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The Last Irishman Stranded On The Cook Islands

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I am sure that many of you reading this have dreamed about being stuck on a paradise island?

Maybe you wished that plane got cancelled on the last day of your holiday and you had a few extra days in paradise? 

Well, in a way, this happened to me. If you have been following my weekly dose of Irish email every Friday, you will know that I have been on an extended honeymoon and was just on my last week of honeymoon in the Cook Islands. 

The last Irishman in Rarotonga

Rarotonga Island from the air

For those of you who don’t know the Cook Islands are in the South Pacific Ocean, northeast of New Zealand, between French Polynesia and Samoa. The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands and the main one being Rarotonga. 

I found this video a great way of explaining how amazing these islands are. 

I have travelled to a lot of countries and never seen water so blue. 

Particularly the island of Aitutaki which has by far the bluest water I have seen in all my travels! 

We decided to wrap up our honeymoon with a two-island visit outside of Rarotonga, which included Aitutaki and Atiu island. Both incredible and unique in their own way. 

Followed by our last week on the west side of Rarotonga(which is known for its amazing sunsets).

And life was great! We were relaxed, tanned and happy.

Happy out on honeymoon

Completely unaware of what was to come.

Of course, we were monitoring the Coronavirus situation, and travel seemed still to be possible. 

That was until things changed faster than we could ever imagine

In the last week, borders shut faster than I could book flights. In fact last week there were three ways to leave Rarotonga(the main island of the Cook Islands) via Auckland, Sydney or Los Angles. 

I had a flight booked for this week to Auckland and knew that I would have to get home sooner than that at the rate things were changing. 

So as the news came in that New Zealand had closed its borders to everyone except New Zealand citizens, we quickly changed our plans. 

Our best bet was a flight from Rarotonga to Los Angles. It was the last flight from here to the United States(for the foreseeable future). 

From there we also found a flight from Los Angles direct to London and a flight direct from London to Cork. Happy days! 

Keep in mind this was two days before that flight, and we had forked out around €2500 between us for flights. 

The next day we got an email from United Airlines that our flight had an “update”. It was now rescheduled to leave 24 hours later and stop in Washington for several hours.

Which meant that we were going to miss our Ryanair flight from London to Cork(which we never got refunded). 

Things in Ireland were just starting to get worse as well, the mandatory two-week quarantine was just put in place, and Italy’s situation went from bad to catastrophic. 

We panicked at the fear of getting stuck in the United States unable to return home or worse stranded in transit like so many people are. 

In just 24 hours our United flight had already postponed our flight by a day and diverted us via Washington. 

So the day before our flight we called United, and after a one hour hold, United said that it is possible the flight could be cancelled, but there is no guarantee.

With so much doubt and fear of catching the virus itself, we panicked and cancelled the flights. 

Now you might be saying “Whhhaaat!?” and I don’t blame you but keep in mind we still had a lot of savings. I was still earning money from blog’s, and on top of that, the Cook Islands had zero cases of the Coronavirus. 

If anything, it was the best place you could be in the world at that moment. My friends and family back in Ireland were honest with me, explaining just how bad the situation was becoming. 

It was a decision we made and whether it was the right one or not it is done now. 

It has now been a full week since that flight left here. I don’t know if the United flight made it to London in the end, but one thing is for sure I am glad I am here right now. 

The current situation in the Cook Islands:

Aitutaki island

The Cook Islands are taking every measure possible to ensure the protection of their people. 

The only access to the Cook islands now is via New Zealand, and any Cook Islanders returning from New Zealand have to do two weeks self-isolation. 

Nearly every shop allows a limited number of people in, with hand sanitizer for every customer and at least 2 meters apart at the checkouts. 

Along with a lot of other measures, they are doing an incredible job. The locals here must be some of the nicest and most helpful people in the world. I don’t think I have had a conversation with anyone that hasn’t been greeted with a smile. 

I have managed to secure accommodation on a week by week basis. No one has taken advantage of our situation, and the place we are staying has given us their daily rate as their weekly rate.

