One easy way you can support guide dogs (and their owners)

My dog, Taylor, is not the world’s most obedient creature. She does what she wants, when she wants, and when I tell you she’s a Labrador you probably won’t be surprised that all of those wants are food-orientated.

Today I took Taylor on a little outing to Guide Dogs Victoria’s head office and she showed her true colours. This is what happened when I made the command, “Sit”:

IMG_2809

As one friend pointed out later, it’s perhaps a signal that I’m a good parent but not a good dog trainer – and that’s certainly indicative of where the majority of my efforts are placed.

We’ve always joked that Taylor would be a rotten guide dog: too free-spirited (read: naughty). But I was intrigued to see the guide dogs at the centre. Puppies who are just starting their training are equally as inquisitive and food-focused as Taylor, proving that they’re not born great – it’s a learned behaviour (although they have genetics on their side). And what’s also interesting is how they learn about work versus play. I watched as a guide dog owner removed her dog’s harness, and the four-year-old Labrador started racing around in circles with the other dogs. The harness is a cue that they’re required to work, but they’re still allowed to play and be normal dogs at other times… with a certain level of behaviour still required, though.

It’s really important to remember that guide dogs are just normal (albeit very intelligent and highly trained) dogs, doing an extraordinary job. And the focus of this year’s International Guide Dog Day is to remind us all to support them in the easiest possible way: by keeping our own dogs on leads when in public. The reason behind this awareness campaign is pretty awful: lots of guide dog handlers say their guide dog has been attacked by another dog while it’s working. All of those incidents are due to the attacking dogs either not being on a lead or not being controlled by their owner. And the outcomes of those attacks can mean a spooked dog who needs a training boost and a vision impaired person facing worries about going out again.

What Guide Dogs Australia – and, most importantly, all the people they support – need from us as the general public is to not set the guide dogs up to fail. That is, don’t let your dog (whether on or off a lead) approach a guide dog, keep your dog on a lead when you’re out, and don’t let your kids pat them without asking permission first. Give them the space to do their job.

It’s the simplest way to support these gorgeous creatures and the people they’re helping.

IMG_2811

 

You can show your support for the guide dogs by walking for them on Wednesday, April 30th 2014, from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens to Fed Square. Click here for details.

 

The Melbourne Zoo: kids play and lemur glares

Our first “real” experience of school holidays has been such a treat. I’d really missed Abbey during her first term of school, so it’s great to spend a couple of weeks together and she was keen to have a mixture of quiet time at home and fun outings. One of our highlights was a trip to the Melbourne Zoo, where we checked out some new additions to an already great day out.

The Keeper Kids space is great for some imaginative play around the theme of animal conservation. There are plenty of props for kids to dress up as vets, researchers, workers, horticulturalists and zoo-keepers.

It’s a big, bright space that kids feel really comfortable in, and there’s zoo staff on hand to ask questions, which is a real buzz for the kiddies.

IMG_3251

And if that’s not their scene (or they’re too young to get that idea yet) there’s always a great view of the squirrel monkeys. Little Iris and one monkey tried to decide who’s the cheekiest. I think it’s a draw.

IMG_3240

IMG_3265

IMG_3268

IMG_3271

My two had an absolute ball in the Keeper Kids space for almost an hour. It’s right near the main entrance so it’s a good note to start or finish on. We did it first, and then checked out some old favourites – the elephants, the butterfly house and the seals – and another newbie that had us in fits of laughter.

The new lemur enclosure is a riot: these are funny little critters! You’re in the enclosure with them as they hang around in the branches scratching each other and making a noise that’s quite honestly the most jarring screeching noise you’ll ever hear. All worth it to see this at the end:

Hint: look at the top of the brown door…

IMG_3314

We dubbed him King Julian, sitting there guarding the exit in a Buddha-like pose. Until he spotted me photographing him, and then he gave me a bit of lemur stink-eye…

IMG_3319

Road Trip Love: the Ned Kelly Touring Route in Victoria’s high country

This post is sponsored by Shell Australia and Digital Parents Collective

IMG_6787

Ned Kelly is an intriguing figure of Australian history. When described as a larrikin and an underdog, he is held as a symbol against an unfair establishment. But to others he is simply a cold-hearted criminal, robbing and killing innocent people.

