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We left Vancouver April 11th and headed to Rarotonga via LA. We had a few hours layover time in LA so we went into town and found Olvera St. – the historic centre of the city, and a little slice of Mexico in downtown LA. There were a couple of bands playing Mexican music and many little stalls. It was unexpected, and fun.

We wanted to go to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a fabulous building designed by Frank Gehry, but it was fifteen (59F) and raining and we were freezing (in LA!) so we went back to the airport for our flight to the Cook Islands. When we arrived there at 6:30 am it was already twenty-six degrees (79F). Heaven.

Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands and we rented a little cottage on stilts right on the beach. The island is surrounded by a coral reef that forms a lagoon almost around the entire island so there is safe swimming as the wild waves of the Pacific break way off shore. We were there for seven days. Everything you’ve ever heard about South Pacific tropical paradise islands is true – blue skies, azure seas, white sand beaches, coconut palms, and endless sun – it’s all true.You can see it all in the tourist brochures but nothing prepares you for the reality which is one hundred times better than you could ever imagine.

Our cottage is in the centre of the photo

Sunrise from our balcony

One day we went on a snorkelling tour to the outer lagoon. It was about a one hour leisurely glass-bottom-boat ride out into the lagoon.  After they dropped the anchor we all donned our masks and snorkels and jumped into the water. It was glorious, like being in a giant aquarium surrounded by the most beautiful tropical fish of every pattern and colour. Also the guys who took us had been “taming” an eight foot moray eel by feeding it chunks of fish. Sure enough they managed to coax it out of its hiding place in the coral. How lucky to see one so close. Plus one of them found an octopus and brought it up for us to have a look at it. After snorkelling we were taken to an island and given a barbecue fish lunch and a demonstration on many different ways to tie a sarong, which was interesting, and how to husk a coconut.

Another day we went for a hike across the island. It’s listed as Raro’s most popular hike but we saw no-one else, probably because all the tourist information says it’s dangerous and you need to be experienced hikers and go with a guide. Don and I are pretty experienced hikers but I must admit we found it challenging – very narrow path, very rocky, very slippery, many creek and river crossings. It was really hard work, but totally worth it, even the anxious moments when we thought we’d be swallowed by tropical jungle and never seen again. Honestly there were times when we really didn’t have a clue where the track went next. It just seemed to end in the middle of the jungle. Then eventually we’d discover a tree marker or a bit of an opening in the greenery. We finally made it out the other side about three and a half hours later, hot, tired and filthy. Time for a swim – in water that’s always about 25C (77F) degrees. Heaven.

We did another hike, this time on an easier trail, and discovered some gorgeous tropical trees and flowers

and went to the lively and colourful Saturday craft market where I was charmed by these lovely ladies. Love the flowers in their hair!

At the market there was also a fabulous demonstration of the local drumming and dancing. The dancers were great to watch, both on stage, and “back stage”. They were obviously enjoying themselves.

We went swimming every day, and one night we went to one of the local fancy resorts for “Island Night”. Dinner was cooked in a huge underground “oven” and was followed by a performance of drumming and dancing. And a guy who husked a coconut with his teeth! (All you Survivor contestants see it and weep!)

But I think the highlight of our stay there came on the last day. We decided to wade out to one of the islands we could see from the beach. We met a couple who just happened to mention that if we stood still near one of the big mounds of coral we’d see lots of fish. What serendipity! Don and I would probably have just blundered our way to the island and then back again and missed it! Anyway we did as they suggested and sure enough many many fish appeared swimming in and around the coral. We didn’t have masks or snorkels with us but it didn’t matter. The water was only about three feet deep and very clear and we stood for a long time and saw all kinds of fish of every colour. It was so exciting to see it ourselves, somehow more real and magical even than when we’d gone on the organised tour.

Our next stop was Auckland, New Zealand, on our way to Australia. Again we had quite a few hours there so we went into town and up the Sky Tower for fantastic views of the city. We also took a short ferry ride to the charming little town of Devonport where I had what I think is the worst gelato I’ve ever eaten. It was dry and crumbly, ugh. The Auckland weather was just like LA, about fifteen (59F) and raining, so we went back to the airport.

Auckland from the Sky Tower

Three flights in one day. Raro to Auckland, Auckland to Sydney, Sydney to Canberra. Exhausting! But it is so good to be home, where I am as I write this. It’s been seven years.

The past four days in Canberra we’ve been on two long bike rides around the lake, been to the National Portrait Gallery and the National Botanical Gardens and had many morning coffees, and lunches out with family. It’s good to see my sisters and their husbands and kids again and spend time together – sitting in the sun in one or other of Canberra’s many outdoor cafes eating croissants and drinking coffee and catching up. A big dinner tonight with friends visiting from Sydney, a big family dinner tomorrow night, and a trip to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve the next day, followed by dinner out with some old school friends. We’ve had fabulous weather so far – the first three days here were about twenty-five (77F) and sunny. Rain today but still warm and supposed to be clearing tomorrow. The Canberra days are all getting to be a bit of a blur so I’ll let pictures do the talking. When I’m not here I forget what an incredibly beautiful city Canberra is.



Black swans


Julie and Peter down by the lake

My Impressionist painting of a kangaroo on Red Hill

At the National Botanical Gardens

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.