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Cook Islands: Like Meeting (And Dining With) Old Friends

31st January 2016

The ultimate holiday idyll is disconnecting from daily life, whether you're turning off email notifications or escaping human interaction completely. But sometimes, quite the opposite happens.

They say the first time you visit the Cook Islands, you arrive as a guest and leave as a family member. With jagged mountains and rainforest clad volcanoes on unspoiled coastlines, the Cooks are the very idealisation of tropical bliss, with the hospitality to match. Never mind the picturesque surrounds, the warm locals with cheek-to-cheek smiles make the Cooks a place you never want to leave. And there's no better way to meet, mingle and unite with locals and their culture than over a traditional meal. After all, the clue's in its name.

Punanga Nui Cultural Market

There's no better way to get a sense and taste of a destination than at a market. Make Punanga Nui Cultural Market in Avarua the first stop on your itinerary. This jostling marketplace sells a variety of tropical-inspired handicrafts and clothing, as well as the freshest of ingredients, set to a soundtrack of live, melodic island tunes. Farmers and fishermen will be eager to chat about their offerings – everything from fragrant, bottle-green herbs to the day's catch – and an abundance of local specialities to sample for breakfast or brunch.

Progressive Dinner & Wine Tour

Leave the fancy candlelit hotel dinners behind for a dining experience with a difference. Progressive dinners showcase true island hospitality, cuisine and culture across three delectable courses. Over five hours, moving from course to course, you'll visit three typical island homes to indulge in authentic, homemade Cook Islands fare. Think ika mata, or fresh fish marinated in lime, coconut and chilli, to sweet fruits and tropical cakes. Three to four generations often live under the same roof, so evenings are a jovial affair in which family members regale guests with tales  that stretch from legends and fables, to children's' dreams and aspirations. Music also plays a large role, so it's likely you'll be serenaded by the soothing sounds of a ukulele.

Plantation House

A picture-perfect colonial homestead from the 1800s and passion for good food equal a recipe for success. The Plantation House is arguably one of the most revered dining experiences in Rarotonga, if not the South Pacific. Set within a tropical garden brimming with fresh ingredients, this historic plantation is the setting of thrice-monthly island/Asian fusion dinners crafted by owner Minar (along with partner Louis). In an explosion of flavours, a meal at the Plantation Home is ideal for those who appreciate great food and great company. Plantation House can be booked out for private evening affairs, or visitors can join public dinners (with numbers capped at 28), which  include a tour of the gardens.

Matutu Brewery

Craft breweries aren't just reserved for inner-city hangouts. For a crisp, refreshing taste of the Pacific, head to the village of Tikioki on Rarotonga. Two families are not-so quietly making waves on the craft beer scene at Matutu Brewery, established from a traditional practice known as 'tumunu'. Matutu Brewery produces two small-batch boutique beers: Mai Lager and Kiva Pale Ale. Visitors to the centre can tour the brewery guided by one of the beer makers, and enjoy free tastings along the way.

Muri Night Market

If you can't get enough of the markets, Muri is a great spot to visit after sunset. Held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays on the eastern side of the island, Muri Night Market is a local hotspot. You'll be lured by the smoky aroma of barbecue from a mile away. Wander the market stalls where vendors dish up myriad dinner specialities and snacks in a truly buzzing atmosphere.