Shell LoVe Drives, a new website showcasing the people’s choice of great Australian road trips, has asked me to share one of my favourites with you, so here it is…

On the Ned Kelly Touring Route, you’ll get every angle of his story and how others see it. In some towns he’s all but glorified, while in others his name isn’t even spoken despite the history. It’s fascinating. And even away from Kelly, this region holds some of Victoria’s most important history from bushrangers to gold rushes and explorers.

Even better, this is a road trip that takes in some of Victoria’s most beautiful countryside. Here are the highlights of the Ned Kelly themed road trip:

Glenrowan

Glenrowan

I’m going to pick up the Kelly story at (almost) the end. Travelling 236km from Melbourne along the Hume Freeway, you’ll come to Glenrowan, the site of the Last Stand. A theatrical staging of the siege takes place regularly for those who want to go back in time to when Kelly was shot and captured.

I find Glenrowan a little – okay, a lot – spooky, with the giant six-metre statue of Kelly staring down the barrel of his gun at passersby, but it’s a major part of the story nonetheless.

Beechworth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beechworth doesn’t shy away from its Kelly history – they even hold an annual festival in his memory – and you’ll find the prison a magnetic force that you just have to see. Kelly, his mother, his “sympathisers” and his comrade Harry Power were imprisoned in Beechworth at various stages, and you can take a tour to see their cells.

All sounds a bit rough? Don’t be fooled: Beechworth is actually a really beautiful old town with most of the original buildings intact. It has a surprisingly special feel to it – in fact, when we first visited we began house hunting! (Watch this space… maybe…)

While you’re here: Just being in Beechworth takes you back in time. Wander the streets to take in the old buildings, check out the Burke Museum (Robert Burke of “Burke and Wills” fame was a policeman here), walk around the beautiful gorge, and drive to the Woolshed Waterfalls (perfect for swimming on a hot day). The food around here is amazing: go to the ice-creamery, the honey store and – our personal favourite – the Bridge Road Brewery.

Mansfield

Mansfield

In Mansfield, the mood is much more sombre. Kelly used to work here as a lumberjack, but the only references you’ll find to him around town are those linked with the police shootings. The gravesites (at Mansfield Cemetery) of the three policemen killed by Kelly at Stringybark Creek were restored in 2013, with the Police Commissioner, descendants of the men and locals declaring it an outrage that Kelly has become an adulated figure of Australian history.

A memorial to the policemen stands on a roundabout right in the centre of town. Built in 1880, the construction reads: “To the memory of the three brave men who lost their lives while endeavouring to capture a band of armed criminals in the Wombat Ranges near Mansfield, 26th October 1878″.

While you’re here: Mansfield is the southern high country’s adventure hub. From here snow-skiers head towards Mt. Buller, water-skiers drive twenty kilometres out to Lake Eildon or Lake Nillahcootie, hikers pass through, four-wheel-drivers ensure their vehicles are full of fuel, and campers stop for a final civilised meal before reaching one of countless nearby bush camping spots.

Stringybark Creek

IMG_1630

IMG_1623

About 36km out of Mansfield (along the Mansfield-Whitfield Road; follow the signs to the Kelly Tree) lies the infamous Stringybark Creek, where Kelly shot the three policemen. A signed track leads you in a loop through the bush to the significant spots: the site of the shooting, an introduction to the area’s goldmining history, and the Kelly Tree. This is a seemingly random tree of no real significance to the shooting, as the original bullet-marked Kelly Tree was chopped down way back when. A plaque in the shape of Kelly’s armour (which, incidentally, wasn’t yet in existence at the time of the Stringybark Creek shooting) is on the tree as a memorial to the policemen and, although the tree has grown around it, the plaque is still a little visible.

While you’re here: There’s a great camping spot at Stringybark Creek, so spend the night to give yourself plenty of time to explore.

Melbourne

IMG_9312

Marked as the first and last points on the Ned Kelly Touring Route, there is plenty of Kelly history to be found in the city. The State Library of Victoria is home to his armour, the Jerilderie letter (an 8,000 word letter, written as one long rambling sentence, justifying his actions) and his death mask.

IMG_9323

The Old Melbourne Gaol is an integral part of Kelly’s story. This is where he was found guilty of murder and hanged, and you wander the grounds wondering about all the stories the worn stone steps have seen. Tours cater to the history of their most famous inmate.

