Three Undiscovered (by us) Winter Escapes
By Jules Older
They’re hardly undiscovered, just undiscovered by us. On their beaches, you’ll find Kiwis and Aussies and a smattering of Brits, Germans and French. What you won’t find in these three South Pacific getaways are the folks next door. You’ll rarely hear an American accent.
What you will hear are the sounds of summer in darkest midwinter: gentle waves lapping sandy shores, seabirds cawing under southern skies, kids discovering the pleasures of saltwater swimming.
Here they are in alphabetical order: Noosa, Australia; Rarotonga, Cook Islands; and Waiheke Island, New Zealand.
It’s among the most beautiful beaches in the world and may well be the safest. Not only is Noosa a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, its crescent beach is largely free of the Aussie triple threat — box jellies, saltwater crocs and great white sharks. Natural protection usually means small waves, and just to be sure, it’s patrolled by the famous Australian Surf Lifesavers. Swimmers are guarded by lifeguards in radio-equipped towers, lifeguards on the beach, lifeguards in the water, lifeguards on the water (in powerboats, on jetskis and surfboards), and lifeguards above the water in helicopters. It’s overkill of the most reassuring kind.
The town of Noosa is filled with eye-pleasing contemporary architecture housing small hotels, restaurants from Indian to Italian, a youth hostel, and shops filled with bikinis, surfboards and every flavor of ice cream, gelato and fro-yo ever scooped.
A short walk away from the beach is Noosa National Park, a natural treasure of native bush, native marsupials and stunning sea views. Without the persistence of a small group of 1960s environmentalists, this uniquely Australian park would be just another seaside suburb.
If all this isn’t enough, an hour away from Noosa is Australia Zoo. Founded by the parents of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, and run by Steve until his untimely death, the zoo is now managed and hosted by Steve’s widow Terri and their young kids, Bindi and Robert. The Irwins are Australian royalty, and the zoo includes a thrill-filled bird-and-croc show, hyper-adorable wallabies and a chance to pet slow-moving kangaroos and barely moving koalas.
Noosa’s resident wildlife: bush turkeys, an indigenous species that astounds visitors and annoys locals with their insouciant scrambling for scraps every time anyone drops a crumb. Here’s how locals say to make bush turkey soup: In a large pot, boil a bush turkey. Add a brick. Simmer for three days. Then, throw out the bird and eat the brick.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
If you check the dictionary for “peaceful, tropical, South Seas isle,” you’ll find Rarotonga. It’s populated by humorous, English-speaking Polynesians who live peaceful lives, and when things get too peaceful, head to Auckland, where their cousins and friends live when they want a getaway from Paradise.
The water’s warm, the waves are wavelets, the seafood spent last night in the Pacific, and if you want to explore the island, you have two choices: “The Clockwise Bus” and “The Anticlockwise Bus.” There’s a sweet Saturday morning outdoor market, gorgeous shallow-water snorkeling and stunningly beautiful verdant mountains in the island’s center.
One thing Rarotonga doesn’t have is surfing; those gentle wavelets are gentle because the island is surrounded by a coral reef that will give a severe case of “surfer’s rash” to anyone foolish enough to make bodily contact.
But one thing Rarotonga does have is the most beautiful church singing anywhere. Harmonies in the island’s indigenous language, Cook Island Maori, seem to spring from a back pew, then swell through the congregation, resonate through the building, then slowly ebb. You’ve never heard its like anywhere on Earth. And on every Sunday, virtually every Rarotongan spends the morning in church.
Rarotonga’s resident wildlife: a slow-moving parade of hens and chicks on the roads, in the gardens, by the pool.
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Waiheke is by far the easiest escape to reach. Fly from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Honolulu to Auckland, take the Airport Express bus from the airport to the downtown Ferry Building, hop on a highspeed ferry, and half an hour later, you’re standing on the Waiheke wharf.
You’re in a special place: a mix of sandy beaches, fabulous wineries, super-fresh seafood, some astonishingly fine restaurants (especially at the wineries), stunning sea views and several unexpected bonuses.
Bonus one is art. Waiheke’s seascapes and sunny clime have long attracted artists; their art is on view and for sale at the cooperatively run Community Art Gallery, at private galleries and at artists’ studios all over the island. As a bonus to the bonus, Waiheke has two sculpture gardens and a summer outdoor sculpture showcase overlooking the harbor.
A nowhere-but-New Zealand bonus is the Piritahi Marae, the gathering place for the island’s Maori. Like most marae, Piritahi is filled with traditional Maori carving and is a welcoming place. When you visit, remember you’re on sacred ground; treat it with reverence and respect — no shoe on foot nor food in hand. You may be invited to a hui, a song-filled meeting that can last hours or days.
Bonus three is Whittaker’s Musical Museum, filled with grand pianos, rare pianos and player pianos, one of which is likely to be belting out a song during your visit. You may also find yourself treated to a concert by a living musician.
Waiheke has a sweet public library and next door, a movie theater run by community volunteers. You sit on old couches and watch kids’ films by day, classics and cutting-edgers by night. It’s an unexpected bonus and an unexpected treat.
Waiheke’s resident wildlife: roosters. Here’s the story. Roosters gone wild were disturbing the sleep of too many Islanders, so the Council came up with a solution — shoot them. The roosters, not the Islanders. “Nay, nay!” cried the appalled residents — “Find a Plan B.” Plan B was (and is) the Rooster Retreat, where the roosters cry at the break of dawn (and every other time of day) in perfect safety, well fed by locals and visitors, and far enough away from sleeping citizens to restore peace and harmony in the land.
Waiheke Island www.waiheke.co.nz
Australia Zoo http://www.australiazoo.com.au
Jules Older hangs out at http://julesolder.com. He’s lived in Baltimore, Vermont, New York, San Francisco … and now, Auckland, New Zealand.
Effin Older is a writer and photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.