"Rarotonga is cool," a French naval officer based in Papeete said to me. "It's like Tahiti -- without the French."

He may have been jesting, but in many ways Rarotonga is a miniature Tahiti, and without the French, since The Cook Islands are an independent country associated with New Zealand. Like Tahiti, it has peaks and valleys surrounded by a coastal plain, beaches, an azure lagoon, and a reef extending about .5km (one-third mile) offshore.

Rarotonga's enchanting sister, Aitutaki, substitutes for Bora Bora in The Cook Islands. It is nearly surrounded by a large, shallow lagoon of multihued beauty and abundant sea life. Spending a day on the lagoon at this charming, atoll-framed outpost is a highlight of any visit here.

The Cook Islanders have more than beautiful islands in common with the people of French Polynesia, which lies some 900km (558 miles) to the east. Like the Tahitians, they enjoy having a good time, and this lust for happiness very quickly rubs off on visitors. They share almost 60% of their native language with the Tahitians, and their lifestyles and religions were similar in the old days. In fact, many Tahitians and Cook Islanders are related. Like their Tahitian cousins, the people here have a keen interest in their eastern Polynesian past, and they are very good at explaining those old ways to those of us who visit them today.

In addition to Polynesian culture, the Cooks have enough activities to satisfy almost anyone, including snorkeling, shopping, sightseeing, and diving. They have beaches of white sand, a friendly and fun-loving people who speak English, a variety of accommodations and restaurants in all price ranges, an excellent public transportation system, and some of the region's great bars and dance shows. No other place in the South Pacific packs so much to see and do into such small islands -- and at relatively reasonable prices.