Fiji, Tonga and the Cook Islands were personal bucket list destinations before I could really afford a bucket. Any place located in the South Seas seems to awaken my curiosity about what life must really be like in Paradise. Surely, there are places on this earth where the scenery is as spectacular as we imagine it might be and the people live in total harmony with their surroundings.
I have found a few places like that in my life, and for that I am grateful. Iceland and New Zealand come to mind. But now, I am seeing Tonga and the Cook Islands after spending time in Fiji with a group of clients/friends sailing the Paul Gauguin en route to Papeete.
My arrival in Vava'u, Tonga, was at a historically significant moment in that this last of the Polynesian monarchies had recently elected its first nonaristocrat prime minister. Preceding this event, the first democratically elected parliament came to power in 2010, ending 165 years of feudal rule.
I went out by boat to see Swallows Cave and its hidden sister, Mariner's Cave. Set amid crystal-clear waters, these caves are within an outcrop of porous limestone. You swim into the entrance to the cave from your boat and immediately feel that you've entered the world's largest pair of tonsils. It is heaven for snorkelers, but the real treat is getting to Mariner's Cave, the entrance of which is hidden beneath the water. The adventurous swim around for some time trying to find the hidden entrance until discovering two arrows sprayed in pink on the limestone pointing down to a snorkeler's dream. Slowly, you enter the underwater cave, which looks like a cathedral made of gray glass.
Poking around Tonga and speaking to locals was a bit challenging. This is a surprisingly conservative Christian country that, like so many other near-paradise nations, once was a British protectorate.
Tonga is really a collection of 170 islands, and people live primarily with their "tribesmen" on 36 of these small slivers of sand in a tranquil sea. They have access to few government services of any kind. But Tongans, like so many of the people I encountered on this trip, are proud to point out that they are "pretty much all of us farmers." There is really little need for food to be brought in. This fact, together with the highly desirable weather, seems to create a sense of place.
Tongans move around, as work is unavailable to much of the population. There are far more Tongans living in New Zealand at the moment than there are in the islands.
One senses a bit of hope related to tourism. There are no luxury accommodations, and tourism is limited to those who have discovered that these islands are some of the finest snorkeling and diving environments on Earth.
Many of the locals I spoke with were surprised to find out we were Americans; some assumed we were unusually quiet Aussies. It is difficult for an American to get here, and once here, accommodations are sparse.
A young man I spoke with was working a fishing boat in the nearly perfect deep water surrounding Vava'u Island. I asked him many questions, as he was articulate and spoke excellent English. After a while, I looked at him and said, "You know, I've asked you a lot of questions about your country. Do you want to ask me any questions about my country?"
"Is America really the strongest country of all countries?" he asked.
I tried to explain that we were in some ways, perhaps not in others. "So what will you do with your strength?" he asked.
I couldn't say for sure, but I will never forget the question or where it was asked. We were standing on a boat in the middle of a perfect sea with patches of uninhabited islands off in the distance.
The next spot on my itinerary was the most surprising. It had a beauty I will never forget, and I have been dreading the challenge of trying to describe it in mere words.
We dropped anchor near the port of Aitutaki, an island in the Cook Islands group just north of Rarotonga.
In the 1950s, the lagoon at Aitutaki was a stopover for guests traversing the famed Coral Route on the flying boats of Tasman Empire Airways. Guests had about two hours to relax before taking off again.
I had more than two hours, and I was going to make the most of it. I headed out to the lagoon, believed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It has been called the "Bora Bora of the Cooks," but I'm not sure that the writer who coined that had actually visited either. Where Bora Bora is largely dependent on five-star resort tourism, people come to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands for two other reasons.
The first is, of course, the incredible beauty. Imagine this: You are sailing the bluest, clearest waters you have ever seen, with tree-shaded, uninhabited islands in the distance in every direction. The water is so deep that the ship's anchor cannot reach bottom.
My small speedboat skims the surface until we slow as the water ahead suddenly turns a perfect turquoise.
Our boat slides from the deep blue to turquoise and stops in the middle of the translucent water. The small stepladder on the back of the boat is lowered, and we exit to snorkel. But the water turns out to be just waist high; we are on a beautiful sand bar. If I walk a dozen steps to my left or right, the blue sea begins again, and there is a sudden drop hundreds of feet deep. I am snorkeling on the edge of an underwater cliff.
Later that afternoon, we are speeding back across the deep blue sea when, in the middle of nothingness, I see about a dozen people walking across the ocean. They are traversing a turquoise road that ends, ahead in the distance, at a perfectly circular spit of sand with just a few swaying palm trees.
That is the singular vision I have of the Cook Islands and a reason that on its own justifies further tourist interest in this part of the world.
But I did tell you that there were two reasons for people to come to this lovely but inaccessible part of the world? The second is less well known, but I happened to be sharing a boat with someone who was here for that very reason, a lawyer who manages offshore trusts for his clients.
Paradise, as the Cook Islands might define it, is a place where sincerely wealthy people can open an "asset protection trust." The islands have some of the most protected trust laws on the books, and every trust must be set up by a foreigner. It has been described as one of the world's largest safety-deposit boxes.
Are you an FBI agent in search of a fugitive's funds? You can try to seize the fugitive's assets, but every case must be litigated in local courts under Cook Island's laws, which were expressly written to shield the trust beneficiaries.
The coral atolls that form the Cook Islands have nothing much to sell beyond their sparse tourism and fishing. There are a growing number of private trusts and banks on the island to service them. Some refer to the Cook Islands as a "sunny place for shady people."
But for me, my vision of paradise will always be a dozen people walking across the middle of a perfect sea.