Both my children, Tilly and Jude, are new bike riders and are keen to hone their skills.

We hire bikes from Ride Raro, not realising there are no footpaths and we’re literally riding on the road. But it’s stress-free and motorists are courteous, tooting their support for a young family out getting some exercise.

Going slow allows us to see the little things we wouldn’t from the bus or rental car. We smell the beautiful tipani flowers, stop to watch a roadside burn-off of coconut husks and play a balancing game where we go over every pothole and hope to stay on the bike.

The kids are thrilled and empowered by their new skills and the fact they’re riding on an actual road. As a reward, we stop off at a Mama’s roadside stall after seeing a sign for fresh Rarotonga donuts.

We enjoy seeing Raro by bike so much we sign up for Storytellers bike tour, run by a Kiwi and Aussie couple, but led by local guide Jimmy. They specialise in three bike tours, from the complete novice Discover group to the high octane, throw-yourself-down-a-muddy-hill variety. Needless to say we opt for the novice level and they pick us up ready with a bike carrier for our youngest on the back.

These tours take us in the back roads – the ‘real’ Raro. Jimmy sets a leisurely pace; I think we do more talking and sampling of local food than actual biking. The kids try mango, guava and banana all straight from the tree, and make friends with some local pigs who are angling for their scraps. Biking through the back roads means you see how people here really live; it’s quiet, the gardens are immaculate, and there are those friendly smiles everywhere.

As we round our last corner Storytellers owner Dave is waiting beachside with a local feast of fresh tuna and fruit which we all devour, feeling at least a little like we’ve earned it.

The kids are happy. We’re happy. And that’s what makes for a fabulous family holiday; when all the ducks are in line, a lovely calm descends. The thing I’ve found with family holidays is you do need a bit of a plan. Give the kids something to look forward to. Be able to answer their early morning questions about what’s happening today with a solid answer. We planned an excursion every other day, making way for beach and book time in between.

They were happy playing in the sand if they knew we were off to an island feast that night (with ice cream!). They were okay to do a bit of drawing in the room while we stayed by the pool grabbing some book time if we were promising a snorkelling trip the next day.

Getting out on the lagoon is always paramount for us, and while you can very successfully snorkel off the beach, Koka Lagoon Cruises offer an exper-ience you can’t get on your own. Their glass bottom boat is sturdy, and the entertainment starts as soon as you board.

Our Captain ‘Awesome’ introduces his team, and picks up a ukulele to get things going. It’s a happy 20-minute boat ride to our snorkelling destination, where everyone is encouraged to jump in and meet Roger the moray eel and check out the admirable giant clam restoration project.

On the way back to a nearby island just off Muri, Captain Awesome does what he does best: entertains tourists from all over the world with his pareo (sarong) tying skills. Our son, Jude, is delighted to be selected as a ‘warrior’ and sits earnestly, proud as punch, at the front of the boat with the real Warriors for the ride.

An island feast on the Motu is prepared: fresh tuna, coconut, star fruit and other local delights. This island is a great sheltered spot to get away from the often-windy Muri beach, and is accessible at low tide by foot. We used to come here often as teenagers, before the tourists boats came in, husk our own coconuts and dream of our lives ahead.

With the explosion of restaurants on the island with an international flavour, it’s easy to lose sight of local food. But this is something Tooks and his family from Coco Putt Ale House are all about. We’re lured in on a Sunday night to play 18 holes of mini golf, and stay for a fabulous local feast and live music. Tooks and his family have been cooking all day. Ika mata (raw fish salad), rukau (taro leaves), local sausages, and the best desserts I’ve ever seen are laid out for us. It’s the perfect family affair.

Another local hotspot is Vaiana’s, right on the beach on the airport side of the island. Locals eat and drink here; always a good sign. Magnificent fresh fish platters on the sandy beach while good music pumps out of the bar, and the kids dance the night away.

Scheduling in some couple or alone time is a must on these holidays. I grab a chance to do a yoga class on the beach, and a beautiful massage at Te Manava Luxury Spa and Villas. Dave has a different kind of date day in mind, and signs us up for a morning excursion with Raro Buggy Tours. You can hear the buggies before you see them. We are warned to wear old clothes and you quickly see why.

Dave drives first and takes an unacceptable level of delight in riding straight through the mud puddles, drenching me in brown muck. It’s almost divorce material; I’ve never seen him so purposefully set out to anger me. But then it’s my turn in the driver’s seat – payback time. By the end of the day we’re both covered in mud, smiling from ear to ear. Marriage intact.

The kids have had a grand time with their local babysitter but we opt to take them with us to the exceptional Nautillus, a brand new five-star family resort, for our last night dinner.

Kid-free time is great, but the best thing about a family holiday is watching your kids have new experiences. Looking at things through their eyes.

Meitaki maata to that.

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