There is a childlike excitement in freediver Charlotte Piho’s voice as her head breaks the surface of the lagoon. “It’s Ponu, she’s back!” Weeks before, my family and hundreds of others watched the little green sea turtle with the miracle survival story being released into Rarotonga’s Ava’avaroa Passage. Ponu swam out into the ocean — and we all wondered if she’d ever be seen again. A tourist found little Ponu in the harbour in 2019, pale and desperately sick and injured. Volunteers from Te Are o te Onu turtle society spent months nursing her back to health, then slowly reintroduced her to the lagoon, swimming with her on a purpose-made leash. Now, back feeding in the shallows of the lagoon, Ponu seems quite friendly, not at all unnerved by being around us. Charlotte, like a real-life Moana, grew up diving deep outside the reef. Now she’s a renowned marine photographer (charlottepiho.com) who used to split her time between the Cook Islands and Sydney. When the borders closed last year, it was home to Rarotonga. My wife Georgie and I, and our three boys, lived in Rarotonga, becoming friends with its people and discovering their stories and experiences. Like Ruta Tangiiau Mave. She tells us her stories, her family history to visitors at Te Vara Nui dinner and island nights in Muri (tevaranui.co.ck). Te Vara Nui’s buffet of ika mata (raw fish in coconut cream), sashimi, poke and fresh tropical fruits is one of the many mouth-watering dining experiences in the Cook Islands. You can try the elegant menus created by Phillip Nordt at On The Beach restaurant (otbrarotonga.com), like chimichurri seared tuna whose South American zing might have been brought all the way across the Pacific on the voyaging vaka millennia ago. Watch the lights out beyond the reef: a couple of fishermen seducing maroro flying fish to leap into their boats. Or go out fishing yourself from Avana harbour at dawn, with Captain Moko — then relax in the sun as his wife Jillymae Kavana and her Mooring Fish Cafe team cook up your freshly caught yellowfin tuna in their trademark fish taco (themooringfishcaferaro.com). Travelling in the Cook Islands is about learning to respect some of the things that are integral to this place. The traditional produce and lifestyle. The faith — go to a service at one of the big white coral Cook Islands Christian Churches in Rarotonga or, better still, Aitutaki, to experience the reverent worship and deep choir singing. And, I think, respecting the pace of life. A friend of ours, Chantal Napa, runs a local business providing experiences such as fishing, snorkelling and scuba-diving (chantalsconcierge.com). She says tourists sometimes come in saying they need to do this and this and this. She’ll say, “Woah, you need to slow down, you’re stressing me out. You come to Rarotonga for what we don’t have: no traffic lights, no traffic jams, no big fast food chains, no casinos, no shopping malls, no busy beaches.” If you’re rushing, she says, you’re doing Raro wrong.