Here’s this week’s travel quiz. Pick the odd one out: Mykonos, Ibiza, Gran Canaria -¦ and Rarotonga.
Okay, trick question. For a start, the first three are over-rated poofter magnets. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the first three are all in Europe, while Rarotonga -“ largest of the Cook Islands -“ is slap bang in the middle of the south Pacific. Actually, Gran Canaria is off the coast of Africa, but we won’t let that get in the way of a good story.
There may well be plenty of other things that make Rarotonga unique, but the most pertinent for now is that the Cook Islands is one of a number of Pacific countries in which gay sex is still technically illegal. So taking it up the clacker while you’re on holiday there might mean you end up in -¦ ah -¦
Well, apart from ecstasy, not much else. Technically illegal it may be, but the islanders seem inured to the decadent ways of their Western visitors. On our visit, my boyfriend and I were upgraded from our original cut-price room -“ with two beds -“ to a beach-side terrace with just the one (king-size) bed. And we didn’t even have to ask. We didn’t even have to be terribly nice.
The law on the Cooks is something of an anomaly. When the Pacific was colonised in the early 19th century the Cook Islanders embraced Christianity with an enthusiasm that terrifies.
On Rarotonga, an island roughly 32km in circumference, with a population of less than 10,000 people, there are no fewer than 31 churches -“ everything from Roman Catholic to loony-tunes Assembly of God and back to the Cook Islands Christian Church (an Anglican affiliate). So the legal antipathy to gay sex is not, on the surface, surprising.
And yet paradoxically the Cook Islands were one of a number of Pacific cultures -“ Samoa and Tonga among the others -“ which, until colonisation at least, were perfectly comfortable with male-to-male sex.
Cross-dressing men who took on traditional women’s roles in the community and the home -“ and often, though not always, in bed -“ were an integral part of life in many Pacific cultures, including the Cooks.
It didn’t take the European colonisers long to beat such disgraceful tolerance out of their subordinates, although apparently the tradition does still exist in Samoa and Tonga. Unfortunately, it seems Jesus well and truly cast that demon out of Rarotonga.
Or almost. We encountered a couple of outrageously camp individuals in our week there, one of whom seemed to be rehearsing a dance routine to a Kylie number while he made us our cocktails. We assumed nothing, of course -“ as anybody who grew up with Frank Spencer on telly knows, effeminacy is not always a dead giveaway.
Sex and anthropology aside, Rarotonga is a great place for a winter break. The island is almost entirely enclosed by a reef, creating a ring of mostly sheltered beaches. If you’re staying at a beach-side resort you could make our mistake and settle for the beach you’ve got. And, believe me, you’d still be blissfully happy. Or you could do what we did on our final day -“ grab a bike (or a car, or a moped, or the bus, or even a horse) and search for something better. The top beach wasn’t in front of a resort, it was open to all, so if you’re a beach bunny it’s best you go looking.
The island’s geography is an attraction in itself. If you’re a photographer, stand somewhere -“ anywhere -“ turn 360 degrees clicking and chances are you’ll have some pretty magnificent shots.
If you’re a bushwalker, take the four- to five-hour cross-island hike (with a guide or a group). Also take some insect repellent -“ the mozzies are fairly sedate on the coast, but once you get into the jungle it’s party time.
If you’re a snorkeller or a scuba diver, grab some equipment -“ you can hire just about anything -“ and get into the water. Warm ocean temperatures here mean you can spend hours checking out the sea life, the coral, the fascinating rock formations, the cute boy who’s left his girlfriend on the beach -¦
For something less strenuous (not that there’s anything too strenuous about splashing around in tropical water), hop on a bus. There are buses going both clockwise and anti-clockwise around the island’s ring road. Less than $10 gets you a daily ticket that allows you to get on and off as often as you like. This won’t allow you to see anything of the island’s interior but you will get a variety of spectacular views.
A healthier, more leisurely option is to hire a bike -“ again, for less than $10 a day. A slow pedal around the island will take you only three or four hours. Factor in more time if you plan to stop at beaches, or take a detour inland to check out the tropical-fruit plantations and the jungle.
And the nightlife? That’s another feature that distinguishes Rarotonga from its island cousins in Europe. There isn’t even a venue that regards itself as gay-friendly -“ and believe me, we asked.
That said, there are plenty of bars and pubs to check out, and a number of resorts and other operators offer nightlife tours. And, while a pub crawl might not seem like the most culturally enlightening option during a visit to a foreign country, it’s still a lot of fun.
Story courtesy of Gay Travel Guides.