When I started reading about the Cook Islands, I knew I *had* to visit. But to make that visit possible for the Christmas holiday (also, probably the most expensive time to travel), I had to be very flexible with my travel plans, which is how I picked the following itinerary: Vanuatu back to Fiji (overnight layover), then onto Auckland (1.5 day layover), and finally arriving in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, close to 2am three days from when I started. So between all of these travels, I picked up more information that might be helpful for someone reading…
Fiji Airways/Air Vanuatu (Vanuatu to Fiji: flight time = 2.5 hours; timezone change = go forward 2 hours)
My departure flight (booked on Fiji Air, but you actually fly Air Vanuatu) was delayed by two hours. I learned of this the day prior to my departure by an email from the airline. I appreciated the information, it saved me from waiting even longer at the tiny airport. However, I remain perplexed why there was such a delay at all (especially when the delay nearly equaled the length of the flight); having more than 24hour notice suggests it was almost scheduled that way. Either way, the notice was appreciated because the airport at Vanuatu is teeny tiny and not a place you want to be stuck for hours on end. There is a small, duty free shop, a bar, a typical news stand type store, an ice cream shop, and a couple places to buy souvenirs. Travel tip: if you need to charge devices while in this airport, there’s an outlet at the bottom of the column at the front of the duty free shop, just a few feet from the cash register.
One Final Night in Fiji, aka, Where NOT to Stay
I made the mistake of booking my final night in Fiji at the Oasis Palms Hotel, largely because it was affordable, close to the airport, and supposedly offered free transportation to/from the airport. Turns out: (1) there are quite a few other hotels closer; (2) the free shuttle operates limited hours; and (3) when you start adding in taxi fare, it becomes less affordable than it appears at the time of booking. My flight was scheduled to land at 8:05pm and the hotel’s free shuttle stopped at 8:00pm, so I was out of luck. The hotel did offer to arrange transportation for me at a cost of 15FJD, which I accepted. Although they had my flight number and information, I emailed them the day prior to my arrival to inform them that my flight leaving Vanuatu was delayed and would be arriving 1.5-2 hours late. They let me know that wasn’t a problem, and a driver would be waiting for me, holding a sign with my name. But when I exited the airport, there was no driver in sight. Fortunately, it was only 10pm and there were plenty of cabs available; I even lucked out by running into a fellow passenger also staying at the same hotel, so we shared a cab and each paid 10FJD. While the hotel’s failure to coordinate the transportation as guaranteed was frustrating, it ended up saving me 5FJD, so a good mistake in the end! The airport pickup was just the tip of the iceberg. Though the hotel knew I wouldn’t arrive until after 10pm, in our emails they never mentioned that if I wanted dinner I should have the taxi stop en route to the hotel because its restaurant would be closed by the time I arrived, and its location is not walkable to anything. (Fortunately, I wasn’t that hungry by the time I arrived so skipping dinner wasn’t a big deal, but this could be problematic for many people.) I’ve primarily been staying in dorm rooms for the last few weeks (except when I was lucky enough to get moved into a private room in Vanuatu), and my biggest concerns are usually cleanliness, comfort of the mattress, whether I’ll get stuck on the top bunk bed, and whether any of my roommates snore. But the concerns at this hotel took things to another level. Imagine if you will one bathroom for six people inside the dorm room, and the door to that bathroom is on a sliding track (think: barn style door) that doesn’t fully close. So you “get” to share everything (your nudity and bodily functions) with all your roommates. Thank God there were only two others (both women!) in the room the night I was there. I consider it a Christmas miracle that none of us had to poop during the 8 or so hours we were all in the room together. The room also shared a wall with another dorm room, and between us was a door that didn’t quite touch the floor, so we felt like we were in the middle of the late night conversation the guys were having next door. The wifi here was a joke too; they only give you 150MB free per day (everywhere else I stayed in Fiji and Vanuatu allowed unlimited wifi use, though the quality and speed varied). Finally, the free transportation to the airport in the morning is on a set schedule that may not be very convenient for most. My international flight was departing at 10am, so I needed to be at the airport by 8am. I had the choice of leaving at 6:45am or 8am; though my experience with the Nadi airport thus far had been that it took a matter of minutes to checkin and get through security, I wasn’t willing to risk missing my flight so I opted for the very early shuttle. I wish I could provide a recommendation for a hotel in Nadi that I liked, but sometimes knowing where not to book is just as helpful.