002620-LoVeDrives-Blogger-Companion-Banner-03[1]

To celebrate the launch of LoVe Drives, Shell Australia is giving away 18 x $100 fuel vouchers. At the end of the promotion, 4 lucky winners, selected from the weekly winners pool, will win $2,000 worth of travel vouchers so they can recreate their LoVe Drives again. For the chance to win, consumers must open up their box of memories and upload and share a drive that they love – a drive that defines them. For full terms and conditions visit Shell LoVe Drives.

A kid-free day out of indulgence. Oh yeah!

IMG_2208

Sometimes you want a crazy, adrenalin-fuelled adventure, and sometimes you really just want to escape for an easy, relaxing day. For this RedBalloon jaunt, it was the latter and, even better: an easy day with a great friend was on the cards.

Mel and I have been best friends since we were teenagers. These days we both run our own businesses from home and we each have two little kids. Just like everyone else’s kids, our four are energetic and cheeky and gorgeous and exhausting, and just like every other mum we are both tired from trying to do the best by everyone. We’re also very short on time to catch up with each other, so I jumped at the chance to spend a day together. And she jumped at the chance to have a relaxing day, too.

We had two things to do that day: soak in some hot springs (the picture above is at the pool at the top of the hill overlooking the peninsula), and turn up for a high tea. The lack of demand was a relief in itself.

Turning up at the hot springs had a strange feel to it, simply because it was so indulgent. We got changed alone – usually when we’re each getting into swimmers, we’re also racing around with little ones at swimming lessons – and then started wandering. Strolling, taking our time to decide which pool to enter first – the hot, hot springs or a cooler one first? The one atop the hill or the one in a cave? We settled on the reflexology walk first, a selection of ten different stones that stimulate different parts of the feet, and managed to get into the groove of having what felt like all the time in the world.

IMG_2207

From there it was a dip in various pools of warm, natural mineral water. Kids are allowed here too, and I kept hearing the cries of, “Muuuum, I’m boooored. Can we go to another spot now?” (because there are heaps of pools over this 42-acre site), but I smiled and put my head back at the realisation that I didn’t have to listen to any of those kids. Not that day. At one point, we wandered to the “no kids allowed” area – but bypassed the silent area because we chat and laugh way too much – feeling a bit naughty because, well, we don’t get out kid-free very often.

We left with a light, easy feeling, and rumbling tummies ready for high tea.

The only odd part of the day was that these two things were paired up. Located a 40-minute, non-direct drive from each other, it didn’t make much sense, but then again we didn’t mind the drive either as it was just more of a chance to chat. (Uninterrupted by littlies!) Sandwiches, pastries and cakes, champagne, tea and hot chocolates, in a grand old building on an estate with a wander around the lake before digging into scones, this was the ultimate finish to an indulgent day.

IMG_2213

 

*
Want to have your own indulgent, relaxing experience? RedBalloon has an offer for readers of this blog:
 

Receive $20 off when you spend $79 or more on any RedBalloon experience!
Visit www.redballoon.com.au & enter the code REDBLOG14 at the checkout to receive your discount.
Code can only be used once per person. All purchases are subject to RedBalloon T&Cs.
Expiry: 31/12/2014

Thanks to the team at Digital Parents Collective for inviting me to be a part of the RedBalloon Experience program. I will be sharing my awesome experiences with you over the next few months. As always, all opinions are my own however the experiences are complimentary.

 

Less expectation, more experimentation

IMG_2185

I expect a lot from life.

I’ve always put myself in the “wanting it all” camp, and I spend much time plotting and working to make it happen. Sometimes life delivers the goods promptly and other times my wants turn up late, marked in big red letters: “DAMAGED GOODS”. The highs and lows even themselves out eventually.

My kids, meanwhile, expect nothing. When they wake up in the morning, they have no idea what I’m going to throw at them – sometimes it’s a quiet home day, other times it’s a big adventure, and some days it’s just a pair of dirty socks they left lying around. Still, they bound out of bed and throw their arms around me and go about their lives with the knowledge that whatever the day brings it’ll be good.

