Last August, when Hillary Clinton visited the Cook Islands on official state business, its population of 11,000 islanders got a good chuckle at the bullet-proof car flown in to drive her around Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cooks’ 15 tropical isles.
Truth be told, there are but two potential hazards on a drive around Rarotonga, a 45-minute undertaking that would take only 30 minutes if it weren’t for the motor scooters driving 20 miles per hour: chickens that run loose and smoke that belches from one of two buses that circumvent the island. There’s the clockwise bus and the anti-clockwise bus, the latter named because the 16 letters in counterclockwise didn’t quite fit on the front.
Our former secretary of state may have been more prudent to seek protection from curse-spouting tribesmen who have managed (knock on wood) to keep out corporate hotel chains. It’s a long and involved story, but when the Sheraton tried to build a hotel a dozen or so years ago, a curse was allegedly placed on the land.
The skeleton for that project, abandoned before it was ever opened, still sits off to the side of the beach road near Vaiimaanga like a seventh grade boy at his first dance. Hilton bought it a few years ago, made another valiant attempt, and well, nothing has become of that either.
Which is one of the Cooks great appeals. All the hotels, shops and restaurants are locally-owned. That’s not to say they’re not upscale or savvy to the needs of Westerners. Quite contrary. The Little Polynesian, where Clinton was going to stay (except her people didn’t give the boutique hotel enough notice and all 14 bungalows were booked for a wedding) is exquisite, with local woods and accents of wild hibiscus.
Pacific Resort in Aitutaki, the other island I visited, is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, not to mention that manager Jason Strickland offers to eat a table if visitors in July through October don’t see humpback whales migrating through the lagoon outside their luxury suites.
It’s just that Cook Islands’ five-star hotels don’t have “Ritz” or “Marriott” on their welcome signs. I loved the unpretentious luxury and found it refreshing to visit a place that still refers to low season as “cyclone season.” Most savvy tourist destinations have banned such inconvenient realities from their marketing vocabulary.
Read more: Pam Grout, HuffPost