Ever since The Lord of the Rings entranced cinema-goers, New Zealand has been a regular scene-stealer – latterly in The Hobbit trilogy and then in Top of the Lake, the critically acclaimed BBC2 drama that starred Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as an obsessive detective. The series was filmed in the Otago region, mostly in a locality aptly known as Paradise, with cameos from Lake Wakatipu, the ferns and moss-floored beech forests of Dart Valley and a 13-mile gorge known as Skippers Canyon that was thronged with gold miners in the 19th century.
More recently, New Zealand made a guest appearance in the BBC3 drama Tatau, which chronicled the misadventures of two British backpackers in the Cook Islands. In episode four, they jumped on a four-hour flight to Auckland – a short hop in the South Pacific, which is why the Cook Islands have long been popular with Kiwi and Aussie holidaymakers after tropical respite, and a stopping-off point. For extreme sports junkies craving a bit of rest and relaxation. (Long before it was a favourite with Hollywood, thrill-seeking backpackers flocked to New Zealand to snowboard down and bungee-jump off its natural assets.)
But Tatau isn’t the first time the Cook Islands have brightened up British TV screens, for several years in the noughts, Channel 4 reality show Shipwrecked “abandoned” scantily clad 20-somethings on islets off Aitutaki. It was the Robinson Crusoe fantasy: a desert island with palm trees and beaches of white sand. Although many of the 15 major islands scattered across the South Pacific are scarcely inhabited, Aitutaki is home to around 2,000 Cook Islanders, and a favourite with honeymooners. It’s ringed by a coral reef encircling a turquoise lagoon that is breathtaking from the air and even more so from within its warm depths because it’s home to a rainbow of tropical fish.
For those who tire of their hammock, there’s no excuse not to dive in. Sailing, scuba diving, kayaking, kitesurfing, paddleboarding and bonefishing are all on offer. On the advice of Tatau’s leading man Joe Layton – who wasted no time in exploring on weekends off – I chose the leisurely option: snorkelling on one of the boats that cruise between the coral heads. Mine came with a charismatic guide, Ali, who regaled his snorkellers with ancient myths and modern gossip about how the contestants of US show Survivor, which was also filmed here, would spend weeks in a luxury hotel a short that cruise between the coral heads. Mine came with a charismatic guide, Ali, who regaled his snorkellers with ancient myths and modern gossip about how the contestants of US show Survivor, which was also filmed here, would spend weeks in a luxury hotel a short swim away from its supposedly deserted island after they were voted off.
Neither was there any need to do a Bear Grylls and catch your own lunch. While we splashed about gaping at fish with stripes and snouts and whiskers, electric blue starfish and the other- worldly reef, the crew prepared an exotic feast including mashed breadfruit, pawpaw salad, “sea grapes” harvested from the coral, sweet jellies of boiled pumpkin in coconut cream called “poke”, and of course freshly caught fish barbecued on board.
The final stop was a trip to One Foot Island, an islet apparently boasting the world’s smallest post office, a hut selling postcards that reached the other side of the world (still with a whiff of seaweed) a month later. Aitutaki is an easy day trip – 50 minutes in a 15-seater plane – from Rarotonga, which is the largest of the Cook Islands and the only one with an international airport. Not that it feels like one: chickens cluck around the check-in desks and a banjo player in a flower-bedecked straw hat serenades new arrivals from the single runway, never missing a flight.
This is where Tatau was mostly filmed and where the majority of holidaymakers end up. Like Aitutaki, Rarotonga boasts year-round sunshine, brochure-worthy beaches, a crystal-clear lagoon and watersports aplenty. Humpback whales can be spied from the shore between July and October.
Back on terra firma, there’s the cross-island trek, a four-hour hike to the base of the island’s 413m volcanic peak – the Needle (Te Rua Manga) – where you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of its lush slopes and lagoon beyond.
I went with an eco-guide known to everybody (and I mean everybody – Rarotonga is that kind of place) as Pa, who has clambered up several times a week since 1985. Pa offered up a Maori blessing before and after our hike, ladled out a mosquito repellent made from tree sap, pointed out ceremonial rocks and ancient carvings, and tut-tutted at my speed. “Don’t chase the rock,” he urged. “Do everything slow and steady and open.”
It’s a common refrain in the Cook Islands, where the pace of life would suit Tolkien’s hobbits, where Wi-Fi is patchy at best and the most popular activity for locals and tourists alike is watching the sun set. As a Cook Islander who played a Maori elder in Tatau explained: “We do things differently here. We know we are blessed.”