We were in Bendigo over the weekend. If you followed my Instagram feed, you’ll know we had some fun: I wandered with a napping baby and ate ice-cream without having to share it, I chatted with friends and watched Steve race down a running track, and I marvelled at the beautiful old town where life used to be so certain businesses had their names imprinted on buildings. Then again, if you read my last post you’ll know things aren’t always what they seem, although I think I’d like to amend that and say it’s not always the kids’ fault. I had a UTI (TMI?) that threw me into turmoil and had me touring Bendigo’s medical facilities. It also sent me quite mad and in the space of twelve hours my expectations of life turned from fair and exciting to high pressure and terrible. Utterly terrible.

ANYWAY. My plan to take in heaps of Bendigo’s sights was altered to a slower approach. I showed Abbey the Bendigo tourism app, pointed her in the direction of family friendly stuff, and asked her to choose one thing. She chose the Discovery Centre. I wasn’t thrilled by her choice – experiments have proven that me and science explode when combined – but I put on a brave face and took her in the hope of being out of there within the hour.

My expectation was boredom. Abbey’s was to just see what it was, and to have fun finding out.

The Discovery Centre is actually truly brilliant. An old railway goods shed, with brick walls and high exposed ceilings, it’s scattered with hands-on activities that range from playing a walk-on piano to seeing how light works. There’s also a vertical slide that older kids loved, a smaller kids’ play space, and a planetarium show that had Abbey in awe. It’s like Scienceworks without the crowds.

IMG_3064

IMG_3085

It’s an open space, so I could see both my kids as they ran around playing with various setups and it’s one of those places that has something for every age group: one-year-old Iris just loved being able to touch everything, five-year-old Abbey was intrigued by her first exposure to some of these scientific theories (thank goodness there were signs to help me explain them), and friends took their tweens and teens who also had a ball.

And afterwards, we relaxed. Sometimes a slow approach is the best.

Less expectation, more experimentation. That’s the mindset I’m bringing home from our trip to beautiful Bendigo.

 

Travelling with kids: the story behind the story

IMG_2291

If you ask someone about their holiday with kids and they say it was just great and everything went wonderfully – well, they’re either annoyingly perfect or they’re not telling you the story behind the story. Delve a little deeper and you’ll realise every family has similar experiences.

Like the time my kids wouldn’t sleep on our overnight flight.

Or the time we were camping and I was pregnant, it was cold and raining and Abbey was having the most enormous meltdown about not wanting to lie inside her sleeping bag or, in fact, with any blanket or warmth on her at all. And so I lost it and said fine, we’re going home, and she said GREAT! and I had to eat my words because we were three hours away and it was 9pm and, anyway, I needed to get more photos the next day for an article I was researching. To this day, Abbey is warned about making a fuss over sleeping bags on every camping trip.

Ask how our Cook Islands trip was recently, and I’ll tell you it was wonderful and we had so much fun. Which we did. But with a five-year-old and a one-year-old there’s always going to be a story behind that stock standard response. The teething child who was in our bed half the time, and despite the bed in one resort being wide enough for three adults (I don’t want to know why!), Steve and I were teetering on opposite edges while Iris lay sideways between us. Abbey had some serious meltdowns over ridiculous things like reapplying suncream because she was tired, half our activities were done separately because Iris either wasn’t old enough to do them or needed naps, and I only got to sit down with a cocktail once for five minutes.

So, why do we do it? Why do we continue to put ourselves forward for the story behind the story, time after time? Why does any family with kids go on a holiday?

Because life is life, and it will have challenging moments and bad days whether we’re at home or in a tent in the rain or on an exotic island. Because deep down we’re optimists and we think it’s worth a shot. Because we’re privileged enough to take our kids on trips to create some amazing family memories. Because we just want to have some fun and break the monotony. Because we know that when that meltdown is over, we can do a big bomb into the pool together and forget it ever happened.

And because when we get back and someone asks us how it was, we’re going to say, “Good. It was great.” We’ll remember those wonderful times together.

 

How do you stop worrying?

IMG_1860

There is one conversation that has taken place repeatedly between Steve and I in our fifteen years together. It’s about stress. I worry way too much, him not at all. Honestly, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him stressed out. Okay, maybe two hands since the kids joined our lives, but still, he’s the most relaxed person you’re likely to meet.