Basically, if it was NZD$300 a night, they are letting it to us for NZD$300 a week. 

We have been overwhelmed by the support. In total there is around 25 Europeans and other travellers who are in a similar situation.

Although I am not sure of the exact numbers. Including Sweden, Norway, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Taiwan. 

Some are actively looking for a way back home while others are settling in for what could be an indefinite amount of time.  

As of right now, there is still no Covid-19 cases on the island, and I hope for everyone’s here that it stays like that. Although if some cases do come here, I think they will be more than able to control it. 

Other Irish stuck abroad: 

Irish stuck abroad

Now while my situation is probably the best that it could be given what is happening. Many Irish and other travellers are in far worse situations than me. 

As the founder of Irish Around Oz, I am doing all that I can to raise awareness for Irish people in Australia. 

After the UAE border shut along with Singapore, many thousands of them were literally left stranded in Australia and New Zealand. 

There is a new Facebook group set up for Irish trying to get home from Australia here.

I don’t know what will happen to my new wife and me here. If another opportunity to return to Ireland does present itself, I probably will take it. 

While it is great to be isolated here, I fear a family or friend falling ill and being helpless to do anything. 

This is a desperate time for the world, and I have no idea how things are going to unfold. I can only hope that the virus levels out and becomes controllable. 

Once again, I hope that wherever you are, you remain safe, we are in this together and thanks for taking the time to read my story. 

All the best, 

Stay safe

Stephen Palmer

P.S If you have a similar story, you can send them to me at [email protected] 


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Eugene Weldon

Tuesday 14th of July 2020

Hi Steve Great to hear you are well. Would visit the Cooks or many other islands, given even 1/2 a chance. By the way have you ever seen the documentary film "A Grain of Sand". You can find it on YouTube. Brendan Grimshaw was a personal friend, but very unfortunately I learned too late that his companion on the island had died. We were in contact until around the time of filming. Well enough dreaming. Just let me know if you have an honest idea how a 64 year old can earn the cost of a trip.;)

Irish Around The World

Wednesday 15th of July 2020

Thanks, Eugene. I highly recommend coming to visit if you get a chance. I have not seen the documentary but I will give it a look when I get a chance. I hope that in the coming year's travel may be more possible for you. The Cook's are a special place

Eugene Weldon

Thursday 11th of June 2020

Steve, actually just a day or so before I heard of you being stuck there, I watched a short documentary about the Cook Islands, I think it was on YouTube and found it more attractive than ever. I remember they showed a bus driver, whom it seems everyone there knows, as he jokes with many boarding. It brought back memories of the 33 bus route from Dublin to Rush and Skerries where there were similar characters, when I was young. It also showed a man with his sons, training them for a competition of traditional style dance. I really enjoyed the film you provided the link to--- with the two you lads and the old guy. Hadn´t laughed so much in ages ;) Well the Islands are certainly still on my list, but I unfortunately cannot now foresee when a trip might be possible. For me it is partly a case of finding a means of income to allow such a trip. Take good care and greet the lovely people.


Irish Around The World

Monday 13th of July 2020

Thank you for the lovely comment. I am back in Europe now after a very long flight but I certainly recommend giving the island's a visit if you can :)

Eugene Weldon

Monday 8th of June 2020

Hi Steve I heard about you & your wife being stranded around the time it happened and I thought wow. I had read about you in a newspaper article, I think it was one published in Liverpool, but I found the article by chance if I remember rightly. Well my story goes back over forty years ago. I was actually intending to head to Polynesia to find my own little island… somehow ;). I had a map of Polynesia with me and had travelled overland from Athens to New Delhi successfully and without much negative experience, getting out of Iran (revolution was just errupting while we passed through) just on time. But in Delhi I intended to head for Bangkok and see how to get further East once I got there. Then still in Delhi, I heard that flights to Bangkok were the same price if I wanted to go with a stop-over in Kathmandu, Nepal. So I opted for the later and hiked a few weeks in the hills around Pokhara, where I was astounded to be intruded upon ;) by 2 other Dubliners, who found lodgings in the same little house. They were nice guys though, and we hiked together and flew on to BKK as they wanted to get to Australia. So my funds were low and with almost the last few Baht I had I send a telegram home for the rest of my savings to be transferred to a certain bank in BKK. Hadn´t enough to state the address of the hotel I had booked into. It was better I didn´t anyway because "hotel" would have been quite an overstatement and I would want them knowing further details.

