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Rarotonga is the cultural and political heart of the Cook Islands—home to its only international airport, more than 70 percent of its population, and capital city Avarua—yet there are more than a dozen other islands to explore. (Photograph by Holger Leue, Getty Images)

Papaapaiiaku Teuruaa, known affectionately as Pa, was born on Rarotonga, the largest and most populous island in the sprawling South Pacific archipelago known as the Cook Islands. Despite spending his early adulthood in (relatively) nearby New Zealand (those who make up the islands’s native Māori population are also citizens of New Zealand, a benefit of their free association with the country), Pa couldn’t resist the pull of his ancestral home.

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Pa points out graviola, a medicinal plant, to a group during one of his nature walks. (Photograph by Leslie Trew Magraw)

“I love to hike in the mountains [of Rarotonga],” Pa says. And, owing to a grandmother who encouraged a five-year-old Pa to gather herbs and observe the rituals around preparing natural medicines, he developed an early interest in the healing power of the Earth’s bounties and the interconnectedness of life. Fortunately for everyone, Pa was able to parlay his two passions into a career as a guide, and has been leading visitors on jungle treks and nature walks around his beloved island since 1985.

Here’s a look at the jewel of the Cook Islands through Pa’s unique lens.

Rarotonga Is My Island

June through November is the best time to visit my island because the weather is cooler and the rainy season has cleared.

My island’s biggest attraction is its people; they are unspoiled, generous, and kind.

A visit isn’t complete without seeking out one of the old limestone churches on the island and listening to the joyous chanting and singing known as ute.

A black pearl cultured in the clear lagoons of the northern Cook Islands is the ultimate souvenir. You’ll find the best selection at Goldmine, Bergman and Sons, and Paka’s Pearls. Rarotonga’s local market sells pearls as well. If you buy there, it’s prudent to ask for a valuation certificate for your purchase.

My island really knows how to celebrate the first week of August, when the fierce interisland Te Maeva Nui dance competitions are held. The spring tiare (flower) festival, during which the junior princess is selected, is another occasion of note. During the festival, visitors can enjoy evenings of exotic dance, as competitors show off their grace and flexibility.

The dishes that represent my island best are ika mata (marinated raw fish salad) and rukau (young taro leaves marinated in coconut cream), and coconut juice, which can be found at roadside stalls as well as in cocktails, is its signature drink. You can also find coconut juice at the Punanga Nui market, which is held on Saturday mornings near the wharf in downtown Avarua—the low-key capital of the Cook Islands.

My favorite local expression among the Islanders is Karemanamanata, which means “relax and enjoy yourself.”

You can tell if someone is from my island if they are gracious, respectful, and have a gentle soul.

The Staircase is the best place to experience live island music. Mann Short’s voice rivals that of Tom Jones and the price is right—especially for groups and families.

My favorite “island secret” is Maire Nui Gardens, which is so peaceful. If you sit quietly in the gardens, nature will whisper her secrets to you.

The most beautiful places on the island are the mountains that form the heart of the island’s interior and the turquoise lagoon that surrounds Rarotonga.

Head into the mountains if you want to get up close and personal with island flora and fauna. There are many animals, from cats to birds, that you can observe if you look closely enough. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a colorful Pacific pigeon (rupe).

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Music is a fundamental part of Rarotongan social life. (Photograph by Leslie Trew Magraw)

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend Koka Lagoon Cruises and, because I’d be remiss without mentioning my own company, Pa’s Treks.

If you’re up for an adventure, try kitesurfing, paddleboarding, or my cross-island hike.

To experience the island’s cultural side, make sure to experience Te Vara Nui VillageHighland Paradise, and my herbal medicinal walk.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), don’t miss snorkeling for reef fish.

Be sure to bring a hat when you come for a visit, as the sun can burn, even on a cloudy day.

The world should heart my island because Cook Islanders are a special and unique people. The gurus who visit say this is one of the last few remaining places on Earth with good spiritual energy.