From Missoula to New Zealand… or Bust!

By LINDA MCCARTHY

Our travels to New Zealand started out like any other Missoula plan departure: A 5:00 a.m. drive to the airport, 7:00 a.m. departure from Missoula, and our flights to Los Angeles through Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.

It took us literally 15 hours to get to L.A. (Thanks, Tom!)

Then we had this wonderfully awesome flight from the states to Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Air New Zealand knocked it out of the park with exceptional service, beautiful island-like uniforms, complimentary New Zealand wines (love their promotion of local products), plus a hot meal for dinner, including coffee with our tiramisu dessert!

Remember when we got hot meals on U.S. flights? Remember when it was the customer who was the primary focus? I miss those days… Flying in the U.S. is just not fun anymore!

The island or Rarotonga is one of 15 in the Cook Islands, famously named after Captain Cook. Did you know it was here that the mutiny on the Bounty occurred? The island people were so kind and well cared for that the Bounty‘s crew didn’t want to leave when it was time to set sail. Nim’s Island was filmed in the Cook Islands, as was Survivor: Cook Islands.

Rarotonga is the largest of the islands and has a circumference of about 20 miles and a population of about 20,000.

It’s like visiting rural, rural Hawaii. It is island-style Polynesian, with small huts with gardens and orchards growing things like taro, tomatoes, papaya, mango, bananas, corn, and other exotic crops.

Tourism seems to have been embraced here with lots of vacation rentals and bungalows and quite a few upscale, all-inclusive resorts. A total of 17 flights arrive at the airport each week, and all arrivals are greeted by Jake Numunga, according to a story written by Rachel Reeves for Escape: Magazine of the Cook Islands, issue 16. Mr. Numunga has been singing and playing the ukulele for arriving and departing passengers for more than 30 years.

Our View from Mac’sShack.

We rented a small two-bedroom house called Mac’s Shack for $800, right across the street from the best snorkeling on the island. Tikioki Lagoon is protected from fishing and hunting, so the number of tropical fish is spectacular.

Nearly the entire island, which came into being due to volcanos, is protected by a reef that provides relatively shallow, calm waters which is great for swimming with kids.

We had torrential rains for the first three days. It’s rainy season here, and we have never seen the kind of downpour we witnessed here. On the fourth day, the clouds cleared, and the sunrise was incredible. We’ve chosen a location on the island that allows us to see both the sun rise and the sun set. Yes….yes that was my idea!

We swam and snorkeled to our hearts’ content and of course got severe sunburn the first day, despite slathering on the SPF 30. The bugs have also been pretty bad. Poor Maddy has more than 75 mosquito or sand fly bites on just her legs. They’re driving her crazy.

Tom and Maddy snorkeling in TikiokiLagoon.

One night we drove into town to see a movie that Maddy has wanted to see since mid-December: Rise of the Guardians. The movie theater was larger than all we have in Missoula – except the Big D at Cinemas 10 – and the prices were great: just $10 for adults and $5 for children. They were scooping up ice cream cones for $3, and Tom thought the ice cream was out of this world.

The prices here are quite steep, which came as a bit of a surprise. For example, gasoline is $2.50 a liter, or about $10 per gallon. Asparagus was almost $18 a kilo. A loaf of bread – made on the island – was $6.  A liter of Coca-Cola is $4.90. A six pack of beer is $16.

There is, however, a local brewery Matutu, which will celebrate its eighth anniversary in March. They just brew two beers, lager and pale ale, and they’re tucked into a tiny little garage-like building, but the beer was good.

Friday was quote hot, and we attempted a jungle hike, but it didn’t last long. On the way up there, however, we passed the power station for the island, and solar is definitely the power of choice here in the islands. On the hike, we finally found fresh fish – swordfish, or billfish as they call it here – and we took it home and put it on the grill. Interestingly, the fish cost us about $10 for three nice filets.

Native Islanddancing.

Media access, and of course Internet access, are extremely limited and quite costly. Internet service is charged to the individual user, not the building or structure, and the cost is about $35 for 350 megabytes.

Our last night on the island we had dinner at the Edgewater Resort, watched the sun set, and saw an Island Nights show that featured local Maori dance and drumming. We tried all kinds of fish, pork, chicken, salads and fruits, and the dessert bar was to die for!

The dancing was amazing. I sure wish I could wiggle my belly like that. Maybe I should take up belly dancing at some point?

We left the island Sunday night at 1:00 in the morning for an overnight flight to Auckland and then on to Christchurch, which is on the Southern Island of New Zealand. We missed a whole day – Monday, January 21 – as we crossed the date line and it was be Tuesday, January 22 when we arrived.

We’ll stay a few days in Christchurch, and I am very interested in visiting the city center since they suffered two severe earthquakes in recent times: a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in September 2010 and a 6.3-quake in February 2011.

Apparently the iconic Christchurch Cathedral fell down on the city’s central retail hub, and two multi-story buildings were crushed. Imagine if the Wilma Building fell over on Higgins Avenue. I am looking forward to seeing how they are rebuilding the city.

As the Islanders of Rarotonga say: Kia Orana. It means, “May you live a long and happy life.”

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Linda McCarthy has served as Executive Director of the Missoula Downtown Association since 1999. Prior to that, she served as a Sports Information Director for Grizzly Athletics for 10 years. She is a two-time graduate of The University of Montana, where her husband, Tom Gallagher, is a professor in the Applied Computing and Electronics Program at Missoula College. Her daughter, Maddy Gallagher, is an outgoing and kind 11-year-old who has spent all of her school years at Lewis & Clark Elementary. They can be reached via email at: tomlinda@centric.net.