What I didn´t and couldn´t know was that in Dec-Jan 78-79 there were bank strikes and post-office worker strikes in Ireland simultaneously. I was wondering why the transfer wasn´t coming through and had not telephone or other contact with the family back home. Luckily I could get some few hours in as an English language teacher, but then came Christmas holidays and the school closed. Dave Doyle and his friend, Joe (I think that was the name of the second guy) humped off then to do their Island hopping & get to Australia, which I later heard they succeeded in doing. But very kind of them: they gave me a little slip of paper with 3 addresses on it, saying if I ever wanted work I would always find something in Hamburg. They had worked a while just on the outskirts in a rose-nursery.

Well my mother found a local friend of the family, Mr. Ruigrok, of Rush, Co Dublin, who was going to Thailand for a holiday. She gave him the funds to give to me. I was heading to the bank in BKK daily at that stage, but was always told they had nothing for me. Sleeping among the poorest of the poor and begging around to survive. Ruigrok was always told, at the entrance of the bank for those wanting to pay in, that they didn´t know me. So at the end of about 3 weeks he headed back home. As the strikes had meanwhile ended mam could finally make the transfer, and I received the money. But I had had enough of poverty and of Asia for the time being, and after paying off my debts I took a flight to Hamburg. I arrived at the end of Jan 1979 within a few hours of one of the worst snowstorms in years and minus 20°C! With my last 5 Deutschmarks I headed out to the nursery, as it was first on the list. Hadn´t given weather conditions here a thought on the way. Was of course told by the boss that they had no employment for me under such conditions. I headed through the snow about 2 feet high in wet shoes and the thinest of trousers & no overcoat to the first pub along the way back to the train station and without a penny to my name sat down inside. After just a few minutes a man came over to me and I could explain my situation to him, though I really had only begun to learn German on the flight the night before. But it turned out that he was the local burgo master (mayor) and he arranged for good accommodation that night locally and then subsequently at a hostel in Hamburg city centre. Luckily the other 2 addresses were hits. I could start next day washing dishes at the Congress Center and when the event was finished, I started at the 3rd. So Thanks Doyler ;) I haven´t always found the kind of work I would have liked but have survived somehow, but have always wanted to get to Polynesia.

So wish you lots of luck, maybe you have a few useful contacts there on the Cook Islands for me, for when I retire in a year or two? It would be something I could look forward to;)

Best regards & keep safe Eugene Weldon Still in Hamburg- a wonderful city in late Spring & Summer.

Irish Around The World

Tuesday 9th of June 2020

Woe Eugene! What a story. You have a lot more patience than me with the overland travel but it is certainly an adventure on it's own. I am sure one day you will get here and I certainly recommend Rarotonga as a place to visit. Thanks for sharing your story and be sure to email me at [email protected] for when you are thinking about popping over to the Cook Islands. The place really grows on you :)


Sunday 5th of April 2020

Similar story, we’re in Cyprus on total lockdown. The beach is minutes away but presently out of bounds. Strange times indeed. Stay safe guys from Tara, also from Cork.

Irish Around The World

Friday 10th of April 2020

Hi Tara! Wow Cyprus, hope you are well. At least you are a little closer than me haha.

George M. Andrews

Tuesday 31st of March 2020

Well Steve you and your new wife will have a story to share which will be hard to top. The way things are going you guys might even become Cook citizens. 😄

Irish Around The World

Tuesday 31st of March 2020

Haha looks like it is going that way indeed 😄