It’s December 20, and I’m sitting in the Edmonton airport with three boarding passes in my pocket.
I’ll land first in Vancouver, not an unusual destination for me at this time of year. My enthusiastic family has often greeted me at the domestic arrivals baggage carousel, and together, we’ve anticipated the fun we’d have and the catching up we’d do over Christmas. But this year, Vancouver is only a lunch stopover.
The next leg of the trip will take me to Los Angeles. Once again, it’s just a place for a little airport window shopping and a couple of glasses of Cabernet in a wine bar. At 10:45 p.m., I’m onboard an Air New Zealand 767, bedding down for a 10 hour, almost 8000 km flight to the South Pacific. A dream that has lingered in my pocket far longer than my final boarding pass is coming true.
More than 10 years ago, at a retirement party for my doctoral supervisor, the associate dean and I were comparing favorite tropical destinations. “My wife and I have been in the Cook Islands four times,” he said, ” and we’ll go back.” His voice softened, his eyes became dreamy. “No crowds, turquoise water, white sand, great food, friendly locals. You have to go sometime.”
Just as he predicted, as we drop down through the clouds at 7:15 a.m. on December 21, the surf is breaking along the bone white shores of Rarotonga, the Cooks’ main tourist island. I look down and see a pair of early morning swimmers, waving like mad as we pass overhead. The captain announces it is already 25 C. We step off the plane and into a morning of ukelele welcome, fragrant necklaces of white frangipani and scarlet Flamboyant leaves, and a van waiting to take us to our home for the next two weeks, the Lagoon Breeze Villas on the west side of the island
We realize our neighbors at the Lagoon Breeze will be some of the passengers with whom we’ve shared our three flights, among them children of all ages. A pair of little girls kneel on the bus seats, their narration of the passing scenery capturing the excitement we’re all experiencing. “Oh, Mommy, the flowers are so beautiful! And look there’s a chicken – and a bunch of goats! And my necklace smells so good!
Once we arrive at the villas, we each locate our own little cottage from among the 18 on the property, and quickly discard our North American winter clothes. Some of the families head directly for the beach or the swimming pool. We opt for the tropical breakfast – coconut scoffins (a golden-topped, scone-muffin marriage), and plates of papaya, coconut, pineapple and watermelon. Several cups of coffee later, we’re ready to begin our initial reconnaissance of our part of the Island.
Across the street. the beach, shaded by palms, strewn with sun bleached coral. Just as the associate dean predicted, there are no crowds here: actually, the beach is totally deserted.
After a short hike down the road in the late morning heat, we realize we’re not within walking distance of a grocery store or an ATM. No worries. The friendly woman at the front desk of our villa complex offers to loan us some New Zealand dollars so we can get into the town of Avarua on the bus, which can be flagged down anywhere along the road.There are two that run around the island, helpfully labelled “Clockwise” and “Counterclockwise.”
We have a quick look around a few shops, but decide to leave that activity for a less jet-lagged afternoon. We don’t buy any groceries either, having noticed a food stand earlier in the day just down the road from our accommodation that serves lunch and dinner. What we’re finding appealing right now is an afternoon spent reading on the shaded porch of our little cottage.
At 4:30, we close our books and join a few of our neighbors for happy hour back in the breakfast room: a couple with three adolescent sons from just outside San Francisco, honeymooners from Auckland, and a mahogany-skinned, grey-haired guy from Calgary. We swap stories about what brought us to the Cooks. The Calgarian tells us that his wife died several years ago during the Christmas season. Since then, he has travelled every December to a different tropical destination. “Why would I want to be alone in cold Calgary when I could be alone somewhere warm?” he says. This isn’t his first trip to the Cooks. This time, he’s here for a 40-day stay.
After a round of local beer, umbrella cocktails, and soft drinks, the Calgary widower recommends ending our day with watching the sunset on the beach. Lorne and I get take-out fish and chips from the food stand down the road and find a big beach rock to perch on for dinner and the show. The honeymooning couple is cuddling on the sand. The teenage boys from California are skipping rocks on the waves while their parents walk hand-in-hand along the shore. The guy from Calgary is the last to arrive, lugging a beach chair and a glass of red wine.
In silence, we watch as the sun slips from under a band of clouds and disappears into the ocean. The day is over, but our vacation has just begun.