I tell him he needs to be more concerned about things, while he says I should relax. (Which goes down really well when I’m in stressed mode.) There’s a happy medium somewhere in between the two of us, but obviously he’s on the nicer side of that line; no one ever wishes they’d worried more.

If I could turn back the clock, it’s the one big thing I’d change. My memory doesn’t recall events or things I’ve done too clearly, instead focusing on feelings. I’m very driven by instinct and feel, and when I think back to any point in my life I can find that feeling again.

Mostly, I don’t like what I find. My memories speak to me in versions of tightness: clenched thoughts wound so tight they grab at me so harshly I have to run from them.

My whole life has been this way. I watch my kids in awe as they walk into a room with the assumption that everyone will like them, and my heart pounds when I watch them run around carelessly, with simultaneous joy for them and mourning for having wasted my own chance at that. I spent my childhood worried – not for anything in particular or for any real reason, but purely for the sake of worrying. If I was paid by the hour for stressing out, I’d be a trillionaire by now.

You know what? I’m now thirty-three and I’m still at it. But I’ve had about enough. So I ask Steve for advice: “How do you stop worrying?”

His answer hits me with its simplicity – “You just make a decision to stop” – and yet it is complicated too. I know he knows this, that he had to make that decision himself during a tough time in his life. And then I worry – oh yes - that I won’t have the strength to stick with such a decision myself long-term.

I’d love to wrap this up with a sweeping declaration of removing stress from my life right now, but life doesn’t work that way. I can’t even say I’m going to stop, because I haven’t earned the right to make that statement my own. But what I will do is try. It’ll take effort to break the habit of a lifetime, and to live with the balance of a busy mind without the worry attached to that.

All I can do is give it a shot.

 

What would your “Me in a box” contain?

IMG_2199

My little (and I can hear her frustrated voice in my head now: “I’m a BIG kid, remember?”) school girl has her first homework project. It’s called “Me in a box”. The kids have to think about what they love to do and what makes them special, decorate and fill a box with photos and items that represent those passions and present it to the class.

I tried to engage Abbey in some conversation about what she loves to do, and “I just like to play… um, can you stop asking me all these questions now?” was the kind of answer I got. Clearly I’ll need to be more creative about getting answers out of her.

Then I tried again in another moment. “What makes you special? What makes you different to other kids?”

She shrugged.

I suggested a few things to her. As her Mum, the only hard thing about that question is getting me to stop listing things that make my girl special, but for her it was hard to see even one thing, or to understand that the things I listed were anything to carry on about. Her life is her life and, even though in some ways it’s different to her peers, it’s just normal to her.

It’s quite a sophisticated concept for a five-year-old. So I tried to think of things that make me special, perhaps to share as an example to show her what it means. I struggled too.

I realised it’s a tough concept for anyone.

We are who we are. We all just do what we do, and the things we’re good at become taken for granted. To identify any of that as “special” is to separate parts of your life out and see them as different, and that’s against what many of us yearn for – that is, it’s in human nature to want to be “normal” or similar to those around us. To break away from that is a big concept.

To see yourself as special is brave.

This is a big, brave project for my little (yes, sorry Abbey, little) five-year-old. And it’s got me thinking about being braver too.

What would be in your “Me in a box”?

 

Everything you need to know about visiting Rarotonga

IMG_24811

We first visited the Cook Islands on our honeymoon 11 years ago and always promised ourselves we’d return. We finally made it back, a little nervous at how much it might have changed. Would it still be the little island paradise we remembered? Or would it have been overtaken by big business aimed at tourists?

The good news is, Rarotonga – the main island of the Cooks – is still largely the same. It’s a bit busier – that is, there are more cars on the road, more hotels and resorts, and more things on offer for tourists to do – but it’s held its soul. It’s fun, charming, close knit and out of the few South Pacific islands I’ve been to the Cooks is the safest, easiest to get around, and most beautiful.

