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The Cook Islands burn with possibility

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Kia Orana! Those words of welcome hail from the Cook Islands, a laid-back South Pacific paradise that’s only a 10-hour flight away from the white-hot craziness of Los Angeles. Orange County residents Steve and Herma Brenneis are so fond of the English-speaking nation that they’ve visited 11 times. That’s a lot, especially considering that these two travel junkies managed to fit it into a globetrotting schedule that has taken them to more than 140 countries. When the couple aren’t traveling, they’re involved in another of their favorite activities, working with Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where they have provided underwriting for performances including those by Ringo Starr, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lea Salonga, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Lily Tomlin. Steve Brenneis is a co-founder and president of BDS Natural Products, a company that imports and manufactures teas, spices and seasoning blends.

Time is right
June through November are the optimum months to visit.  The wet season begins in late November and lasts until April or May. November to March is also the cyclone season.

Why the Cook Islands?
If you’re looking for a place that’s scenic and has friendly people and an interesting culture, this is it. Located halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii in the South Pacific, the 15 Cook Islands are spread across 849,000 square miles of ocean. There are about 18,000 residents, with 1,500 living on our favorite island, Aitutaki, which is about a 45-minute flight from the capital in Rarotonga.  Aitutaki has one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world.

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You’re not going to find much in the way of shopping here, although there are islander-style crafts, plus pareaus and other types of tropical clothing. The most popular purchases are necklaces strung from black pearls, which are found here.

Secret tip
Interact with the locals. They are a wonderful people, but you do need to open up with them to see their smiles.

After dark
On Rarotonga, you probably can find some local musicians playing at a nice lagoon-side restaurant, or you can visit a toes-in-the-sand beach bar for an inexpensive happy hour. Nightlife is pretty limited on Aitutaki, however. On either island, a good bet is a cultural show after dark, which will offer a fun look at Polynesian culture, complete with fire dancing and music.

Best bite
This isn’t a place you go for great restaurants or nightlife. However, the main food source is the ocean, and you can’t get fish that’s any fresher, since it’s generally caught on the reef the day you eat it. It’s always cooked just right and usually served with a salad and french fries. Our favorite hotels are the Pacific Resort in Aitutaki, which is about as nice as you can get (pacificaitutaki.com), and Little Polynesian Resort, a small boutique hotel on Rarotonga (littlepolynesian.com). Both have very good restaurants. We also often have lunch at the Pacific Resort in Rarotonga, which has wonderful lagoon views, in addition to good food  (pacificrarotonga.com).

Must do
Aitutaki Island’s vast lagoon is encircled by coral reefs and small, sandy islets. It’s a fantastic place to snorkel and scuba dive. Or you can just sit and enjoy the crystal-clear lagoon. There are no sharks to worry about, and the water colors are magnificent. Although it’s easy to get here – there are weekly flights from LAX via Air New Zealand – the Cooks feel very much off the grid. This is a place where you can truly leave the rest of the world behind and be at peace. We love it so much that we visit every other year.

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