Nadi Airport: Fiji Airway’s Lounge
Continuing with the theme of flexibility and making the best of any situation, I decided that if check-in and security went as quickly as prior trips through the airport, instead of waiting three hours in the waiting area, I’d treat myself. After my seat neighbor on the flight to Vanuatu raved about Air Fiji’s lounge, I wanted to check it out for myself. The cost was 99FJD (less than $50USD) and totally worth it! The lounge was fantastic! The wifi was super fast and thanks to it, I was able to finish up and post about my trip to Vanuatu. There is a full service bar (coffee bar and alcohol bar), and I enjoyed a lovely flat white, a solid bloody Mary, and a couple of really tasty mimosas; vacation mode in full effect (and I was going to get my money’s worth)! And the food… wow. Better than any airport lounge I’ve ever been in, and that includes the British Airways lounge in Heathrow Airport. They had a wonderful breakfast buffet spread, tons of fresh fruit (and a commercial grade juicer if you wanted), a panini press for hot sandwiches, a pancake maker, traditional Fijian snacks in a cart, and the best chia pudding I’ve had in my life. It was super comfortable (if you wanted to shower, or have a spa appointment, that’s available too) and so worth the cost when you’ve got a few hours to kill at Nadi airport.
Fiji to Auckland, New Zealand (Flight time = 3 hours; timezone change = NONE!)
My final stopover was 1.5 days in Auckland. The flight itself was only about three hours (and no time zone change from Fiji!), but I was on a large plane typically reserved for long, international flights. Unfortunately for me, the group of seats around me (including mine) had a power issue so the inflight entertainment was not working. I was less annoyed by this when I took a look at the entertainment selection and saw how truly limited it was; Amazon Prime movies downloaded on my iphone to the rescue! Also, the crew of the Fiji Air flight isn’t the best. Travel tip: when the crew comes around with the beverage cart they only offer coffee, water, tea, or soft drinks, but even with an economy ticket purchase free wine and beer is included. So don’t feel bad about requesting an adult beverage.
Oddly enough, nobody I spoke with about Auckland raved about it. Most people told me a day was more than enough. So imagine my surprise when I kind of fell in love with the city during my short layover! Not sure if I could ever live here (or anywhere in NZ for that matter), given that summer temperatures ranged from 20C (~70F) for the high in Auckland, down to as low as 7C (~44F) for the high of the day (somewhere on the south island, maybe Queenstown). But setting aside the brisk, fall like temperatures I experienced for most of my 1.5 days in Auckland, there was so much to enjoy!
Getting into the City & Accommodations
Though the line at customs was a beast, if you’re from a handful of countries (USA included, thankfully) you can bypass the waiting and head to the e-Passport section. Normally I get upset at missing a stamp on my passport when visiting a country for the first time, but I’m running incredibly low on space in my passport so grateful for anything that saves space (including that the glue from my full-page Cambodian VISA from my trip in 2011 finally wore out and it fell out, giving an extra page to stamp). And I’m a huge fan of getting through customs in a few minutes instead of close to/more than an hour! Yay technology! After declarations, when I entered the main corridor of the airport, this is the first image I saw; I had to take a photo and immediately send to my dad.
The two most affordable options are: the Skybus (17NZD) or Super Shuttle (25NZD to Auckland CBD). Because of the negligible cost difference, I decided to prebook the shuttle; however, if you are staying on or near Queen Street (or somewhere else along the bus route), save yourself the money and take the bus. It runs super frequently and has free wifi! Thanks to the advice from one of Jodi’s (my fabulous Kiwi friend) mates, I knew to stay in or near Queens Wharf. There is loads to see and do in the area, and with only having a limited amount of time, I wanted to be walking distance from everything. Of course, the desirability of this area also makes it much more expensive to stay in. So I opted for the YHA Auckland City Hostel, and it was amazing. (FYI: YHA has another hostel located just one block away. I have no idea why I chose the “City” over the “International” one; I’m guessing both are pretty much the same in terms of quality.) This is the best hostel experience I’ve had so far in my travels. I was in four bed, women’s only, dorm room, with bathroom en suite. The room was very clean, the bed was pretty comfortable, and the location of the bathroom was perfect so as to be the least disruptive when others were sleeping. But what I really loved was how quiet it was at night. No noise from within the building or outside (and we slept with the windows open). I met guests that ranged in age from college-aged kids to men in their 60s and 70s. All this just one block off of Queen Street. I’m actually regretting that I booked myself a much more expensive Airbnb for my return to Auckland, because I would definitely stay here again.