So if you’re looking for a South Pacific holiday, here’s what you need to know about Rarotonga…

A bit of background

The Cook Islands were inhabited by the first Polynesians in the ninth century, and there they lived happily but not ever after. Captain Cook happened upon this soon-to-be grouped-together collection of islands in the 1700s, and they were named for him. But perhaps the most notable event for the Cook Islands since its first settlements, happened when British missionaries arrived around 1873 to change everything: they converted the islanders to Christianity, outlawed cannibalism, and got rid of rituals such as the kava ceremony after being subjected to the narcotic effects of the plant. All the influences of the missionaries remain to this day (“And that’s lucky,” one local said to me. “Otherwise I’d be eating you right now.”), although the combination of “modern” life and tradition is commendable. There are, for example, still tribes with chief leadership and hereditary hierarchy, and land cannot be bought and sold like it can here, rather it can only be passed down through families or leased to outsiders (the latter explaining how resorts and hotels are on the island). Essentially, I see it as a nation that’s easygoing and lives life with a lot freedom, but takes two things very seriously: faith and authority.

IMG_2621

Money, money, money

The Cook Islands has its own currency (Cook Islands dollars), which is found in funny shapes like triangular coins, and also New Zealand dollars. Having cash on you (convert to NZ dollars) is best as lots of places don’t accept cards, but don’t stress too much as there are ATMs around Rarotonga so you can top up.

Language

No need to worry: everyone on Rarotonga speaks English. You’ll also hear them speaking Cook Islands Maori, and you’ll have to learn the phrase “Kia Orana”, which is an enthusiastic greeting meaning “may you live long”.

When to go

The weather on Rarotonga is pretty steady all year round. Typically the wet season is over the summer period (November to April) and it’s drier in the winter. The latter is the peak time for tourists, when you’ll find lots of Aussies and Kiwis escaping their cold winters for a tropical holiday. But like anywhere, the weather is pot luck: our two visits have been in the height of the wet season in January and February and we’ve had one rainy day and a few spots of showers in that time, while we’ve been to other Pacific islands mid-year and been rained out. You never know! Either way, it’s still warm.

Where to stay

IMG_2389

It’s quite tricky to book accommodation online for Rarotonga, simply because there are so many options all with pictures of beautiful beachfronts. Thing is, not every beach on the island is amazing, and each is suited to a purpose, so some are great for snorkelling while some are more kid-friendly (calmer waters) than others. A couple of factors to consider:

1. What type of stay are you looking for? There are big resorts, self-contained villas and holiday homes at every step. Do you want the resort experience, with the ease of having all food and activities on the one site? Would you prefer to be more self sufficient, whether that’s for reasons of freedom or budget? Is it important for you to have a pool where you’re staying? How much do you love being on the beach? Try to set your priorities… although there are a few options that will give you everything, you’ll pay big bucks for them.

2. Do you have kids? Some places simply won’t allow kids under 12, others have limited options for families (like putting you by the pool and not the beach), and some are designed for families.

3. Think about location in terms of what you want to see and do the most. Rarotonga is 32km around – not a big place, but big enough that if you’re on the opposite side of the island to where you’d really like to be it’s a bit of a pain. A few blanket assumptions: stay on the east to see the best sunrises, on the west for amazing sunsets, and towards the south for the best beaches. The spot we loved best this time was Muri Beach, which is a busy (quite touristy in peak times) and fun strip that has lots (in the Rarotonga sense) of restaurants and cafes, and a beautiful lagoon that’s calm for swimming and snorkelling. I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the Muri Beachcomber villas for great self-contained accommodation right on the beach and with a little pool on site. We’ve found the western side a bit rough as the reef is closer to land so high swells are common, but we really love the south side: the beaches and snorkelling are truly amazing.

Where to eat

There are quite a lot of eatery options around Rarotonga these days. We can recommend some budget options: we loved just about everything at Muri Beach, especially the deli (have a fish sandwich), bakery (the tuna rolls and donuts are to die for) and night market ($10 plates for dinner on a Thursday night). Around the main town of Avarua, Palace Takeaway is nothing to look at but will give you the cheapest feed on the island with $5 burgers. Shout yourselves out for a non-budget meal a couple of times, though, either at a resort or a tour or a show (see more below in “What to do”).

How to get around

IMG_2472

If you want to explore around the island – and you really must! – you’re going to need to plan some transport. The buses are reliable and go regularly both ways around the road (yes, a singular main road, plus some inland off-shoots not on the bus route): they’re marked “Clockwise” and “Anti-clockwise”. Car hire of small hatchbacks is available and the best option for families, but if you have older kids or none at all you must hire a scooter: it’s the most fun way to get around like the locals.

