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Given their use of English and their pride in their culture, the Cook Islanders themselves offer a magnificent glimpse into the lifestyle of eastern Polynesia. They are more than happy to answer questions put to them sincerely by inquisitive visitors. Some of them also do it for money, albeit in a low-key fashion, by offering some of the finest learning experiences in the South Pacific. Unless you sit on the beach and do nothing, you won't go home from the Cook Islands without knowing something about Polynesian culture, both of yesteryear and the present.

Cook Islands Cultural Village

Plan an early visit to the Cook Islands Cultural Village (tel. 21-314; www.cookislandsculturalvillage.com), on the back road in Arorangi, for it will enable you to understand what you will see during the rest of your stay. The village consists of thatch huts featuring different aspects of life, such as the making of crafts, cooking, and even dancing. Guests are guided through the huts and then enjoy a lunch of island-style foods, music, and dancing. The tour begins at 10am Monday to Friday. The Cultural Village also does its own half-day circle island historical tour. Either tour costs NZ$60 (US$48/£24). A full day combining the village tour, lunch, and a trip around the island costs NZ$90 (US$72/£36).

PA's Nature Walks

The best way to explore Rarotonga's mountainous interior on foot is in the company of a blond, dreadlocked Cook Islander named Pa (tel. 21-079), who leads mountain and nature walks. Along the way he points out wild plants, such as vanilla, candle nuts, mountain orchids, and the shampoo plant, and explains their everyday and medicinal uses in the days before corned beef and pharmacies. Pa's Cross-Island Mountain Walk costs NZ$55 (US$44/£22) for adults, NZ$30 (US$24/£12) for children under 12, while Pa's Nature Walk goes for NZ$55 (US$44/£22) for adults, NZ$25 (US$20/£10) for children under 12. Wear good walking or running shoes and bring a bathing suit (for a dip in an ancient pool once used by warriors). The nature walk takes 3 1/2 hours. Reserve at any hotel activities desk, or call the phone number above.

Magnificent Harmony

Nearly everyone in the Cook Islands puts on his or her finest white straw hat and goes to church on Sunday morning. Many visitors join them, for even though most sermons are in Maori, the magnificent harmony of Polynesian voices in full song will not soon be forgotten. Families have been worshipping together in the same pews for generations, but the ushers are accustomed to finding seats for tourists. Cook Islanders wear their finest to church, including neckties, but visitors can wear smart casual attire.

Sunday morning services at village churches usually begin at 10am; buses leave the hotels at 9:30am. Reserve at the activities desk, or just show up at any church on the island.

Learning a Little Culture

One of my fondest South Pacific memories was exploring Rarotonga with the entertaining and highly informative Exham Wichman, who once led the best round-island tours. He told me much of what I tell you about the Cook Islanders' lifestyle. Today you can learn about local culture with the terrific Cook Islands Cultural Village's tour .

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.