Auckland in 1 Day
I had a few things I wanted to accomplish in Auckland, starting with getting my eyebrows cleaned up/threading. I found a salon with quite a few good reviews on Google (Tip on finding recommendations when abroad: If you don’t have locals/friends to rely on, Yelp is not a great resource when abroad in many countries because so few people use it- you’re much better off with Google reviews or TripAdvisor), Smart Hair (on Queen Street), so decided to check it out. I walked in and the girl was able to take me back immediately. She did both threading and waxing (that’s super rare in salons and I loved having the choice!); I opted for threading (seems to last a bit longer than waxing for me) and she was fast and did a fantastic job! And it only cost me 15NZD. I spent some time walking around Queen Street, one of the main roads, and after that, I settled into a Starbucks (to take advantage of free wifi and figure out where to go next).
I eventually made my way up to Karangahape Road, aka, K-Road, which is totally M’JAM!
I loved the vibe here; it’s the best of what I love about edgy neighborhoods in my favorite cities around the world. I owe this amazing discovery to my tour guide for the evening, Chip (a doctor and fellow American, living in Auckland for 9 years now). Like I say in every post: I love the people I meet when traveling! If I was to ever move to Auckland, this is definitely where I’d live. This street has everything and reminded me of the best edgy, gritty neighborhoods I’ve been to anywhere in the world (Brooklyn before it got fancy, H St in DC, etc.): banks, gyms, incredible restaurants (from variety to authenticity of international cuisine to affordability), bars to suit whatever your vibe and drink preference, vintage and used clothing stores (with some of the best deals I’ve ever seen- the Red Cross store has coats and sweaters for 10NZD!), boutiques, hair/nail/massage salons, and of course no shortage of adult stores and gay bars. I think I could spend weeks exploring this area! I had an amazing Thai dinner that cost me only 13NZD; you know places are authentic when they ask if you want spice level low-medium-hot-Thai hot. I opted for hot and had my sinuses fully cleared by the end of the meal! I then had far too many drinks at an amazing Italian restaurant; I’ve been told the food here is great, but you won’t have a bad night if you head to the bar in the back and are lucky enough to have Daniel (super handsome English guy) as your bartender. I stumbled my way the few blocks back to YHA for the night, and the following morning, after checking out of the hostel and storing my bag, I headed back up to Karangahape Road for: brunch at Revel (awesome options for meat eaters and vegans); a coffee from Coffix (if in Auckland and you like coffee, you must try Coffix- quality is superb and price is $2.50/small (2 shots) or $3.50/large (3 shots) regardless of whether you get an espresso, flat white, latte, Americano, matcha latte, etc!! Amazing quality and value, so worth the walk up Queen Street); and, a spa day at Posh Nails & Spa. I walked in only for a pedicure (at some point in Fiji or Vanuatu I managed to almost completely rip off one of my toe nails, and couldn’t ignore the pain anymore—they put super glue on it to keep it in tact while it grows a bit), but enjoyed myself (and was so impressed with the quality) that I also got a manicure. When sitting in the massage chair following my pedicure I realized (1) I hadn’t gotten a pedicure since I was in Nepal, and (2) I needed the massage just as much as getting my nails taken care of. It was a reminder in self love and care when traveling: don’t forget to budget some money for things that make you feel good, even if they are objectively indulgences. Sleeping in so many different beds with many questionable quality mattresses took a toll on my back, and enjoying that massage chair for 30 minutes was exactly what I needed at that moment. And as I sat there, reflecting on this, and looking at my pitiful looking nail beds I decided it was just plain silly not to get a gel manicure too. I left with a toenail more intact, perfectly manicured nails on my feet and hands, and feeling much more comfortable and relaxed after the chair massage. Definitely worth the 70NZD I paid, and I highly recommend this nail salon!