There are four rules for drivers on Rarotonga: 1) stick to the left; 2) top speed is 40kph on a scooter and 50kph in a car; 3) you need a Cook Islands drivers’ licence before you hit the road, which you can get at the police station in Avarua; and 4) never park under a coconut tree.

What to do

Smaller islands in the Cooks group are known for being “drop and flop” places to relax, but Rarotonga has heaps of fun on offer. We did lots this time around so I’ll just list the things I think are absolute musts:

IMG_2172

Progressive dinner tour. We all agreed this was our favourite activity of the trip. The tour’s founder, Temu, says when he took part in a progressive dinner in retro suburbia 30 years ago, he knew it would be a great idea for a tour one day. “It’s not about having a meal cooked in the umu (a traditional underground cooking method) or learning about our history; this is about seeing how Cook Islanders live right now,” he says. The format is an incredible way to get that insight and be part of local life for a night. And if you do the progressive dinner with kids, you’ll find they’re welcomed with extra warm arms. My five-year-old spent the evening playing with Rarotongan kids, learning to play the ukulele, tasting new foods and singing as one family played special renditions of kids’ songs for her. We all came away smiling.

IMG_2243

Snorkelling. You’ll love getting a view into the underwater world around Rarotonga. Schools of vibrant coloured fish glide around their coral hideaways, and some snorkellers even report seeing turtles and giant clams. The best snorkelling spots include Muri Beach, the south of the island near the Shipwreck Hut bar, and opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga store. And the great news is, it’s safe: no nasty creatures and you’re unlikely to see big waves in the snorkelling spots I’ve listed.

IMG_2838

Te Vara Nui cultural village. Of all the historical culture insights we’ve experienced in the Cook Islands, this was the best and most comprehensive. You can choose to do just the tour—where you’ll spend two hours being shown around a staged village and introduced to the concepts of plant-based medicines, opening coconuts, costumes and fishing traditions—or just the dinner and show, or all of the above. If you do it all, it’s a long evening for the littlies (from 5.30pm to 9.30pm) but our kids and all the others we saw were so intrigued they didn’t have a chance to misbehave. The show is a must-see, where you’ll watch dancers shake their hips and twirl fire to tell a local love story.

IMG_1914

Watch the sunset. Even if you’re not staying on the sunset side (west), go over there for dinner and a drink by the beach and watch the sun go down. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world.

Whale and Wildlife Centre. Head slightly inland to find this unassuming looking building that packs in enough information and exhibitions to rival any marine museum. Bones, live sea creatures, microscopes to see things up close, and tons of information about what we can do to help are all there. We were fortunate enough to meet the centre’s founder, Nan Hauser, a fearless and passionate whale researcher. She says the kids, both local and visiting, are her reason for building the whale centre, inspiring them to be interested in and ask questions about the world around them. “The best thing we can do is make kids curious,” she says.

IMG_1806

Shop. Every Saturday (from 8am to 12pm), the main town of Avarua comes alive to the scenes of the Punanga Nui Market. Wander around while sipping on coconut milk, shopping for sarongs, black pearls, fresh fruit and crafts. There’s always a bit of singing and dancing on the stage, which the kids will love, and it’s a great way to get amongst the local lifestyle.

And a couple of things for the adventurous sorts out there:

IMG_2707

Sail on a Vaka. Tua Pittman is one of the only traditional navigators in the Cook Islands, and he offers both short trips and overnight sailing to Aitutaki in a traditional Polynesian boat, called a “vaka”. It’s incredible to watch Tua and his crew at work, guiding their way by the moon and the stars as their ancestors did. If you love being out at sea, this is a unique experience that should go on your bucket list.

IMG_2195

Hike the cross-island trek. There are organised guided tours for this, but whether you do it that way is a personal preference. The tracks are well marked these days (although they weren’t when we first attempted it 11 years ago!). You need to take plenty of water – it’s humid inland – and mosquito repellant. Seriously. The mozzies here are monsters. Anyway, it’s well worth it: this is pure rainforest jungle with hill climbs that give even the fittest a good workout, and the views from what feels like the top of the island are spectacular.

 

Any more questions about Rarotonga? Throw them at me and I’ll help you out!