They could have been called the Bligh Islands and probably should have been. But with the name Captain William Bligh forever associated with being cast adrift in a longboat by sailors chafing under condign leadership, it was unlikely to be a popular choice. Captain James Cook, the bold adventurer done in by nasty natives after sighting much of the known world (and curing scurvy to boot), was a much safer bet. Cook first laid eyes on the atoll of Manuae in 1777 and named what he came upon further south the Hervey Islands. He didn't find the main, southern island of Rarotonga, it always being beyond the horizon. Bligh, who visited on the Bounty in 1789, landed on Aitutaki, visited its astonishing lagoon and introduced the papaya before heading to Rarotonga, on the way to Tonga. He might have spent more time among the 'necklace of islands' but, given it was only 17 days before Fletcher Christian led his famed mutiny, the mood aboard was probably a tad tense. Of course, the Spaniards had beaten both of them - Alvaro de Mendana in 1595 and Pedro Quiros in 1606, neither of whom achieved naming rights. In fact, it was not the British Admiralty who formally honoured its pin-up boy (Cook's Endeavour did come within sight of Rarotonga in 1813, but it was the crew of HMS Cumberland who first set foot on its shores, the following year). The name Cook Islands was assigned by the Russians in honour of the great English navigator when the archipelago appeared for the first time on one of the country's naval charts, in the early 1800s. We know this thanks to European record keeping. Considerably less is known of the real discoverers or settlers of this South Pacific crucible. More than a thousand years before the Europeans arrived in their masted ships to plant flags and collect sandalwood, canoes from the north and the east landed and roads were cut. Had I known it was the old warrior Toi who, 1,200 years ago, built the 32km Ara Metua road, which rings Rarotonga, I may have paid it more attention as I whipped along in a rental car searching for the Royale Takitumu Villas. As it was, the light was fading and I was more interested in a warm and welcoming resort than the contours of a famed thoroughfare. 'Resort' is a subjective word in the Cook Islands. Although its 15 islands are spread over more than two million square kilometres of the southwest Pacific - an area the size of western Europe - the total land area is only 240 sqkm, with Rarotonga accounting for about a quarter of that. Sprawling or towering sun 'n' sand holiday complexes are noticeably absent. The principal and prestige properties, which help draw 80,000 visitors a year (not including cruise-ship day-trippers), are subtly tucked away along the coast. A Pacific version of New Zealand's North Island is one way of viewing the solid and sedate Rarotonga. It becomes an even more apt description on discovery you're using Kiwi currency in a nation with an independent government in free association with the so-called Shaky Isles to the south. A British protectorate in 1888, the Cook Islands came under New Zealand control in 1891 and though independence was achieved in 1965, the citizens still hold Kiwi passports. The discontent that has swept through much of the Pacific in the past decade has not taken root here. The reason, believes Peter Heays, the expatriate New Zealander who operates the Royale Takitumu Villas, is the unique form of land ownership employed by the clans. 'These are a people who aren't looking over their shoulders, who aren't carrying any weights or fears,' he explains. 'You can only lease land here. Even if the government wants to put up a building, it has to lease a plot from the clans. So you don't have exploiters or fly-by-nighters.' Such security breeds a strong cultural identity in a place where the hula dancing is more sensual than in Tahiti, despite the presence of about six religions. The contrast dates back to the 1850s, when the islands became a popular port of call for salty whalers and starched preachers. The first of the latter to land was the famed John Williams of the London Missionary Society, who arrived in Aitutaki in 1821 and used Tahitian converts to convey his message. That message concerned cannibalism, which struck terror into the hearts of Europeans from day one. Ann Butchers, the girlfriend of the captain of the Cumberland - caught in the middle of a clash between sailors and natives - suffered the distinction of being the only white woman ever to have been killed and eaten by Pacific Islanders. Williams established schools, transcribed a written language (all the better for scripture study) and eventually eradicated cannibalism. His achievement did not alter his grisly and ironic fate, however - he was killed and eaten on Erromango in the New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu. Visitors have plenty to do on Tumutevarovaro (the traditional name for Rarotonga): walking the hiking path through the centre of the island; visiting the engaging Cultural Village; bouncing around the interior tracks in Raro-Safari four-wheel drives; being led to ancient maraes (sacred stone altars) and getting their fill of the black-pearl shops in the compact capital, Avarua. Then it is time to depart the 'crowded' main island (10,000 inhabitants, with only 5,000 scattered over the rest) for Aitutaki, 45 minutes away by plane. All the islands are accessible by air but none more so than the beloved Aitutaki, which is to the Cooks what Bora Bora is to Tahiti. For those who drool over big-screen scenes that seem beyond their reach, this is idealised Pacific perfection. The lagoon, whose fame precedes it, is enclosed by a surf-topped coral reef and has 15 mutu (islands). It is so large, it could accommodate all of Rarotonga. At the small Samade on the Beach resort and bar on Ootu Beach, heavily tanned Europeans let you know without uttering a word they never want to leave the paradise they've stumbled upon. A variety of craft compete to take you around the lagoon, heaving you ashore at One Foot Island, which is the only uninhabited isle in the world with its own post office, and allowing you to tread in the footsteps of John Wayne and Cary Grant on Akamai Motu. Then there is celebrated game fishing and the Aitutaki Clam Research Station, for those interested in giant clams. With plentiful accommodation, ranging from the basic to the luxurious, and the striking beauty of the part-volcanic, part-coral atoll formation, Aitutaki is a desirable destination in its own right. My stay was but a day. By the evening, I was back on the Rarotonga ring road agonising over where to eat. Was it to be the Windjammer, Sails or the elegant, century-old Tamarind House, originally built as a home for the manager of the Union Steamship Company and now boasting renowned restaurateurs Sue Carruthers and Robbie Brown? It was over a fine repast that I came upon an earnest assurance I'd heard a few times during my stay. A Cook Islander in good standing wanted me to know that, contrary to popular opinion, they hadn't murdered Captain Cook. Having let it be known once again that the world attributed the dastardly spearing act to Hawaiian islanders, I wondered just what guilt might have been borne had they become the Bligh Islands. Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( www.cathaypacific.com ), Virgin Atlantic ( www.virginatlantic.com ) and Qantas ( www.qantas.com ) fly from Hong Kong to Sydney. Virgin Pacific Blue ( www.virginblue.com ) flies from Sydney to the Cook Islands via Christchurch.