I used up the remaining time I had before heading back to the airport to walk down to Queens Wharf, thoroughly enjoying the bit of sunshine and warmer temperatures on this day!
One hit of reality to this otherwise cheery description of Auckland. Like many big cities around the world, Auckland is not immune to a problem with homelessness, and it never fails to break my heart. As much as I have seen so much beauty and humanity in my travels, I’ve also seen so many examples where we can, and need to, do better. These people are not to be reduced to some quip, but they do constantly remind me how lucky and blessed I am, and that I shouldn’t ever take anything I have- especially the good fortune to galavant around the world, for granted.
Auckland’s Airport (Auckland to Cook Islands: flight time = 3.5 hours; timezone change = 23 hours behind!)
After spending the day exploring, the super shuttle picked me up promptly at the stated pickup time (4:30pm) and I was at the airport by 5pm. Travel tip on Auckland Airport WiFi: the airport gives you two hours of free wifi, which I learned is per device. This is not like the US, where you can restart the free two hours when it runs out, or new every time you enter the airport. There is also an option to extend the free two hours by another three hours if you create an account and register with Strata, but you have to do this before the initial two hours run out. If you’re going to be in the airport for a long wait, or several times, make sure you do this. Also, the WiFi goes in and out and frequently quits or won’t load, so keep your expectations on quality low. The line for checkin at the Jetstar counters was the longest I’ve experienced in my travels thus far; at that moment, I was quite happy to have arrived at the airport nearly 3 hours in advance of my flight. Even with the long line, I got checked in and was through security in around one hour. Auckland’s airport is exactly what you would expect from a major, international hub: loads of shopping, bars, restaurants, and seating. Plenty to do and see to occupy your time while waiting for a flight.
Flying Jetstar to the Cook Islands
There were two options for flying to Rarotonga: Air New Zealand and Jetstar (Qantas’ budget airline). The price difference made this a no brainer; even with purchasing a “plus” ticket upgrade (that added abut 120NZD) to get significantly more weight with my checked bag (I needed every bit of those 25kilos!), and a meal during the flight, Jetstar was way cheaper. But it is in every way a budget airline. The interior is much like Southwest planes in the US (the 3 and 3 formation), but less comfortable- the seat backs feel like they are more erect, and there is definitely less leg room. While manageable, it doesn’t make for a fun flight; the person in the seat behind me had their knees digging into my seat the entire time and I could feel their knees hitting my back every time they moved. (How in the world are the seats this thin/crappy?) Note: just like Southwest planes, there are no monitors for onboard entertainment. You have to download the Jetstar app and pre-purchase entertainment if you want to watch anything onboard. Travel Tip #1 for flying JQ: Jetstar flights to/from the Cook Islands are notoriously awful at sticking to the scheduled flight times. My flights, both ways, were delayed by more than 1 hour, which I learned made me lucky; I learned that more than 5 times in the last 3 months the delay in flight arrival had been more than 1 day. So beware if you book a flight on Jetstar! Travel Tip #2 for flying JQ: Jetstar does weigh your carry on bags, in addition to checked baggage, and they are very strict about limits. Thankfully, I purchased extra weight, which gave me 25kg for my checked bag and another 7kg for my carry on. If the flight isn’t full, you can pay to carry the extra weight (charged per kilo, so very expensive very fast) or check an extra bag, but if it is, they flat out will not permit you to take the extra item(s) or bag, so be very careful and don’t overpack.
Due to the flight delay, I didn’t arrive in Rarotonga until close to 2am. There are two tiny duty free shops at the airport selling alcohol and tobacco (I don’t recall them selling anything else). I normally skip duty free shopping, but Tina, who manages the hostel I’m staying at in Rarotonga, asked me to pick her up cigarettes at Duty Free upon arrival. So rather than being one of the first four people in line at customs, I ended up at the back of the line. It took at least 30-45 minutes to get through immigration/customs, but thankfully my transportation was still waiting for me, even though it was 2:30am. And that’s where I’ll end this post. Up next: what the Cook Islands is actually like!